The Dos and Dont’s of Biographical Films – Part I

Words by Benjamin Pinsent

The biographical picture (or bio-pic) is a type of film that concerns a historical figure. This person may be famous for artistic reasons or have some sort of historical importance either in an event or as a commentator on an event. Creating a good bio-pic may appear easy but there are some obstacles one must avoid.

Don’t get confused with a documentary. This may seem very simple but a documentary and a bio-pic are very similar, both concern actual events and people. However the major difference is that a bio-pic is based on fictionalised real events. An event took place and it concerned the people that it did, however actions and dialogue are allowed to diverge from the actual if key points are met.

For example in the beginning of Walk the Line (2005) there is a conversation between a young Johnny Cash and his older brother; the scene may have been completely made for the movie but that isn’t really important. What was important was to establish the real relationship between the brothers.

Do make it about something. Again, this is not a documentary it is a film concerning characters that just happened to be real. Real life has none of what would be considered to be Hollywood realism, there are no character arcs or catharsis as life continues on. So a writer must pick and choose moments in the life of real people to reflect more on a typical three act structure.

Continuing with the example of Walk the Line (2005) Johnny Cash is given motivation provided by his father not loving him as much as his older brother. We also have a goal, his love for June Carter. We follow Cash through drug addiction and a broken marriage to achieve his goals and we feel sympathy for this character who gets the girl in the end.

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