Concept

AUTOBIOGRAPHY


"All art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster's autobiography."
FEDERICO FELLINI

A number of fine films have been based on autobiographies . .

Autobiography-based films we have known . .
  • The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  • Papillon (1973)
  • Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)
  • Raging Bull (1980)

Writing a movie script based on somebody's autobiography (or autobiographical material) presents most of the same challenges as for creating a filmed biography: selection of compelling life material, extraction of a cinematic story from it, staying more true to the needs of screened entertainment than the facts, etc. One great challenge must be added, though, that being the need to consider a counter-balance to what someone says happened in his own life. The obfuscation, delusion, avoidance of truth, etc. in the subject's take on what occurred might doom the motion picture project. Considering alternate views and gaining perspective on the sole author's (likely skewed) take adds artistic dimension to the ultimate creation.

"Autobiography is probably the most respectable form of lying."
HUMPHREY CARPENTER

Asked to ghostwrite an autobiography of Ty Cobb, Al Stump was so disillusioned by the process, and the lies he had to tell in My Life in Baseball: The True Record, that he later wrote Cobb: A Biography to serve as a counterbalance. COBB (1994) with Tommy Lee Jones was based on the latter account.

What about telling my own story?

For better or for worse, our own experiences tend to play out in our artistic creations. For many, that's why we take up screenwriting to begin with: to tell our own frightful story, to make people see what we've been through--what victims we really are--to gain victory over those who have made our lives difficult, or simply to work through our feelings about our life.

This was W. Somerset Maugham's express purpose in writing Of Human Bondage. He'd known other writers to gain release from telling their own life stories, and this indeed turned out to be the case for him. But, being an already experienced and successful author, he knew better than to stick hard to the facts. His own story served as the wellspring from which the story was drawn, but it did not limit his creative license to tell the best story possible, one that would appeal to his readers.

Autobiographical experience can be very helpful in making things real, keeping things truthful, giving the audience a palpable sense of what's going on on-screen. It gives us a useful body of ideas to draw from; an artistic toolkit, if you will.

We tend to write what we know. We bring our life experiences to the selection of our movie concept, to the structure of our story, to our character names, to the drawing of our scenes, to the reality of individual incidents. In other words, we often write autobiographically, but we're not always writing our own story.

The trouble comes in making our own life stories cinematic.

What's the problem with screenwriting my life story?

Life stories tend to be chronologically linear, rarely following good dramatic structure. But cinema demands dramatic structure to keep people in their seats--and get them there in the first place. The author of an autobiographical screenplay tends to be fixated on what actually happened, almost to the exclusion of practical realities. If the only reason for writing screenplays to begin with was to share this personal experience, the writer's not likely to be interested in changing the story to meet the very real needs of the producer to make back his investment, or the audience to be moved.

How do I know anyone will be interested in my life story?

Where no cinematic storyline can be extracted from a life or true story--perhaps an engaging romance, or a universal theme--the personality of the subject needs to be fascinating enough to make readers and audience members want to follow an episodic rendition of his life. What writer has the proper perspective on how interesting his life really is? or on how best to tell it to garner the interest of others?

HINT: Those who have the time to sit around learning screenplay format are not likely living the kind of life anyone else wants to pay money to watch on screen. Pulling cinematic material from published autobiographies of others at least assures a market indeed exists for the story, that the person's life is at least of some interest to somebody else.

But I still have so much I want to say from my life

Given the inherent difficulties of crafting an autobiographical script, and the overwhelming desire to do so, it might be best to channel your autobiographical experience into enhancing your scripts. Continue to select movie concepts that appeal to you based on your life experiences. But dedicate yourself now to becoming an experienced and capable writer before tackling your autobiography.

How will I know when I'm ready to tell my life story?

When you've achieved a level of screenwriting experience you can better gauge if your life is worth retelling on-screen, and you will know how best to retell it. In other words, after you've already written several scripts and have tackled the genre sufficiently so you're not learning as you go. Just as importantly, when you've mastered the many complex difficulties of writing a good screenplay, you can then better focus on the extremely difficult challenge of telling your life on screen.

For examples of films that drew on the author's own experiences to tell a compelling story, see HOPE AND GLORY (1987) or THIRTEEN (2003).

A cure for writers block?

His Eminence, David Trottier, posits that by treating the dread disease he's named autobiographicosis one can even recover from writers block. Who knows?

"Write about what you're interested in. Don't write about yourself—you aren't as interesting as you think."
TRACY CHEVALIER

See also . .



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EXERCISES:
  1. View The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Then read the source. What about her personality, character, situation, and story make her autobiographical writings fit for the screen? What was done to make the story more cinematic?
  2. See I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) with Paul Muni. Then consider the source. What about his character, situation, and story make his autobiography screenable? How was his life story made more cinematic?
  3. View Catch Me If You Can (2002) with Leonardo DiCaprio. Now read the source. What might a producer see in his story that would make it worth investing in for the screen? How was his autobiography made more cinematic for movie-goers?