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Biopics: Four Key Ingredients

By Michael Schilf · November 26, 2010

Napoleon, Hitler, Cleopatra, Henry VIII, Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, and of course, there’s always room for The Messiah. These are just a handful of names that go hand in hand with the biopic: a biographical movie and sub-genre of drama or epic films.

And even though biopics reached a hey-day of popularity in the 1930s, they are still quite prominent today, often producing some of the best tour-de-force performances, culminating with a Who’s Who of Academy Award winning Oscars for best acting: George C. Scott as the cantankerous WWII General Patton in Patton (1970), Ben Kinsley as the Indian spiritual leader Mahatma in Gandhi (1982), and Daniel Day-Lewis as Irish cerebral palsy victim Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989).

Just to put things in perspective, over the past decade, twelve of the twenty Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress went to biopic roles: Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (2000), Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002), Adrien Brody in The Pianist (2002), Charlize Theron in Monster (2003), Jamie Foxx in Ray (2004), Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote (2005), Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line (2005), Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland (2006), Helen Mirren in The Queen (2006), Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (2007), Sean Penn in Milk (2008), and Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side (2009).

Clearly there’s a special place for the biopic movie at the box office, with the chances of an Oscar nomination as an actor increasing exponentially. But to say that every biopic is a good movie would be an overstatement. It’s not as easy as simply telling someone’s life story.

So if you’re writing a biopic, be sure to add these four key ingredients into the pot:

The Biopic Bogus

A composite character creates a fraudulent character. Sure, you may have to add an extra spice or two. This is called creative license. However, it is not your job to lie or mislead an audience. Never conjure up completely fictional events or major characters. Remember, you’re dramatizing the non-fictional account of a life, not taking a real life personality and tossing that person among fictional characters in a made-up circumstance.

Avoid the Clichés

It’s your job to bring to life a “larger than life” character in a dramatic way, but it’s not wise to force feed us his or her entire life story. Stay away from the old “cradle to the grave” cliché – in almost every case, it’s simply too much story for the time you have. Remember, a movie is only two hours, and even if you’re writing an epic and pushing the three-hour envelope, that’s still not enough time to tell us everything. Don’t focus on the entire life. Find a story that involves the character during a singular event or period of time.

Less Is More

Treat a biopic just like a regular movie. Tell a dramatic but simple story. The trick is to know what the movie is about – it’s theme – because knowing that will help you decide what to leave in and what to leave out. But most importantly, stay focused on only one part of the person’s life: Capote (2005) takes place only during Truman Capote’s research for his book In Cold Blood; Erin Brockovich (2000) occurs during the period in Erin’s life where she becomes a legal assistant who almost single-handedly brings down a California power company; and The Queen (2006) centers around Queen Elizabeth II’s life directly after the death of Princess Diana.

Funnel the Facts

When it comes to creative license, as long as it isn’t a “lie”, moving things around a bit is okay. As long as it’s “true” to the facts, the order can be altered if it helps to tell a better story. But never do something that changes the meaning. Take The People vs. Larry Flint (1996) as an example: at the main culmination ending Act Two, Flint’s wife Athena (Courtney Love) commits suicide, and it’s this tragic event that ultimately motivates Flint (Woody Harrelson) to file his case for the Supreme Court. The real life truth is that Flint filed before Athena died, but it works much better for the dramatic narrative to have Flint file after she kills herself.