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Cashing in on Historical Screenplays

Cashing in on Historical Screenplays

Articles - Directing

Every film is a period piece.  Whether they know
it or not, all moviemakers 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 completely
flesh and original. What we need, then, is a new an e. This year
the five films nominated for Best Picture are all historical dramas.
For the independent filmmaker and spec screenplay writer, Elizabeth & Shakespeare
in Love
are of particular interest. Both films show that it’s
possible to lens historical drama of epic proportions on a relatively
low budget. These films have a limited number of locations, and
their power comes from the intrinsic strength of the characters,
plot and dialogue. Essentially, fictional characters can seldom
compete with the misery of historical personal. What makes these
films stand out is their use of modern dialogue and expression,
both of which makes the stories palatable for modern viewers without
sacrificing common sense.

A reconstruction of what is considered to be historically
accurate could be the screenwriter’s best friend. The generally
accepted structure of human history runs something like this: Man
emerged from the Stone Age and began rudimentary agriculture c.
10,000 years ago. From that point on, humanity’s "progress" is
seen as a slow and not altogether steady march toward the wonders
of the modern age. However, it’s entirely possible that this view
of history is a social construction which sprang from a need to
believe that our culture is the greatest achievement in history.
One only needs to look at the massive horrors of the century to
see that this standard historical paradigm may not only be askew
but fundamentally wrong. If so, and there is a mass of evidence
to indicate the possibility, then there is a mother lode of rich
new ideas for screenwriters in the "reconstructing" of
history.

Cultural conditioning tells us that ancient people
were basically ignorant. We see this in the stilted, phony dialogue
sometimes associated with Hollywood’s view of history. Good examples
are the two (1934 and 1963) versions of Cleopatra. In both, Hollywood
constructed elaborate sets to indicate the engineering grandeur
of ancient Egypt. Yet those same Egyptians, who possessed as great
a degree of personal comfort as we do (heated floors, hot and cold
running water, etc) are presented as nearly incoherent. What’s
more, neither film ever comes to grips with why Caesar and Mark
Antony risked their political (and mortal) lives to possess one
woman, other than she had a great body.

The 1963 film presented three of the greatest screen
actors ever-Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison,
yet the only thing that rings true are the love scenes between
Taylor and Burton. The reason both films fail is that the material
doesn’t enable the actors to communicate what the greater story
is about. As the matriarchal head of her clan, Queen Cleopatra
had her own agenda, while she knew both Caesar and Antony deemed
the liaison with her to be politically advantageous. In truth,
women in ancient times were revered for their spiritual and magical
powers. 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 included massive sets and a huge
budget. TheY2K version can tender a revised theme and, like Elizabeth,
could be filmed on a few interior sets with plot, character and
dialogue guaranteeing successes the story has proven international
appeal. Battle scenes can be done in the same fashion. Ingeniously
constructed by Elizabeth director, Shekhar Kaput, and screenwriter
Michael Hirst, the film shows the aftermath of a battle; a field
strewn with corpses. They then cut to interiors, where the lead
characters consider the implications of the convict, much like
a play. In this way a screenwriter can reconstruct history with
minimal research, drawing upon one’s internal resources, as the
method actor does, to create realistic characters from every imaginable
epoch.

So where does one find the evidence to support a
new angle on writing historical screenplays? Suppose that in light
of a new historical paradigm the writer interprets the evidence
to mean that civilization has been in a constant state of decline
over the past 10,000 years, with the 20th Century the lowest point
ever reached by humanity. Admittedly the concept may be somewhat
difficult to swallow but there is actually ample, even overwhelming
evidence to support it.

Elizabeth (1998)

However you flame 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 the truth is usually subjective anyway,
but rather where does one find the evidence to support a new paradigm
for writing historical screenplays? It’s out there, but don’t look
to professional historians for help. Reliance on academics for
background usually leads to cinematic disasters like Nicholas and
Alexandra and is the main reason why Hollywood rightfully goes
its own way when it comes to depicting history.

One common misconception is that professional historians,
like everybody in the social and physical sciences, are primarily
interested in the truth. Sadly, that’s often true only when the
truth they discover conforms to a generally accepted pattern of
events already deemed correct by their peers in the university
set. Deviation from the standard paradigm can result in professional
ostracism; publishing sources dry up, invitations to speak at conferences
disappear, and colleagues stay away, fearing guilt by association.

It’s good to note that there are exceptions. Howard
Zinn (A Peoples History of the United States), a university trained
historian, offers new angles to screenwriters for the entire breadth
of US history. Of particular interest is his extensive use of primary
source material- diaries, letters, and autobiographies, which can
be particularly important to establishing character.

There are a few others like him.

So where else do we go for new stories? I remember
a line in Men la 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 some truth
in that-there are worse places to look than the tabs if you’re
shopping for new angles. Every year or so they can be counted on
to reveal a new discovery, like Noah’s Ark, from which can spring
any number of new screenplay concepts.

Where to go now? If you’re on line, hook into the
Library of Congress for vast secondary research material. It costs
about $200 dollars a year, but you’ll never run out of leads. Watch
out, though the standard discovery tools in any library will lead
to professional historians, and we already know they’re not without
their agendas. Luckily, there is often primary material available,
as well as a plethora of alternative material in bookstores large
and small. Big carriers like Borders, Barnes 8t Noble, etc. are
good because up-to-date alternatives to the standard paradigm fill
their shelves in sections like "metaphysics/paranormal" as
well as in the standard histo7 and archeology sections. Most of
these books are written by de facto historians/scholars independent
of the university system. Small bookstores and university libraries
are good if you have time to browse the shelves to find out-of-print
gems like The Lust Cities 6f Sodom and Gomorrah. (Hey, there’s
a new angle right there. Those two cities were actually destroyed
by a worldwide cataclysmic event-which was the same 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. Sets like this no
longer need to be built. Modern computer generated imagery can
recreate those cities, as was seen on Public Television’s documentary
series "500 Nations.” We’re not talking about mud huts, but
huge, sophisticated cities greater and grander than anything in
Europe at the time. A computer-generated 0yby followed by a cut
to an interior is all it takes. Roman shipwreck off Brazil and
New England indicate the Romans profited from this sophisticated
modern system long before Columbus. So once the standard paradigm
is shown to be a series of erroneous assumptions taken for granted
as fact, your stories placing Noah, or anyone else, in a new historical
context are more likely to ring true.

Every era lends itself to a new approach.

Even in this century, taken-for-granted assumptions
about the nature of reality can a inhibit our creative talent.
For example, it can be argued that the delineation between World
War I and World War II is artificial and Euro centered. A detached
view could see a majority of this century as one massive world
war, with short breaks for re-armament. 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 or the people who knew them are still alive. Academy Award-winning
screenwriter William Kelley (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 Turturro,
as screen-writer Fink, holed up in a Hollywood hotel room, finally
meets the character he’s writing about. Only Fink doesn’t let the
follow played by John Goodman) get a word in edgewise. Kelley 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 McGinnis, who played Sarah in
Witness, spent two weeks living with an Amish family as preparation
for her role, and screenwriter Kelley spent a month in Lancaster
with the Amish. The resulting movie is one of the clearest cinematic
depletions of Amish life. Through personal primary research, Kelley
was able to generate an historical document on film. Now, 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 research, and you can even do it holed
up in Hollywood. MM

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