Perched above the computer of John Logan, screenwriter of “The Aviator” and “RKO 281,” about the making and near unmaking of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” is a production still of Welles as Charles Foster Kane proudly astride a tall stack of newspapers. “This is what all writers of biopics do,” notes Logan. “We stand on top of a bunch of newspapers.”
Research, research and more research — the work of biopic makers may seem at times to be overwhelmed by the stuff of a great life worthy of a movie, but, as Logan reminds, this work is never to be confused with that of a biographer’s.
“My friend Scott Berg” — a noted biographer of Charles Lindbergh and (upcoming) Woodrow Wilson — “approaches his life subjects objectively and totally. He must absorb and transfer everything he possibly can to book. In the movies, we have to be much more selective.”
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And possibly one of the keys to such selectivity is, as opposed to the Bergs of the world, to not tell the entire life. It’s the rare film, such as Abel Gance’s seemingly limitless “Napoleon,” that swallows the biography whole. Instead, such a film as John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” (Ford’s personal favorite) chooses to dwell on Lincoln’s formative years as a fledgling lawyer in Illinois, all the better to avoid the godlike stature of the future president and indirectly revealing the man’s full measure. “Patton” avoids the complete-life approach by homing in on the span of Gen. George S. Patton’s WWII years, the period of his most brilliant highs and shameful lows.
A new wave of biopics, a seriously regarded form during Oscar season but rife with artistic hazards, has demonstrated that — most of the time — the selected life is the life worth filming. If every life is a book, only key chapters have been chosen from the sagas of Howard Hughes (“The Aviator”), J.M. Barrie (“Finding Neverland”), Ernesto “Che” Guevara (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) and Alfred Kinsey (“Kinsey”). Bucking this wave, “Ray,” which strives to encompass much of Ray Charles’ life, underlines that movie biographies rarely dare to go from the cradle to the grave.
“The great Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti had a wonderful comment,” says “Motorcycle Diaries” director Walter Salles. “He said, in so many words, that if you want to make a film about the post office, then make a film about one letter passing through the post office. Doing that will give you all that you need.”
The Ernesto Guevara of “Diaries” is not the “Che” of ’60s revolution and dorm-room poster fame, and the decision to observe a turning point in the young man’s life can be easily likened to Ford’s choice to observe young Lincoln. “It’s always more interesting to explore a character on the verge of rebaptizing himself,” adds Salles, “being in the process of discovering his potentials and overcoming the limitations he previously thought he had.”
With screenwriter Jose Rivera, drawing upon Guevara’s account of his 1950s trans-South American motorcycle odyssey and Alberto Granado’s memoir “Traveling With Che Guevara,” Salles realized that the idea of keeping the film portrait restricted to a slice of a life had a way of containing the anticipation of what he would become.
Perhaps less noted about Salles’ film than the subject itself is how the “Diaries” book invites the reader to travel with Guevara and Granado (played respectively by Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo De la Serna), a factor that directly affected the way Salles made his film: “This sense of invitation that’s so deeply imbedded in the book required us to film the story as it was happening,” says Salles. “We had to experience the miracle of the encounters as they did, so we followed their route. When Gael and Rodrigo first see something — Machu Picchu or the leper colony, for example — it’s really the first time they see these places.”
Such a direct link between filming and narrative experience wasn’t possible with other biopics, so that “The Aviator,” “Finding Neverland” and “Kinsey” re-create the worlds around their subjects, and find cinematic signs to reveal the minds behind the men.
Bill Condon admits that he struggled a long time in devising a visual mode for “Kinsey,” noting, “It’s one thing to decide, ‘OK, we’ll narrow it all down to the key years of his main research,’ but then, how do you make it look on the bigscreen?”
Condon landed upon the idea of grids and boxes as a running motif, climaxing with a pull-back shot of a map of the U.S. with Kinsey’s interviewees speaking in tiny frames that pop up wherever they live. But even deciding on how to begin Kinsey’s story proved to be a more considerable problem for Condon than how to tell director James Whale’s Hollywood story in his previous biopic, “Gods and Monsters.”
Point of entry
“Whale’s story was pretty clear, but Kinsey’s was something else. In my early drafts, I started things in the Colosseum in Rome, where the avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger is giving him a guided tour of the arena as well as of the various sexual antics that go on there nightly.
“But I landed on the idea of Kinsey doing his own sexual history interview as a way of entering his life story, while wanting to avoid so many of the tired routines of the biopic form. You know, it may not seem like it, but I’m really not a fan of biopics — they’re not my favorite kind of movie.”
By contrast, Martin Scorsese has claimed a stake in biopics ever since his scorching 1980 portrait of prizefighter Jake LaMotta, “Raging Bull.” Even though Logan began developing the long-gestating script for “The Aviator” with director Michael Mann five years ago, he says: “Marty’s DNA is on every page of my script. He brought to it an absolute need for reality and accuracy, but more important, an empathy so that audiences can take Howard Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive disorder very seriously.”
Logan arrived at selecting the years of 1927-47 in Hughes’ tumultuous, stratospheric and surreal existence by way of a year’s worth of research. “From my first meeting with Michael, we agreed that we’d start with intensive research, and then find our way into the script, rather than impose something on it from the start,” recalls Logan. “To my amazement, what we figured would take months took a year, and his aviation emerged as the spine to follow. And from that, the idea of starting with the making of ‘Hell’s Angels’ and ending with the flight of the Hercules emerged as the events to set my time frame.”
The homework for “Aviator” turned Logan’s office into “a crazy mosaic of every aspect of Hughes’ life.” But while this work is crucial to a book biographer, “it can get a dramatist in trouble if you stay in it too long. Jumping from research to writing is like Evel Knievel jumping over the Snake River Canyon. You have to internalize the research, find some key metaphors for the whole life that can translate in movie terms, and then write the movie script.”
This is what producer Richard Gladstein says happened in the making of “Finding Neverland,” even though it was a movie that never posed a challenge of what story to tell. The film is adapted by David McGee from Allan Knee’s play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan,” exploring how popular British playwright J. M. Barrie came to create “Peter Pan” out of the stuff of raw human experience.
“Once you have the first draft of the script,” notes Gladstein, “you’re less concerned with the architecture and you put the source material and research aside. You deal at that point with what works for the script, and not get hung up on fine points of history or biographical precision. This is a movie, foremost, not a book.”
Gladstein’s fellow producer, Nellie Bellflower, who first optioned the play and recruited McGee to adapt it, insists that “Neverland” actually isn’t a biopic at all: “We didn’t think of it in those terms. Allan’s starting point always remained, which is that this is a story about the making of art.
“I think the key reason why the play was able to transfer to screen in a way where the viewer never gets the feeling of a play onscreen is because the story of Barrie is about a man who’s able to visualize through the eyes of children. It wasn’t about Barrie’s life, nothing much about his career preceding ‘Peter Pan,’ but about this key moment.”
Nevertheless, Gladstein observes, further pruning of Knee’s play ensued, so that the second act, which finishes at the “Peter Pan” London premiere, is the film’s finale, shorn of the play’s third act set 20 years later. “My interest as a producer,” says Gladstein, “wasn’t that this was a biopic — it’s as much fiction as fact. If I’m pitched a story about ‘Peter Pan,’ I don’t know if I’m all that interested. But if it’s a story about a man inspired to create and finds a love for a family, then I’m listening.”
For Taylor Hackford, who serves as director, story writer and a producer on “Ray,” there was never any question that a huge chunk of Ray Charles’ career had to be told, “because we had to lay out two things — first, a mystery: Where did this voice come from? — second, a ghost story: How did he go blind, and how did his childhood traumas affect his adult life? You have to deal with these,” adds Hackford, because just as Beethoven doesn’t turn to composing if he doesn’t go deaf, “Ray Charles isn’t the same singer if he doesn’t go blind.”
Hackford easily confesses that “I was voracious in wanting to be able to tell a big story in a big picture, and I think it’s justified because he’s an authentic genius.”
Looking at his fellow biopic filmmakers this season, Hackford says that “you can suggest a big life by telling small portions, because there are moments, like in ‘Motorcycle Diaries,’ that presage the whole life. It’s just that Ray Charles didn’t have one of those lives.”