08/28/2013 09:08 EDT | Updated 10/28/2013 05:12 EDT

TIFF movies tackle the challenging art of the biopic

The Toronto International Film Festival has long provided an escape into different worlds, but this year’s roster features a preponderance of real-life tales.

In addition to festival opener The Fifth Estate, about Julian Assange and the founding of WikiLeaks, there’s a film about South African icon Nelson Mandela (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), Jimi Hendrix (All Is By My Side) and auto racers Niki Lauda and James Hunt (Rush), among many, many real figures.

Yet the sheer volume of fact-based features at this year’s TIFF doesn’t conceal the challenges of producing a good biopic.

“It’s very difficult to make a satisfactory biopic about someone’s whole life. It tends to be really formless, because most lives don’t make that much sense,” says Jason Anderson, a film reviewer for the Toronto Star and Toronto weekly The Grid.

The most obvious task is finding actors who can credibly impersonate real people. But for filmmakers, a bigger challenge is figuring out how to shoehorn an entire life into the running time of a typical movie.

Films such as Ray and Walk the Line — about musicians Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, respectively — take what’s called the “cradle-to-grave” approach, which spans the subject’s entire life. This treatment can provide context for childhood traumas that may have influenced a person’s psychology, but by forcing in too many personal touchstones, it can make the narrative feel rushed and episodic, says Anderson.

“The more successful thing tends to be concentrating on one particularly dramatic moment in a life,” says Anderson.

He cites the example of Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film about America’s 16th president. It took place during the last four months of Lincoln’s life, while he was working on the historic legislation that would ban slavery in the U.S.

Finding ‘universal themes’

Regardless of the timeframe, a good biopic doesn’t simply recount important events but identifies universal themes, says Regine Schmid, who co-produced Eisenstein, the well-received 2000 film about the influential Russian filmmaker.

Directed by Canadian Renny Bartlett, the film looked at Sergei Eisenstein’s philosophical struggle to create bold, highly politicized films without inviting the wrath of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Schmid says the film speaks to the relationship between art and power, and the difficulty in making meaningful art in a repressive state.

Anderson says some of the more successful recent biopics explore power relationships, including Frost-Nixon (2008), which focused on a series of tense post-Watergate interviews between tenacious British journalist David Frost and wily ex-U.S. president Richard Nixon, and The Social Network (2010), which explored the personal rivalries that fuelled the founding of Facebook.

A similar dynamic underlies The Fifth Estate, one of the most-hyped films at this year’s TIFF. It examines the ideological rift between Julian Assange and WikiLeaks co-conspirator Daniel Domscheit-Berg.

Looking at broader themes can also make “inherently unsympathetic people interesting in some way,” says Canadian screenwriter Norman Snider, referring to recent films such as The Iron Lady (about former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher) and J. Edgar (about former CIA director J. Edgar Hoover).

“The way they do it is by zeroing in on them as underdogs, by virtue of Thatcher being a woman and J. Edgar being gay or bisexual or whatever he was,” Snider says.

Searching for dramatic arcs

That said, there are some subjects that defy the biopic treatment, according to Snider.

“Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player who ever lived, but nobody wants to make a biopic about Gordie Howe, because nothing ever happened to him,” says Snider, whose CV includes such films as Casino Jack, about disgraced U.S. lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss.

Snider says that one of the fundamental rules of making a biopic is finding a character with a significant dramatic arc — a mix of vertiginous highs and agonizing lows.

He says that movie audiences also expect the character to experience some sort of redemption, which is the reason Snider says he’s had trouble pitching a biopic on jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, a tragic figure known for his sweet voice, chiselled good looks and his enduring heroin habit.

“He never cleaned up, man — he was a junkie for 58 years and survived one way or another. People don’t want to hear that you can survive and be a junkie for 58 years,” says Snider.

The risks of creative licence

Arguably the biggest recurring issue with biographical films is the issue of creative licence. Because they rarely have access to the most intimate thoughts of their subjects, filmmakers have to construct scenes and dialogue from secondary sources and — more often than not — their imaginations.

There are countless examples of this, including Frost/Nixon. In one scene, Frost receives a drunken late-night phone call from Nixon in which the former president lays his insecurities bare. Nixon biographer Jonathan Aitkin says it never happened. Even so, it’s essential in heightening the power dynamic between these two formidable foes.

Schmid says that by taking such liberties, filmmakers run the risk of offending devotees of the subject.

“You often do run up against preconceptions, and that can be quite challenging,” says Schmid.

“People have a certain idea of who this person was, what he or she stood for, and you have to make your own version very strong.”

Consequently, Schmid says one of the guiding principles for Eisenstein — and one that could be extended to all biopics — is a quote from 18th-century German poet and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “In order to be faithful to the truth, one must occasionally defy the truth.”