THE SOCIAL NETWORK - Q &A with Richard Walter

With the social buzz surrounding THE SOCIAL NETWORK, I was curious about the legal and storytelling ramifications of writing movies about real life, topical events and people. Facebook is everywhere. And despite this movies popularity -- even among more demanding film-goers, like many of my friends who keep heaping praise on this movie -- to me, this movie feels like just another franchise-hopping tie-in. Mark Zuckerberg-voiced figurines in all Happy Meals, etc.

So I thought I'd toss some questions to Richard Walter, who I've interviewed on this blog before. He is the chairman of the UCLA graduate screenwriting program, and an expert witness in intellectual property law cases.

OUR MAN IN LOS ANGELES: As a court appointed expert in intellectual property law, what exactly is the law -- or the legal loopholes -- regarding writing a film about a public figure like Mark Zuckerburg in THE SOCIAL NETWORK?

RICHARD WALTER: I am an expert witness but not a lawyer. I address not particularly the legal issues but the creative, artistic, and esthetic ones. I certainly have learned a lot about intellectual law, however. Throughout my experience over the decades, anybody can write a film about anybody. There is a chance that the writer may be sued, however. To prevail in a suit the plaintiff needs to demonstrate that the information is false, defamatory, constitutes character assassination, demonstrates a reckless disregard for the truth, and contains evidence of malicious intent. The standards are higher for public figures, as they have access to media themselves and can correct false impressions. It is also too chilling on public discourse narrowly to limit discussion of public figures.

OUR MAN IN LOS ANGELES: What are the ethical ramifications? Is this sort of material always attractive to studios and production companies, or is this just part of the last decade's onslaught of biopics and "based on a true story" films?

RICHARD WALTER: Material attractive to producers is material that contains great stories. That's all there is to it. There have always been biopics and movies based upon true stories. There's nothing new about that at all.

OUR MAN IN LOS ANGELES: In our last Q & A, you discussed the overrated status of the idea. Is this film a good example of that? That the idea is backseat to the filmmakers' execution?

RICHARD WALTER: Yes, The Social Network demonstrates the over-appreciation of the idea. How much is the idea of Facebook worth, compared to the code that is written, the marketing plan, the shaping of the overall product?

OUR MAN IN LOS ANGELES: What do you think it was about this concept that attracted a powerful writer like Aaron Sorkin? One might argue that this film fits into his wheelhouse, and others argue it was merely an easy greenlit cash cow.

RICHARD WALTER: You have to ask Aaron. I'm guessing he finds this story and its issues fascinating. Who wouldn't?

OUR MAN IN LOS ANGELES: As a screenwriting professor, do you encourage these kinds of projects? Do you believe this film would have had the same success if Facebook wasn't the topical, cultural phenomenon that it currently is?

RICHARD WALTER: The Social Network is an adaptation from a book. We insist that UCLA writers write only original screenplays, as opposed to adapting scripts based upon other material.

OUR MAN IN LOS ANGELES: Having seen the relative success of the film, what do you think is the best lesson to take from THE SOCIAL NETWORK?

RICHARD WALTER: The three most important aspects of a screenplay are: story, story, story. The Social Network tells a great story.

I suppose with some of those questions I got what I asked for, which is what to expect with the always entertaining Mr. Walter. I want to thank him for taking the time to answer my questions. I guess it's clear why no one is making movies on MySpace or Craigslist. You need a story. And Zuckerberg was it.

You can find more from Richard Walter at his website, and on his Facebook page, to stay in the screenwriting know with someone The Wall Street Journal once called "the prime broker for Hollywood's hottest commodity: new writing talent."

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