Whose life is it anyway?
Stephen Glass, who fabricated stories he wrote for The New Republic, declined to participate in the movie based on his life.
When people daydream about Hollywood filming their life, they often don't think beyond whether Julia Roberts or Tom Hanks will play the lead. The fairy tale doesn't usually end with them having little or no say in their own story - or without being paid.
But that is what's happened to everybody from an office-supply salesman to a disgraced journalist - to say nothing of victims of real-life tragedies that seem cinematic to the Hollywood suits.
This fall, for example, "Shattered Glass" will tell the story of a young reporter who fabricated articles in The New Republic. Stephen Glass declined to participate in the film, but because he is considered a public figure, his story could be told without buying rights, says filmmaker Billy Ray. Still, the ethics of the situation aren't lost on the first-time director.
"I don't celebrate the fact that this movie is going to cause Stephen Glass embarrassment, or it might cause his family pain.... [But] I thought it was a story worth telling," said Mr. Ray during a recent trip to Boston. "It's certainly something that you wrestle with when you go to make a movie like this," he elaborated by phone a few days later.
The practice of telling someone's story without their say has been going on as long as there have been biopics. But today's information age heightens the tension between the First Amendment rights of the entertainment industry and the desire of people to have a say in the way millions of viewers leave theaters thinking about them.
The media are often accomplices in creating this tension. An article gets written about someone in The New York Times or Vanity Fair, and then Hollywood buys the rights - not from the person, but from the news organization. Or Tinsel Town scribes simply take the ideas for themselves.
As long as the stories are based on available facts, and don't claim to be true when they've been altered, people's lives are fair game - particularly for those considered public figures. Sometimes, subjects lose their rights unwittingly - when they give too much information to the media, for example.
"If the person gives a lot of interviews ... there's less incentive for a producer to pay big bucks to buy inside information, because there may not be any inside information left," says Mark Litwak, an entertainment lawyer in Beverly Hills. Even so, he says, "No producer in his right mind will ever give creative control to the subject."
"Shattered Glass" shares the same title as the Vanity Fair article on which it is based - an article in which Glass declined to participate (attempts to reach him for this article were unsuccessful). Other recent movies have been similarly inspired by the media: "The Insider," about tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, was also based on a Vanity Fair article. "Rock Star," about a fan who becomes the lead singer for a heavy-metal band, started out as a New York Times piece. And next week's "Radio" - in which Cuba Gooding Jr. plays James Robert Kennedy, a mentally handicapped black man - began as a 1996 Sports Illustrated story.
The idea of people losing control of their own life stories concerns some in journalism circles. With reporters increasingly relaying news events in a narrative fashion - a style more prone to catch Hollywood's eye - key sources, wanting to protect their economic interests, may become less willing to talk to the media until they've first negotiated with the entertainment industry.
"It could very well have a chilling effect on our ability to tell stories," says Kelly McBride, an ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "You can tell your story to a journalist, and some Hollywood producer can pick it up and make a made-for-TV movie out of it.... They can cause harm to one of my sources and my story can be their weapon," she says.
Glass is perhaps a less sympathetic figure than someone like soldier Jessica Lynch, who NBC is making a TV movie about without her cooperation. (Ms. Lynch did, however, ink a book deal.)
Director Ray says that in his mind, Glass deserved different treatment from, say, a 9/11 victim, who became famous through no fault of his or her own. Glass was accused of having fabricated all or parts of 27 of 41 stories he wrote for The New Republic between December 1995 and May 1998.
"Stephen Glass wasn't a public figure by accident," says Ray, who also wrote the screenplay. "He was a public figure based on his actions, which had been harmful to other people. And ... he wrote a novel attempting to capitalize on his actions. So in no part of this process did I feel that we were taking advantage of somebody who deserved privacy."
Even in such cases, studios may still try to get subjects to sign a release to avoid being sued - especially if they want to tinker significantly with the facts, says Mr. Litwak. When they buy the rights to an article, for example, they are buying only the right to use the same approach the reporter did.
Either way, Litwak says constitutional guarantees of free speech often prove a powerful defense for filmmakers. "The First Amendment often is considered the paramount right when there's a conflict between the First Amendment rights of a journalist or a filmmaker and that of a subject."
In today's culture of celebrity, people may need to be more attuned to what will catapult them into public figure status.
For Tim "Ripper" Owens, all it took was a New York Times article. In a fairy-tale twist, Mr. Owens, an office-supply salesman, became the lead singer for heavy-metal band Judas Priest after spending years in tribute bands that played the group's music. Warner Bros. bought the rights to the article about Mr. Owens, and reportedly hired the reporter as a consultant. While initially Owens and the band were interested in being a part of "Rock Star," starring Mark Wahlberg, they distanced themselves when the filmmakers started taking liberties with the story. The studio dropped any mention of the band's name, but Owens was soured by the experience.
"I mean, how would you feel if someone made a movie about your life but never asked you any questions about what you're actually like?" he told a Knight-Ridder reporter in 2001. "I don't think this situation is any different than someone writing an untrue story in the press and destroying somebody else's life."
For at least one observer, celebrity culture is the driving force behind these issues. "The electronic media are fixated on celebrity culture, and if you're going to appear in The New York Times, the supposed newspaper of record, you have a possibility of becoming an instant celebrity, and that creates all kinds of problems for you," says Peter Rollins, a professor of English and film at Oklahoma State University at Stillwater.
That's not to say people are always excluded from the telling of their stories - or are unhappy with the way they're portrayed. Although initially apprehensive, Dr. Wigand, the subject of the Oscar-nominated "The Insider," ultimately liked the movie. The film, starring Russell Crowe, described Wigand's efforts to expose the duplicity of Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. on "60 Minutes." "My initial response to having a movie made by Hollywood was one of severe angst," says Wigand, who founded Smoke-Free Kids, Inc., based in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. "I was very concerned the truth would be distorted."
Wigand was deemed a public figure, and at the time was under a court injunction not to talk about the inside workings of his former employer. But filmmakers honored a few requests - that there be no smoking in the film, that his children not be named, and that a daughter's illness not be identified. He calls the finished product a "docudrama" with some creative license taken, but he approves of it. "I couldn't have brought much more to the movie given the way the filmmakers handled it. I am quite comfortable with the manner in which they portrayed that complex, multifaceted part of my life," he says.
Wigand had a lawyer help him navigate the Hollywood landscape. Ms. McBride of the Poynter Institute says journalists need to encourage less savvy sources to do the same - to find someone who can look out for their best interests.
Not that all filmmakers operate without an ethical compass. In the case of "Shattered Glass," for example, Ray, the producers, and the studio decided to leave out the scenes that included the girlfriend Glass was living with at the time he worked at The New Republic.
"We all decided that that woman was not essential to our storytelling and had a right to her privacy. So we cut those scenes.... She did nothing to make herself a public figure. She didn't choose that, so we felt that it was not within our rights to make her a pubic figure. Could she have sued us? I doubt it. Would she have? I doubt it. So it wasn't a legal decision, it was an ethical one."
Ray says that if his other protagonist, Charles Lane - the editor of the New Republic when Glass worked there - had asked him not to make the movie, he probably would have acquiesced.
But what if Glass himself had asked?
"I don't know what I would have done," Ray says. "Had Stephen Glass contacted me and just, person to person said, 'Please don't do this.' I really don't know what I would have done. I'd better just leave it there."