So You Want to Make a History Documentary?
I have worked, in one capacity or another, on twenty-five television documentaries having historical subjects. I worked on Bill Moyers's series, "A Walk Through the 20th Century" and the PBS series on Lyndon B. Johnson. I have written a film in the PBS series "The American Experience" on the Crash of 1929; I have written and co-produced a series on the history of American Photography, a program on the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, and the PBS series "Liberty! The American Revolution." And I have just completed another PBS mini-series on Benjamin Franklin.
Who needs historians on TV? I certainly do.
I always compare producing a television program to producing a piece of music. Not only do both media exist and have to work in time, but film and television, like music, have the possibility of playing several notes simultaneously. On the obvious level, you have the picture elements and the many elements of the soundtrack; on a structural level, you can always approach a subject in several ways at once. Not having historians on-camera, to continue the music analogy, is playing a violin with one string missing. The Canadian History series noted above was well produced and extremely well done, but it was missing the voice of the historian and desperately weaker because of this missing element.
TELLING HISTORY BEFORE PHOTOGRAPHY
The problem was particularly acute for the programs in the Canadian series that dealt with the pre-photographic, pre-film era. The cry of the filmmaker stuck with a subject before film footage and photography is "What the hell do I show on the picture?" After digging up the ten paintings and six etchings that cover a particular subject, what happens in the other 5 hours and 49 minutes?
There are, alas, only a few ways of slicing this sausage. You can attempt the expensive and delicate business of historical re-creation and/or you can use images symbolically (falling leaves, pans across open fields, and sunsets). (An aside: one eminent historian-turned-filmmaker recently addressed an audience excitedly describing how he had discovered that one could use shots of the ocean and trees to represent certain ideas being expressed on the sound track. The reaction of the astonished filmmakers in the audience was, to quote my 12-year-old daughter, "Duh!")
We produced the series "Liberty!" for PBS several years ago, using an unusual technique that we developed to bring alive pre-photographic history using the documents of the time. We can't go back and interview Washington or Jefferson but we do have their thoughts recorded in letters, diary entries, pamphlets, and other sources. We decided to have on-camera actors appear as if being interviewed, expressing essentially the same ideas that they wrote. Although we had some action re-creations, we avoided having dramatic dialogue scenes. These are very difficult to pull off in a convincing way -- even Hollywood with its huge budgets can rarely achieve verisimilitude.
"Liberty!" was extremely well received (it won, among others, both the Peabody and Christopher Awards) and seemed to everyone a very effective method of bringing alive pre-photographic history for a general public. The most vivid and accessible character we encountered when making "Liberty!" was Benjamin Franklin. Thus, we decided to produce a full series on Franklin's life and times, drawing extensively on the Yale collection of his writings.
The object of the series was to try to rescue Franklin from his popular image as a sexually suspect, avuncular light-weight and show not only his own evolution but his profound influence on the history of this country.
To return to the music analogy, bringing alive original source material is one note to play. But it is only one and it is not enough. An example from the Franklin series makes the point tellingly.
THE FOUR ELEMENTS OF HISTORICAL FILM MAKING
At the beginning of Program Two, we tell the fascinating story of Franklin's
attempt, on behalf of the colonists of Pennsylvania, to force Thomas Penn to
provide more funds for the support of the colony.
ELEMENT ONE: NARRATION
Element one is the narration that sets the background and attempts to explain to the audience what exactly is going as clearly and succinctly as possible without color.
NARRATION: The meeting between Thomas Penn and Franklin takes place in January of 1758. Penn begins on the offensive....
ELEMENT TWO: PRIMARY WITNESSES
The letters of both men give us vivid descriptions of the violent confrontation that took place between them. It was interesting historically and interesting in many ways as a window on Franklin's personality. So element two is based on the letters, which we dramatically recreated using our outstanding Franklin actor, Richard Easton, and Simon Jones playing the arrogant Thomas Penn.
FRANKLIN: I answered that according to his father's Charter which founded Pennsylvania, (and then I quoted it to him), "the Assembly of Pennsylvania shall have all the power and privileges of any assembly formed by freeborn subjects of England." "Ah ha," he says, "but my father didn't have any authority from the Crown to grant this right." Then he laughs, snorting like a donkey. I was astounded.
THOMAS PENN: He's a vile liar. That is not what I said or did. (DISMISSIVELY) The rights of freeborn Englishmen pft! The Germans settled Pennsylvania because there was good farmland there, they'd never even heard of my father's Charter. In any case it's over. I'll have no further conversations for any reasons whatsoever with this tribune of the people.
FRANKLIN: (LAUGHING) Thomas is enraged. When I meet him anywhere, he looks at me with a strange mixture of hatred, anger, fear and vexation. I've absolutely no regrets for calling him a low jockey. That description is completely justified. I hope it sticks in his liver.
ELEMENT THREE: PERIOD RE-CREATIONS
Franklin had the bad grace to be a totally urban character with key moments of his life taking place in Boston, Philadelphia, London and Paris. None of the cheap rolling hills and nature shots for us. But how could we evoke a vivid 18th century urban landscape on a PBS budget that would not cover the lunch expenses on a modest Hollywood TV show? Our solution was found in, of all places, Vilnius, Lithuania. At a modest cost Lithuania could supply us with unrenovated 18th century urban streets complete with hundreds of extras including pigs and dogs running through the streets eating garbage. And there were no McDonald's neon sign to cover up.
I don't know what the extras made of the colonial costumes they were wearing but their faces and look, complete with bad teeth and the ravages of two wars, gave an extraordinary authenticity to the scenes. The film crew from New York City had nothing to tell an old woman on the art of plucking chickens for a scene in the slums of Paris. She had been plucking chickens all her life.
ELEMENT FOUR: SCHOLAR COMMENTARY
All this would be wasted if it weren't for the fourth and most crucial element: the role of the on-camera scholars who give the Penn incident its background and context. They tell the audience what is really going on. What follows is some of the background they provided for our Thomas Penn scene.
- DOUGLAS ANDERSON: (AUTHOR OF The RADICAL ENLIGHTENMENT OF BF) The Penns
thought the Colony's government pretty much existed to secure the revenues
of the Penn family. For Franklin that was essentially feudalism and he despised
that, the idea that a moneyed family in Great Britain would use a colony strictly
as a source of revenue for its lifestyle.
- DAVID MORGAN (AUTHOR OF THE DEVIOUS DR. FRANKLIN): Franklin was a self-made man. He had gradually clawed his way up in the world and he had become a world famous figure. I suppose Franklin thought he was due a certain amount of respect for what he had accomplished. And Penn probably thought that if you weren't born rich you didn't deserve respect.
These are the four elements of historical documentaries, the narration, a primary source (either on-camera, or voiceover), period re-creations and the scholarly commentary. The Canadian series attempted to have the unseen narrator do the double duty of telling the audience what is going on and supplying the context -- a very difficult thing to do, especially since the scholars can add their own emotions to what they are saying. Take Carol Berkin, who appears in Program Three of our series describing John Adams arrival in France in 1778 to 'help' Franklin in his delicate negotiations with the French:
- CAROL BERKIN: Nobody could be less suited to be a diplomat in any court in Europe than John Adams. He has no social skills. More to the point, he never wanted to acquire any! Adams comes in to the Paris scene as sort of the bull in the china shop. You can just picture Franklin going, 'oh my god, everything I've done here, all the groundwork I've laid, this idiot can destroy in five minutes'.
It would be very odd to use the unseen narrator to express these ideas in such a forceful way. It takes the authority and conviction of an on-camera scholar. And it is not only what Berkin is saying that was important to our story but also how she says it. The audience will remember this moment.
The filmmaker and the historian are often seen and see themselves as adversaries. I have never felt that way. For one thing, I am not a historian and I rely on historical advisors to protect me from foolish mistakes. But I am also aware that we are working in extremely different media and addressing different publics. I love to shock historians by explaining to them that the script of a densely "talky" television hour is only 18 typewritten pages long. In the Franklin series, for example, I had the daunting challenge of trying to describe the nuances of the Treaty of Paris of 1783 in 100 words. In addition, television is a very different medium from a book or an article, simply because programs are so expensive to make. The show must hold the attention of several million audience members, an audience which does not necessarily give a damn about history and has a remote control in its collective hands with access to 150 channels.
That said, historical documentaries do not always have to be about so-called 'visual subjects' like war and do not have to only appeal to eight-year-olds. Scholars are the secret weapon in an intelligent film-maker's arsenal. In the end, their insights are what give the show meaning.