14 Movies That Were Surprisingly Inspired By Creators' Personal Hardships

Most artists draw inspiration from real life, but some creations are more directly inspired by specific experiences than others. Many filmmakers have adapted their lives to the screen, including Steven Spielberg with The Fabelmans, Greta Gerwig with Lady Bird, and François Truffaut with The 400 Blows, but not all autobiographical filmmaking depicts events from the distant past. In some cases, filmmakers are responding to events in real time. This often leads to disguised storytelling. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s alien apocalypse movie The World’s End, for instance, isn’t an obvious depiction of the star’s struggles with alcoholism, but Pegg later revealed that it was a creative response to a painful time in his life. Similarly, few fans would suspect that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a glorified breakup movie, but its notorious darkness helped George Lucas and Steven Spielberg purge their feelings after their respective breakups. 

Some filmmakers intentionally use their artistic medium as a form of therapy, while others are surprised by the emotional impact of making art out of their own struggles. In some cases, they choose not to discuss the real-life parallels until years after the film’s release. Whatever the case, these movies are windows into the personal hardships of their creators, and while they are not always easy to watch, they do demonstrate the power of filmmaking to depict real-world experiences in innovative and surprising ways.

  • Raiders of the Lost Ark was a box office smash, climbing the charts to become the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time. It’s an upbeat, action-packed introduction to an old-school hero, full of witty banter, family-friendly scares, and a feel-good ending. Its sequel, however, took audiences and critics by surprise with its distinctly darker tone. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is mired in devil worship, child slavery, and grotesque scenes of mutilation and human sacrifice. Parents were so outraged about its PG rating that Steven Spielberg suggested the MPAA invent the PG-13 rating to avoid further scandal. The director later revealed that the darkness in Temple of Doom wasn’t an attempt to outdo the previous film; it was about heartbreak. Spielberg and writer/producer George Lucas were going through painful breakups, and their grim states of mind fed directly into the movie. Lucas explained in 2012

    I was going through a divorce. And I was in a really bad mood. So I really wanted to do dark. And Steve then broke up with his girlfriend, and so he was sort of into it, too. That’s where we were at that point in time.

    The husband and wife writing team behind the script, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, expressed surprise at how unflinching Spielberg was in his depiction of the child slavery. “Steven took those scenes very, very seriously,” Huyck remembered, “The kids were being whipped. It was very, very dark. Which was great - but, I mean, we were a little surprised by how seriously he took them.”

    Outside the horrific scenes of violence from the Thuggee villains, the movie is crawling with snakes, insects, and a much less playful Indy. In one scene, he slaps his child sidekick Short Round across the face, a moment that is arguably more disturbing than the famous heart extraction scene. Some commentators have also pointed to the depiction of Kate Capshaw’s character. Far from the tough-as-nails Marion Ravenwood from Raiders, Willie Scott spends the whole movie shrieking and being rescued. Spielberg has called the movie his least favorite installment of the franchise, saying, “I wasn’t happy with the second film at all. It was too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific. I thought it out-poltered Poltergeist. There’s not an ounce of my own personal feeling in Temple of Doom.”

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  • ‘The World’s End’ Was Based On Simon Pegg’s Own Battle With Alcoholism

    Most people wouldn’t suspect that a movie about an alien invasion was autobiographical, but for Simon Pegg, The World’s End was uncomfortably revealing. In 2018, he spoke out about his struggles with alcohol addiction and how it informed his role in the 2012 film. In The World’s End, he plays Gary King, a committed partier in his early 40s who goads his friends into recreating an epic pub crawl from their youth. When a pair of homicidal aliens show up in the bathroom at one of their stops, Gary is determined to finish the crawl, no matter the consequences.

    Pegg said the movie felt like a public acknowledgment of his condition. “I felt like I was kind of telling people with that movie. Because that’s what addiction is like. It’s like you have grown a second head and all it wants to do is destroy itself, and it puts that ahead of everything else - your marriage, children, your job.”

    Edgar Wright, who had co-written and directed The World’s End along with the first two movies in the Cornetto Trilogy, ​​Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzztalked about how Pegg quietly navigated his struggles through making the movie:

    When we were writing that film, it was still a private matter for Simon. I obviously had known what the issue was. I’d been there – I’d literally been with him in hospital at one point when things had gotten especially bad. Simon had been in recovery for two years when we wrote it, but his addiction was something we talked about through the character of Gary.

    Pegg chose not to publicly discuss his struggles with alcoholism during the press junket for the film, maintaining that Gary was based on several people, but he still had to get court orders to prevent his recovery from being splashed across newspapers. After years of sobriety, he decided to share his experiences, saying, “I’m not ashamed of what happened. And I think if anyone finds any relationship to it, then it might motivate them to get well. But I am not proud of it either – I don’t think it’s cool, like I was Mr. Rock’n’roll, blackout and all that sh*t. It wasn’t, it was just terrible.”

  • The Way Back follows a familiar formula about an underdog high school sports team who rockets to success with the help of an unconventional, world-weary coach. But while the plot walks a well-worn path, the movie is elevated above its genre tropes by the performance of Ben Affleck. Playing an ironworker with a rocky past who is convinced to return to his old high school to coach the struggling basketball team, he offers a painfully raw portrayal of a man suffering from alcoholism and the breakdown of his marriage. In interviews for the movie, Affleck was candid about using the movie as an opportunity to process and excise hardships in his personal life that were still very present at the time of filming. Just days before production began, he was finishing a stint in rehab for alcoholism while working through a highly publicized divorce. Reflecting on his experience, he said:

    Being an alcoholic and doing this was daunting. Ultimately knowing that it opens me up to talking in a more public way than I would have otherwise… Alcoholism works in a lot of different ways. It's hereditary and can be brought on by enormous stress and suffering. You create this habit that you wouldn't otherwise have had. That was the stuff I was excited to emotionally explore again, I was really hungry to do some acting that felt... real.

    His performance is hard to watch at times. In the early scenes of the movie when he’s in the thick of his addiction, every expression has to fight its way through a mask of pain. When he meets one of his teachers for the first time in decades to be offered the coaching job, his attempt at a smile instantly gives way to a glazed look of far-away anguish. The specificity of the character’s struggles with alcohol is also strikingly real. In one scene, he rehearses his rejection of the job offer while walking back and forth to the fridge for beer. He picks a can out of the freezer, replaces it with a new one from the refrigerator, and walks back to the table, tapping the top of the can three times before cracking it open. The automatic routine of it and the understated deterioration of his words and movement are in stark contrast to the stumbling and flailing that many actors employ when performing drunkenness. 

    Affleck said that he found the movie “very therapeutic.” In one particularly powerful scene toward the end, he apologizes to his wife for the harm he caused in their relationship. It’s raw, painful, and un-self-conscious. Director Gavin O’Connor revealed that Affleck had a “total breakdown” after the scene. “I think that was a very personal moment in the movie,” he said, “I think that was him.”

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  • Lars von Trier has courted controversy throughout his career with polarizing movies like The IdiotsAntichrist, and The House That Jack Built. His use of graphic violence and even unsimulated sex has shocked audiences, but the painfully raw glimpse his movies provide into the human condition has made him a regular at film festivals since the late '90s. Von Trier has explained in interviews that he suffers from alcoholism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and a variety of phobias. “Basically," he once said, “I'm afraid of everything in life, except filmmaking.” These conditions have no doubt informed his work throughout his career, but it wasn’t until he returned to filmmaking in 2009 after a debilitating depressive episode that he explicitly turned the camera inward, producing his self-styled Depression Trilogy. AntichristMelancholia, and Nymphomaniac all depict phases of his battle with mental illness, but the middle film is the most direct depiction of depression

    Melancholia stars Kirsten Dunst as Justine, a bride on her wedding day whose social discomfort and dissociation with her surroundings grow increasingly apparent throughout the festivities. Her marriage doesn’t last the night, and she’s left at her sister’s palatial estate, awaiting an asteroid that is en route to destroying Earth. Von Trier called the film “a psychological disaster movie” and “a beautiful movie about the end of the world,” hinting at the unusual approach he takes to Justine’s condition. Melancholia is a visually striking film with sumptuous lighting, a fairytale setting in the Swedish countryside, and a nearly 10-minute sequence set to Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde that depicts a series of slow-motion vignettes as if they were paintings. Birds fall from the sky, Justine lies in her wedding dress in a flowing stream, and a horse collapses into a field. This prelude depicts the immensity of Justine’s inner turmoil, in stark contrast to the ghostly figure she presents at her wedding. When the movie switches from a “psychological disaster movie” to a movie about an asteroid destroying the planet, Justine transforms from a dull-eyed shadow to a calm, supportive sister, helping her family navigate their existential panic. No longer devoured by her darkness now that the end of the world has wiped away the unknown and confirmed her anxieties, she is serene and in control. Director of photography Manuel Alberto Claro recalled von Trier’s conception of Justine’s transformation. 

    He talked a lot about how people who are depressed normally, suddenly, when a critical situation happens they become the rational ones while rational people panic. This is a portrayal of how depressed people know that the world is going down, so they react much more rationally when it happens.

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  • Raging Bull is considered one of the greatest movies ever made and helped define the powerhouse coupling of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. But it almost didn't happen. De Niro was obsessed with adapting the little-known autobiography of fighter Jake LaMotta, but Scorsese had no interest in directing it until a near-death experience brought him closer to the visceral turmoil of the source material. Following a grueling few months, including the box office failure of New York, New York and habitual cocaine use, Scorsese collapsed in 1978, recalling later that it had become “more impossible for [him] to function, both physically and mentally.” He was rushed to the hospital, bleeding uncontrollably from a low platelet count. His condition was described as “near death,” and it was this brush with mortality that changed the director’s mind about De Niro’s pet project. “I couldn’t understand Bob’s obsession with it,” Scorsese remembered, “Until, finally, I went through that rough period of my own. I came out the other side and woke up one day alive… still breathing.” 

    The movie hit close to home for Scorsese in more ways than one. Besides the cathartic fury and ultimate acceptance that Jake goes through in Raging Bull, its depiction of a volatile yet tight-knit Italian immigrant family also helped the director embrace his past. Having distanced himself from his family in the Bronx when he found early success in Hollywood, he now found a reason to reconcile.

    Raging Bull meant something new to me. I said, ‘Wait a minute - I can’t deny who I am or where I came from.’ And so I embraced my parents again…They became people who were on the set to help me remember who I am and where I came from. I was harboring a lot of anger and I think it just explodes in Raging Bull.

    This unabated rage was also evident in his outlook on his professional future. “I made it as if this was the end of my life," he said, "Over. Suicide film. I didn’t care if I made another movie… In a way, it wiped me out. I had to start all over and learn again. Every day on the shoot, ‘This is the last one, and we’re going for it.’”

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  • Divorce is a traumatic experience for many people. For David Cronenberg, it was so bad, it became the impetus for his 1979 horror movie, The Brood, a surreal, grotesque family slasher movie featuring birth-related body horror. The story follows a father (Art Hindle) stuck in a bitter custody battle with his ex-wife (Samantha Eggar), a devoteé of an experimental psychotherapy method. When a series of grisly murders take place in their community, perpetrated by semi-human childlike creatures, the father begins to suspect his ex-wife and her therapist may be involved. 

    Cronenberg wrote the script during a bitter custody battle of his own. Like the ex-wife in the film, his former spouse had fallen in with a cult, leaving him determined to gain full custody of their daughter:

    At the time I was fighting for custody of my daughter Cassandra by my first marriage. I got a call from my ex-wife saying she had decided for religious reasons to go and live with these nice people in California and was going to take Cass with her. I’d get to see her at Christmas and stuff, and she was leaving tomorrow. I said ‘OK, that’s nice, great, good luck.’ I put the phone down… and went to the school and kidnapped my daughter. It wasn’t really kidnapping, but we were still sharing custody. I got a court order which prevented her from taking Cass. And then she left.

    He even argued that the movie is a more realistic depiction of divorce than a famously harrowing Meryl Streep/Dustin Hoffman movie, saying,  “The Brood got to the real nightmare, horrific, unbelievable inner life of that situation. I’m not being facetious when I say I think it’s more realistic, even more naturalistic, than (Kramer vs.Kramer. I felt that bad. It was that horrible, that damaging.”

    Although many critics were repulsed by the film and dismissed it as “yet another exploitative essay in heaping on the nastiness,” Cronenberg was taking a more personal approach to storytelling than he ever had. It’s no coincidence that Hindle and Eggar bear a resemblance to the director and his first wife, nor that the ex-wife is preyed upon by a cult-like organization. The Brood may be a particularly gruesome example of the body horror genre, but Cronenberg would eventually call it his most personal and “cathartically satisfying film.”

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