Sunday, June 10, 2012

Doing The Empress

I've been putting the attempt at this screenplay off and putting it off out of FEAR AND IGNORANCE ("What in the hell do I know about Constantinople circa 540???"), but I just need to jump right in and start it!

I first started thinking about the Empress Theodora after seeing a History Channel special back when I was still in Weehawken. (What was the topic of the show? The whole history of the Roman Empire? The Plague's effects? I can't at all remember.) At any rate, there was a mention of an Empress who stood down a rioting crowd of 30,000 at Constantinople's Hippodrome when her husband and his advisors were ready to flee. She prevailed, and he ruled for another 20 years or something, later known as the high point of the Byzantine Empire. (Justinian also went on to became famous for codifying disparate laws of the far-flung empire, based on decisions of both legal thinkers/judges of antiquity and then-ongoing cases. And there was also the ongoing battle between Christianity and paganism... Both of these not major parts of the screenplay I want to write, but necessary atmosphere to KNOW about.)

Who WAS that? The more I learned about her personal story, the more interesting I found her: daughter of a Hippodrome bear-keeper who died, forcing his widow and daughters to beg (and sell themselves) for financial support after being betrayed by the dead husband's political faction (a decision that Theodora later made sure came back to bite them in the collective ass!); later an "actress" (more likely "prostitute" according to Procopius's outrageously salacious "history" of the time period) before attracting and marrying the man in line to become emperor. And then that whole riot scene in which she saved her husband's rule: I could just see the whole thing so clearly and cinematically. (I can also see Procopius --- allegedly trusted advisor, later sleazy betrayor --- as a GREAT character...)

I've written one other screenplay, but there wasn't much research involved. Just a general knowledge of 1950s Hollywood and America needed, which I already knew.

This, though... Like I said above: Constantinople in the 520s-540s???? What the fuck? I mean, I can write emotional scenes, but in this case, there has actually got to be some real historical background and setup. (Stuff like: Why were those city residents, initially gathered in the Hippodrome to watch some chariot races by two teams, suddenly turned into a snarling mob? A mob that INCLUDED the two opposing teams who just as suddenly joined forces and also rushed the Emperor...)

So for the past year I've been freaking out about not knowing enough. Getting a book or two from the library and reading maybe a third of each before they were due back. I finally decided to BUY the books I needed, cheap from either Amazon or eBay. That's not going to solve the procrastination-in-writing problem, but it gives me a sort of psychological safety net. I can just start WRITING the thing, and then when I hit a historical-ignorance snag, I've got 6 books to back me up. Don't have to read all of them all the way through ahead of time, but they're THERE for me to rely on. (Though I DO want to read most of them so I'll be in tune with the time period.)

Interestingly to me, while I was lounging around today browsing through "Justinian's Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire," I had on the History Channel low in the background (old-school History Channel: alien visits to Earth, as opposed to their trend nowadays of "Ice Road Truckers" or "Swamp People" or whatever stupid thing) --- and perked up when I heard the phrase "Justinian's flea"! In this case, guys positing that aliens dropped a plague on Byzantium, et al. But still: Shades of my first hearing about Theodora and Justinian on that channel years ago, so a good sign! :)

I MISS having a creative project to work on. For the past 5 years, I've basically been just in Bare-Sustenance Mode, struggling for work, struggling over love issues. I'm now pretty much set financially until the end of the year. And I've come to terms with not being loved (well, you know, as much as one CAN come to terms with that!). :) I've very much missed the RUSH of being really interested in something intellectually and creatively. This Theodora project is getting me geared up again.


e.f. bartlam said...

I love the ambition.

You get the story right and there are consultants with degrees like mine to help with the details. I can't be much use with this period but I'm here when your ready to start On Queen Victoria.


Beth Austin said...

Well, if Queen Victoria had been a child prostitute and teenage courtesan and later gone on to personally hold off 30,000 drunken rioters to save her husband's empire, then maybe she'd be more historically interesting to me! :) (Longevity is admirable. But not necessarily that interesting.)

RE "consultants with degrees": I've got a Master's of my own, and certainly can't afford to consult with anyone. This free-lance project is all on my own.

e.f. bartlam said...

Sorry...I meant specifically history degrees. I shouldn't post when I'm falling asleep.

I knew one fella who did a lot of this kinda work. They would call him and ask crazy stuff like...what did sheep look like in 15th century Yorkshire. This was all during production (I was just assuming this project was going to get picked up :) ).