Many of the greatest films in history have been biographies, or 'biopics': movies that tell the story of someone's
What are some examples of great 'biopics'?
Great biopics we have known . .
(1959) starring Charlton Heston. Won eleven Oscars (the most ever).
OF ARABIA (1962) starring Peter O'Toole. Won seven Oscars.
(1970) starring George C. Scott. Won eight Oscars.
BULL (1980) starring Robert de Niro. Won two Oscars; nominated for eight.
(1984) starring F. Murray Abraham. Won eight Oscars.
(1992) starring Robert Downey, Jr. Nominated for three Oscars.
LIST (1993) starring Liam Neeson. Won seven Oscars (including Steven
Speilberg's first for directing).
- ED WOOD (1994) starring Johnny
Depp. Won two Oscars.
(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
- 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;
- 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;
- 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;
- 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
- 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.