True-Life films require a totally different approach than other screenplays. The screenwriter must be diligent in how he or she incorporates actual events into theme, character and story structure (to name just a few areas) if the film is to accurately portray real life and yet still satisfy the demands of the ticket-buying audience.
My latest assignment was just such a project: the real life of Amberley Snyder, the LBRF World Champion rodeo rider whose life has been inspiration for so many people.
Logline: After being paralyzed in a car accident, rodeo rider Amberley Snyder is told she will never walk again, much less ride. Without the use of her legs and confined to a wheelchair, the daughter of former Los Angeles Dodger Cory Snyder fights to regain her dream of being a pro rodeo champion.
Desert Wind Film’s Executive Producer Steven Camp and Producers TJ Amato and Josh Mills had finished production on the feature film, Brother’s Keeper, which hits theaters March 27th, 2015, and they were keen to get their next project underway. While on the festival circuit, a colleague reached out to Josh, asking him to review Amberley Snyder’s Facebook page. Evidently he’d been to a Brother’s Keeper screening and thought the story would be a good fit for Desert Wind.
Steven, Josh and TJ were no stranger to real-life stories, having filmed the documentary Sugar Wars – The Rise of the Cleveland Mafia. But once they began to really get to know Amberley and understand the struggles she has had to overcome, they knew it could only be done justice as a feature film.
Josh: When the project first came to us, none of us were familiar with Amberley’s story. Honestly, the minute I watched the homemade montage on her Facebook page, I was hooked. I could immediately see the energy and determination in her eyes. Although I didn’t ride much growing up, I was raised around the rodeo culture in Fort Worth, TX… so there were several familiar elements that jumped out at me from the beginning. She’s definitely a special person, and this story will resonate with a broad audience.
The minute we could coordinate, TJ and I were on a plane to Salt Lake. We spent 3 days interviewing Amberley’s parents, siblings and friends. Her dad, Cory, played in the majors for several years, so you immediately recognized the source for her competitive drive. We had an opportunity before we left to watch her compete. We traveled with Amberley to a local rodeo where she’d entered the barrel racing competition. Barrel racing is about cooperation between horse and rider. You can imagine if a cowgirl doesn’t have the use of her lower half.
Steven: Obviously, I am very excited and honored to be part of this story, and am thrilled to be part of the team sharing Amberley’s story with the world. I truly believe that Amberley’s story has great potential to change lives and have an impact on those that watch the film.
I am no stranger to research. Although my last assignment was based on a book by a New York Times bestselling author, I still had to do a ton of research: immersing myself in the time period and who these people really were. Character is story, so I knew how important it was to actually know the people I was writing about, not just what they did, but to actually be able to “see” them during that era in my mind and “hear” them as I worked on scenes.
But this was different. I wasn’t going to be figuring out the people in the script. The producers at Desert Wind Films had already done a ton of legwork. There were hours of taped interviews with everyone involved with the story. I could physically hear and see the characters I was writing. My job was to find the storyline, define the structure, weave the pieces into a coherent fabric of a movie. The only way to do that was to absorb the whole, digest it and feel how the story came together. And in bringing this story to the screen, I can only hope that the audience gets to feel the same inspiration I experienced in coming to know Amberley Snyder.
I wondered how it felt, being the subject of a true-life film. I asked Amberley to tell me what it was like having people put her life out there as a film for everyone to see. What were her hopes and fears?
Amberley: My first thought is I wanted to wait until I accomplished something great. I still do want a big accomplishment, so I am not just the girl who got back on, but the girl who succeeded at competing after.
I hope people leave inspired to chase their dreams. I hope they feel that they can face their obstacles in life. I want to give people hope to keep going. I want people to realize that good things can come out of not so good situations we are dealt.
- More articles by Dan Goforth
- A Starter’s Guide to Researching World of Story
- How to Structure a Screenplay: In Defense of ‘Formula’
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