A biopic that actually works

I’ve just watched The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and I’d forgotten quite how brilliant it is. Geoffrey Rush has been justifiably praised for his extraordinary role in the film – how an unusual-looking Australian managed to turn himself into Peter Sellers remains a mystery and a feat of brilliant acting. The design, direction and editing are also uniformly impressive.

But it’s the script inspires the most awe in me, and it’s something I’ve learned a huge amount from being currently immersed in the arduous but rewarding task of scripting a biopic myself, in this case about the composer Benjamin Britten. (I’ve said before that this is such a good idea that I wouldn’t say what it was, but frankly I’m quite far ahead on it and if you want to copy it you’ve got a hell of a lot of catching up to do.)

The problem I’m finding hardest to tackle at the moment is how to cope with the amount of information there is. In a way it’s the opposite problem that I’ve had with previous scripts – usually it’s the characters and details that need fleshing out once the structure of a film is in place, but as I’m basing this one on primary sources (diaries in particular) they’re all in place already. The dialogue virtually writes itself because…well, you copy it.

No, the problem is how to turn that into a manageable, intelligible story, and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is a masterclass in different ways of achieving this. I’m only dealing with a period of seven years, whereas the Sellers film pretty much covers his whole career with efficiency and eloquence, without skimping on the details.

As we all know, a standard way of dealing with this is in montage sequences. But I’m not sure anybody can ever write a decent montage again since Team America: World Police ripped the piss out of them so damningly. The “Peter Sellers finds success in films” montage is perhaps the weakest bit of the film, in fact, with neon lights announcing different Sellers successes and short (albeit brilliantly reconstructed) clips from said films intercut with audiences rocking in the aisles. It’s all very artificial, in a bad way.

What the film does much better is sum up years’ worth of development in subtlely written dialogue – a single line can, in an offhand way, give you a perfect indication of developments in both plot and character without the need to show it. Sellers’ first significant dialogue with his Mother imparts the necessary backstory of his upbringing at the same time as establishing their relationship in just a few well-crafted lines.

Another lesson to learn from the film is that it’s perfectly possible to entirely cut chunks of development. Being confronted with detailed diaries of movements from one town to another, one concert after another, it’s very tempting to try and put it all in. The whole bloody film could become a montage – much more important to take the key events and knit them into a coherent narrative. That sounds obvious, but so many biopics foul up on this point, and feel the need to show every single step in the journey and demonstrate the passing of time with clumsy devices – the old calendar with its pages floating away to show the passage of time, and so on.

The other (and probably more common) way a biopic can go is to lose sight of its subject altogether and focus on a single event or relationship to the extent that it could be about pretty much anyone. See for instance Iris, which is not a film about Iris Murdoch but a film about Alzheimer’s Disease. It would be easy to turn the Britten film into a gay love story, but it’s not that simple. The Sellers film is actually about Sellers, yet makes perfect sense even if you’re not familiar with all of his work (which few people are, and let’s face it you’d have to be a die-hard fan to sit through some of his work). In the case of the Britten film, I’ve been tempted to restrict the number of “significant works” featured to a minimum for the sake of not being repetitive – but I’ve decided on a rethink this evening, given that we get to see plenty of Sellers’ finest moments with no discernable slowing of the pace (for example in the Doctor Strangelove sequence when we see all three of his characters developing even though the section is mainly about the character he refused to play).

The real genius of The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is that invents happenings which tell the story of his life in a far more efficient way than dramatisations of actual events would. I don’t mean that a bit of artistic license has been taken – whole sequences have been invented for films that were never in the films in the first place, whole significant scenes which advance the plot. It’s an interpretation of his life, which aims to tell you about him rather than just what happened.

The film is also brave enough to admit this in the final sequence, where Sellers shuts the audience out of his private trailer as if to show that this film is as much an artifice as any of the films he made himself.

It’s this side – the really inventive, poetic way of turning a load of facts into a story without rewriting history (cf Amadeus, Immortal Beloved) – that I’m finding really challenging. But it’s something to aim for as I type up my reams of notes into something that bears some resemblence to a screenplay.

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers also has a quite amazing soundtrack. On that front at least I feel the Britten film has an immediate advantage.

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