The Impact of Memory on Filmmaking

“How many of you heard the word ‘needle’”? asks neurobiologist Tom Carew, after reading an audience a list of 15 words relating to medicine. He has already asked about two other words.

I slowly raise my hand.

“Sorry, ‘needle’ is not among them,” he says.

Carew helps me and the other hand raisers feel less like idiots by explaining that it is not unusual to see so many hands raised. “You have just experienced a ‘false memory,’” he tells us. “More often than not, people remember events differently from the way they actually occurred.”

The memory exercise was part of “The Screenwriter,” a conversation featuring Carew and screenwriter and LGBTQ activist Dustin Lance Black. The event—part of the Brainwave Series at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan—was partly sponsored by The Dana Foundation. Thomas J. Carew, Ph.D., dean of NYU’s Faculty of Arts and Science, a professor of neural science, and a Dana Alliance member, interviewed Black to get a better understanding of the accuracy of memory. He branched into other areas as well, such as methods interviewers use to get subjects to reveal themselves, cinematic license when recounting historical events, and how experience changes us.

Black won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Milk and wrote Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. He is currently adapting Jon Krakauer’s acclaimed book about Fundamental Mormonism, Under the Banner of Heaven, to the screen. His credits also include HBO’s Big Love, and 8, a new play that has included among its cast members George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

But enough name dropping.

Much of the focus was on the screenwriting process. Black provided tips to interviewing. Feign ignorance, or appear as if you know nothing or very little about the subject, he suggested. The goal should be to not hear one’s self, but to get the source talking. Black said he also tends to make friends with sources; better relationships help gain trust and a more honest accounting of events. Carew advised that framing a question is often crucial, citing a study that asked participants how fast a car was traveling when it either crashed, bumped, or met. The answer depended on which verb was applied to the question.


Dustin Lance Black and Tom Carew (credit: Michael Palma for The Rubin Museum)

Since Black always conducts his own interviews, Carew wondered about relying on the memories of sources after long periods of time. About 25 years had passed since Milk’s assassination when Black began the project. While Black said he was fortunate that so many people who knew Milk were still alive and willing to reminisce, he also utilized a book; a documentary; and letters from Anne Kronenberg, Milk’s campaign manager and confidante. Use everything at your disposal, he advised.

Carew returned to the issue of “false” memory by citing a study that asked participants to recount their whereabouts when the Challenger disaster occurred in 1986. Some subjects, he pointed out, made impossible claims. “How about the issue of memory as it informs the story?” he asked. Black said getting the facts completely straight “only mainly matters if it changes the meaning. I tend to rely on gut instinct in deciding the truth,” he said.

Black switched gears by asking Carew to recommend tools to get the most out of a source’s memory. Carew, who was the research team leader of a study that isolated the “when” and “where” of molecular activity that occurs in the formation of short-, intermediate-, and long-term memories, said there is no tried and true method: “Perception of one’s reality is one-hundred percent true, but whether it maps on to something that really happened is very iffy,” he said. Carew recommends coming at truth from different directions, and settling on common ground. “See if different lines of questioning provide answers that land in the same neighborhood,” he said. “One constructs their reality to satisfy their endpoint narrative, or what they wish was the case.”

Black talked about the discrepancy between 20- and 30-year old materials he read about J. Edgar Hoover versus what he heard from the writers of those materials in personal interviews. More tolerance toward gays in society, he found, meant that even sources in their 80s and 90s were willing to talk about Hoover’s personal life without feeling like they were compromising his role as a patriot. “It gave me access to him in a way I don’t think I would have had even ten years ago,” he said. “In the end, the challenge was figuring out the most truthful version of him.”

This was an especially timely issue, since several historical films nominated for Academy Awards this year—Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty—were taken to task for accuracy. On one hand, Black advocated getting the facts straight, since that ultimately leads to a more informative and entertaining portrayal. But on the other, he admitted that Milk, like most films, is going to “get it a little big wrong, because film has to be dramatic.” People who were important in Milk’s career, but who were dull, weren’t included in the screenplay. Zero Dark Thirty, Black said, attempts to re-create events that happened over 10 years. “Filtering 10 years down to under three hours is an impossible feat,” he said. Each filmmaker has to draw the distinction of where the truth lies for his or her own self, he suggested.

“Capturing the spirit of the story is the important thing,” said Black. “For me, Oliver Stone goes too far, but if you want historical accuracy, read the book.”

– Bill Glovin

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