“Speaking Truth To Power” Billy Ray Talks ‘Richard Jewell’
Billy Ray is known for his writing on Shattered Glass (2003), Captain Phillips (which garnered him an Oscar nomination for the best adapted screenplay in 2013), and The Hunger Games (2012). 2019 has been a particularly fruitful year for the screenwriter who penned Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, and Richard Jewell, the stunning story of a security guard who saved countless lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Billy Ray chatted with Creative Screenwriting Magazine to discuss his screenwriting career.
Ray is a prolific writer who writes both original and adapted material, in addition to the occasional writer for hire gig in the studio system. We asked him how he approaches such a variety of projects. “They both are the same skillsets. Every time you’re writing a movie you ask yourself what is the story you’re telling?… what’s the point?” It all comes done to the big idea of the film. “Is it a story of ‘there’s no place like home’ or ‘love conquers all,‘ explained Ray. Writing is writing. However, there is a difference. In an original screenplay you create scenes to make your point, while in an adaptation, you choose scenes to make your point.
Richard Jewell (directed by Clint Eastwood) tells the story of the 1996 Centennial Park bombings at the Atlanta Olympics. We asked Billy Ray what makes this story relevant over twenty years after the event. “The message of this story is eternal is because it’s not specifically about 1996. The story is about speaking truth to power,” the screenwriter declared. The necessity of an engaged citizenry speaking truth to power is as relevant and important today as it has ever been. Our law enforcement institutions must be the subject of constant oversight to prevent their abuse of power.
Richard Jewell is about more than speaking truth to power. Jewell was a security guard who considered a career in law enforcement to be his civic duty. He did not seek fame or notoriety. He only wanted to serve his country and held these institutions in the highest regard. “It is about a guy obsessed with law enforcement. Then he got on the wrong side of it by trying to be a hero. When he learns that when law enforcement wields its power in an irresponsible way, it is no longer a force for good.”
Billy Ray has particular thoughts on how franchise films have affected our film screens. Despite his distaste for these films, he did pen drafts for Gemini Man and Terminator: Dark Fate. We asked him how he handles this apparent conflict. “Writing films like that is very different from writing Richard Jewell. You have so many people to answer to when writing franchise films. You are trying to steer the franchise from the pre-existing view,” he said. Although the relationships are vastly different, the writing process is the same. “You don’t give any less to these movies.”
We all know that franchise films frequently have a sequential bundle of screenwriters attached to them. This creates a conundrum as writers add their personal writing flourish to the confines of an established franchise. Billy Ray considers the process to be “a relay race.” When you have the baton, you write to the best of your ability and hand the screenplay to the next writer.
The Ballad Of Richard Jewell
Billy Ray’s film is based on a more poetically titled 1997 Vanity Fair article called “American Nightmare: The Ballad Of Richard Jewell” by Marie Brenner. Before Ray began to adapt the article into his screenplay, he took a bird’s eye view of the nature of power and our law enforcement institutions. “Think about the power that the media wields in America. Think about the power that we allow law enforcement to have. Imagine those two giant forces lining up to sink one person.” Unchecked media unduly influences discourse to the point of bending the truth to breaking point while unchecked law enforcement weaponizes it.
Billy Ray had a rich well of source material to drink from. He didn’t need to fabricate any omissions in the case or embellish facts to make a point. When the screenwriter began adapting the Vanity Fair article into a screenplay, his mantra was “don’t choose an authority you’ll have to invent.” This meant that all the facts of the Richard Jewell case were already laid out so he could shift his focus on the dramatization process. Billy Ray also stuck to this mindset while writing Captain Phillips and his upcoming TV mini-series A Higher Loyalty about former Director of the FBI, James Comey. “It all comes down to selecting the most dramatic events that tell your story.” The screenwriter had the luxury of choosing from multiple events to tell the most dramatic version of Richard Jewell‘s story.
Every screenwriter focuses on perfecting their writing voice throughout their career. To Billy Ray, a writer’s voice is “has something to do about your point of view about the world, a point of view about storytelling, and the point of view of the purpose of a screenplay.” These aspects are unique to every screenwriter that defines their screenwriting style.
A Higher Loyalty
Billy Ray has become a vocal political activist of late with potent opinions on various issues. We asked him how he balances his personal point of view with the objective needs of the James Comey story (or any story with political overtones for that matter). “I have very very strong views about the current political landscape. But I have stronger views of the responsibility to be truthful in this situation where you’re not only documenting history, but in a weird way, creating it because the story is still very much unfolding.” Ray has “a higher loyalty” to the facts if you will. “As a storyteller, you have the power to affect how people view something that’s going on around them.”
He is not ostensibly for or against any political party. He only wants to present the facts. “I don’t need to impugn any politician. I feel the need to open up a lens to show their choices and behaviors, so people can make up their own minds.”
Many screenwriters have a personal brand such as a genre or the types of themes they’re interested in exploring. Billy Ray’s underlying theme in his screenwriting is about personal integrity. “This is constantly coming through in my screenplays. There is also a sense of moral ambiguity that eventually gives way to moral clarity. You have to decide what to do about it.”
Billy Ray has been involved in the film and TV business for almost three decades. His sense of story has definitely matured with age. Over time, he has become more wedded to the idea that movies always have to be emotional experiences. Earlier in his screenwriting career, he was trying to be more ironic and clever. He came to the belief that these are not as important as an emotional backbone to satisfy the audience. “If someone offers me material, the only question I ask is ‘where’s the emotion?’ If it’s fascinating and compelling, but lacking in emotion, I will say ‘no.’ Years ago I would have said ‘yes.‘”
Apart from having an emotional core, Billy Ray asks himself if a potential screenplay is about a subject on which he has something to say. If not, he would be wasting everyone’s’ time in writing it. He also questions if a potential screenplay is a subject he can write credibly about. If so, he can do the research by speaking to experts and learn about the specific subject matter.
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