The True Stories Behind 10 Directors’ Most Personal Films


Many people believe that all art is shaped by our personal experiences. In the case of these ten directors, that certainly seems true. After reading a heartbreaking story shared by Richard Linklater, which became the inspiration for his 1995 film Before Sunrise (featured after the jump), we went searching for more true stories behind directors’ most personal films. Some created their movies as a way to cope with the struggles of their past and document an experience, while others used the platform to ponder their future. The stories provide a snapshot of the private lives and creative minds of some of cinema’s greatest filmmakers.

Before Sunrise is one of cinema’s greatest romantic dramas, but many people don’t know that the story of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) was inspired by a real experience director Richard Linklater had in Philadelphia. It was only recently that the filmmaker revealed the details of a special night he spent walking through the city with a woman in 1989. During press rounds for the final chapter in the Before series, Before Midnight, Linklater finally told his story:

“It’s personal and I don’t talk about it, but I met a girl in Philadelphia in 1989, and we ended up spending the night walking around, flirting, doing things you would never do now. I was at that stage in life where I was open, so we just walked and got to know each other. I remember, even as we were walking, thinking, ‘This could be a movie. Not the intrigue that happens after people kiss and sleep together, but this, this period of learning about another person.’ Which is probably what makes me a boring partner and boyfriend in the real world — throughout history! I’m never quite there for people, I’m never quite present. I’m always somewhere else.”

The director went on to explain to the interviewer that he met Amy Lehrhaupt in a toy shop. They kept in touch for a time, but eventually lost contact. He hoped she would show up at a screening of Before Sunrise, so she would finally understand how profound the evening was for Linklater, but he learned that she died. Lehrhaupt was killed in a motorcycle accident a few weeks before the movie started shooting. Linklater dedicated Before Midnight to his muse.

Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell experienced some of the same situations that his characters did in his film about a former teacher who suffers from bipolar disorder and moves back home with his family. Russell’s son was diagnosed with autism as a toddler. Later, the diagnosis was changed to a bipolar-obsessive compulsive disorder hybrid. His son even plays a part in the movie as the neighbor who tries to interview Cooper’s character. “It’s personal to me, because I’ve lived through some of these experiences with my son,” Russell said in an interview. Star Robert De Niro, who plays Cooper’s father in the film, also related to the movie’s story about mental illness. The tough guy actor broke down crying during a talk show appearance, stating: “I know exactly what [Russell] goes through.”

Director Mike Leigh has repeatedly stated that his 2010 drama Another Year, which follows a married couple through their relationship, is the film closest to his heart:

“This is the hardest thing of all for me to talk about, it is the most deeply personal film I’ve made, with the exception maybe of my first film, Bleak Moments, in 1971. Somebody said to me recently, are you any of the characters in Another Year? Of course, there are no self-portraits in there, but, yes, I am… I mean, I do relate very closely to Tom and Gerri and Mary and Ken and Ronnie.”

The normally tight-lipped filmmaker elaborated:

“It’s also about loneliness and disappointment and aging. I mean there are personal things in the film for me; the relationship that the two main characters, Tom and Gerri, have with their son Joe, is very much in the spirit of my own relationship with my two sons.”

In another interview, Leigh discussed connections between the film and his reticent manner:

“There are all kinds of things, like kindness and warmth and giving and taking and disappointment and emotional loss and yearning and caring and nurturing and the relationship between life and work and the difficulty of where you draw the line when you open yourself to other people. And a whole lot of things which, in different ways, resonate with my own feelings and experiences about life.”

Steven Spielberg said he felt “constantly sickened” and “frightened” while shooting his 1993 epic drama, Schindler’s List, about a German businessman who saved the lives of Polish-Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. He called it his “journey from shame to honor.” Others described it as his “bar mitzvah movie, his cinematic initiation into emotional manhood.”

Spielberg described the deeply troubling feelings he confronted during the making of the movie, some of which centered on the anti-Semitism he personally experienced as a child: “I was hit in the face with my personal life. My upbringing. My Jewishness. The stories my grandparents told me about the Shoah. And Jewish life came pouring back into my heart. I cried all the time.”

Spielberg’s mother detailed what happened to the family in their suburban Phoenix neighborhood: “These people used to chant, ‘The Spielbergs are dirty Jews,’ and one night, Steve climbed out of his bedroom windows and peanut buttered their bed room windows, which I thought was marvelous.” But instead of finding empowerment, the future director denied his Judaism in order to cope with the anti-Semitic attacks. The movie helped him face the past.

Francis Ford Coppola spent a large part of his life idolizing his older brother, August. He explored that relationship — and several other familial connections — in his 2009 film, Tetro, about the reunion of two brothers. “Nothing in it happened, but it’s all true,” the director said of the film. August Coppola was an academic whose immense charisma and sharp intellect made an impression on people early in his life, while Francis struggled through a sickly childhood after contracting polio. “He did very well in school and received many awards for writing and other things, and he was like the star of the family, and I did most of what I did to imitate him,” the filmmaker admitted. “I didn’t know that I felt abandoned by my brother. My brother was so good to me,” Coppola said of August when discussing Tetro. “This film is obviously tackling some demons in my own family.”

“At some time or other, I said that Persona saved my life — that is no exaggeration,” Swedish director Ingmar Bergman said of his 1966 movie. He elaborated:

“If I had not found the strength to make that film, I would probably have been all washed up. One significant point: for the first time I did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success. Today I feel that in Persona — and later in Cries and Whispers — I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.”

The film about two women who appear to exchange identities reflected Bergman’s “problems, absurdities, and impossibilities of art” during a difficult time in his life:

Persona is a creation that saved its creator. Before making it, I was ill, having twice had pneumonia and antibiotic poisoning… I remember sitting in my hospital bed, looking directly in front of me at a black spot — because if I turned my head at all, the whole room began to spin. I thought to myself that I would never create anything anymore; I was completely empty, almost dead. The montage at the beginning of the film is just a poem about that personal situation. Because whenever I thought about making a new film, silly pictures from my old ones came into my head. Suddenly, one day I started thinking of two women sitting next to each other and comparing hands. This was a single scene, which, after an enormous effort, I was able to write down.”

Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands feels like the director’s most personal story through and through. Themes about the artistic outsider and alienated, awkward teenager reflect Burton’s own experiences growing up in the suburbs of California. “I [had] the feeling people just got this urge to want to leave me alone for some reason, I don’t know exactly why,” he once said. Characters in the film are based on people Burton knew from his neighborhood, with Johnny Depp and Edward being the most obvious stand-in for Burton’s vision of himself — at once idealized and made monstrous. Feelings of isolation influenced his making of the movie, but the character itself came from a drawing Burton obsessed over as a teenager. “Since I liked to draw since I was younger, oftentimes images would come up, and they’d stay with you, and you’d keep drawing them. This was a character I sketched a while back,” he explained. The film remains his greatest self-portrait.

Blade Runner in many respects was my most personal film,” Ridley Scott told Rolling Stone last year. His explanation as to why has generally been cryptic, but he painted a picture of several memories and personal experiences that he drew from when making the futuristic tale:

“I certainly draw from personal experience — sometimes I remember things, sometimes it will come out from the back of my head and I’m thinking, I never knew where that came from. And then I can analyze afterwards and realize that’s what it was. Funny enough, the beauty in industry, which is probably killing us, but actually nevertheless is beautifully like Hades, is one reason why you start to feel the beauty in the godawful condition of the red horizon and the geysers of filth going into the air. I used to go to art school in West Hartlepool College up in the north of England, which is almost right alongside the Durham steel mills and Imperial Chemical Industries, and the air would smell like toast. Toast is quite nice, but when you realize it’s steel, and it’s probably particles, it’s not very good. But I’m still here. So, you draw back on that. And to walk across that footbridge at night, you’d be walking fundamentally above, on an elevated walk on the steel mill. So you’d be crossing through, sometimes, the smoke and dirt and crap, and you’re looking down into the fire. So, things like that are remembered. Personal experience in spending a little bit of time in Hong Kong at the time when it was kind of almost wonderfully medieval, Asian medieval. And therefore deciding what to do: Do we go Hispanic or do we go Asian for what seems to be the majority on the streets in San Angeles at that time? So I opted for Asian.”

Stanley Kubrick was an intensely private man who rarely opened the door to his personal life. The director didn’t leave us with many behind-the-scenes stories about the movie he considers his greatest and most personal work, Eyes Wide Shut. However, a paper trail of information, several pieces left by stars Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, shed light on the real-life development of the movie.

We know that Kubrick optioned the novella Traumnovelle (aka Rhapsody: A Dream Novel, or Dream Story) two decades before filming it. He spent a half his lifetime thinking about the story. We also know that the apartment in Eyes Wide Shut was a replica of the New York apartment he shared with his wife Christianne during the early 1960s. Furniture in the film was from the couple’s home. Christianne’s paintings hung on the walls. Kubrick felt compelled to make a brief cameo in the film (in the Sonata Café), which was something he never did (excluding his first film Day of the Flight). Interestingly enough, several years before Kubrick started filming Eyes Wide Shut, Alan Conway — a notorious impersonator of the director — talked his way into a London club and fooled everyone there. Kubrick was fascinated by the story, which inspired the film Colour Me Kubrick. It’s hard not to wonder if some part of the incident influenced his shaping of Tom Cruise’s character in Eyes Wide Shut, where the identity of a doctor and family man is the focus.

In an interview, Tom Cruise spoke further about Kubrick’s development of the movie — which at one point he considered turning into a sex comedy:

“It was as personal a story as he’s ever done. When he first wanted to do it, it was after Lolita (1962) and Christianne told me she said, ‘Don’t… oh, please don’t…. not now. We’re so young. Let’s not go through this right now.’ They were young in their marriage, and so he put it off and put it off. He was working on A.I. [a planned film involving artificial intelligence] and was waiting for the technology to get to where he needed it. So he put that on hold, and it was just the perfect time to do this project.”

David Lynch has called Eraserhead his “Philadelphia story,” and his “most spiritual work.” Most critics agree that it feels like his most personal movie, if only because he spent the most time with it (a five-year production). The events of his personal life — a marriage, the birth of his daughter, and his experiences living in Philadelphia (at one point next to a morgue) — also coincide with themes in the story. Lynch revealed some of the bones of his movie in a 1985 interview:

“I bought a house in this area [of Philadelphia] with 12 rooms and 3 floors, for only $3,500, because nobody wanted to live there. It was incredible. It was set exactly on the borderline between a really poor white and a really poor black neighborhood, and lot of conflict between the two races was in the air. Three times, our house was broken into, a child was shot dead, in the very near neighborhood. You really could sense the fear in the air… I had seen a lot of things in Philadelphia, crazy people, a lot of violence, and this feeling left its traces deep down inside me. And when it came out again, it became Eraserhead. That’s why I call it my Philadelphia Story. It’s entirely inspired by Philadelphia and my experiences in that city.”

Lynch also discussed how he conceived of the film’s ghostly character, the Lady in the Radiator, while shooting Eraserhead in California:

“I had control of all the stables down below this mansion, and we had a room we called the food room. I did a little drawing of a lady, I looked at this drawing, and an idea came in: I felt this lady lived in the radiator. I was in the food room and I was 30 or 40 feet from Henry’s room, but I couldn’t remember what the radiator looked like, exactly. I thought, ‘Is there a place where she could live?’ And I went running into Henry’s room and looked at the radiator. I got this radiator from an old studio that was closing, and this particular radiator had a little place where she could live. It was like a perfect thing.”