The Present-Past Approach to Writing a Biopic

This narrative framework enables a writer to focus a biopic on the most critical moments in the featured character’s life.

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A scene from ‘The Imitation Game’

In the movie trade, there are two basic types of biopics:

  • Cradle to Grave: This is the traditional model which has been around for decades. Notable examples: Coal Miner’s Daughter, Straight Outta Compton, A Beautiful Mind, Gandhi, Milk. These are movies which offer a chronological take of a character’s life covering a wide expanse of time, many years, even decades.
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‘Lincoln’ focused on the President’s attempts to get Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

No matter which path a writer may take, there is a narrative approach which can make the end product a much more riveting and entertaining script: The Present-Past approach.

This is when the narrative is structured to have a number of time-jumps back and forth between the Present and the Past. There are numerous merits to this narrative framework:

  • It can be more efficient in cutting unnecessary and oftentimes boring connecting scenes between key events, thus focusing the narrative only on the most important moments in the central character’s life.

A great example of this approach is the movie Saving Mr. Banks. Plot summary: Author P.L. Travers reflects on her childhood after reluctantly meeting with Walt Disney, who seeks to adapt her Mary Poppins books for the big screen. Here is a scene where Travers (Emma Thompson) first meets Walt Disney (Tom Hanks):

While the Plotline deals with the dispensation of the Mary Poppins book rights and the production of the famous Disney movie, the Themeline zeroes in on Travers’ relationship with her father. Here is one of the movie’s many flashbacks from Present to Past:

Here is a payoff to the movie’s flashbacks. As Travers watches the premiere of Mary Poppins, she makes a connection to the father character on screen and her relationship with her own father.

I interviewed the movie’s screenwriter Kelly Marcel and asked her about how she handled the Present-Past narrative approach:

Scott: One other narrative element in Saving Mr. Banks that cuts against conventional wisdom: the use of flashbacks. In your script, you not only use flashbacks, you embrace them as an essential story device, by my count employed at least a dozen times. Could you delve into your rationale for framing the narrative cross-­cutting between these two timelines: The adult Pamela circa 1960 and the young girl Ginty in 1906?

My thought was that the dual timeline construction served to introduce, explore, then ultimately resolve a mystery: How did the innocent, fun-­loving young girl we meet as Ginty become the hardened character we get to know in the adult Pamela?

Kelly: The upshot of the whole story depends on us knowing what happened to Pamela in her childhood. It could not be done any other way. The hard part of it was to make it feel like the flashbacks were part of a whole movie and not a singular film in their own right.

Pamela’s whole life was affected momentously by the death of Travers. She could not find a way to bring meaning to his demise. She couldn’t forgive herself for not saving him and so journeyed to another world to find relief. But even in creating a magical nanny, she could not find the closure she needed. We had to understand the smaller her so that we cared about the bigger her’s catharsis in the end. We had to earn it with her.

Scott: So in a way, there is a story within a story within a story: There is the overarching presence of “Mary Poppins” as written by Pamela Travers; the narrative of how that story went through script development at Disney; and the narrative of Pamela’s past focusing on the relationship of Ginty and her father, a creative but deeply troubled soul. What were some of the challenges you had as a writer in balancing all of those narratives?

Kelly: As above, it was very hard not to make it feel like all the stories were their own little tales. It was imperative that they spoke to one another. The challenge was in making sure the emphasis was never in one place for too long and that each timeline had its own merit. That each moving story part impact the next moving part and caused a domino effect, keeping the story moving forward at all times. It could never be still, until the monologue at the end. I was concerned that we would wish we were in another timeline when we were in the one at hand, that the Disney story didn’t overwhelm the Australia story and vice versa. Each had to keep us wanting more.

And yes, it was a total bugger to achieve. If anyone heard wailing and a head banging against a wall in a shed in a garden in Twickenham at that time, then it was most probably me.

Scott: Your script has lots of visual-­to-­visual transitions from present to past, past to present: Train to airplane; sunlight in LA to sunlight in London; Pamela on the balcony of the Beverly Hills Hotel, arms outstretched to Ginty on the porch of Allora, arms clamped around her body. How focused were you in the original script with those type of transitions or does that reflect working with a director? How mindful ought screenwriters be about scene transitions and in a sense directing and editing the movie on the page?

Kelly: Those transitions were all on the page. Here’s an example of what they looked like:

She throws open the balcony doors for fresh air and is greeted with dry arid heat, dust, dazzling sunlight-­-


-­-Arid heat, dazzling sunlight. Travers, Margaret and the children stand in a line at the top of a pathway.

I would often use the same words to go from one timeline to another. However, John Lee [Hancock, movie’s director] did something brilliant, which is very subtle and hardly anyone notices, but almost always we are seeing windows or curtains. He uses them like book jackets, in through one, out through the other. And I think this device helped us transition enormously. It’s all very well to put a bunch of words on a page to emit a feeling of seamlessness, but it is an entirely different thing for the filmmaker to execute it. I have to say that way the changeovers in the film work is entirely John’s doing. He got a flavor of what it was supposed to do from the script, but he and John Schwartzman (our DOP) were the ones who had the painful task of figuring out exactly what that looked like. We could never say it. We didn’t want to use tag lines to explain where we were each time, and so the pair of them had a big task in turning words on a page to a visual cue every time. They used the windows and subtle changes in contrast and color. I think what they did is beautiful, and they blew me away every time they came up with a means to inform us visually what could have become very clunky story telling.

While transitions between Present and Past / Past and Present are tricky, the upsides to this narrative framework can far outweigh the downsides, most notably this: The writer can dip into any narrative setting and clip out the most essential scene or scene part to stitch together the story’s structure.

If what Alfred Hitchcock said is true — “Movies are life with the dull parts cut out” — the Present-Past narrative approach to telling the story of a Protagonist character over the span of many years can be a winning formula.

By the way, this approach can work for non-biopic stories as well such as Fried Green Tomatoes and Amadeus.

Takeaway: If your are writing a biopic or a story in which a central character’s state of Disunity in the Present is intimately tied to a specific occurrence or a time-limited set of events in the Past, consider using the Present-Past narrative framework. It very well may be the most efficient and entertaining way to tell your story.

For the rest of my interview with Saving Mr. Banks screenwriter Kelly Marcel, go here.

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