Extraordinary Measures’ Robert Nelson Jacobs explains why turning real-life events into a cinematic screenplay sometimes require a writer to take liberties with the facts.
Written by Denis Faye
It’s hard to find a more inspiring real-life story than that of John Crowley. As chronicled by journalist Geeta Anand first in The Wall Street Journal and then in her book The Cure, this family man/entrepreneur formed a million-dollar biotech company for the sole purpose of saving his childrens’ lives when they were diagnosed with the severe neuromuscular disorder Pompe disease.
However, as scribe Robert Nelson Jacobs discovered when he was assigned to convert these events into a screenplay, they were indeed inspiring, but cinematic? Not so much. “It was such a challenge,” explains Jacobs, who’s no stranger to adapting books, with the scripts for Chocolat, The Water Horse and The Shipping News under his belt. “If I’d used all the research and the book and followed that, it would have been a 14-hour movie.”
In writing Extraordinary Measures, the writer had to use a few extraordinary measures himself. “There was a real pressure to be selective and let one event stand in for three or four or five real events and to have a character stand in for three or four or five characters.”
Case in point, Dr. Robert Stonehill – the socially inept, genius researcher played by Harrison Ford who works with Crowley to find the cure – doesn’t exist in real life. It’s a change Jacobs is completely comfortable with. “We knew we were going to have to take some pretty big liberties to tell this story in two hours.”
Jacobs spoke recently with The Writers Guild of America, West Web site about how composite characters like Dr. Stonehill can still tell an emotional truth, how he went about converting reality into cinema, and why, if you’re ever writing an action film with Harrison Ford, you might want to bring a weapon to story meetings.
Considering that, in Extraordinary Measures, you were dealing with living people, how did you decide what needed to be fact and what you could fudge?
It was kind of a new experience for me to write a story based on the lives of real people. At first, I wasn’t sure how to do it, or whether it could be a movie. I talked to the producers for a while, and they said, “Why don’t you talk to John Crowley?” I got on the phone with John and we ended up talking an hour or two, and I was just invigorated by his story and his energy and what he’d been through. I felt like my responsibility was to the spirit of that family. They’d been through so much and these parents did so much out of love for their kids. I knew I would have to compress a lot in terms of timelines of the story and I’d have to create composite characters, but I wanted to honor the spirit of that family.
Probably the most nervous I’ve ever been as a writer was when I finished a draft and sent it to the Crowley family. It’s one thing to write a story about fictional characters. They can’t complain that you’ve been unfair or misrepresented them in some way. It was a long weekend. I remember sending the script on a Friday and then got a call on Sunday afternoon. They’d read it and had been really happy and read parts of it to the kids and the kids also liked it. That meant a lot.
Photo: © 2009 CBS Films
Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford in Extraordinary Measures.
So when the Crowleys read it, did they have notes?
It was never a matter of the Crowleys saying, “You can’t do this” or “We don’t want you to say that.” It was never a question of them censoring what we were doing; it was more a question of “Do you feel like this captured your story?” Also, are there things that were missing? Are there things that you can help us with that we failed to capture?
That’s where they were really helpful. Even as we moved toward production, if we felt like there was a hole in the script, if there was something more that needed to happen. For example, there’s a scene in the movie where the generator breaks down, and they’re in danger of losing the whole cell line so they have to go get a backup generator.
We felt like there needed to be some kind of threat to their enterprise at that point, so we got on the phone with John. He gave me several episodes until I said, “That’s it. That’s the one.” It was nice to be able to get on the phone with the real-life person and say, “Tell me everything you can remember from the real-life story.”
What about Dr. Stonehill?
The character of Dr. Stonehill stands in for several characters because we knew there had to be a central relationship between John and a researcher. If we did it between several characters, the story would feel fragmented. So we’re telling the story of the Crowley family and John Crowley’s quest to save his children. In order to do that, we had to composite the character of Dr. Stonehill, to create this central relationship between John and one researcher.
But 10 years from now, when students are researching this event in history, and they come across this movie, are you worried they’ll mistake it for reality?
Anytime you see a dramatic movie, you shouldn’t think it’s history. Anyone who wants to know the facts should read Geeta’s book, which is a well-documented, well-researched piece of reporting. Anytime I see a movie based on some sort of nonfiction material, I’ll go back and look at the underlying material because anybody is going to take liberties if they want to make it work as a movie. In our case, we changed enough things that we knew that we had to say “inspired by.” There’s no rule about that; it’s just that we felt more comfortable about that.
When you’re writing a script for a story that the audience already knows the conclusion to, does that change your approach?
I think mostly you’re trying to find moments that define this family and the relationships and to build characters in a way that would be interesting. It’s like when you write a romantic comedy; people generally know that the lovers are going to end up together, so you try to write interesting obstacles leading to that. You try to make it as hard as possible for those people to end up together. For this movie, people know that it’s supposed to be inspirational and uplifting, so you try to be so and show how difficult it was for these people.
Part of it was that in designing the character of Dr. Stonehill, I was very fortunately in that Harrison Ford was involved as an executive producer before I even wrote a word. I had a number of meetings with him, trying to define his character in a way that would play interestingly against John’s character. John is very positive and good with people, so it made sense that Stonehill would be someone who is kind of hermetic and never wants to leave the lab and has some kind of personality challenges.
Was there one researcher who had that kind of personality and you just tacked the work of the others onto that?
Some of it came from stories we heard about real-life characters. I won’t go too far into that. Some of it is based on real stuff and some of it was based on stuff that happened when I was in the room with Harrison. We’d say, “Okay, we’ve got this personality type. We’ve got these anecdotes that happened in real life. How can we build a character and a whole journey around him?”
It was very interesting to work with him because there were times in the process where I’d be describing a scene and Harrison would start to play the scene just sitting in the room there with me. I didn’t realize that he was playing the character and he would start to yell at me and I’d think, “My God, why is Harrison Ford yelling at me and calling me a son-of-a-bitch?” It was because he was being Dr. Stonewall.
It’s a good thing you weren’t writing an Indiana Jones sequel. You might have gotten punched.
Exactly, or whipped.
How would you compare this experience to adapting novels?
The question is often, what’s harder, writing an original or writing an adaptation? To me, they’re equally as hard. There’s a point when adapting a novel that you’re done absorbing it and have to put it away in a drawer and find a way to make the story your own.
Actually, when I’ve adapted novels, I’ve made a point of not meeting the author until after I’ve written the screenplay, particularly if it’s a novel that I admire, because I don’t want to find out what the writer considers the precious scenes because I may not use them. There’s a certain ruthlessness that’s required in order to make something work in cinematic form, and so I want to have to make those difficult decisions without having met the writer. Once I’m done, I’ll meet them and hope they like what I’ve done.
Were those ruthless decisions especially tough when you were making them about the Crowleys’ lives?
Sure. The only thing that I knew that I couldn’t change was that I had to be true to the science. I had to make it clear early in the story that these kids weren’t going to be cured. The quest was to save their lives, but that they would always be in wheelchairs. I had to have Dr. Stonehill say that to the parents directly before that went into business together. There are certain facts about the condition that you have to be correct about.