Based On A True Story: A Brief History Of The “False Document” In Film & Web Series

Based On A True Story: A Brief History Of The False Document In Film & Web Series

A powerful technique in the world of entertainment is what is known as the false document. It goes beyond "based on a true story" and invents a history to form a basis in reality. One of the earliest uses of this device was way back in 1508, with a series of chivalric romance literature known as Amadis de Gaula, credited to Garci Rodriguez di Montalvo. Montalvo claimed to have "found" the first three volumes of the story, and that he would be the sole author of the fourth.

False Document Use In Film

Throughout the years, a number of films have employed the false document technique.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre & The Amityville Horror

Based On A True Story: A Brief History Of The False Document In Film & Web SeriesThe first major instance of a film trying to sell itself as true was 1974′s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Writer/director Tobe Hooper added credence to the movie's events with the message, "The film you are about to see is true." Three years later, the book and subsequent film The Amityville Horror (1979) was marketed in the same way, and although no one outright proved that author Jay Anson was making it all up, there are more than enough inconsistencies to doubt its veracity.

Still, the idea that something difficult to explain might actually be true adds depth to the experience. The false document lends itself well to horror, because most of the time we are so quick to dismiss what happens we become entirely disconnected from it. To think that the spooky story might have actually happened, however, lends an added dimension.

Here's one of the original 1979 trailers for The Amityville Horror:

The Blair Witch Project

In 1999, one of the most successful viral marketing campaigns of all time occurred with The Blair Witch Project, a movie that was made for anywhere from $20,000 to a few hundred thousand, which doesn't matter because the film ended up hauling in close to $300 million worldwide by the end of its run. And this is due in most part to the false document technique, because filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick did everything they could to make it all seem real.

Based On A True Story: A Brief History Of The False Document In Film & Web SeriesBefore the movie came out, they began an Internet campaign steeped in history, crime scene photos, and eyewitness accounts. This looked real, or at least real enough. The unknown actors used their real names in the movie, so if you looked it up on the Internet Movie Database, it just looked like they were getting credits as if in a documentary.

We knew the people in the film were never seen again, but they left behind all the footage they shot. The film would be a document of the last days of three people's lives. What was it that they saw? Did they capture their own demise on film? The possibilities offered by the legend built up by the website were tantalizing. You can still go to blairwitch.com today and see what they did.

The Blair Witch Project is generally considered the first viral marketing of a movie. It got people talking about whether it was real or not. Yours truly got his hands on a video tape of a longer version of the movie before it even landed in theatres. The fact that some people saw this before it even came out, a film that no one really knew about, had to have been on purpose. Even if it wasn't, it helped create buzz. This was the film's "loss leader." People who had seen the movie could go to others and say, "Yeah, this movie is freaky, dude."

Here's one of the early trailers for the Blair Witch Project:

I'm not sure The Blair Witch Project lent itself to movie theatres that well. It is a low-budget, intimate experience and some of that got washed away in a public, large-screen format. But it still got people in theatres and made a ton of money.

Cloverfield

Based On A True Story: A Brief History Of The False Document In Film & Web SeriesThe Blair Witch Project made the web a viable resource for upcoming movies to build buzz. Later, we would see the J.J. Abrams-backed Cloverfield do the same type of things, although they never pretended that the events in the film were real, even though it was another shaky-video "reality" movie.

Cloverfield's marketing was, not surprisingly, a lot like Lost. The trailer, attached to the huge 2007 summer blockbuster Transformers, didn't even have a title, just a release date. It became an instant, "What is that?" investigation for people who cared enough to scour the Internet looking for information.

You can see that title-free trailer here:

Soon, extra websites sprouted up adding to the Cloverfield mythology (Slusho! and Tagruato). The fact that no one knew exactly what it was about, other than something out-of-this-world was going down in New York City, added to its mystery. With Abrams involvement, some people thought it might have had something to do with Lost. The possibilities were endless.

False Document Use In Web Series

The most successful web video to use false documentation was the infamous lonelygirl15 series on YouTube. Looking like any other random video blog, the idea that this was anything more than a 16-year-old just offering random opinions and thoughts didn't occur to most people who watched her. But then, the story got a little crazier, talking about her parents being a part of a cult and how her parents suddenly disappeared after she declined to attend a secret ceremony.

Again, the horror movie aspect of it all drew interest. It also drew disbelief.

For a trip down online video memory lane, here's the "first episode" of the series:

The creative team behind lonelygirl15, EQAL, did a lot of things to make this seem real. She had her own MySpace page and interacted with her fans. But where they made a mistake is not covering up the fact that the videos were being backed by Creative Artists Agency. It's doubtful that people would have continued thinking it was real anyway, since it got too weird too fast. It shows that timing is everything in the construction of a myth.

The creators got a little hasty, but in the end, they got want they wanted. Lonelygirl15 would amass over 110 million views when it was all said and done, it got them publicity, and actress Jessica Rose started getting offers to be in movies and TV.

The false document is a great tool to use to get people curious, but if you plan on getting the most out of it, it's wise to cover all your bases in case someone starts sniffing out the lie. Once you're ready, then you can start springing leaks and let the illusion end on your own terms.


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Posted in Web Series
About the Author -
Chris Atkinson joined ReelSEO in 2011. He is a longtime film and television reviewer, and has almost two decades of experience in the theater industry. He also writes on his personal blog - http://nymoviereviews.com. View All Posts By -

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=537088610 Sue Burke

    Actually, the first three books of "Amadis of Gaul" had been around for a century or more, and Montalvo corrected them from old, well-known manuscripts. But he said the fourth book and a sequel about Amadis's son had been found on a tomb at a hermitage near Constantinople, and he translated them — although in truth he wrote them. But these are details.
    http://amadisofgaul.blogspot.com/2009/01/prologue.html

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