BY ROBERT KOEHLER
The words appear on screen: "Based on a true story." Few title cards exert greater power than this one, and directors from John Ford (Young Mr. Lincoln) and Howard Hawks (Sergeant York) to Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon) and Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) have climbed the imposing creative mountain of translating a true life into a movie. The allure of this challenge hasn't abated: This year alone, several wide-ranging examples of the biopic provide a fascinating survey of the many ways biographies become something greater and more heightened on the big screen.
Unlike many previous classic biopics, the current lineup breaks away from the "Great Man" tradition of biographical drama in favor of a few good men, and women, whose names have been lost in history.
Consider Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (Queen of Katwe); Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, African-American mathematicians and engineers in the glory days of NASA (Hidden Figures); and World War II Medal of Honor winner Desmond Doss (Hacksaw Ridge). What unifies all of these movies is a fascination with ordinary people pulled into extraordinary situations, eliciting unexpected strokes of heroism or paradigm-shifting inspiration.
Visualizing the Abstract
Running even more counter to the conventional notions of natural movie material, especially from a director's perspective, is how several of these films detail the workings of keen intellects often operating outside the bounds of societal norms. Oliver Stone, director of Snowden, about CIA whistleblower and pariah Edward Snowden, observes that "when you're dealing with a story that involves a guy who basically works at a computer all day, you have to find a way to find compelling images. There are things that computers do that you can't show. Cyber-warfare, the kind that Ed Snowden found himself involved in, is something you can't see."
The solution? "You train in on the characters' faces, and see how they respond to information, and then how they process that as human beings." Director Theodore Melfi landed on a similar solution for Hidden Figures, but with several variations. The title is a pun, referring both to the phenomenon of hidden figures in higher math, and how NASA's earliest manned space missions were crucially affected by the work of such black women as math whiz Johnson, who solved the critical problems of spaceship entry and re-entry.
"She fills a chalkboard full of formulas that almost nobody in the audience can possibly understand," Melfi says. "But we get the meaning of Katherine's breakthroughs in the ways that her colleagues react. Sometimes, I wanted to just hold on a shot of her numbers and formulas just to get a sense of the enormity of her mind working away, or cutting quickly when she's rushing to get numbers out, the speed at which her mind could work."
Like Snowden, Vaughan also dealt with computers, but hers was the massive, early-'60s version of the IBM computer that filled a room. "It's really easier to film than our current generation of micro-computers. You can really stage scenes that fill the screen, and you can move."
With Phiona Mutesi in Queen of Katwe, director Mira Nair had to confront the matter of making the fairly abstract game of chess visual, and visceral. "I always start from the groundwork of cinéma vérité, a cinema based in reality. I live in Kampala, where Phiona's Katwe neighborhood is located, so I knew this place, and explored it with her and her mother, as if we were making a documentary. The chess was something I had to learn, and Phiona taught me. Her lines to me, like 'Mira, you must consider the other side of the board,' were put into the script, because it quickly helped explain the thinking behind the game so well. I wanted to create a prismatic story, told from various characters to indicate that it takes a village to foster a genius like Phiona."
Jeff Nichols wrote and directed Loving with certain key physical images in mind—images that became touchstones for his storytelling. A filmmaker fascinated with characters in large, usually rural, Southern landscapes, Nichols nevertheless keyed in on an opening image that he felt unlocked the rest of the amazing true story of an interracial couple.
"Since Richard and Mildred knew each other from childhood," Nichols says, "the first challenge was how to start the thing, since I didn't want to fall in the trap of telling their whole life story. I learned in my research that Mildred was pregnant before they married. One night, watching my brother's band on stage, her first line came to me: 'I'm pregnant.' I start close on her, we see that she's black and she seems kind. Then, I'm close on him, a white guy, and we're not so sure: He has bad teeth, has a haircut like a guy in the Klan. And his smile emerges, he tries to cover his bad teeth, and they embrace, and their foreheads touch. At that point, I felt, I'm off to the races."
Nichols' subtle approach to this tender relationship—which nevertheless causes a fierce and nearly violent response in their Jim Crow-era Virginia community—finds visual echoes in two other key dramatic moments: "I have them embrace and their foreheads touch when Richard slips back to her family home after they're legally barred from seeing each other, and then a third time when they're sitting in front of the press after the Supreme Court rules in their favor, striking down anti-miscegenation laws in several states. It's maybe more interesting than a kiss."
John Lee Hancock's visual conception for the saga of McDonald's fast-food mastermind Ray Kroc in The Founder stemmed from his need to create an actually functioning restaurant "from the ground up. Kroc (played by Michael Keaton) encounters this super-efficient, super-fast-food operation at a burger stand in San Bernardino, owned by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald. He's just wowed by it, and we have to be too. It was absolutely crucial that we got that visually, physically right, because then we can understand how Ray gets the lightbulb idea of turning their operation into a franchise operation and an empire." The re-creation of the original McDonald's store for production went to such extremes that the local officials in Georgia (where shooting took place) required the production to present building permits—as if it were a permanent structure, even though it was made only for the movie.
The Big Picture
Nothing could be more visually different from the inner worlds of Hidden Figures, Snowden or Queen of Katwe than the bloody battlefields of Okinawa near the end of World War II, and director Mel Gibson knew the key to understanding the depth of Doss' character in Hacksaw Ridge: "The real battlefield was described as 'a river of blood' by the veterans who survived it.
"Over 370,000 were killed in less than 10 weeks. There was such an extreme level of death we knew we couldn't convey it. But it was essential to stage the closest thing we could to the hell of war to enable audiences to understand what it took for a man to go in there without a weapon [Doss renounced all use of weapons, working as a medic in the Army] and to fearlessly rescue his brothers in arms. We had to stage an experience that would reduce most men to animals, and then see this individual maintain his equilibrium."
Most of these directors didn't originate their projects, but once they learned about the stories they say they quickly saw movies in their heads. Gibson notes it took him some time to jump on board with the script by Robert Schenkkan, known for his masterful epic play The Kentucky Cycle, but that he had done the same thing with Braveheart: "I found that I often get better results if I let it process for a while."
Melfi says he was "right away smelling and seeing the places in the Jim Crow South where these women in NASA were living and working," when he read the treatment of Margot Lee Shetterly's new book, also titled Hidden Figures. Melfi's comment echoes a similar sentiment by Nichols, whose film dramatizes the same Jim Crow conditions in the same state at the same time (Virginia in the early 1960s). "The sensory power of the place and time were a big part of my inspiration."
Like Stone, Hancock is no stranger to the biopic, having captured the dueling creative minds of Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers during the making of Mary Poppins in Saving Mr. Banks. "Here with Kroc," he says, "you have a similar battle of wills between him and the McDonalds. You're really pulling for Ray for a while, and then you start realizing what he's doing to make an empire, and you're not so sure—sort of Horatio Alger leading to something much darker." Hancock describes The Founder as "a movie that ties together big ideas about America, capitalism and human nature in one true story, and that's pretty nearly irresistible."
What audiences—and fact-obsessed observers like journalists—often don't understand about moviemaking is that directors are in the business of heightening the words on the script's page. This is compounded in the biopic, since directors must also heighten the biographical facts. It may mean, in the case of Nair directing Queen of Katwe, that "Phiona's very poor mother is seen treasuring her one nice dress, but is then seen selling it to buy paraffin for their one household lamp so Phiona could study at night. This was invented, but was emotionally true."
Stone directs the climactic scene of Snowden for explicitly heightened tension: "When Ed finally copied the key files that were ultimately leaked to the press and created such a worldwide sensation, he actually did it very quietly and with no drama at all. We conflated this with another crisis involving Syria that actually happened at a different point in time. Putting the two together didn't in fact happen, but it makes for a much better scene."
Melfi has a favorite example of such creative license, in a scene in which Al Harrison, the head of NASA's launch division (a fictionally composited role played by Kevin Costner), wields a sledgehammer to knock down a sign designating a NASA campus bathroom for "colored women only." "To have Al, a no-nonsense white guy, knock down that sign is the kind of movie scene that you want and need when telling a basically true story," explains Melfi. "Most likely, a janitor was told to take it down. But where's the fun in that? You want to see the last character you're expecting to do something that's surprising. Plus, it combines drama with comedy, which is something I'm always after."
Sometimes for a director, the simplest shot gets at the essence of an actual person's life. Nichols found this in a subtle pov cutaway shot, when the Loving family flees their country troubles for the urban streets of D.C. "Mildred looks at the sidewalk, and she sees a little tree in a small patch of ground around concrete," recounts Nichols. "We debated keeping this cutaway in the final edit—is it too weird?—but I realized that this shot is what she's about. She's about the land, growing on it. It's those moments that you try to get in your film."
In casting real-life
figures, directors were more concerned with spirit than resemblance
"One thing that's nice about doing a movie about people that hardly anyone knows," says director Theodore Melfi, "you never worry if they're a perfect match."
The whole point of Melfi's Hidden Figures is that the African-American women in the NASA program are unjustly unknown. In a similar vein, we don't really know Desmond Doss, the hero of Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge; Richard and Mildred Loving in Jeff Nichols' Loving; or Phiona Mutesi in Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe. Even the face of Ray Kroc, the title character of John Lee Hancock's The Founder, is far less known than that of his more colorful wife, Joan.
In all of these cases, the directors enjoyed the freedom of casting actors who didn't have to correspond to the precise physical image imprinted on the public imagination.
Gibson learned when he signed up for Hacksaw that Andrew Garfield was already gung-ho for the role of Doss, but didn't mind that Garfield didn't "exactly look like Desmond. I only really needed to convince him not to wear a moustache, like Desmond did at some points. It made him look like a used car salesman."
For the role of Mildred in Loving,
Nichols says Ruth Negga was the first person to read for the part, "and she nailed it. Precise physical resemblance wasn't important." He was already set on Joel Edgerton, with whom he had worked on Midnight Special, for Richard. "Once I decide on casting, I get pretty stubborn about it."
On The Founder, after casting Michael
Keaton as Ray Kroc, Hancock zeroed in on who would play the McDonald brothers with whom Kroc sparred for control of the burgeoning fast-food company. Hancock says the proof that he made the right choices with John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman came during shooting: "I knew Michael, John and Nick would bring completely different energies to their scenes. Michael's is a focused calm; John's is sweet-natured; Nick's is that of an engineer but more aggressive than John. So that what I got out of each was a back-and-forth battle of wills, exactly what we wanted."
The eclectic casting for Hidden Figures reflects the movie's wide-ranging tonal shifts from human comedy to space-age drama. "Octavia Spencer provides a different energy from the intensity of Taraji P. Henson, who shows here once again that she can play just as restrained as she plays broad as Cookie on Empire."
With Henson, Melfi faced the challenge of how to pull off a situation in which her math genius character, Katherine, would deal with having to walk all the way across the vast NASA campus in order to go to a bathroom designated for black women. "We knew that this was already a sad situation and a disgusting example of the old Jim Crow South," he says. "So I realized that you can either make it sadder, or make it more interesting and find the comedy in it. I worked with Taraji to get this physical comedy just right so that it was grounded in character, not in some shtick. That's the comedy I prefer, more in the vein of Terms of Endearment."
Only Oliver Stone, with Snowden, had to confront the common challenge of biopic casting in which the actor must resemble a famous face.
"Joe [Joseph Gordon-Levitt] was on board very early, very committed, and nobody else was ever really considered," says Stone. "I took him to meet Ed (Snowden) in Moscow. He saw Ed as an indoor cat, never going outside. Ed's pretty inexpressive, and Joe took that very seriously. Joe's approach here was to be minimalist."