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Why period pieces are so difficult to write WELL…and how one film cracked it.

Aphra Behn (née Johnson) by Robert White, after John Riley line engraving, published 1716 5 1/8 in. x 3 3/8 in. (130 mm x 86 mm) paper size Purchased, 1966
Aphra Behn (née Johnson)
by Robert White, after John Riley
line engraving, published 1716
5 1/8 in. x 3 3/8 in. (130 mm x 86 mm) paper size
Purchased, 1966
I was absurdly pleased when, this week, my director of Take a Bite redux, Amy DeFelice, e-mailed me some salient facts she’d unearthed in her research for her Fringe show this year, about Aphra Behn. Theatre/English Lit geekery! Amy directed the staged reading of my one-woman show that I’ve been intermittently trying to rewrite since…it’s about a woman who may have known Katherine Parr (the evidence is scant, but there). One of the comments from the audience that night, was, point-blank, he hated period pieces. Period. I was amazed by that; HATES anything non-contemporary? Really? WHY?

Everyone who’s read this script of mine has been very impressed with how in-the-time it is. I worked hard to make sure I knew what life for these people was like. There was the suggestion that, maybe, that’s its problem — I’ve done all the research, and now I have to FORGET I know all that, and just concentrate on the story. I think there’s more to it than that, however. Another problem I keep running into is HOW to show how serious heresy was. I tell people about the story, and they’re intrigued, but there’s also the sense of: how quaint. Religion doesn’t matter nearly as much now, at least in this part of the world, as it did in England, circa 1547. This play has an absolutely astounding female lead character, and the issues it shows are still, unfortunately, very present. But without being able to show what the conflict really was for this woman…it will never mean anything to an audience NOW.

Maybe that’s the problem with period pieces. Robert McKee said in Story, pg 83: “What is past must be present”; but the way most period pieces do that is by playing up the sex and violence, which a modern audience easily gets, and de-emphasizing the “period”.

This is one of the many reasons I’m fascinated by A Field in England, a brand new film that’s just been released — on EVERYTHING — in the UK. I’m not a fan of out-and-out horror movies, so I haven’t seen any of Ben Wheatley’s previous films. This one sounds absolutely bonkers. And I can’t find any details about when it might be released here (that’s for another post/rant); I’m going just by what I’ve read. Here’s the thing that’s interesting to me: it takes place during the English Civil War, and yet there seems to be little direct history involved. Four deserters from a battle happening just offscreen find themselves trapped — the whole film apparently takes place in one open field, outdoors — by a genuine alchemist. The kind of man who was hell-bent on turning lead into gold and living forever…things people in that time honestly believed were possible. This self-possessed, manipulative, authoritative man believes it, and because the easily swayed, battle-weary people around him believe it, he’s able to force them, by will, into digging up this field for him looking for treasure. That’s all that “happens”…but judging by the reviews, what really happens is the audience gets uncomfortably close to these characters whose honest-to-God beliefs make them go completely mad. It sounds like the filmmakers have successfully set the time and place, and then just let the ground-state of what these people believe run its course.

Somehow, that’s what I have to do with my script: put the audience in this woman’s time, and place, and then just let the story pull them further in with her.