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'Hyde Park,' 'Lincoln' and more films give history a leading role

The hands of time can become as important as the characters in reality-based movies. Sometimes what was true can be the oddest part.

November 29, 2012|By Randee Dawn
  • A handful of films based on history are making their rounds this awards season.
A handful of films based on history are making their rounds this awards season. (Amy Ning / For the Los Angeles…)

In "Hyde Park on Hudson," the retelling of the visit of the king and queen of England to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in upstate New York in 1939, there's a particularly remarkable scene: Roosevelt's mother — who owned the house where everyone stayed — had purchased a brand-new toilet seat for the royals. But after they left she returned it to the store where she bought it. The shop owner was delighted, hanging the seat in his front window. That's in the movie — and it happened in real life.

"People will think that was made up," says screenwriter Richard Nelson. "But that's hard to make up, and it's all true."

Writing historically based films — whether in invented worlds or periods of actual history — can be tricky: Truth is often stranger than fiction, yet writers must fictionalize on some level to make the truth both understood by audiences and to stay true to the period. In such films as "Hyde Park," "Argo," "Hitchcock," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Lincoln" and "Not Fade Away," each screenwriter wrestled with different demons to create verisimilitude along with the action, adventure and, well, history.

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Tony Kushner, screenwriter for "Lincoln," focused specifically on language; as a playwright, that only made sense. Coming up with the correct pronunciation, diction and word choice for his characters was key to his script sounding real — yet people still had to sound believable.

"Shakespeare was so central to 19th century American speech, that and the King James Bible were so central to the way they spoke in that day," says Kushner, who pored through transcripts of President Lincoln's actual meetings and kept his Oxford English Dictionary close at hand. "Any time I got to a word that sounded odd to me, I looked it up in the OED," he says. That way, he says, he could trace the first appearances of any new words, to make sure they fit in the time period.

For "Argo," screenwriter Chris Terrio had a secondary source of language and information: The vast news coverage that was devoted to the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 signaled the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle. Terrio used a lot of archival footage in the screenplay to ensure the audience was surrounded by bits of recorded history. "So there's always this noise or chatter in the background where TVs are on, or you're hearing the radio and getting updated information," he says.

Telling stories that actually once happened is particularly tricky, acknowledges Terrio, because writers are aware of the way movie images can sometimes become the story of record in viewers' imaginations. "There's a whole group of people who think D-day was like it was in 'Saving Private Ryan.' But as long as you feel confident in the big things being accurate, then as you craft the narrative we felt it was OK to not stick to the facts all the time."

There's less emphasis on facts when your film occupies a fictional place, even if the time period is familiar. Wes Anderson and David Chase each released films this year that take place in the 1960s (1965 for Anderson's "Moonrise," 1963-68 for Chase's "Not Fade Away") but could create their own universe of events as they saw fit.

Both director-writers ("Moonrise" was co-written by Anderson with Roman Coppola) say they had personal connections to the eras. "The movie takes place right at the end of a more square America," says Anderson, who set his story on a remote island. "By the time my characters are teenagers, it's going to be a complete revolution in the streets. I was partly drawn to this whole thing being a memory, even if it's not a very explicit thing."

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New Jersey is hardly remote, but the historical events rocking the world around Chase's characters are not the main story, which is about a struggling group of musicians. "I didn't want to get the record chronology too out of order, and I didn't want John Kennedy to be on a rocket ship to the moon," says Chase. "But I didn't want to be straitjacketed, either."

Working in the 1960s is a challenge no matter what the subject of the film — as Chase notes, "The '60s have been lauded, ridiculed, satirized — it's all been done. I wanted to tell a story about a small group of friends, not people who became stars — the tidal flats of history, the estuaries of history. Just regular people."

Of course, one of the reasons we keep revisiting the 1960s is that it does sell well; "Hitchcock" screenwriter John J. McLaughlin, whose film takes place in the late 1950s and early 1960s, notes that not all eras sell well to audiences or to studios. "There are just some periods people don't like, like the Revolutionary War. I've tried selling those things, and nobody wants to see that. But the '50s transitioning into the hippie era, that's a cool, nice period."

Regardless of the historical era, "Hyde Park's" Nelson champions telling historical stories because they're actually good for us. "The more we put historical people on pedestals and make them different from the rest of us, that takes the weight of responsibility off our own shoulders. Then we can think it's not normal people who do great things — it's giants. It's much healthier to show the humanity of [those] people, not marbleized figures. We don't want to wait for giants to save us."

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