Where there's life in Hollywood, there's a biopic. And a lawsuit

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All of a sudden, reality is all the rage in the film business. Real people, real stories: this is the flavour of the moment. This week, the most hotly anticipated cinema release in Britain is Iris, based on John Bayley's frank and fond memoir of his marriage to Iris Murdoch. And right on its coat-tails is A Beautiful Mind, a biography of the mathematician John Nash, starring Russell Crowe and based on the book by Sylvia Nasar.

It is not just the remarkable and noteworthy that have grabbed film-makers' attention. If anything, the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances are proving even more compelling to Hollywood executives. Perhaps it is our straitened economic times that are causing the wave of interest in security guards, fishing boat captains and other unlikely true-life heroes; or perhaps it is just a great big game of copycat, following the runaway success of Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts' Oscar-winning turn as a single mum turned environmentalist crusader – an idea that started life as a minor item in a newspaper.

Making films about real people might provide some welcome verisimilitude, but there is also a downside: potentially, a large crop of people, not to mention their relatives, who can rage, fume and – if so inclined – launch lawsuits when they find themselves displeased with what they see on screen.

Take Jodi Tyne, for example. Her husband Billy was a fishing captain who died at sea in 1991 off the coast of Massachusetts. Sebastian Junger turned his story into the best-selling book A Perfect Storm, and George Clooney played him in the big-screen version released in 2000.

To say Mrs Tyne did not like the film might be an understatement. In court papers, she argues that the film makes her late husband look "unseaworthy", a man who was "emotionally aloof, reckless, excessively risk-taking". She is now suing Warner Bros under an obscure Florida statute that protects the image and reputation of individuals even, apparently, if they are dead.

Quite how far Mrs Tyne's suit goes remains to be seen. Lawyers for Warner Bros argue that the Florida statute applies only to people whose reputations are also business assets, and that Billy Tyne's name had no commercial value during his lifetime.

This case follows lawsuits over two highly regarded films, both brought by people who felt they had been misrepresented. 'Boys Don't Cry', made in 1999, was the story of Brandon Teena, born female but living as a man, who was raped and murdered in 1993. Lana Tisdel, who dated Brandon and was played by Chloe Sevigny, sued, saying the film depicted her as "lazy, white trash". Fox settled out of court. There was a similar outcome when Universal Pictures were sued by ex-boxer Joey Giardello. He was shown in Denzil Washington's The Hurricane winning a fight only because of a racially motivated decision, whereas the record, and his opponent, say he was a fair winner.

The fact is that in any project based on real life, someone, somewhere, is almost bound to object, particularly if it is an aggrieved party that received no money up front from the producers. "The rule of thumb is that if people have not been paid, then absolutely they are going to object," said Laura Bickford, a producer currently at work on biopics of Che Guevara and King Leopold of Belgium. "But objecting is one thing. Having a valid legal case is quite another." Clearly, nobody thought to offer Mrs Tyne any money. And now she feels it is payback time.

According to Ms Bickford, basing a film on real events is always going to be a major legal headache. Producers take inordinate pains to ward off the risk of lawsuits – not least because, to qualify for liability insurance, they have to. Screenplays are scrupulously annotated so that in-house lawyers know exactly where any piece of information comes from. Generally, the protagonists of a story will receive some money up front. If heinous acts are assigned to minor characters, then in most cases the names will be changed.

Inevitably, mistakes are still made. The producers of Titanic besmirched the reputation of a Scottish officer called William Murdoch by depicting him shooting at the passengers in panic – an act committed by someone else entirely. After Murdoch's family pointed out that their ancestor was in fact a hero who gave away his own lifejacket, the producers gave $5,000 (£3,500) which went to a fund in Murdoch's name.

The history of the movies is littered with aggrieved parties claiming that either they or their loved ones have been misrepresented. Just think of the stink caused by Hilary and Jackie, the film about the du Pré sisters in which Jackie is shown sleeping with Hilary's husband. Daniel Barenboim, among others, denounced the film as a travesty of a great cellist's life. But there was never any serious question of a lawsuit: everything in the film had previously been recorded in the book A Genius in the Family, by Hilary du Pré and her brother Piers.

A successful movie can prove tempting to those close to its subject matter, particularly if they feel a little pinch in their pockets. And legal redress is not always the chosen path. In the wake of Erin Brockovich's success, two of Ms Brockovich's exes threatened to tell damaging stories to the press unless she paid them off. She lured the pair to an office equipped with a video camera, handed them large cheques, then had them arrested as they left the building.