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Meet the Reader: 'Bio Tricks' for Writing Biopics

I’m reading for a screenwriting competition right now, which means I’m reading a lot of biopics – screenplays that tell the life stories of famous or significant people.

Up-and-coming screenwriters love to pen biopics. It’s not hard to understand why – at first glance, the experiences of important or glamorous folks would seem to be ideal movie material. Unfortunately, that is frequently (usually) not the case. The reason is simple: feature films require dramatic narratives and real life -- while frequently interesting and exciting -- is usually not very dramatic. Not in the theatrical sense of the term, anyway.

In a dramatic tale, a protagonist with a strong, clear goal sets out to accomplish that goal with driven, single-minded purpose. Along the way, the protagonist encounters and overcomes a series of increasingly difficult obstacles, usually including opposition from a formidable antagonist. At a certain point, the protagonist suffers a terrible reversal, at which point it seems that all hope is lost and that he will never achieve his goal. But then he rallies, confronts and defeats the antagonist, and finally achieves his goal (or doesn’t defeat the antagonist and fails to achieve his goal, if the story is a tragedy). As a result of his experiences in the story, the protagonist undergoes a significant transformation.

In real life, many of us don’t have strong, clear goals and those of us that do usually don’t pursue them with driven, single-minded purpose; instead, we tend to chase our objectives more casually, with lots of normal life stuff – jobs, relationships, tons of TV watching – mixed in with our quests. We certainly do encounter obstacles, but they are usually more mundane than dramatic -- bounced checks and Type-2 diabetes rather than magic spells and alien invasions – and most of us don’t have antagonists (apart from the IRS and the occasional rude grocery store clerk). We suffer reversals, but usually not massive ones, and while we do rally, we rarely do so in ways that lead us into a life-or-death confrontation with our (usually non-existent) antagonist. Real life victories tend to be smaller, quieter, and much less game-changing than cinematic ones and, while we do learn and grow incrementally, it’s rare for folks in real-life to undergo massive transformations – most of us tend to maintain the same basic character from womb to tomb. In other words, real life lacks the strong narrative arc that good dramatic storytelling requires.

writing biopics lincoln

Because of this, the approach to writing a biographical screenplay that many screenwriters opt to take – chronicling the subject’s entire life from birth to death – is usually the least effective. Most beginning biopic authors write down every single event that happened to their subject from infancy to dotage and assume that’s a story. But it’s not – it’s just a list and that’s what these sort of scripts usually read like. They lack a strong narrative arc and therefore they lack drama and momentum, and therefore they are boring.

When writing a biopic, your most important task is to find the drama in the life. To do that successfully, it is often better to focus on individual events rather than the span of person’s existence. Life is rarely dramatic, but specific incidents often are (or can be made to seem so). Comb through the many events of your subject’s life and locate the one that actually is dramatic (in which your subject actually pursued a goal, overcame obstacles, and experienced some form of success or triumph) or has the potential to be made dramatic through the addition of a modest amount of invented material (e.g. concocting some fictitious obstacles for your subject to overcome that accurately reflect the theme and feel of his struggle if not the actual fact of it. Or combining several mildly oppositional people in your subject’s life into a single formidable antagonist for him to face off against) and focus your storytelling on that event.

As an example, consider 2012’s Lincoln, which, rather than chronicle every event in the sixteenth president’s life, instead chose to focus on a single dramatic episode—his struggle to pass the 13th Amendment—in that life. The move told a story about Abraham Lincoln rather than the story of Abraham Lincoln and its creative success was due in large part to that decision (early drafts reportedly attempted the birth-to-death approach and consistently turned to paste). The Dallas Buyer’s Club is another good example. This 2013 Oscar nominee does not attempt to tell the story of Ron Woodruff’s entire life. Instead, it focuses solely on his most significant struggle and accomplishment – to get the government to approve a wider variety of drugs to treat AIDS. In both films, we got to see the subjects in action in ways that demonstrated why they were so interesting and special and worthy of having films made about them and were presented with compelling and involving narratives as well.

If your subject’s life does not contain a strong dramatic event, then you will need to invent one. The 1984 film version of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus contains a great deal of biographical information about the life of the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but it conveys that information through the largely fictionalized —and very dramatic—tale of how Mozart ‘s jealous rival Antonio Salieri attempted to destroy him.

If you can’t do either of these things – find a dramatic event in your subject’s life or make one up – then you might want to start looking for another subject.

Another challenge when writing biopics is to avoid crafting dialogue that foretells the future. Too many biographical screenplays contain lines like:

  • “Alexander Graham Bell, this new telephonic device of yours is going to revolutionize the way people the world over communicate with one another.”
  • “Little Jack Kennedy, with that natural charm of yours and your love of history, it won’t surprise me if you grow up to be President of the United States.”
  • “F. Scott Fitzgerald, you should consider becoming a professional writer. I bet you have a great American novel in you.”

Along these same lines, avoid the temptation to tell us why your subject is great (“Mr. Dylan, your music is revolutionary and really touches the soul of the common man”) and instead find ways to show us in the course of the narrative (e.g. Raging Bull doesn’t tell us Jake La Motta is a great boxer – it shows him boxing greatly and we get it). And allow your audience to do some of the work – after all, if we are watching a biopic, we already know or can automatically assume that the subject is somehow significant (biopics are not usually made about Sal the grocery clerk or Mary the legal secretary down on eight unless they have done something amazing), so we don’t need the movie to constantly tell is that he/she is significant.

If you choose to write biopics or stories about living or recently deceased people, then you will need to give some thought to the matter of life rights, a.k.a. life story rights. In the United States, the First Amendment permits writers to write about any topic that they choose, including other people. However, under U.S. law, citizens have a right to privacy (which includes the right to be left alone and the right not to reveal or have revealed previously non-disclosed information, especially if it is of a compromising or embarrassing nature) and a right to control the commercial exploitation of their names and likenesses (the right of publicity), as well as protections against defamation (libel and slander). United States citizens are also entitled to sue if they feel that their rights in these areas have been violated. People cannot legally object to creative accounts that depict them accurately or that depict them participating in events that are part of the public record (occasions that have been chronicled in the media or in public domain documents such as court transcripts or recordings of public hearings), but they can object if they feel that the creative account portrays them inaccurately or violates their privacy. Just because a person objects to how a particular work portrays them does not necessarily mean that he/she has a legitimate legal case, but even the threat of a lawsuit can be extremely costly.

To avoid legal entanglements, screenwriters can either sufficiently alter names and details so that the characters seen onscreen cannot be mistaken for their real-life counterparts (which rather defeats the purpose of doing a biopic) or they can acquire the real people’s life story rights. Technically, no one actually owns the rights to his/her life story, so what is really being acquired is the person’s permission (in the form of a signed waiver drawn up by an experienced attorney) for him/her to be depicted in a script and then on the screen. In exchange for some sort of consideration—usually a monetary fee—the subject signs a waiver that allows the filmmakers to use his/her name and character in whatever way they see fit (including fictionalizing story elements and character traits and revealing personal information) and promises not to sue over the results. Privacy and defamation rights expire upon a person’s death, but in certain states and circumstances the right of publicity can be passed down, so arrangements may have to be made with the heirs of subjects who are recently deceased.

Obviously, these guidelines are for the United States only. Other countries have different laws regarding privacy, publicity, and defamation rights and remedies, and non-U.S. screenwriters should determine what laws govern these matters in their own lands before they start writing.

By the way, if anyone wants to write a biopic about me, my life rights are very affordable – one or two chocolate donuts and we’re good to go.

Check out my new books A Quick Guide to Screenwriting, A Quick Guide to Television Writing, and A Quick Guide to Film Directing. All three are handy primers to the art, craft, and business of creating for the big and small screens.

Copyright © 2014 by Ray Morton
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