Seeking deeper truths, filmmakers don’t always prioritize biographical accuracy

May December

Julianne Moore and Charles Melton in “May December.”

Whose life is it anyway?

That’s the question Vili Fualaau found himself asking when “May December” hit movie screens.

The Todd Haynes film opened in November, and has been drawing critical praise and awards attention ever since, particularly for Samy Burch’s script and Charles Melton’s performance. Inspired by the story of a teacher who sexually exploited an underage boy — and later married him — it uses the situation as a springboard to dive into issues of identity, ego and stunted adolescence.

The problem, as Fualaau saw it, though, was that the initial act of statutory rape wasn’t some character’s backstory. It was his story.

When Fualaau was 12, he was sexually victimized by a 34-year-old schoolteacher. Their story inspired tabloid coverage for years, especially after the woman, Mary Kay Letourneau, went to prison — where she gave birth to Fualaau’s child. Later, the two married, and had another child.

The couple eventually divorced. Letourneau died in 2020, of cancer.

Fualaau, now 40, went to see the movie, in which Melton plays his character as an adult. (There are no flashbacks to the initial abuse.) Fualaau says he was “offended” by the film. He told The Hollywood Reporter he was hurt the filmmakers never asked for his input.

“If they had reached out to me, we could have worked together on a masterpiece,” he said. “Instead, they chose to do a rip-off of my original story.” Not involving him in the production, he said, showed “a lack of respect.”

While Fualaau understandably feels cut out, what he doesn’t seem to grasp is that Haynes and Burch weren’t interested in his “original story” (which had already inspired fact-based, back-to-back TV movies more than 20 years ago). What they were interested in was their own, imagined story — one that asks what people from a situation like Fualaau’s and Letourneau’s might be like decades later.

And, more specifically, what it might be like if there were another movie being made about them now — and what tensions might arise when the real-life abuser met the actress getting ready to portray her.

Which is why the filmmakers behind “May December” — which changes all the real names and locations — never reached out to Fuallaau to hear his advice. They didn’t want it. It wasn’t necessarily that they didn’t want to cut him a check as a “special consultant.” They didn’t want to cut their art to fit his criticism.

But Fualaau raises a touchy topic, and one that has become more common as studios — always looking for movies with some built-in name recognition — increasingly turn to big-budget biopics.

Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla Presley in “Priscilla.”

“May December” isn’t one of them, technically — it’s a completely fictional spin on a factual situation. But this year was full of other, truly biographical dramas — “Oppenheimer” and “Ferrari” and “Priscilla” and “Maestro” among them. (Even more, if you count the real-life people on screen in how-we-made-it movies like “BlackBerry,” “Air” and “Flamin’ Hot.”)

And every story of a famous person’s life starts with a tricky decision.

Do you ask for their help? Or shun it?

Even if your subject isn’t alive, problems remain in putting their lives on screen. No, you can’t libel the dead — but you can invade the privacy of their still-living, less famous relatives. You can also violate your famous subject’s copyright if you try to reproduce their art, music or written words without permission.

So filmmakers have to make a simple choice: Authorized or unauthorized?

Both have their drawbacks.

If you’re making a film with the blessing of your subject or their estate, expect to see controversial issues avoided, or certain characters monopolizing the spotlight. “Maestro,” for example, completely ignores Leonard Bernstein’s embrace of radical politics. An awestruck “King Richard” focused less on the achievements of Venus and Serena Williams than their father’s.

Worse was “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which seemed alternately embarrassed by, or in denial of, Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality — while treating his surviving bandmates as irrepressibly cheerful, clean-living kids.

The upside of getting someone’s approval? Insiders who can provide behind-the-scenes stories and real insights — as well as the rights to movie clips and music. (“Priscilla” didn’t use Elvis’ recordings but it had the approval and public support of Priscilla Presley herself, whose memoirs it was based on; good thing, too, as the late Lisa Marie, the couple’s estranged daughter, hated the film.)

If you’re making a film without the participation of your subject or their estate, however — well, you’re not only free to illuminate any aspects of their life you care to, but to speculate wildly on everything. You can even make up whole pages of dialogue while telling yourself you’re not really lying, but merely getting to a deeper truth (a stance no one would defend more firmly, perhaps, than Peter Morgan, the writer behind “The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon” and TV’s “The Crown”).

The downside of going rogue? You may end up with a movie like “Selma,” which featured MLK but had to put words in his mouth as it wasn’t allowed to quote his own speeches (the estate had already licensed them to Steven Spielberg, for a different project). Or a movie like “Dalíland” which is about Salvador Dalí but couldn’t show his actual art (as the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation still asserts its right to protect “the painter’s work and image”).

Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte, in “Napoleon.”

Given those lawyerly frustrations, it’s easy to explain the apparent glee with which Ridley Scott directed “Napoleon,” a biopic bursting with excess and invention. So the young Corsican wasn’t present at the execution of Marie Antoinette? So what? There’s no historical evidence that the lusty emperor ever dove under the dining room table to seduce the empress, or egotistically boasted “Destiny has brought me this lamb chop!” Who cares?

Nobody who can sue, anyway.

Perhaps Shakespeare had it right: Stick to the safely long dead, like Richard III or Cleopatra. Write about a living person, and they — or their estate — are sure to pop up with some sort of demand or complaint. Rewrite recent history and gird yourself for weeks of snarky opinion pieces, or worse. (Some people still haven’t forgiven Oliver Stone for the feverishly conspiratorial “JFK”; the aged Olivia de Havilland sued, albeit unsuccessfully, over the way she was portrayed in TV’s “Feud: Bette and Joan.”)

Is it surprising that, having had one person take advantage of him, Fualaau would want to assert his own agency now?

It’s certainly understandable, even for someone who didn’t suffer his adolescent traumas. Everybody deserves the chance to tell their own story, their own way. Everyone wants the movie of their life to be all high points and triumphs, with every embarrassment ignored, every mistake minimized, every enemy vanquished, and every supporting character united in acknowledgement of just how great they are. And if they want to make that movie — themselves — they should.

Just don’t expect anyone to buy a ticket.


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