Some of the strangest fairy tales aren’t fiction. This weekend marks the 211th birthday of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, whose dark stories were often the result of his own romantic devastations. Andersen’s influence on the film world got us thinking about other real-life dramas behind some of cinema’s most fascinating films. Here are the stories of those movies, based on filmmakers’ real-life struggles.
Oliver Stone wrote the screenplay for Brian De Palma’s 1983 film Scarface while trying to kick his cocaine habit. Stone discussed that time in his life in an interview with Creative Screenwriting:
I was doing coke at the time, and I really regretted it. I got into a habit of it and I was an addictive personality. I did it, not to an extreme or to a place where I was as destructive as some people, but certainly to where I was going stale mentally. I moved out of L.A. with my wife at the time and moved back to France to try and get into another world and see the world differently. And I wrote the script totally fucking cold sober. . . . One of the things that’s bugged me, I think a lot of writers will agree with this is we spend money on our vices and we pay through the nose for our mistakes. I’ll admit that coke kicked my ass. It’s one of the things that beat me in life. As a result, getting even, getting paid to make a movie about it and making it a good one on top of it, there’s nothing better.
He goes on to discuss how having a coke habit gave his script a different perspective than if he had never done the drug at all:
The big switch point for me in the script is the fall of the king. I see Al turning paranoid in that movie, I see it perhaps because I was more attuned to it. But the paranoia of coke is the most striking (aspect), the fire of it.
Robert De Niro shared the autobiography of boxer Jake LaMotta with Martin Scorsese with the hopes that he would consider the project. But the director had another obsession at that time. “It was a matter of pushing the envelope, of being bad, of seeing how much you can do. Embracing a way of life to its limit. I did a lot of drugs because I wanted to do a lot. I wanted to push all the way to the very, very end, and see if I could die. That was the key thing, to see what it would be like getting close to death,” Martin Scorsese said of his addiction to coke during the dark period that followed the making of Taxi Driver. After almost dying from a drug overdose, Scorsese reconnected with the book and related to LaMotta’s tale of redemption.
Roman Polanski made his version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth after the 1969 murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by the Manson family at his house at 10050 Cielo Drive. The filmmaker blamed himself for the tragedy, falling into a deep depression and cancelling all his current projects. But months later, he set out to adapt Macbeth for the big screen with critic Kenneth Tynan, who co-wrote the screenplay. Critics instantly latched onto the bloody murders in the movie, which evoked the Manson murders.
Director Lars von Trier announced he was suffering from depression and might not make another movie, but Antichrist became the product of that dark time. “Yes, believe it or not I actually worked my way out of depression whilst making this film. But yes, I’ve seen so many therapists. The actual therapy was the same cognitive therapy that the guy in the film works with,” he told Time.
During the troubled production of Piranha II: The Spawning, James Cameron fell ill and had a nightmare about a robotic figure clawing its way toward him from a fire, holding knives. That became the seed for his 1984 post-apocalyptic thriller The Terminator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. “My contemporaries were all doing slasher-horror movies,” Cameron said. “John Carpenter was the guy I idolized the most. He made Halloween for $30,000 or something. That was everyone’s break-in dream, to do a stylish horror movie. It was a very slasher film type image. And it really was the launching pad for the story.”
From an interview with writer Paul Schrader about the creation of Taxi Driver, which was born from a place of alienation and heartbreak:
“At the time I wrote it [Taxi Driver], I was in a rather low and bad place,” Schrader says. “I had broken with Pauline [Kael], I had broken with my wife, I had broken with the woman I left my wife for, I had broken with the American Film Institute and I was in debt.” For several weeks, he drifted around LA, living and sleeping in his car, eating junk food, watching porn. Eventually, when his stomach began to hurt badly, he went to the hospital and discovered he had an ulcer. “When I was talking to the nurse, I realised I hadn’t spoken to anyone in weeks … that was when the metaphor of the taxi cab occurred to me. That is what I was: this person in an iron box, a coffin, floating round the city, but seemingly alone.” He claims he wrote the script, which he dashed off in under a fortnight, as self-therapy, to “exorcise the evil I felt within me.”
Director David Cronenberg believes his depiction of the emotional difficulties of divorce in the 1979 film The Brood is far more realistic than the 1979 divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer. “There are unbelievable, ridiculous moments in it that to me are emotionally completely false,” he said of the Robert Benton film. “I was really trying to get to the reality, with a capital R, which is why I have disdain for Kramer.” The Canadian filmmaker was going through his own divorce at the time and a custody battle, which inspired his tale about mutant children.
During his time as an art student in rough-and-tumble Philadelphia, David Lynch got married and had a baby girl (director Jennifer Chambers Lynch). “He definitely was a reluctant father, but a very loving one. Hey, I was pregnant when we got married. We were both reluctant,” said Lynch’s first wife Peggy Reavey. Lynch’s anxiety over his daughter, who had clubfeet, and his former dangerous neighborhood (the couple was robbed several times) convinced fans that the filmmaker made the cryptic Eraserhead about his Philadelphia days. Lynch hasn’t confirmed or denied that his movie about a man and his grotesque child in a terrifying industrial landscape is about his real life.