I love being transported by movies, not just entertained, but transported, moved up the ladder to a different reality. I love walking out of the cinema with a story and storyworld still sticking to me, like napalm in the morning.
This explains why I’m attracted to period pieces (and “period piece” also includes science fiction films, which are period pieces that look forward rather than backward). A lot of my screenwriting – paid gigs and spec work both – has focused on slips up or down the timeline.
So here are a few guideposts that have been helpful to me in writing about Roman Britain, 12th century Europe, Apartheid South Africa, the birth of the Spanish Inquisition and a dystopian future where a hideous disease is turning the underclasses into crazed killing machines.
1.) Period pieces don’t have to be historical
There is a difference between a historical film and period film. Historical is period, but period doesn’t have to be historical. A historical film purports to have its facts straight – or enough of its facts to be convincing. But just because Abraham Lincoln is your protagonist doesn’t mean you’re writing a historical movie. Throw in some vampires and you’ve swung away from the historical side of the spectrum toward the fantastic.
You can choose where on the fantastical/historical continuum your script sits. And you must choose. Don’t just leave it up to chance. Make a choice. Ask yourself “How representative of actual events do I want this to be? Do I want the audience to believe that this film is portraying real people and real events? Or do I want to use the period elements for other stylistic or narrative purposes?”
A Knight’s Tale is a great example of a script that knows exactly where it’s located on the historicity scale. Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves is a movie that doesn’t. When a period movie doesn’t work, it’s often because the filmmakers haven’t clearly decided exactly where their movie is on this continuum.
2.) You know more than you think you know.
I find this thought very helpful in getting through those paralyzing patches of writing, where I’m convinced I must research exactly every historical source on the Siege Of Granada, and revisit all the subsequent literature it inspired over the past 500 years, before I can write a single word.
But when I’m forced to fill up pages, when I trust my intuition and write the thing that feels most perfectly right, I have found again and again, that I can access an amazing amount of authenticity. When I fact-check later, I find that I knew a lot of the relevant details anyway, or better yet, I was able to create something authentic of my own that wasn’t just regurgitating historical detail.
Some of that is due to research already done, but it’s also having access to that sea of information that we in the 21st century are continuously awash in. Under hypnosis, I’m sure any one of us could reveal as much understanding of, say, Byzantine architecture as a scholar of the subject could a hundred years ago (thanks History Channel!). You can make a great start – hell, maybe even write a whole script – on what you already know.
3.) Don’t rely on what you already know
Having said that, don’t rely on what you already know. One of the privileges in writing a period piece is being able to dramatise and comment on events outside my own experience. It’s a chance to play with the world outside that solipsistic little screenwriter brain of mine. It’s a great opportunity to find elements that I would never think to incorporate were I just inventing it out of my own head.
Research is obviously vital if you want your audience to believe that they are witnessing actual historical events. Having the Red Baron shot down by a squadron of Spitfires (though that would be completely awesome) is not going to get you a gig on Ridley’s new film. But I think the more important part of research is availing yourself of a new creative well. Diving into wide and far-ranging research leads you into discoveries of locations, props, characters, events that you would never consider before. And the more you research, the more you’ll begin to unconsciously access these details in writing. They start to appear spontaneously and organically.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a beautiful model of this. Terry Jones and the Pythons knew medieval history so intimately, they could effortlessly extract dozens historical elements that were almost incidental (carts gathering plague victims, French mercenaries, the communal ethos of serfs, the importance of property dowry in medieval marriage) and turn them into masterpieces of comic invention.
4.) Show us humans doing human shit
One of the big traps we fall into with period movies is writing characters who turn into weird bejeweled androids who suddenly give up all human attributes. We forget that the people of a decade ago or a century ago or a millennium ago (or a millennium from now) are just human beings trying to keep other human beings from fucking up their shit.
And dialog is usually first thing to suffer. Characters start using the passive voice and before long everyone’s talking like Yoda, floating away into long speeches with a comma every three words.
I like to dare my characters to speak. They’re allowed to take as much action as they want, but they have to earn the right to speak. It keeps me from being lazy and just having them talk away what I should be revealing in plot and action, but it also helps keep them alive. And when they do speak, it’s authentic, it comes out of the reality of the moment and it’s because they really really need to.
Focus on the beating organs of the characters – what do they want, need, crave and who are they going to kill, pay, fuck, kidnap, imprison to get it? They may well have to use speech to accomplish some of these things, but as often as not, speech might be the thing that gets in their way. Think Jane Austen: so much of the drama comes from the straightjacket of speech that these passionate, flesh & blood humans are born into.
Treat dialog in period movies as you would treat props and costumes – as another tool that the character uses to get what he wants. But don’t lead with it. Make the characters earn it, when they finally do speak, it will come out of the situation, the drama – the period.
5.) Don’t Teach Us, Excite Us
The purpose of the period movie isn’t to teach us about what happened in days past. We can take a course or read a book if we want to. And I don’t think it’s only to entertain us either. Period movies should get us excited about how other people live(d).
This would be my personal criticism of most of Ridley Scott’s later period movies – I don’t come out of them excited, eager to know more about the Roman Empire or the Crusades. Usually, I just feel stuffed and feel like I should go lie down. On the other hand, Alien and Blade Runner are two of the greatest period films ever made.
Whatever your opinion of Mel Gibson, his Braveheart – and Apocalypto too – are great at getting you thrilled about their subject. History has been altered throughout Braveheart to make way for the needs of the story, but the film has a devotion to and enthusiasm for the period that it’s contagious. Braveheart evokes what we imagine the 13th century to be like –as a historical reality and as an imaginary, romantic storyworld both. I think it does this by putting the script first and the design second – and by knowing exactly where it is located on the historical/fantastical spectrum mentioned above.
One of the best things a period film can do is engage our imagination, become a springboard for an ongoing relationship with the subject. More than anything, we want audiences to walk out of the movie saying “Wow, did it really happen like that?” We want them to run home to find out if Spartacus really did exist, or try to locate Aqaba on a map, or find out if Jake LaMotta really had small hands.
BIO: Neal Romanek is a British-American screenwriter and novelist. He has written scripts for such producers as Dino Di Laurentiis, Mario Kassar, Lisa Henson, and Joel Silver. His most recent work is Skies Of Venus, a new novel in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Venus-Amtor series, written in partnership with the Burroughs Estate. He lives in London with his wife and child and three Californian cats.