A young man who passes himself off as a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer. A foreign visitor who ends up living at an airport. An FBI sting that involves shooting a feature film.
All three stories, based on actual events, were turned into movies by screenwriter Jeff Nathanson. The first two, "Catch Me If You Can" and "The Terminal," were directed by Steven Spielberg. The third, "The Last Shot," marks Nathanson's debut as a director. None of the movies, he hastens to point out, should be mistaken for documentaries.
"You simply can't take these kinds of stories, condense them down to 100 minutes, and expect to stay completely honest," explains Nathanson. "You have to serve the film and the audience."
In "The Last Shot," opening in theaters Friday, Matthew Broderick plays an aspiring filmmaker working as a ticket taker at the famous Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. His dream is to make a movie about a woman's quest for truth in Arizona.
Alec Baldwin is an FBI agent pursuing racketeers who target movie productions, and decides to hire Broderick to make a film. The budding director has no idea it's a sting operation, and even goes along with the FBI's request to shoot in Rhode Island instead of Arizona.
Nathanson got the idea from an article in Details magazine, about how the FBI duped two brothers, both aspiring filmmakers, into making a film as part of a sting operation.
"I was kind of in shock by the whole thing. It seemed like such an insanely silly idea. But [the FBI] took it all very seriously."
As a first-time director, Nathanson could identify with Broderick's character's idealism. "I was an usher at movie theaters. I worked in video stores," he recalls. "The whole skeleton of the film is truth," he says of the story. "[The FBI] did go to Rhode Island. They did go out to Los Angeles and recruit two struggling filmmakers." In Nathanson's version, the filmmaker and the FBI operative are brothers, who then fight over control of the screenplay they've written.
The film ends with a bittersweet moment between Broderick, who finally discovers the truth, and Baldwin, who has caught the dream of filmmaking. In reality the two brothers had no such cathartic moment. "The real guys didn't figure it out until they read the trial report in the Los Angeles Times," says Nathanson. "They were devastated."
Dramatic presentations of real events inevitably involve changes, from combining or inventing characters to compressing or omitting events.
" 'The Terminal' is the one we played around with the most. I like things that are grounded. It keeps you honest," he says.
However, he has to keep in mind that there's an audience out there expecting to be entertained. Mindful of Alfred Hitchcock's famous maxim that movies are "life with the dull bits cut out," Nathanson knows what takes priority. "Ultimately you're hoping that the reality fits into the movie," he says. "In reality there's not constant action, constant humor. There's lull." His goal is to "try to stay true to the spirit of what happened."
Nathanson was offered the chance to direct his own script by Touchstone Pictures (a division of Disney), which has a record of getting filmmakers started with modestly budgeted features. He doesn't insist that his future projects be fact-based, nor does he read the newspaper considering every article as a possible feature.
"There has to be something in it that speaks to me. Everything does not make a movie," he says.
Nathanson is also sensitive to an issue that audiences may overlook: When you're telling the story of a real person who's alive, he or she may not appreciate seeing their lives fictionalized.
In the cases of the real-life filmmakers whose FBI production was never made, Nathanson welcomed Dan Lewk and Gary Levy to the set.
They're still out in Los Angeles looking for that break, even as someone else is making his feature debut with their story. Sensitive to the irony in the situation, Nathanson gave them cameo roles as two of the people pitching ideas to "producer" Baldwin.
If there's a message to their story, says the director, "it's not fulfilling the dream that matters - it's the journey."