Screenplay Concept

BIOGRAPHY

Many of the greatest films in history have been biographies, or 'biopics': movies that tell the story of someone's life.

What are some examples of great 'biopics'?

Great biopics we have known . .
  • BEN-HUR (1959) starring Charlton Heston. Won eleven Oscars (the most ever).
  • LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) starring Peter O'Toole. Won seven Oscars.
  • PATTON (1970) starring George C. Scott. Won eight Oscars.
  • RAGING BULL (1980) starring Robert de Niro. Won two Oscars; nominated for eight.
  • AMADEUS (1984) starring F. Murray Abraham. Won eight Oscars.
  • CHAPLIN (1992) starring Robert Downey, Jr. Nominated for three Oscars.
  • SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) starring Liam Neeson. Won seven Oscars (including Steven Speilberg's first for directing).
  • ED WOOD (1994) starring Johnny Depp. Won two Oscars.
  • POLLOCK (2000) starring Ed Harris. Won an Oscar.

What is the greatest challenge in writing a 'biopic'?

As the writer of a "biopic" for the screen you face many challenges, perhaps the greatest of which being the discovery of a life you think others will find fascinating. As the motion picture industry passes the century mark you might wonder "Who's left?", all the great lives already having been played out on the big screen.

Take heart. Much has been overlooked, if not in the major stories of history, perhaps in the lesser alleyways, or even local to your town. Maybe you can make a better movie of a life already chronicled cinematically because you have an interesting angle on it. Perhaps new information has come to light.

How do I acquire the rights to a life story?

The next challenge is acquiring the rights to the story. For this you need to speak with an attorney. Don't take just anybody's advice on this. This is something you'll want to get done right.

How do I make a life story cinematic?

Then comes your real challenge: how to make the story cinematic. If the life is super-fascinating to begin with, and it's a "story for the times", this may not be much of a trick. Same goes for a super-fascinating human being, put in a remarkable situation, whose character makes him rise to the occasion. Just tell the story episodically and watch the moviegoers squirm. Most life stories, however, require some adaptation to meet the needs of the screen.

ADAPTING THE LIFE STORY TO THE SCREEN
  1. Focus or "crop" the story around a compelling incident, or series of incidents, perhaps those that the general public are familiar with; leave out the rest. People may come more for the retelling of the incident and become fascinated by the subject of the story;
  2. Find (or build up) a love story, or some other powerful relationship, within the person's life, and hang the story around it. People love a good relationship story;
  3. Develop a theme from the span and breadth of the person's life or times and use it as the "spine" of the life story;
  4. Play with the story, change the "launch", the "climax", the characters, etc. to make it cinematic. You must be more loyal to the "cinematic story" than the actual one, if you want to succeed in this medium; or
  5. Pick out the most fascinating moments in the person's life and string them together episodically. With attention spans being what they are, and the demand for well-crafted stories on the lull, you could keep 'em in their seats with this approach alone.


See also . .


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EXERCISES:
  1. See COBB (1994) starring Tommy Lee Jones. Compare it to the source Cobb: A Biography by Al Stump. What about this writer's relationship with Ty Cobb made it cinematic? How did they adapt this for the screen?
  2. See NIXON (1995) starring Anthony Hopkins. Compare it to any major biographies on Richard Nixon's life. How was his life story made to fit the screen?
  3. See FRIDA (2003) starring Salma Hayek. Compare it to any major biography on her life. Was her life cinematic to begin with? How was it made more so for the silver screen?