Scribes reveal how and why they pulled from their own memories to craft vulnerable examinations of their lives for their films: "Who I am now is also linked to the memory of that past."
Filmmakers have been turning the lens on their own lives for decades, as so many artists do. Following in the footsteps of Alfonso Cuarón's very personal Roma (which won three Oscars and two Golden Globes), this year's hopefuls include an array of films that are unusually insightful about the lives of their makers. Noah Baumbach's Netflix film Marriage Story, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, is at least partly inspired by his own 2013 divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh and his parents' divorce, though the director says he drew on multiple sources.
Other films hew closer to true characters and events, blurring distinctions between reality and representation. Lulu Wang's Sundance breakout The Farewell closely aligns with the extraordinary circumstances of a family secret. Pain and Glory is Pedro Almodóvar's most personal film, for which he imbued its lead character with much of his own biography. Shia LaBeouf's Honey Boy may be the most uncanny and meta autofiction of the year, with the actor-screenwriter playing his own father. They say to write what you know — these artists sought to know who they are.
The storytelling in The Farewell is so intimate and its premise so out there, it's the sort of film that could only be based on real life. When writer-director Lulu Wang learned that her Chinese grandmother had terminal cancer — and her family intended to keep the diagnosis secret from her — Wang yearned to make the story into a film. When she couldn't secure financing, she developed it for This American Life, employing the radio show's investigative tools. That story led to The Farewell, distributed by A24 in July.
"It's such a different approach than when you set up a project in Hollywood, where immediately the first thing people tend to want to do is talk about the market and who's going to watch the film," Wang says. "What I really appreciated about the journalistic approach was first mining the reality for the truth. It was a much better process for this film because it made me not tell the story from a place of assuming I knew what the story was, but actually to say, 'This happened, and I felt all of these things. But what was it really about?' "
Awkwafina plays an onscreen surrogate for the director, who was born in Beijing and immigrated with her parents to Florida when she was 6. Wang remains close to her grandmother, who's still unaware of her illness or what her granddaughter's film is about. "Because it is based on my real family, there's a million facts about each of them that I could put into the film," says Wang. "But if it doesn't ultimately add to the core of the movie and what it's about, then it didn't make sense to include it." Sums up Wang, "The emotional truth adheres to what happened in my life."
Pedro Almodóvar long has mined his own biography for inspiration, but Pain and Glory is the first time he's mapped himself and his memories so directly onto a character. Still, the film isn't what the director would call autobiographical. "To think of myself as a topic, it's boring to me," Almodóvar tells THR. "It was the other way around. I had this character, and my memories served this character well. Everything that was alive in my life, if it works with that actor, I give it to him."
Many parallels are obvious. Salvador, played by Almodóvar's longtime collaborator Antonio Banderas, also is a celebrated film director who came of age creatively during the 1980s. Both have suffered chronic pain and undergone significant back surgery. Beyond shared pain and glory, director and protagonist even inhabit the same digs. "For me, it was not so weird," the director says of returning to his real Madrid apartment after shooting in a studio replica. "I never had the impression that Antonio was myself, even though it was written like that. I always felt, in a natural way, a distance with the material," he says. "I never really had the sense that I was filming a story about my life."
The film is about individual and collective memory, and Almodóvar delved into his own and others' to tell the story. The scene he says most closely mirrors his life: when the elder version of Salvador's mother (played by Julieta Serrano) tells her son how she'd like to be shrouded. This conversation actually happened to the director's sister. As for Almodóvar, "I discovered that the memories of my childhood were not as painful as I thought they might be. [They] have softened in a way, but they have also allowed me to understand how much of who I am now is also linked to the memory of that past."
For Almodóvar, the process was ultimately self-affirming. "If anything, making the film really accentuated my own sense of myself. And it made quite evident my need to keep writing as something that's essential to me."
Making Honey Boy was "a very intense act of therapeutic cinema," says director Alma Har'el. Its very dialogue was born out of Shia LaBeouf's treatment for addiction and PTSD in 2017. "Honey Boy comes out of these exposure therapy sessions, which have to do with acting out scenes for your therapist, finding where the pain lies, and talking about them again and again until the pain wears off," said LaBeouf, who began to keep transcripts of the sessions, on THR's Awards Chatter podcast. "Being a capitalist, being an artist, being an actor desperate to not give my craft away, [I] started looking at it from a different angle. I'm here, I'm not getting sent scripts, this could be a route toward creativity again."
When he sent the material to Har'el as a friend and creative sounding board, she insisted it needed to be a narrative film — and that LaBeouf play his own father. It was a live-wire and unpredictable set. "The process was to give him the freedom to really bring up the memories of what happened and live them again in the room," for sometimes eight or nine takes that included improvisation between LaBeouf and Noah Jupe, who plays the actor as a young boy. "Alma knew that the only way through the pain was to do it this way. Only in playing [my father] did I empathize with him. It wasn't empathetic on the page," LaBeouf said.
"You can't separate the process from the result," adds Har'el, whose own experience with an addicted parent played into her work as well. "The act of making this film, more than being therapeutic, is just revealing what really happens. To deal with something like addiction or childhood trauma is a lifelong journey of learning new tools."
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.