Nitpicking over historical or scientific details helps keep filmmakers honest and makes films more authentic.
In Joe Rogan’s Aug 22, 2018 interview with scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Tyson told an interesting story about how he contributed to the 2012 comedy Ted. It stemmed from his criticism of the night sky as depicted in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). Titanic, of course, was based on the true story of the 1912 RMS Titanic disaster.
Since we know exactly where and at what time the Titanic sank, astronomers can use computer modeling to re-create precisely what the night sky looked like from the perspective of the passengers and crew. Of course, this was a detail James Cameron overlooked and one that Neil DeGrasse Tyson noticed immediately.
When Tyson later brought it up to Cameron, the director was initially dismissive but then later corrected the mistake in a director’s cut of the film. Years later, filmmaker and comedian Seth MacFarlane called Neil DeGrasse Tyson to make sure he had the correct sky at a specific time at a specific place, in a comedy film about a Teddy Bear that comes to life.
Now that’s attention to detail!
When it comes to historical inaccuracies in film, the night sky over the Titanic is a relatively minor flub, but it didn’t go unnoticed by someone who is an expert in astronomy, an expert with a large enough influence to get movie studios to pay attention. Those little details show how much filmmakers are committed to authenticity.
There’s no such thing as a “100 percent accurate” film. Movie making is an art form and audiences demand an entertaining story. That’s what separates a historical film from a documentary. Sometimes the truth is edited, re-arranged, or embellished in service to a narrative, as it was in James Cameron’s Titanic.
But if a filmmaker can build a world that feels real, and doesn’t break its connection to the audience with obvious anachronisms or sloppy mistakes, that’s something special. I love Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) not because its story is faithful to history (it’s not), but because Scorsese faithfully brings to life mid-nineteenth century New York City. You can tell he took great care in getting those historical details right.
You may think, who cares what the sky looked like as the Titanic was sinking? And I think most moviegoers would agree. Titanic is still among the top grossing movies of all time. But by correcting his error, James Cameron admitted that including this historical detail ultimately improved his film.
Reaching out to Neil DeGrasse Tyson and making that extra effort to get a detail right, even when filming a ridiculous comedy like Ted, demonstrates how much Seth MacFarlane cared about that movie. I wish filmmakers behind the ridiculous Mary Queen of Scots, Vice, and Lizzie had cared a little more about getting their facts right. I’ll never complain about a “based on a true story” movie being too accurate, but man is it annoying when it’s not.