With many prominent figures throughout history, biographical films have become increasingly popular. The telling of these people’s stories and lives is a desirable narrative that many of us have an interest in. When making a biographical movie, there are many things to consider and include to make it a success. In this article, we will discuss the main influences of what makes a good biopic to help develop your knowledge.
From The Danish Girl to The King’s Speech, there has been no shortage of biographical film releases in recent times. With many being received well, these representations of people’s lives have become a common genre within film. Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018 became the highest-grossing biopic of all time. Receiving awards such as the BAFTA for best sound and leading actor as well as Oscars for the same categories. Biopics can be as successful as any film and if done well, become extremely celebrated.
When making a biographical film though, there are many elements to consider before diving straight in. Despite many successful biographical movies, there have been many failures too. Portraying someone’s life truthfully but engagingly and entertainingly can be a task, one never to be overlooked.
More than often, the narrative of a film is created by the writer. Already being provided with a narrative can immediately present challenges. We will first take a look at what defines a biopic and then discuss the process needed to make them successful.
A biographical movie portrays the life of a non-fictional or historical figure.
However, this version of their life story is often dramatised to create a more appealing film. The essence of that person’s life however must be kept throughout. Docudrama films and historical drama films differ from biopics by focusing on whole events or periods. Biopics focus solely on a single person’s life and their most important moments.
The movies use the real name of the figure and tell the events of their life. They give audiences an insight into what these people went through and often the hardships they experienced during their lives.
It is noteworthy that a biopic is not written by the main character themselves. The list of good autobiography movies is rare with people seldom wanting to write about themselves.
Now that we’ve touched on the subject it’s time to get into what makes a good biographical movie.
Of course, there is no secret recipe for making the next triumphant biopic. Who the biopic is about, what era they lived in, what they achieved will all impact your target audience and how well people will perceive your film. Despite this, there are still a few aspects that should ring true for all biographic movies. We go into more details about these below.
Getting your facts right is fundamental. No matter how you’re portraying their life, the relevant events and their impacts need to be told factually. There is no need to include every excruciating detail, but the overall truth needs to be present.
Research of course is the first stage in making a good biopic. If anything, you need to find out if there is substantial available information to make a full narrative. Whether focusing on a specific event or their whole life, you need enough content to make a full movie. It is also important to check if you’re legally allowed to make a movie about the person’s life. Do you need to ask their family for permission? Do you need to ask them for permission? Check this first before contributing any resources or time to your film.
Even though we’ve just discussed the importance of factuality, you still need an enticing and engaging film. Their narrative must still be dramatised to become successful. When writing a biopic, people tend to fall into a false sense of security that they have an already well-established story on their hands. Even though this is true, it is still necessary to find drama within their story and portray this among the facts to combine it into a coherent but invigorating story.
No dramatic events should ever be materialised. Look deeply into the real events of the protagonist’s lives and play on these moments. Were they hated by a group of people? Did they have a turbulent home life? Everyone’s story will have a little drama somewhere. Find it and use it to your advantage. At no point should the film feel whitewashed, however.
If the protagonist experienced an extremely harsh life, for example, you cannot portray it as a life of adventure and fun. Getting the balance between creating an appeasing story whilst factually portraying someone’s life is imperative for being well received.
As we’ve discussed, a biopic is a mix of facts and drama. The way you balance between the two is arguable between producers. However, one aspect of making a good biopic is true for all films. You need a solid direction to work towards.
No matter your protagonist, you should focus on a key element in their life. For example, in The King’s Speech, the focus was the king’s ability to work past his stutter. In Snowden, the focus is Edwards’ determination to make public the CIA technology he helped to create.
Every biographical film should have a strong focus that the entire plot is based around. Include only the facts that are relevant to this focus and treat the structure of the film as a drama leading up to the most prominent moment within this focus.
Your protagonist is of course the focus of your film. But no prominent figures’ stories played out without other influential people. You must include these people if they had a significant influence on the focus of your narrative. When looking at The Imitation Game, Joan Clarke had a significant role to play in cracking Enigma cyphers with Alan Turning. Her narrative is essential to Turning’s story so must still be told in your version.
When researching the protagonist’s life you will come across many people who influenced their lives. Only include the characters that strongly impacted their lives and the direction of their story you’re focused on.
This may seem obvious, but you need to consider how different audiences will react to your movie. A clear example of this would be; is the antagonist a good person? Even if you want to cover the life of someone controversial, you need to judge if the public’s opinion towards them is strong enough where they might avoid your film altogether.
Another example would be the reaction from audiences who are very knowledgeable about the protagonist. If you dramatise their life to an extreme level, your portrayal of them could be unsatisfactory to fans and give your movie a bad name. This is a less prominent, but nonetheless important point to remember.
We’ve covered all the essential aspects involved with making a good biopic. Now you’ve got your protagonist, focus, and added a little drama, you’re ready to start collecting them all into a movie.
We will look at a step-by-step process on how to collect and compress your information into a coherent story.
Firstly, you want to create a synopsis. List all the relevant events in the protagonist’s life to your story, missing out no small details. In this stage, you want to be extensive. With dedicated research, you want to broadly discuss the events and include every fact whether it seems important or not. You should end up with a messy and extremely long synopsis. To first create a focused story, you need to look at the wider, but precise picture.
Fundamentally, you are creating an extensive, factual story. Not following a screenplay structure as of yet, it should be completely uncensored.
Now, review your synopsis. You need to ensure you’ve got their story correct before adapting it into a screenplay. Go over and read aloud your synopsis again and again. Make sure the story includes everything you wanted it to. You need to make sure this is perfect before you start to alter and mold the narrative.
Another way to reassure your synopsis includes everything you need is to get someone else to go over it. Find someone knowledgeable of the protagonist and see if they agree with the points you have included.
Structure can be an often overlooked aspect of a movie. With many successfully following a linear structure of beginning, middle and end, why would you consider following an alternative structure? When making a biopic, an alternative to the usual structure might have a greater impact.
Following a non-linear structure could convey the main points of your protagonist’s life more impressively. For example, starting with the end of the protagonist’s life and following with the events leading up to this moment might be a good alternative. There is no right structure to follow, but consider if an alternative would fit your biographical film better.
It is time to now start adapting your synopsis into a screenplay. Take your synopsis and try to alter it to follow your chosen structure, likely composed of 3 acts. Set an outline for the story you want to create and fit the synopsis points within it.
There are numerous different techniques writers will recommend following when making your screenplay. Find the one that best works for you.
A common way of grouping your synopsis into 3 acts is by giving the acts categories. Act 1 usually focuses on the goals of the protagonist, Act 2 then can look at the main struggles in reaching these goals. Act 3 of course would then focus on the protagonist reaching their goals or failing to in some cases. Whichever method you use, you want to ensure you include all the relevant information in a coherent way.
You now have the direction, acts, and relevant facts all ready to be written into a screenplay. This is where you want to add the drama and make the story exciting.
You have the basis for your biographical film, it’s time to make it into the next blockbuster. Remember when doing this the points we covered in the previous section. Stay true to the protagonist’s life but dramatise key events within it. Don’t rely on an already provided storyline, you need to make it your own.
You’ve now got the knowledge to start making your very own biographical film. There is no shortage of amazing true stories to be told and we want more. Biopics have become beloved films portraying some of the most influential figures alive or past. Not only do these stories make great films, but they play an important role in telling history. Learning about past events in an educational setting can be laborious and uninteresting. Telling the story of prominent figures in an invigorating way allows us to understand their impacts on the world whilst enjoying a movie.
Whether you’re making a movie about Julius Caesar or Lady Gaga, the guide we have provided should give you a good basis for making a successful biopic. Portraying people’s lives in an adapted way whilst satisfying these people’s biggest fans can be hard. Not appealing to a general audience can often occur when trying to please knowledgeable fans. Likewise, changing the narrative significantly to appeal to a general audience can anger fans. We never said making a biographical movie would be easy, but considering all these points is important for a writer.
That concludes our guide on how to make a biographical film. We hope you have enjoyed reading and are feeling wiser on the subject. If you enjoyed this article, why not check out another on our blog? To get you started, we recommend our Film Terminology Glossary, Pre-Production Checklist For Filmmakers, and our guide on How To Become A Set Designer.
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