I was trying to tell a friend about my film idea when I stumbled upon the right title. I casually said something about attempting to tell “the truth about my father” when it struck both of us that I had just spoken the right title.
“The Truth About My Father”
That would be the name of the non-fiction book I would write and then it would be the name of a very fictionalized comedy version that I would make afterward. Why did such a strange tale need to be told as a comedy? I didn’t know then and I still don’t know, but I know it’s a dark comedy.
That was years ago. Ever since then, I’ve struggled to figure out how to make the story work as a film script. Redrawing my father as an exaggerated form of his eccentric self was easy, but the story centered around a son learning the hidden truth about his father. And I figured something out this week.
The story is boring — and it doesn’t work — unless I dig into my own flaws and trace where the worst part of me came from. To tell the truth about my father, I have to dig into — and expose — the worst parts of myself.
And that’s scary.
Have you seen Wes Anderson’s 2001 film, “The Royal Tenenbaums”? I don’t have Anderson’s talent or experience — and my style would be different than his — but that movie is an example of a horrible family drama being told as a dark comedy. And it works.
As I pulled out of the theater parking lot after watching that movie 19 years ago, I called one of my sisters and said, “You have to see this. The facts aren’t even vaguely the same as ours, but the group dynamics are just as messed up as we are.”
As I’ve tried to write a script centered around a son discovering the awful truth about his father — “Hey, my father is an embezzler who stole millions of dollars!” — I realized that the protagonist was almost a passive victim. Some bad things had happened to this character — based on bad things that happened to me — but he didn’t have any interesting flaws. He certainly didn’t seem like a man who had been raised by a narcissist. He wasn’t messed up enough.
And that’s when I realized that the story has to be just as much about the son’s story arc as it is about the father. In fact, since the father pretty much can’t change, the son is the only one for whom there can be any redemption. The comedy comes from the dysfunctional actions of the narcissistic father and the drama comes from the son discovering his own flaws — and what he’s done to others — as he understands what his father has done to him.
I’ve told you before that it was very painful for me about 10 or 12 years ago when I started learning about narcissism. Not only did I finally understand what my father had done — and my childhood suddenly made sense — but I started seeing my own dark side.
I wasn’t a terrible person. I don’t have deep secrets that you don’t yet know about. But I can see some arrogance and selfishness in what I was then — in a couple of romantic relationships in particular — that I was completely unaware of at the time.
It wasn’t until I understood my father’s selfishness and arrogance that I started seeing the same traits in myself. The difference between us is that I learned about this early enough in life — and I was willing to make changes — and my father never did learn these lessons. He didn’t want to. He wouldn’t even discuss the issues.
I understand now that this son character has to have my flaws when the story starts. I have to write about him being arrogant and selfish in ways that I acted years ago. I have to show it causing trouble for him. And as the story progresses — and he learns about himself by learning who his father really is — I’ll give him the chance to grow.
As he grows, I’m going to give him a chance to repair relationships — including a primary romantic relationship — and give him a chance to find redemption for his life.
This story is the story of my father — about how dysfunctional he was and how his crazy actions hurt a lot of people — but it’s also my story.
It’s a story about having to change. About having to dig deep and look at ugly parts of myself. It’s a story about having to experience shame at what I’d been. It’s a story about wanting to be worthy of being loved — and of wanting to be able to love someone in honest and whole-hearted ways.
It’s still my father’s story, but I understand now that it’s also the story of my own redemption. And that makes it even more important for me to tell.