The easiest and hardest part of writing a biopic, as Rustin screenwriter Julian Breece will tell you, is, "I knew how the film ended before I knew anything. You're not making a story out of the sky; you're thinking, 'Where can I find the three acts?' You're working within a form, and that's the fun of it. The challenge also makes you want to bang your head on the wall."
Breece's first feature, which he scripted alongside Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black, spotlights gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin and his involvement in the 1963 March on Washington. (In the film, which was directed by George C. Wolfe, Colman Domingo plays Rustin.) Breece also wrote the screenplay for Barry Jenkins' forthcoming biopic about legendary choreographer and activist Alvin Ailey.
For Breece, character is always key — even when dealing with real people. As a screenwriter, he is naturally drawn to a particular type of character, although the stories that his characters are a part of could not be more diverse.
"When it came to picking my Top 5, I realized that the films that really stuck out to me were antihero lead characters," Breece explains. "The work of really doing a deep study of a character's psyche appeals to me greatly."
Below, Breece shares with A.frame the five films that have most inspired him and his approach to storytelling — with a special honorable mention to Bennett Miller's Oscar-winning Capote (2005), which Breece calls his "favorite biographical film."
Directed by: Martin Scorsese | Written by: Paul Schrader
Taxi Driver is the first script that I read. I had seen it before, but when I was in film school, I watched it again, read the script, and wanted to write like Paul Schrader. It was the most beautifully written and developed character story I had ever read. With the Travis Bickle character, you're going on this journey with him, and you're in his head the entire time.
The beautiful thing about this film is that you see the world through his eyes, knowing it is perhaps a warped view of this man's reality — [it's] his way of coping with his own inability to connect to the world, his own failure to take accountability for the ways he has participated in his isolation, this idea of the things that he holds sacred, and then the things that are depraved in the world that lead him to depravity. It's so revealing of the human condition.
We see it happening now in politics. It's never about the issue at hand. It's always about someone feeling afraid that something will be taken away from him. The fear that Travis Bickle has, there's that potential darkness in all of us — our morality and how fragile it can become, or how we can warp it into something that doesn't make a lot of sense if we feel threatened. How Paul Schrader wrote that character defined how I do my characters now. I think about a character alone, as opposed to automatically thinking about the relationships.
Written and Directed by: Stephen Winter
Chocolate Babies is a really underappreciated film about five Black queer people in the '90s; they are all HIV positive and activists against the pharmaceutical companies and politicians who they feel are not doing enough to deal with the AIDS crisis. They are almost superheroes. They go in and they throw HIV-infected blood at these politicians to make them get the picture that people — Black queer people, in particular — are dying because of the intentional inaction that's going on. These characters come together, because they feel isolated and alone to fight.
Christopher shoots it in a really disjointed jump-cut way. He'll linger in moments with characters in a very uncomfortable manner, but in ways that also reveal a lot about them. He starts them in a place of being defiant, but you also see the pain they're in by the end of it. They are not super; they're human, and they're in pain. They are making bad decisions. They're antiheroes, and they're betraying each other. The infighting in the group is a result of them not coming to terms with their own sense of shame, their fear of dying, and of watching each other die. The way he reveals these characters, and the contradiction between their inner lives and what they are being presented as in public — which is these fearless justice fighters — is remarkable.
I feel with queer films, we are automatically placed in the victim space. But these characters are like, 'No, we're fighting. We are rejecting that.' It was inspirational. I saw it in college, and it's one of my favorite movies to this day.
Written and Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
There Will Be Blood was an instant favorite when I saw it. We love films where the American Dream is portrayed as aspirational, but seeing the depraved sacrifices we make for that dream was masterful. The relationship between Paul Dano's character, Paul Sunday, and Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview is incredible, and they both end up in the same depraved space. So much of the time, the [American] Dream is about one-upmanship and who is taking from whom. Even writing a film about the Civil Rights Movement, I was thinking about, what are we sacrificing in our push for progress and moving forward? What are we giving the devil in exchange?
There Will Be Blood is a perfect film to me. It was this beautiful parable that turned into a genuinely gorgeous film. The heartbreaking turn of events with the son was so brutal and so disturbing, but beautiful in the way that it's rendered. That's not the end of the movie. He cries, and the film goes on. It's brilliant.
Directed by: Wolfgang Petersen | Written by: Wolfgang Petersen and Herman Weigel
The NeverEnding Story was the film I saw as a child that made me want to work in movies. I'll pop an edible and watch it now, because I was Bastian. I was that kid who felt alone and isolated, and I found the world and what was possible through books. The NeverEnding Story says you've got to get out in the world. You can't be afraid. It still speaks to me as someone who was an introvert and who has been on a journey to finding my voice and where I fit as a queer person.
The queer side of the film, for me, is the idea that there is a world for you where you can be a hero, where you are useful, your gift is needed, and you get to be the main character. I wanted to make people feel how I felt, because I felt healed watching that film — going on that journey with Bastian, going into dark places and finding my bravery. In a lot of ways, it feels like the arc of me finding myself as a queer person. It's an interesting interpretation of The NeverEnding Story. Is it a gay classic? I don't know. But Bastian felt like me and still does.
Written and Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
If there's an auteur filmmaker who has inspired my work the most, it would have to be Pedro Almodóvar. He is an iconoclast. He's fearless, but his love for the craft of storytelling is always apparent in his work. Bad Education, in particular, has been a big influence on my work as a writer and director. It may fall into the 'movies about making movies' category, but it's so much more than that. It's a sweeping Hitchcockian thriller wrapped in a cheeky telenovela.
In the film, Almodóvar wrangles with dark themes like childhood trauma, obsession, desire, and revenge. Still, he's able to infuse even the darkest subject matter with humor and the beauty found in hidden corners of painful memories. I respect him so much as a writer, because he guides you through this labyrinth of complicated character relationships and twisty, surrealist story threads, but he never loses you because he's a master of story structure. He establishes early on that the rules of the story are that there are no rules. He wants the audience to get lost in the tale he's telling and trust him to return them whole. And in this film, he lands the plane perfectly.