How to Write a Movie About Your Life

How to make a movie about your life

The biggest hazard of identifying yourself as a screenwriter, is people start offering you rights to their life stories, for a fee of course. As if a screenwriter has money for rights… Psha… LOL. Here are the top 5 things not to do when making a story about someone’s life. Even if it’s yours. I followed all these principles making my film, Donovan Quixote, and people say it’s pretty good.

  1.       Lie!

Lean more heavily on making a good film, than making a true story. The most important thing about a news story is that it’s true. The most important thing about a movie is that it’s a good movie. I forgot who said it, but it holds true here, “Never let facts get in the way of a good story.”

  1.       Change the names to protect the innocent

Consolidate characters, compress time, add tension. If folks might be implicated, misconstrued, or vilified, just change their name.

In real life, few people are antagonists. In real life, few people won’t sue you if you make them out to be evil. Everything you have them do in the story might be true, but if you don’t have more than hearsay as evidence, you, the the screenwriter will be the first in a line of filmmakers who will be sued, not the person who’s recounting their side of the story. Changing names isn’t just creative license, it’s also covering your butt.

  1.       Limit the story to an event

None of this cradle to grave stuff. Limit the story to an event or a topic. Maybe, we want to see a childhood Ray Charles, Nelson Mandela, Abe Lincoln etc. But most people who aren’t celebrities, those extra pages are a waste of your budget.  Current examples of life stories include Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge, Sully, Jackie, 20th Century Women, Lion, Deepwater Horizon, Loving and Patriots Day. Most of these tell a specific story about a specific moment in people’s life. Only Lion and Moonlight kind of ‘Boyhood’ it to tackle ‘greater themes.’ You might want to study how effective these movies are and decide if you’d like to model your film after them.

  1.       Manage Timeline and expectations

People unfamiliar with the film industry think once you hire a screenwriter or read a screenwriting book, your movie will be on a million theater screens a year later. Obviously that’s not how it works. In the spirit of “Good, Fast or Cheap, you can only have two”, most films take as long as they take to write and then take as long as they take to get made. If Oprah isn’t coming on board, there’s no telling when a film will be done. Going the studio route? Good luck. You have a rich uncle (maybe it’s his story..) you still need all the players in place. Finish a film outside of the studio system? There’s no promise you’ll get theatrical screenings you don’t personally pay for. There’s a reason things take as long as they do in Hollywood: it’s all about relationships. Odds are strong if you have great relationships to get things done in Tinseltown you’ve made movies before. If you don’t have those relationships, manage your expectations.

  1.       Be upfront and honest with the subject.

If you’re not writing your own life story, you might be seduced into writing someone else’s for a couple hundred dollars. Don’t take a job writing someone’s life story and not let them know about the compromises that may need to be made. That’s the easiest way to burn bridges and have someone not want to work with you again. Many people want to be part of the film business, but most don’t have the stomach for the sausage making involved. Black characters get cast by white actors. Male characters get cast as by female actors. The most important point of the story might get served, but many details get lost in the editing process. Sure, everyone wants it all… me too. But a filmmaker’s job is to make a good movie first.


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