Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Biopics: Why Some Work and Some Don't

I watched the Steven Jobs biography Jobs a few weeks ago. Jobs is a fascinating person, even if he was a turd. Ashton Kutcher did an amazing job playing him as well. And the script was really quite good. But I didn’t enjoy the film at all. This got me wondering what the problem was. Then it struck me: I don’t like biographies!

Actually, my revelation didn’t last very long. Indeed, as I thought about what it is that I don’t like about biopics, it suddenly dawned on me that there are many biopics that I do enjoy a great deal. Take for example, Goodfellas.

Hmm.

So here is what I realized. The problem with biopics in general is that they lack the elements of storytelling that draw us into a story. Typically, stories move in a particular pattern, with the story slowly revealing itself as the conflict builds. Each scene feeds that conflict. There is a climactic confrontation and then some ending that either wraps up the story nicely or provides a nice twist.

Biopics almost never have any of this. To the contrary, most biopics are simply a series of vignettes from the subject’s life. Basically, the writer picks a few highlights from the person’s life and the actors play out the key moments of these highlights. The result may well accurately portray the subject’s life, but it hardly makes for a compelling story. Indeed, in many instances, these vignettes aren’t even connected in any way, which makes the biopic less like a story and more like a series of short stories. So unless you are entertained by the individual vignettes, then the overall film will drag and feel disconnected.

This method also leaves gaps with audiences as the characters seems to move forward in time without much rhyme or reason except that these are the moments of the subject’s life the writer has chosen to show you.

In Jobs, this manifested itself in the form of things happening with little or no set up, no build up whatsoever, and they were often immediately glossed over. For example, when Jobs’ investors turn on him, it is was kept a secret from Jobs (and the audience) until it happened and it was presented so factually that it totally lacked suspense. Instead, the suspense we got (if any) came from Jobs’ reaction to the event, and that just wasn’t very satisfying from a storytelling perspective.

So what is different about Goodfellas and a film like Amadeus? Well, Goodfellas presents itself more like a story. It treats the early portion of the biography as mere background which the narrator tells with aplomb as he sets up the story. Then the film essentially “begins” by launching into the core of his life, which it presents as the story of the buildup and collapse of the Lufthansa robbery. This gives you the sense that you are watching a single story rather than a series of vignettes, even though you are in fact still watching the vignettes, because you are given a fairly standard storytelling formula.

Moreover, once the Lufthansa storyline plays out, the story seems to take on a faster pace... a concluding pace... as it presents the ending as the fallout from the Lufthansa chaos, with a clear driving theme now being that our hero is slowly being isolated and will soon be hit by his friends. Again, this ties everything together and feels like a continuation of the same story even though it isn’t.

Amadeus is another example of a great biopic. Like Goodfellas this one ties the whole story together as the ongoing (invented) struggle between Mozart and Salieri, and it fits each scene into that story through Salieri’s narrative... just as Henry Hill’s narrative in Goodfellas makes you think he is telling you a single story. The result is a film that does everything a good story does without suffering from the sense that the scenes are unrelated. To the contrary, they are related as part off Salieri’s grand scheme to undo Mozart!

Based on this, it strikes me that the key to making a biopic into a good film is finding a single story narrative that can be imposed on the person’s life. That element is what turns the typical unconnected series of vignettes that comprises most biopics into a film that pulls audiences in and gets them interested in the story.

Thoughts?

19 comments:

Anthony said...

I'm right there with you. Biopics need a narrative arc or they get mired in telling us what happened, while the arc shows us what happens in some context other than the watcher being interested in the person.

If that made sense. Ha.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I agree. The narrative arc gives us the story to keep our attention. Otherwise, it's just a recitation of facts which will only interest people with a particular interest in the person.

martin hall said...

biographies not the right genre to make films until they get some re amendments to fit in movie frames.

Tennessee Jed said...

I pretty much agree with that analysis. It does require a story, and the story has to be interesting and worth telling. Many bio-pics (particularly sports) fail because the conflict and obstacle simply are not there, Great examples include the Babe Ruth Story with William Bendix, and the Lou Gehrig story with Gary Cooper. Thee people were very famous. Ruth overcame a tough beginning in an orphanage to become the most famous player ver. Gehrig was the "Iron horse" who played so many consecutive games, and was stopped by ALS, now more commonly known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease.) Another couple of bio-pic's that fall into your trap were the band leaders of the '40's. Steve Allen as Benny Goodman, and Jimmy Stewart as Glenn Miller have to build unrealistic conflict.

I think it also helps to have the story be about someone who isn't quite so well known. Goodfellas, with Henry Hill was largely unknown unless people had read the book. Even Mozart was largely known only as a great composer with few being familiar with the details of his life. Some mystery surrounding his death at such an early age created enough conjecture to make the "story" work. Of course, it also helps to have a good script and good actors.

tryanmax said...

I recently saw The Imitation Game and that film zeros in on Turing's creation of the "Thinking Machine" to break the Nazi Enigma code. I'm not in a rush to recommend the film, but it did have a focus, unlike Jobs.

Tennessee Jed said...

tryanmax - I want to see that film since I like the actors involved. I suspect I know what you mean though. Imitation Game strikes me as being the kind of film that is dialog driven, probably shot mostly indoors ... in other words, the kind of film that when viewed in a comfy chair in a darkened theater could put you to sleep.

AndrewPrice said...

Martin, That's true. Turning biographies into films takes some serious writing skills.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Great examples! I agree completely about the sports figures. The problem is that their achievements are spread over so much time and can't be told in a single compelling theme that it makes it very hard to write a story that audiences will endure.

Interesting point about the person being famous versus not-famous. I think you're right that it is easier to enjoy the "story" when you don't know all the highlights that are coming.

AndrewPrice said...

tryamax, I haven't seen that one, but it sounds like it has a very clear theme the movie centers around. That would be exactly what I'm talking about as making a better biopic.

BTW, as an aside, I kept feeling throughout as I watched Jobs that with the advances they've made in the "art" of documentaries, that the whole film would have been better as a documentary. That's absolutely not something I could say about Goodfellasor Amadeus.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Some things are hard to make compelling, especially films about stories that involve lots of paperwork or computer work.

wulfscott said...

So maybe what was needed was Jobs' life from the Apple perspective:
Founding of the company
early success
conflict with the board, resulting in Jobs' ouster
Jobs' time in the wilderness (the NeXT step, so to speak)
Apple's foundering
Jobs' return and greater success for him and Apple.
I don't see how that could not be dramatic, interesting story arc; but Hollywood is wildly creative and can turn even a naturally good story into a boring film.

Kenn Christenson said...

Though it wasn't a bio-pic: "Forrest Gump" is a story made up of vignettes - which work quite nicely with a V.O. stringing the segments together. So, the vignette idea CAN work if executed properly.

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, I feel the same way. There's a reason film is called a 'storytelling' medium; not a documentarian's medium. If you're not into the documentary, there's no story to reel you in.

'Goodfellas' is a good example. Granted, I have issues with the film essentially making heroes out of the bad guys. Henry Hill wasn't a charming guy along for the ride; he was a longtime alcoholic, drug abuser, and absentee bar owner with absolutely no redeeming qualities. (Ray Liotta also looked nothing like Henry Hill.)
Ironically, I recently saw the film get dissed during a biography- a documentary!- of Joe Valachi. One of the mob historians said '
Goodfellas' only showed the benefits of working in the mob; not the years of pain, loss, and being used. ("A lifetime of misery," as Valachi called it.)
Personally, I think Scorsese did a better job of portraying the cruel, backstabbing nature of the mafia in 'Casino.' While I was either indifferent, disgusted by, or just disappointed in the 'Goodfellas' characters, I actually hated the 'Casino' characters. Not one of them had a redeeming quality- exactly like their real life counterparts. (I also think Joe Pesci was far more evil in 'Casino' than 'Goodfellas.')

Okay, done with that rant.
Now, since you brought up 'Jobs,' I have a question. Well, first I should mention that haven't seen'Jobs,' so I really can't comment on that one. I was wondering if you were thinking of comparing 'Jobs' to 'Pirates of Silicon Valley.' The latter was a TBS movie that came out in 1999 and covered the computer revolution from the 70's until 1984- with an epilogue of Jobs returning to Apple in 1997 and announcing cooperation with Microsoft (and a god-like Bill Gates on a big screen in the background). Obviously, this film has no mention of the iPod, iPhone, or iPad. So, it's interesting to see the portrayal of Jobs before his personal renaissance.
For the record: Gates, portrayal by Anthony Michael Hall, said he was played "reasonably accurate"; Steve Wozniak acknowledged that the timeline was somewhat changed for film purposes, but the personalities were spot on (he even appeared in public with actor Joey Slotnick, who portrayed him); Jobs hated the flick. However, he did make an appearance with Noah Wylie at 1999 convention.
I should also point out that all information for the film was based deliberately on secondhand sources, trade magazines, and people who knew the chief individuals. I believe the director said he did this to avoid making an 'official' biography.

AndrewPrice said...

wulfscott, That's what they did actually. The problem was that most of the highlights happened off set as we watched Kutcher just roam around from project to project. This undermined the more amazing aspects of the story.

AndrewPrice said...

Kenn, Agreed, though I'm not entirely sure why Forrest Gump worked. lol

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I don't have the same problem with Goodfellas because I know these guys are rotten and I wasn't really looking for accuracy. I saw the film as being for entertainment purposes only.

On Jobs, I did enjoy Pirates and I've seen a couple of great documentaries that covered everything in the industry from Xerox to the iPod. This films felt remarkably inferior to those both in terms of information provided as well as tension. In fact, the story of the competition between all these guys is a remarkably rich story with lots of tense moments, but here it only gets covered in seemingly random phone calls where you only hear Jobs make some threats and then hang up... then the scene changes to some different issue.

shawn said...

Rustbelt- I loved Goodfellas when it came out. Probably Scorsese's best work. But I have to agree with you, my immediate reaction to seeing it was- "Man, how do I become a mafioso?" Then I had to remind myself that these were criminals and in no way to be admired. So you are very right in saying that it glorified the bad guys.

What I want from a movie based on the life of someone is accuracy. I understand that the conversations aren't going to be 100% verbatim of what the individuals said, but I don't want movie makers to slip in stuff that never happened at all.

I say this because I have yet to read Chris Kyle's autobiography American Sniper, but I did see the movie (it's fantastic) and I have recently learned that the whole dueling snipers from the movie did not happen in real life. From a cinematic story-telling point, I understand why they did it: it helps to give the movie a its McGuffin- will Kyle get him or not? And it works really well in the film, but finding out nothing like happened in real life makes me wonder what else in the film is false. Which does deminish the film a bit for me.

PikeBishop said...

Rustbelt: I used to show "Pirates" to my economics classes, if I had the time, usually during testing weeks, and I found that film to suffer from, what Andrew mentioned above, about long gaps in time lines and intervening details, that unless the audience already knows the subjects (I didn't) often lead to confusion. The supporting characters were not very well drawn and at times I couldn't remember if this guy worked with Steve or was part of Bill's team.

PikeBishop said...

Shawn: My take on Goodfellas was, not that Scorcese glamorized the mob lifestyle, but that essentially the last minute of the film completely invalidates the preceding 179 minutes. You would get roaring drunk if you played "Hi Bob" and took a drink every time Liotta's narrator glorified the mob life, especially the Code by which these guys supposedly live. And then what happens Henry Hill gets popped and to save his own worthless hide, he rats out everybody, sings like Beverly Sills, and sends all his former partners to prison! That ending was always jarring to me.

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