On the first page of his infamous book Walden, transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau introduces himself by writing, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well." In some ways, I think this sentiment perfectly summarizes the exercise of writing.
Writing is an art form where you combine and arrange words in order to express a story or an idea. Art in every medium is a vulnerable practice, but with writing in particular, and film even more so, the vulnerability is accentuated through the use of language and visuals. If you are creating a narrative film, you are giving yourself the task of representing human life. The most impactful and emotional movies are those that are told from a deeply personal and nuanced perspective. And in the words of Thoreau, who do we know on a deeper, more personal level than ourselves?
When listening to interviews with filmmakers, a common question that comes up is, “Is this story autobiographical?” This is a question which most filmmakers struggle to reply to. The answer is complicated.
Now, when I refer to autobiographical films, I don’t mean documentaries presenting someone’s life as it is. Rather, autobiography in fictional films is something much more precise and calculated. Filmmakers don’t set out to tell exactly their story, exactly the way that it happened. Instead, they pull from their lives for inspiration, to convey a story with the most meaning and heart. The great writer Philip Roth once said that he begins his writing process by “rubbing two stones of truth together to spark the imagination." With examples from Ingmar Bergman, Noah Baumbach, François Truffaut, and Federico Fellini, I will show how filmmakers have used autobiographical elements, taking their truths, sparking their imaginations, and in turn creating some of the most moving films in cinema.
To start things off, I’m going to discuss Ingmar Bergman. Filming all of his movies on the island where he lived, what is now referred to as “Bergman Island” (which is autobiographical in and of itself), Bergman wrote and directed psychodramas that both greatly mirrored and simultaneously couldn’t have been more different from his own life. The through-line of autobiography in most of his films is in the emotional elements. Through close-up shots and brutally exaggerated expression of emotion, most all of Bergman’s films represent feelings that he has and needs to get out. And he does so through his fictional characters. For example, in Cries and Whispers, while Bergman is not a young woman on the verge of death, the character of Agnes provides an outlet for his own figurative and literal pain. Her cries and the storyline that follows her rapid decline in health have a meaning that goes far beyond the surface. It is Bergman’s way of expressing his own vulnerability, cloaked behind the facade of fiction.
Writer/director Noah Baumbach has also written movies that contain both emotional and narrative truth. As his film style is realistic fiction, following the lives of ordinary people in somewhat extraordinary circumstances, his own life provides a lot of material to pull from. His first film, Kicking and Screaming, he directed at the age of twenty-four. He wrote it with his good friend and it was essentially a story of their friend group the year after graduating college, allowing them to share a confusing and pivotal time in their life, as it was happening. He made Mr. Jealousy, and then it was another seven years before he would make another film. These seven years, as shared by Baumbach, were filled with self-loathing, an identity-crisis, and eventually therapy, which is what helped him to get out of his funk and write his Academy Award nominated screenplay for The Squid and the Whale. This film is incredibly personal and in a lot of ways is based off of Baumbach’s own experience as a child, living in Park Slopes, New York, and coping with his parents divorce. Being able to work through the hardships in his life and the emotional traumas of dealing with divorce as a young child, he was able to put that feeling into a story, thus relieving himself of a burden and making other people going through the same thing feel less alone. Being able to express personal struggles through art is a beautiful process, and it is part of what makes autobiographical elements so important in storytelling.
Going back to the realm of European filmmakers, François Truffaut and Federico Fellini are two deeply personal artists who, similar to Baumbach, also made films recounting their childhoods. Truffaut wrote and directed the film The 400 Blows, and Fellini wrote and directed his film Amarcord. For Truffaut, The 400 Blows gives an account of his life as a mischievous young boy in France. Whether it be ditching school and accidentally running into his mother who is having an affair, stealing a typewriter and being turned into the cops by his own father, or ultimately being sent away to a youth detention center, these are all parts of Truffaut’s real life that he crafted into the film. Similarly, Amarcord follows a young boy, presumably a young Fellini, and his life growing up in Borgo San Giuliano, Italy during Mussolini’s fascist regime. Both filmmakers told stories of their lives, but despite being able to point to certain paralleled truths, the movies are not purely non-fiction. The stories are of what they recall and how the remember these moments to be, with emotions of the present day dictating how things are portrayed. Fellini once said, “It is not memory that dominates my films. To say that my films are autobiographical is an overly facile liquidation, a hasty classification. It seems to me that I have invented almost everything: childhood, character, nostalgias, dreams, memories, for the pleasure of being able to recount them.”
The truth of the matter is, not a single one of these filmmakers made a purely autobiographical film. Instead of telling a story of their life, they took truths and then used the tools of fiction and narrative to shape and mold the truths into something new. New characters, new identities, new lives. Greta Gerwig has described writing personal films as writing something that is not reality, but that rhymes with reality. And arguably, in order to continue ideating and telling other stories, all of these filmmakers needed to tell their own, first. By reexamining and shifting perspectives on the memories that they hold so near to their hearts, they open themselves up to new found peace as well as giving others the opportunity to empathize and connect to real life occurrences.
If you are feeling stuck, only trying to come up with an idea for a movie that you think other people will want to watch, you might be going about it the wrong way. Try examining your own life. Use your personal stories, be vulnerable, and write the ending you wish had been reality. Write about what you know better than anybody else in the world. Write about YOU.
Follow Hannah on Instagram: @hannahwagner3932
Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.