Writing A Biopic Your Audience Will Love

By CREATIVE SCREENWRITING MAGAZINE • July 13, 2021

I can’t change the fact that my paintings don’t sell. But the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture – Vincent van Gogh

On the night of December 23, 1888, he stood before fellow painter Paul Gauguin in the bedroom of a small house in Arles, France. As they screamed and swung fists at each other, van Gogh grabbed a knife and sliced off his left year. Hitting a new low of mental anguish, he picked up his ear and stormed to a brothel where he handed it to a prostitute. Gauguin later wrote, “I was planning to spend a year in the south of France working with a painter friend. Unfortunately, that friend went raving mad.” A year later, van Gogh committed suicide at thirty-seven. Selling just one painting while alive, the mysterious artist was nearly forgotten. But then his name resurfaced, spreading all over the world, described by critics as “exhilarating” and a “beautiful flame of genius” in publications. Paintings like At Eternity’s Gate and The Starry Night drew crowds at exhibitions and novelist Irving Stone detailed his life in a biography. Today his paintings have sold over $100 million. Several films have been made about him—Lust for Life, Vincent and Theo, At Eternity’s Gate, to name a few—and they’re not about the art as much as the artist. He had a story worth telling.

“Back in the 1950’s, there were physical records with two sides,” said producer Sabrina Oertle of Blue Chair Productions. “One side contained the hit song, the other side a ‘B’ song. Those B songs were often never played on air, so most never became known hits. But for one artist, Mexican singer, Ritchie Valens, it was his label that decided to put a lesser-known song on the flipside of the soon-to-be hit, ‘Donna.’ They chose to use the song, ‘La Bamba.’ He covered the 18th century Veracruz folk song and made it more modern by adding a rock and roll beat. And of course, the rest is music history. A few of my favorite biopics are music based, (I am a huge fan of music and music as a character itself in films) including La Bamba (1987), directed by Luiz Valdez, Straight out of Compton (2015), directed by F. Gary Gray and Rocketman (2018), directed by Dexter Fletcher. All these films have themes we all can relate to, no matter the time.”

Writer/director Kimberly Peirce reflected on how she came to direct Boys Don’t Cry. “In 1994, I was studying film writing, directing and acting at Columbia Grad film, inspired by my many brilliant teachers (Shrader, Scorsese, Foreman, Dekoven, Kusterica) but also looking to better reflect my own experiences and desires beyond the straight, white, male cannon. I was buried deep in the Butler Library history stacks, writing a screenplay about a Civil War spy, who passed as a man, a southerner and a white to serve the Union Army, when my thesis advisor, screenwriting professor Corrine Jacker threw a wrench in my works. She told me I didn’t want to make a movie about someone who lived as a man to survive but rather who lived as a man because it was who they were. Her words spoke to me personally and I saw how passing as a man because it was who you were, was inherently more dramatic, but I didn’t know of any such person who could power a three-act cinematic story. After a few weeks of accepting that I had no thesis project, I was working the night shift at Latham and Watkins in NYC. At 3 am I picked up the Village Voice and was enthralled to discover the story of Brandon Teena, a Midwest teenage girl (formerly named Teena Brandon), who had shaped herself into her fantasy of boy and lived and loved as a man. Brandon stole my heart and soul. I was in love with his lust for life, his bravado and his will to live and love as he wanted. I felt I had adopted a child and that it was my responsibility to find out what happened to Brandon and tell his story in such a way that people could love and understand him. I learned and taught myself how to write and direct to serve Brandon and his story. A lovely way to learn and make stories.”

Reinhard Denke of Mercury Media and writer of screenplays Bigtime and Sex, Greed, Money, Murder and Chicken Fried Steak, elaborated on Patton. “I believe the job of a great biopic is to capture the subject’s greatest strengths, flaws, and take place over a limited period of time in their lives. It’s also helpful if the audience feels they ‘know’ the character by the end, maybe be inspired and learn something along the way. General George C. Patton was an intensely complex man—a warrior, believer in reincarnation, Patton felt he had a special place in history and a glorious destiny. He was not at all unlike other historical figures, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Winston Churchill in that regard. All of those men felt that God (or in Caesar’s case, ‘The gods’) had created a special set of circumstances for his talents to shine and save the world from destruction. The most difficult aspect of any person’s life is to capture the subject’s ‘soul,’ and depict it on the screen.”

Do Biopics Need To Be True?

A biopic, also known as a biographical film, seems pretty straightforward—dramatizing the life of a non-fictional or historically-based person or group of people. To writers and filmmakers, of course, oftentimes it’s not that simple. We’ve all seen these three labels: A True Story, Based on a True Story and Inspired by a True Story. A True Story is where a film replicates all or mostly every event from the story being told, an unedited version of what we’re being told, or shown, onscreen. A film Based on a True Story extracts the primary elements and adds or alters events to present a more dramatized, entertaining version. Inspired by a True Story is a newly conceived plot that is similar to a real-life story but stands on its own. The lines can be blurred.

“Some lives are heroic epics filled with dynamic spectacle while others might be profoundly personal and intimate,” said Writer, Producer and Director Heather Hale, who was also the original writer of The Courage to Love, a Lifetime Movie biopic. “But every life has its share of pivotal, thematic moments. The trick to a good biopic is tapping into the most intriguing characters, in interesting milieus, and structuring their most transformational milestones in an accessible and meaningful way that dramatizes universal truths. Film and television (and books and other art) that capture true experiences empower us to vicariously empathize with other worldviews. They frame different points of reference for us of eras and circumstances we might not be familiar with—or have only been exposed to inaccurate distortions. A fascinating biopic makes the invisible visible by tracing courage, passion and resilience. We can relate to the lives of others through our similarities and be edified by our differences.”

“I really enjoyed Walk the Line,” said Amanda Raymond of 13 Curves Productions and Director/Co-writer and Executive Producer of You Are My Home on Netflix. “Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon were amazing in that. I was actually at the Oscars the year it was up for consideration, and I was able to tell Joaquin in person how much I loved the film, and really felt he should have won that year. The Messenger, Luc Besson’s film on Joan of Arc, though visually stunning, I was really hoping to learn something new about this larger-than-life icon and see her earn her position as a symbol of female empowerment, but I didn’t. Instead, it was confusing, and it really needed someone of say, Meryl Streep’s caliber as an actor, to pull it off.  I’ve love to see a biopic on the actor Basil Rathbone, and actress/singer Libby Holman. I actually have written a biopic on DNA scientist Rosalind Franklin, and have been working with consultants on the script, and I also want to write one on John Joseph Hughes, or ‘Dagger John,’ as he was called. He was a Catholic archbishop in NYC in the 1840s and 1850s who was something of a legend for his strength of character, and the slightly unorthodox measures he took for attaining success. I went on a tour of the catacombs at Old St. Patrick’s church in NY when I was cutting You Are My Home with my awesome and talented editor Frank Reynolds, and the tour guide was telling us about Dagger John, and I just found his story fascinating. I’ve been doing research on him since.”

It goes without being said that the greatest biopics have the greatest performances. In Ray, Jamie Fox stepped inside the skin of Ray Charles and embodied a man both in the pits of hell and at the peak of success. Ben Kingsley won an Oscar for his unparalleled performance in Gandhi. The list goes on, a trend that’s been building for years. Denzel Washington as Malcom X, Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Kurt Russell as Elvis, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote.

“My favorite biopic film is Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts,” said Mindy Dougherty, filmmaker, US Army Veteran, and author of A Resilient Warrior. “Watching her fight for the rights of others when being wronged by a company that wanted to hide the details of corruption and go forth towards a very large company to prove their negligence and causing harm to others inspired me to keep fighting for others, especially those who have fought for our country and still remain to receive the help they strongly need. I would love to see Maya Angelou on the big screen.

“The two biggest challenges screenwriters face when tackling a biopic are ‘time’ and the ‘truth,’” explained WGA Screenwriter and writing coach Brooks Elms. “When it comes to choosing the span of ‘time’ in the character’s life to focus on in a biopic script, most public figures with accomplishments worthy of a fiction film, had their notable life events happen across many years, even decades. But in screenwriting, time jumps like that leak the energy of the narrative drive. Audiences want casualty between scenes—the end of one scene CAUSES the next scene to happen. If a script just time jumps to the next notable life event years later, you run the serious risk of a flat narrative that’s relatively boring for the audience.”

A common thread in this genre, particularly if the person was extremely successful, is that each suffered great amounts of pain. Musicians, billionaires, presidents, kings, they all seemed to have one foot in greatness and the other in agony. The Aviator writer John Logan has penned the screenplay for an upcoming Michael Jackson biopic. Already making headlines, Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston and Austin Butler as Elvis Presley. Whether they come to fruition is another story, but nonetheless the fascination of actors playing a real-life person is still popular.

Biopics depend on three things: the uniqueness of the subject, the actor who portrays them, and the craft of the filmmakers to tell the tale in an effective way,” said writer/actor Gregory Blair. “Most biopics are told in a straightforward fashion. The bulk of “Best Biopics” lists include films that fit this format. Even the biopics I’ve written—so far—all follow that tradition. But the biopics that excite me most choose to tell their tales in ways as unique as the person they reveal. Here are some examples: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story—A film told primarily with Barbie dolls. A bizarre gimmick that slowly morphs from hilarious to harrowing. I, Tonya — characters break the fourth wall to present wickedly funny commentary on the otherwise dark proceedings, creating gleefully surreal cinema. A Beautiful Mind — the perspective choice and eventual rug-pull proves not just a crafty narrative device, but an effective tool to create empathy and understanding. Again: a great biopic can be told in a straightforward fashion; it’s not the format that matters; it’s how you use it. And I’ll leave you with this more recent example of a film that uses it expertly: Blackkklansman — traditional storytelling only makes the unflinching final reel even more powerful. It’s the antithesis of a ‘Hollywood’ varnish job and it’s jaw-dropping.”

As an actress and producer of a few small films I recognize the success of a film depends on the reaction of its audience,” said Sherry Hudak, actress/writer/producer at Reel Stories Real People. “The idea of a biopic film is to tell a true story much like a documentary but in a more exciting cinematic way. That includes stunts, dramatic dialogue, and visual effects. Sometimes the quality of graphics and effects lead to overproduction on a film which can lead to many mistakes and losing one’s audience. Sometimes the initial theme of a film gets lost and the overall narrative becomes clouded when the audience is distracted between the graphics and the plot. There is an art in writing biopic films that requires a balance of bringing the plot consisting of the main characters to life and being lost amongst the graphics. However, when accomplished in a symbolic manner this makes for an amazing storytelling experience.”

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