A NEW ANGLE TO HISTORICAL SCREENPLAYS
July 2001, MovieMaker
by John Egan
Every film is a period piece. Whether they know it or not, all filmmakers record history because there is no reality except the present moment. Everything else is an idea. If you write screenplays and have a vision of what you think the past was like, and that includes events that happened today, you’re ready to write a period piece. The problem is, since historical films were popular from the earliest days of cinema, it’s become increasingly difficult to write a period piece that’s not a remake. So what we need is a new angle.
This year the five films nominated for Best Picture were all historical drama. For the independent filmmaker and spec screenplay writer, Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love are of particular interest. Both films show that it’s possible to film major historical drama of epic proportions on a low budget. These films were both shot primarily on two locations. The power inherent in them comes from the intrinsic strength of the characters, plot and dialogue. Essentially, fictional characters can seldom compete with the majesty of historical persona. What makes these films especially significant is the use of modern dialogue and expression for medieval characters. This approach makes the story reasonable for the modern viewer and with reason: For the evidence indicates that human nature is unchanged for the last ten thousand years at least.
The generally accepted structure of history runs something like this: Modern humans emerged from the Stone Age and began rudimentary agriculture c. 10,000 years ago. From that point on, the history of Humanity is recorded as a slow and not altogether steady progression to the wonders of the modern age. However it’s very possible that this view of history is a social construction sprung from a genuine need to believe that our own culture is the greatest achievement in history. One only needs to look at the massive horrors of this century to see that the standard paradigm of history may be not only askew, but fundamentally and absolutely wrong. If so, and there is a massive amount of evidence to indicate it, then a reconstruction of history is the screenwriters’ best friend. Cultural conditioning tells us that ancient people were basically ignorant and so you see this in the stilted, phony dialogue sometimes associated with Hollywood’s view of history. A good example here are the two (1934 & 1963) versions of Cleopatra. In both, Hollywood constructed massive sets to clearly indicate the engineering grandeur of Ancient Egypt. Yet those same Egyptians, who then possessed as great a degree of personal comfort as we do; heated floors, hot and cold running water, for example, are presented as essentially incoherent. What’s more, neither film ever came to grips with why Caesar and Mark Anthony risked their political (and mortal) lives to posses the woman, other than she had great body.
The 1963 film presented three of the greatest screen actors ever, Elisabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison, yet the only thing that rings true are the love scenes between Taylor and Burton, and that because they were both in the initial throes of their famous love affair. The reason both films fail, is that the writers and directors couldn’t rationally explain to the actors what the whole story was about. As the matriarchal head of her clan, Queen Cleopatra (who was Greek) had her own political agenda and both Caesar and Anthony deemed the liaison with her to be politically advantageous to themselves. In truth, women in ancient times were revered for their spiritual and magical powers which of course included a thorough knowledge of poisons, making the ladies dangerous as well. A new angle on this famous story would be the motives of the Greek Queen and the utter sophistication of these characters, a notion not without foundation.
The 1963 Cleopatra offered massive sets and a huge budget. A new version can offer a better plot and like Elizabeth, could be filmed on a few interior sets with plot, character and dialogue guaranteeing success; because the film has international appeal. Battle scenes can be done is the same fashion; as they were constructed ingeniously by Elizabeth’s Director. They showed the aftermath of the battle; a field strewn with corpses and then cut to more interiors where the implications of the battle are considered by the lead characters, much like a play. Elizabeth and her Court are remarkably human, and in this way a screenwriter can reconstruct history with minimal research, drawing upon one’s own internal resources, like a Method actor, to create realistic historical characters in every imaginable epoch.
First, the 21st Century Method Screenwriter must realize that there has probably been no evolution of the human intellect over the past 10,000 years, at least. A brief study of the monuments of antiquity indicates the ancients built successfully for eternity while our modern builders hope in vain that their structures hold out for a few generations. The Great Pyramid’s twenty thousand-pound blocks of granite were placed together (without cement) with a degree of accuracy far beyond the exactitude of the Space Shuttle. What this means to a screenwriter is that you don’t need to conjure up special dialogue for your characters. All the fundamental human issues are the same now as they have ever been. With this understanding as a guide, you can create historical characters in which Method actors can do their thing, a task not always done in the period piece. Marlon Brando was one of the stars who introduced Method acting in the 1950’s. Prior to that, screen actors presented their talents in stereotype. The players drew inspiration from outside themselves; not only the director’s wishes, but their own stereotypical image of what the character should be, influenced their interpretation of the role. But even Brando was unable to draw upon the Method, role playing that comes from within and through one’s own personal experiences, in his interpretation of Mark Anthony and Napoleon. Undoubtedly he failed through his own cultural conditioning; he was unable to grasp that those historical characters were not essentially different from himself in any significant way.
To give actors the opportunity to use the Method in historical films the writer can interpret the evidence in light of the new paradigm: Civilization is viewed as in a constant decline over the past ten thousand years, with the Twentieth Century the lowest point ever reached by Humanity. Admittedly this concept may be somewhat difficult to swallow but there is actually ample, even overwhelming evidence to support it. However you frame the question, the new paradigm offers you a new angle on the greatest historical characters and events, all of which can be filmed low budget. The problem here is not one of truth, because who knows what that is anyway, but rather where do you find the evidence to support a new angle on writing historical screenplays? It’s out there, but don’t look to professional historians for help.
One common misconception is that professional historians, like everybody in the social and physical sciences, are primarily interested in the truth. Sadly, that’s only if the truth they discover conforms to a generally accepted pattern of events already deemed correct by their peers in the university set. Any deviation from the standard paradigm almost always results in profession ostracism; publishing sources dry up, invitations to speak at conferences disappear and colleagues shun you fearing guilt by association.
To understand the mind set of these people you might take a look at a nasty little volume called Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (1995), presented by The Society of American Historians, whose editors make the rounds on talk shows denigrating our profession. Anxious to discredit filmmakers who trod upon their sacred turf, the book trots out a group of scholars who proceed to tear Hollywood’s historical films apart. The fundamental flaw in this approach is the misconception that these “historians” should know anything about filmmaking. Yet even when they relate their “correct” views, the book abounds with errors. For example, in a short essay on Joan of Arc, historian Gerda Lehrer from the University of Wisconsin, made at least one major factual historical error in every paragraph she wrote. Reliance upon professional historians for background usually leads to cinema disasters like Nicholas and Alexandra and is the main reason why Hollywood rightfully goes its own way in the study of history.
Of course the American Historians aren’t happy about this since Hollywood alters the story that profession historians diligently try to sell as their own alone. They got particularly upset at Oliver Stone, ripping him up in four separate sections of the book, calling JFK “distortion of the highest order.” Interestingly enough, JFK abounds with documented evidence. For example: Oswald worked for US Naval Intelligence, learned Russian with them, went to Russia, renounced his US citizenship, married a KGB Colonel’s daughter, returned to the US with her(then usually impossible); his citizenship immediately restored, he was presented with a new U.S. passport (don’t try that move yourself) and went to New Orleans to work with Guy Bannister, former Naval Intelligence & FBI. Kennedy was murdered shortly later. Oswald may have acted alone but he sure kept some interesting company. When skirting the truth, the historians don’t address these issues but rather hate Stone for his conclusions; for if Stone is indeed right, they are woefully wrong. It’s good to note that there are exceptions. Howard Zinn, (A People’s History of the United States) a University trained historian, offers new angles to screenwriters for the entire breadth of US history. What’s especially good for the screenwriter is that Zinn makes extensive use of primary source material; diaries, letters, and autobiographies which can be particularly important to establish character. There are a few others like him.
So where else do we go for new stories? I remember a line in Men in Black when Tommy Lee Jones, as a top secret undercover guy, reveals that the best place to find out what’s happening are those tabloid newspapers sold in supermarkets. There’s a lot of truth in that, and those books are really not a bad place to shop if you’re on the lookout for new angles. Every year or so they always reveal a new discovery of things like Noah’s Ark, and, hey, what a great idea for a film.
So I got a high concept: Noah is cool. Where to go now? If you’re on line, hook into the Library of Congress for vast secondary research material. It costs about two hundred bucks a year but you’ll never run out of leads. Watch out though, the standard discovery tools in any library lead to profession historians and we know already that they usually don’t make it. Luckily there is a plethora of alternative material in bookstores large and small. Big places like Borders, Barnes & Noble etc. are good because up to date alternatives to the standard paradigm fill the shelves in sections like metaphysics, paranormal as well as in the standard history and archeology sections. Most of these books are written by de facto historian/scholars independent of the university system. Small bookstores and University libraries are good if you can browse the shelves and find out of print gems like The Lost Cities of Sodom and Gomorra. Hey, there’s a new angle right there! The event that destroyed those two cities was part of a larger world wide cataclysmic event and the reason Noah went to sea!
For more background, and another angle, a quick browse through the archeology section will reveal that large Native American cites abounded throughout pre-Columbian times. This evidence was presented in Public Television’s documentary series 500 Nations. We’re not talking about mud huts, but rather huge sophisticated cities greater and grander than anything in Europe. Roman shipwrecks off Brazil and New England indicate the Romans profited from this system long before Columbus. So with Noah, or anybody, in a completely new historical context, you can create some stories which are more likely to ring true with an audience, since the standard paradigm of history is probably a series of erroneous taken for granted assumptions, and not based upon reality.
Every era lends itself to a new approach. Even in this century, taken for granted assumptions about the nature of reality can inhibit our creative talent. For example, the delineation between World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (39-45) is artificial and Euro-centered. A detached view could see this whole century as one massive world war, with short breaks for rearmament. This alternative view can be a step toward a new historical perspective, and from that, new, original material for cinema. This century is especially fertile ground for a new approach since many of the participants to great events are still alive or, if not them, then people who knew them. Academy Award winning screenwriter William Kelly (Witness) calls this “walking the ground.”
This kind of primary research also means hitting the road. There was a great scene in Barton Fink when John Turturo, as screenwriter Fink, who’s holed up in a Hollywood hotel room, finally meets the character type he’s writing about. Only Fink doesn’t let the fellow (played by John Goodman) get a word in edgewise. Kelly says when you’re “walking the ground” you’ve got to listen and to do that you’ve got to spend time on location and let the people learn to trust you. Kelly McGillis who played Sarah in Witness spent two weeks living with an Amish family as preparation and screenwriter Kelly spent a month in Lancaster with the Amish. The result is one of the clearest depictions of Amish life extant. Through personal primary research Kelly was able to generate an historical document in film and should one wish to see the Amish way of life, Witness is source material superior to any book on the subject. You can do the same thing and in the age of computer search, you can even do it holed up in Hollywood.