Should I Write A Period Piece?

Written by Ali Laventhol

A unique arena will give your script a memorable conceit. We’re always fascinated by worlds that most of us don’t have access to, like behind the scenes of a professional sport or the CIA. But there’s nothing quite like transporting your audience into another time-period. Who can forget the MAD MEN era when midday martinis in the office were the norm or when aristocrats woke up to ironed newspapers in DOWNTON ABBEY.

So… should you write a period piece? Well, maybe.

Over the years, Tawnya and I have been advised against it by our reps, but we’ve done it anyway because we were passionate about the idea. So if you have an idea set in the past that you’re excited about, go for it. We’re glad we did.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind based on the reasons our reps discouraged us.

  1. Costs—period pieces are expensive. Costs for wardrobe, locations, set decoration, props, visual effects, etc, will all be higher which makes your project more difficult to sell.
  2. Relevance—will modern audiences connect? There’s not much you can do in a pitch to mitigate costs, so lean in to proving why your story is relevant in 2024.

Here are a few ways you can approach this.

Hidden Figures

Highlight an unknown but important history

In a recent interview for her new movie FIREBRAND, Alicia Vikander discussed her character, Katherine Parr, otherwise known as King Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife. She said: “A lot of women throughout history haven’t had their story told.” And damn if this isn’t a strong argument for relevance!

In a film like HIDDEN FIGURES those characters, all women of color, played a critical role in getting the first American astronaut to orbit the earth – a groundbreaking slice of NASA history – but they didn’t get the recognition they deserved. By telling their story, contemporary women, especially of color, may see themselves differently in terms of professional opportunities.

If you grew up thinking the aerospace field was all male, HIDDEN FIGURES offers a different truth.

Eric (Netflix)

How far have we come?

The Netflix series, ERIC, takes place in New York in the 1980s. It follows a fictional father (Benedict Cumberbatch) desperate to find his missing son. Meanwhile the assigned detective is hiding his sexual orientation from his grossly homophobic boss and co-workers, while secretly caring for his partner at home who is dying of AIDS.

This reminded audiences as to how far we’ve come – both medically, since AIDS is no longer a death sentence, and in terms of the  discrimination and verbal abuse this character faced at work. Any story that highlights the overt sexism/racism/homophobia in our history will help current audiences detect the more subtle sexism/racism/homophobia that persists today.

So, thematically, ERIC is asking audiences to celebrate the progress we’ve made while also recognizing the ways in which we can still improve.

The Knick

Origin stories

There are so many contemporary show genres—cop shows, legal shows, medical shows, family dramas and teen dramas—that if you want to set one in the past, you’ll need to explain why. What purpose does your 1950s legal show, say, serve that its present-day counterpart doesn’t?

THE KNICK for example, is a medical show set in 1900 at a fictionalized version of the Knickerbocker hospital in New York. It gave us all the dramatic elements and stakes of a contemporary medical show with the added intrigue of an origin story. That is, it depicted the origins of some of the medical advances we take for granted today—like anesthesia and vaccines—reminding us how lucky we are to be alive now.

I was surprised at how many risks surgeons took on their patients to try to learn more about the body. The surgical trial and error was  terrifying and exciting. The series seemed to ask: is it moral to sacrifice the few to help the many? If I experiment on my surgical patients and lose one or two, but I learn how to save thousands through the process, is that ethical? The main character would say yes, and his hospital bosses would say no, which gave the show great conflict.

Though THE KNICK was fictionalized, origin stories based on true stories are another way to go like the movie AIR. Set in 1984, AIR told the story of how Michael Jordan signed with Nike and created the AIR JORDAN shoe brand.

When you can tell a story about how something commonplace in our world came to be, you’ve got a good foundation for relevance.

Air

theme

Let’s stay with AIR for a second. The main character, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is making a play to sign the NBA rookie he believes will eventually be a superstar, despite the fact that Nike doesn’t have much of a basketball division compared to the bigger, more successful brands Converse and Adidas.

This is a tried-and-true underdog story with themes of grit, determination and risk taking. These themes are wildly universal and will therefore resonate with audiences no matter what year it is.

So, if you’re struggling to find the relevance of your period piece ask yourself if there’s a universal theme you can bring forward. What are you trying to say with your story? What is its underlying meaning? And is that meaning timeless?

Handmaids tale

cautionary tales

It’s debatable whether THE HANDMAID’S TALE is a period piece as it’s not entirely clear what year the story takes place. If we go by the novel, which was published in 1985, the story is set somewhere around 2022. However, the series may have taken a bit of liberty with that timeline.

In any case, it provides one of the strongest recent examples of a cautionary tale—especially since it premiered in April 2017, months after Trump took office and began enacting the agenda of the religious, conservative right. This story seemed to be screaming “look what happens if we continue down this road.” It imagined the worst possible outcome without seeming all that farfetched.

If your cautionary tale is set in the past, the same is true only framed as “let’s not make this same mistake again.” Since they serve as a warning, cautionary tales carry an inherent relevance that should put any executive’s mind at ease.

If you want to develop your project, whether it’s period or not, there’s a Script Anatomy class waiting for you. Check out the class calendar for details.


Ali Laventhol

Ali Laventhol has been Tawnya‘s writing partner for over a decade, most recently as the Co-Executive Producer for My Life With The Walter Boys (Netflix), and Bel-Air (Peacock), as well as several Lifetime movies. She is a long time Script Anatomy instructor.

 

 

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