Friday 28th April, 2006

It’s 3 AM in central London – dark and quiet except for the odd car and the hum of generators huddled round the outside of Westminster Cathedral. But here, inside, light is flooding in through the windows as though it was midday …

And in the minds of the 150 or so people here it is midday and this isn’t London, it’s the Escorial palace in Spain in the year 1588. King Philip II of Spain, the most powerful man in the world, is about to tell his ministers that he now has the right to invade England – the Spanish Armada is about to be launched.
But this isn’t a dream, it’s a movie and as the historical adviser on this and Elizabeth before it, it’s a paradox I’m getting used to. People often ask me if the films I work on are ‘true’ – if they are ‘what really happened’ and, as an occasional contributor to Shekhar’s blog I’m hoping to explain over the next few weeks of filming a little of how history and drama are blended to make this movie, how making films with Shekhar is not simply about historical truth but interpreting the past through dialogue and metaphor – something we can all do and the thing that makes history matter to every generation.
I’m going to look at how Shekhar developed the historical themes for this movie, how we found ways of condensing not just years of historical narrative, but a feeling for the time and place into scenes and characters that can tell the story of a age in just two or so hours. It’s always a tall order and the story we will tell can never be ‘exactly what happened’ but it will be about what it was to be an Elizabethan, how the world looked to them and how their concerns are often still our concerns today. Please feel free to chip-in with any thoughts or questions about the film or the time (or indeed Elizabeth for that matter). History is about dialogue so let’s talk.
As ever,

10 thoughts on “Friday 28th April, 2006

  1. Hi,
    It’s true that we have gone past the stage (in films) where there was some degree of novelty in the idea that the film becomes a window into the past, for example – so what unfolds attempts to simply re-construct with a degree of invention and creative license..
    Shekhars film is really a kind of reverse of SciFi, particularly when SciFi seeks to engage in a debate about how people might change in the future (as it always has), what the world / people will be like rather than simply a theme park ride into “somewhere else” – in that sense I’d anticipate a similar approach..
    I think because we know certain things happened, we expect some degree of veracity, but why ? – it’s interesting that we might expect Scifi to engage us in debate, but not historical fiction, where we might consider metaphor and allegory to have no place…
    So it’s an interesting approach to a historical subject…

  2. Hi Justin. Thanks for sparing some time to blog. You have a daunting and delicate task of merging history with interpretation, and although many historians criticized Elizabeth for its inaccuracies, I loved the movie and can only wish you the best for The Golden Age.
    I have noticed that this movie focuses largely on the 1580s with Raleigh, Mary Stuart and the Armada. Elizabeth was almost 60 during these times. And yet your actors are in their 30s. And Clive Owen is older than Blanchett. Wasn’t Raleigh 20 years younger than Elizabeth? Do you plan at all to address these concerns? I totally understand the larger importance of getting the “message” and not the details across, but it may be harder to do so after so many versions of Elizabeth shown in the past year, especially with the BBC version with Helen Mirren showing similar subjects.

  3. I hope the film doesn’t eliminate the most interesting and historically accurate parts of Elizabeth. The many Jesuit/Vatican attempts on her life are factual.
    I’ve read a few works about the queen, some flattering and some not. One of the most interesting was a book that came out a few years ago, The Works of Elizabeth. The queen’s understanding of the bible was profound although not without flaws. I’ve read that she translated the scriptures into a couple of different languages.
    Although I’ve also read there was an occult side to her as well, attempting to portray her as a “Hindu”(god is in all) may seem to be revisionist and detrimental to future film reviews and profits.
    As you know truth is quite important to any film and I might add ,also to the star of the film(Cate Blanchett) . I hope this isn’t going to be along the lines of a V for Vendetta.

  4. Justin, as I mentioned in a previous post, Michael Wood discovered in his PBS documentary on Shakespeare, that there are archives with actual documents written by Walsingham’s spies, which contain the facts as to what was going on back then during Elizaneth’s day. Certainly from the point of view of her Defence Department whose archives are where these documents originated. To bend historical truth and facts, without changing character indentity, is to ask an audience to accept a lie. When you fictionalise characters, but have them resemble real people, you have liscence to do whatever and that is totally acceptable. I beleive It undermines the credibilty of your work if you present alternative history, unless those characters are fictionalized in the case of bending the truth for dramatic purposes. Sorry, but that simply is the way it is, and no amount of changing facts for the sake of, “this is a metaphor for what really happened”, will sell to educated and knowledgable people.

  5. Wow, not sure I’ll be able to keep up with all the comments but here goes:
    Ravi – You’re point about what we expect from history – what level of truth we expect, be it in film, TV or books is really at the heart of what I try to do.
    Putski – you’re quite right – Raleigh was 34 in 1588 and Elizabeth was 55. I would never be so indelicate as to mention Cate or Clive’s ages but they are much younger. So I suppose there are two questions. Firstly – ‘could this be avoided?’ Well, not without holding off making the movie for a few decades. Secondly ‘does it matter?’. I suppose it really comes down to how Elizabeth and Raleigh are played. It would be interesting to see what ages people thought Cate and Clive were after the film if they didn’t have any prior knowledge. I feel there is a sense of having moved on considerably in time from ‘Elizabeth’ in the dialogue an art/ make-up design and I’m sure this will be reflected in the performances. To some degree however we do simply require the audience to ‘believe’ that characters have aged. It’s a problem in any biographical movie and comes back to the fact that any film based on a human story tries to compress years of time into just a couple of hours.
    Terry – We certainly won’t be avoiding dealing with Jesuit conspiracies against Elizabeth. You’re quite right about Elizabeth – she was a very highly educated woman, having received a level of education unusual for women of any class in that era. Elizabeth received a full humanist education, spoke nine languages and had a formidable reputation as a translator (although many of her translations are known only by reputation). Even though Elizabeth didn’t ‘publish’ her work, to understand how unusual this was we only have to remember that only previous ruler in the UK to translate works personally was King Alfred the Great in the ninth century.
    Iden – You’re quite right about the Walsingham spy material – there is a fair but of it known now anda very good new biography on Walsingham due out this summer makes good use of it.
    As to whether we’re asking our audience to ‘accept a lie’ I think that’s quite a harsh way of looking at it and requires a view of history that I personally don’t share. I think there is a profound difference between ‘the past’ (i.e. those events which have happened) and ‘history (i.e the interpretation of what information remains from the past, in the present). I have been having a discussion with Shekhar about the philosophy of history and I’ll post some of what we discussed when I get a minute.

  6. Okay, on Saturday my family and I took a trip out to Niagra Falls, Canada.
    Strangely enough, I was drawn to wanting to go to “Ripley’s Believe It or Not”, Museum. Among the wonderous displays was… “Elizabeth” a portrait done with various colours of tiny seeds.

  7. Dear Justin,
    FYI, Clive Owen is 41 for those interested, and Cate Blanchette will be turning 37 on May 14. Clive is the right age to play Sir Walter Raleigh and Cate, well, with make-up, costume and who she is as an actress, I’m sure she’ll handle playing the older Elizabeth with panache.
    What I can’t handle in a movie is not so much the historical inaccuracies, because one has to realize that you are watching a movie after all and there is come creative license involved; but when the dialogue inferrs that it’s winter and the scenery depicts rolling green lawns with luch flowers indicating springtime. Or, when an actor is wearing the same costume he wore in the last scene and it’s supposed to be a different day, that annoys me!
    As long as the history is somewhat accurate, can’t we all be happy? After all, the Elizabethan era was a long time ago and none of us were there to refute anything that we’re going to view on screen.
    Warmest wishes,

  8. Ahahaha…that’s interesting Justin, “time on their hands”, where does time exsist? on our hands, the hands of the clocks, watches etc…?
    If we stop tracking time, would other senses arise to the occasion?

  9. What is amazing about art today is that our creativity allows us to explore the truth about history, rather than simply illustrate a timeline of facts and figures.
    It is the essence, what is at the heart of it all– that captivates, and what is ultimately relevant to us all now. In our time, we know — more than those who lived before us, in their own time knew — what their actions would mean, and it is the breadth of that meaning that reveals, I think, what SK & Co. seem to want to illustrate, humanity’s connection to the eternal, an individual being’s connection to divine …
    If all that was shown was just what was true to text, that would be the lie …
    (and anyway, does it really matter how many years old Clive Owen/Cate Blanchette REALLY are? Its the movies for cripes sake…)

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