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Script Doctors

The Art of Film Consulting

The first of several climaxes in Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 epic “Django Unchained” is a lengthy negotiation around plantation owner Calvin Candie’s dinner table. The titular Django, a runaway slave, and his German friend, the traveling dentist Dr. King Schultz, engage in a tense attempt to buy Django’s wife back from Candie. As the meal progresses, the plantation owner becomes increasingly suspicious of the duo’s motives.

While devoid of the frenetic movement and violence for which Tarantino is known, the scene is still remarkably detailed. Slaves bring each course to the table in a meticulously choreographed routine while Tarantino’s camera hones in on each character’s handling of their silverware and napkins. The scene is just as focused on the culture and intricacies of Southern life as it is on the individuals; the auteur clearly thought through every detail and historical flourish. Tarantino wrote the film in addition to directing it, but he did not approach the project just happening to have a firm grasp on the aesthetics of the late antebellum period. That’s why the guidance of John Stauffer, a professor of English and American Literature and African American studies at Harvard, was so important.

django unchained scene
A scene from Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained."
 

Stauffer is just one among a bevy of Harvard humanities professors who have worked as historical consultants for feature films. He’s an actor in a scholarly exchange that takes place during the production of virtually every narrative historical movie. Despite the ubiquity of consulting, though, there is no consistent formula for how the historical consultant is approached or what they do for the director and creative team. What’s more, the interaction isn’t something that many professors are eager to discuss, either out of prior agreement or lack of passion about the projects on which they worked.  

Those who are willing to talk, though, reveal a world of nuanced intellectual discourse with the writers and directors who solicit their help. The sincere desire evinced on both ends to present a compelling and artistically free vision of the past is the only constant in the otherwise case-by-case world of academic film consulting.

GETTING THE PICTURE

I expected the central tension in this piece to be the push and pull between the factual vision of the past that historians present and the fantastical realm of the filmmaker. I was ready to tell stories of fights between directors who wanted to change the location of Gettysburg and scholars who felt an ideological obligation to stop them. Minutes into my conversation with Stauffer, however, I realized that this was not at all the dynamic.

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Stauffer rejects the notion that a history professor consulting on a film should act as fact-checker. “A scholar can’t expect for a film to be historically accurate—it’s a separate genre,” he says. Rather than chase large-scale accuracy, Stauffer focuses on making the filmmaker’s images and scenes as detailed and evocative of the era in question as possible.

According to the professors interviewed for this article, the path to becoming a consultant on a film varies on a case-by-case basis. In the case of “Django Unchained,” Tarantino’s producer contacted Stauffer and told him that the crew needed help. “My role was to read the script, assess it for authenticity, and mainly give them descriptions to help with their images,” Stauffer says. Many of those descriptions went toward furnishing the details for the elaborate dinner scene.

“Tarantino asked me, ‘What kind of food would they serve? How many slaves would be serving the dinner? How would they dress? What’s the table setting like?’” Rather than give Tarantino direct answers, Stauffer provided the director with literature that offered him a number of options. “There are contemporaneous books about what table settings were like at that time, so I led him to the literature,” Stauffer explains.

The professor’s methods fit into his philosophy about the malleability of representation.  Stauffer says his flexibility is just as much based on audience expectation as it is on ceding creative control to the director. “A lot of scholars are upset––they assume that a film can somehow perfectly mimic a historical narrative, which is absurd,” Stauffer says. “You can’t bog down a film with too much context…. Hollywood screenwriters are writing for an eighth grade readership.” While other director-consultant teams might espouse different philosophies, Stauffer and Tarantino believe that the most effective way to relay history to the masses in a film is through the detail and sumptuousness of its visual presentation as opposed to the exactitude of its script.

ROSENSTONE’S RULE

The work of cultural theorist Robert Rosenstone played a significant role in making Stauffer comfortable with stylized history films. In his essay 1995 “The Historical Film as Real History,” Rosenstone argues that the historiography, or critical examination of history, presented in a film almost always mirrors that which exists in the academic community.

Django is no exception—the film suggests that the evil of slavery necessitated the violent response that ultimately sparked the Civil War. “Virtually every scholar will say that the essential cause of the conflict was slavery,” Stauffer says. “Yet today, two-thirds of white Southerners still thinks that slavery was incidental, almost irrelevant, in the case of the Civil War.” In Stauffer’s mind, films provide a means of introducing historiographical realities to populations that are still digesting stale concepts.

As long as films mesh with the prevailing historiography, Stauffer argues, they can serve as vehicles for the spread of scholarly analysis. “A history film is the greatest source of evangelism for the works of history used to construct it,” he says.

civil war era family
A Civil War era family.
 

The exceptions to Rosenstone’s rule, which arise when filmmakers avoid prevailing literature on their subject, cause a major problem for Stauffer. The historian cites “Gettysburg,” a six-hour long 1993 film about the Civil War battle, as egregiously sympathetic to the cause of the South. “There are still relatively recent films that I would call neo-Confederate,” he says. While most films do reflect prevailing historical narratives, Stauffer is careful to keep his eyes open for potentially dangerous portrayals of bygone times.

Eric Rentschler, a Germanic Languages and Literatures professor and another Tarantino consultant, takes Stauffer’s message of factual leniency a step further. Rentschler says he believes that films that present counterfactual representations of the past can be just as valuable as those that try to reflect history exactly.

Rentschler worked with Tarantino on “Inglorious Basterds,” a film set late in World War II that culminates in the slaughter an entire cadre of Nazi leaders by a troop of Jewish-American soldiers. The GIs takes out Hitler and company in a bloody barrage of machine gun bullets during a night at the movies while the Nazi aristocracy around them burns in a simultaneous fire. “The film takes out Hitler in the most brutal, savage, and merciless way, not granting him a final shot or any last words,” Rentschler says. “The film is trying to dispel the fascination of fascism, and in that regard is doing something fundamentally different from what all the other Nazi retro films have done.”

A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR

Like Stauffer, Rentschler follows Rosenstone’s historiographical thinking. But while Stauffer seems entirely on board with Tarantino’s subversion of the past, Rentschler is critical of certain aspects of the director’s handling of his source material. Rentschler’s tome “The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and its Afterlife” is the principal book that Tarantino utilized to create his narrative about propaganda minister Joseph Goebbel’s films and to create a pastiche of a Nazi film, which the party’s leaders are watching when they are killed.

For the most part, Rentschler lauds Tarantino’s usage of the book. “I think he learned some things factually, particularly that Goebbels wasn’t purely an ideologue and was in some ways a huge cinephile who looked to Hollywood,” Rentschler says. When it came to creating his imagined Nazi film, however, Tarantino opted more for an exaggeratory tone. “The point in my book is that the films that don’t seem full of poison are those which are most ideologically insidious––the notion of ‘the spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,’” says Rentschler.  

The bluntly violent and anti-semitic film-within-a-film that Tarantino created, then, is less subtle and affecting than the films that were actually being released. “[The film-within-a-film] is very obvious, very heavy-handed, and very ideological,” says Rentschler. “It’s actually not the kind of film that Goebbels would have made.”

Still, despite his complaint, Rentschler appreciates Tarantino and says he has even internalized a friend’s conspiracy theory about “Inglorious Basterds: “[My friend] said, ‘It’s curious that the Michael Fassbender character in the film is...a specialist in Nazi cinema who has also written a book on director G.W. Pabst.’ If I really wanted to flatter myself I could assume that it was some sort of inscription of my presence, but I’m not willing to go that far.”

STYLE WATCH

University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. builds on Stauffer and Rentschler’s concept of historiographical truth to condemn any scholars who look to censor artistic voices. “I want artists, black and white, to have full creative license in their interpretation of black history and black reality—that’s the only way we can get at its complex truth,” he says. “‘Django’ is just as true to the black experience as ‘12 Years a Slave.’” Gates, who consulted on the latter film while engaging Tarantino in a widely read interview series about “Django Unchained,” believes that stylizing African-American history is the only way to keep the public engaged with its lessons. “It would be boring if the only way to represent the black experience would be through a one-to-one relationship with history.”

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A scene from Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave."
 

With “12 Years a Slave,” however, Gates did his best to honor the narrative that Solomon Northup provided in his own written account of his kidnapping by con men and the sufferings he endured at the hand of mercurial cotton planter Edwin Epps. “When you have an autobiography, the criteria are different,” Gates says. After a long phone conversation with Steve McQueen, the film’s director, Gates agreed to look over the script and help make McQueen’s representation of Northup’s life as accurate as possible.

Gates says that he directed particular effort toward trying to uncover the fate of Northup after his emancipation. To this day, Northup’s unsuccessful prosecution of his kidnappers and the circumstances of his death 10 years after his freeing are shrouded in mystery. “I did a lot of research to get the state-of-the-art scholarship about Northup’s last years and wrote the final words on the screen at the end of the film, which they used verbatim. I was very flattered by that,” says Gates. For Gates and McQueen, free communication seems to have led directly into mutual admiration and effective collaboration.  

A TRUE COLLABORATION

While Stauffer and Rentschler had mostly positive interaction with Tarantino, neither has kept up communication with the director or ever actually met him––Stauffer even declined an invitation to go to the set, citing his disillusioned feelings toward celebrity and Hollywood. Gates and McQueen are a different story. “Steve McQueen has always been a hero of mine…. I know many of the black intellectuals on the English scene,” Gates says. “I’d never met him before, so the initial phone call was very exciting.”

In addition to attending the premiere of the film at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, where he discussed the film with the cast and crew at length, Gates has kept up communication with McQueen and plans on honoring him with the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal, presented to luminaries who work for African-American rights and visibility, at the second annual Hutchins Center Honors on Sept. 30. The closeness and mutual admiration that have developed between the duo showcase more clearly than anything else I encountered the potential for scholars and filmmakers to work in tandem. Far from engaging in a historiographic tug-of-war, McQueen and Gates seem to be working in parallel.

BIG BUSINESS

The primary concerns of scholars and filmmakers during the consultation process are the placement of appropriate historical details and the necessity of appealing to a broad audience. However, the opinions of a third party also figure into the equation. David Franzoni, writer of “Amistad” and “Gladiator,” thinks that film executives play just as large of a role as scholars in determining the vision of the past that a film presents. Franzoni, who worked with Classics professor Kathleen M. Coleman on “Gladiator” and several other projects, believes that the roles of scholars and executives on films are diametrically opposed.

The way Franzoni sees it, scholars like Coleman push his scripts, which initially value emotional relatability just as much as accuracy, toward the subtle truths of the times he explores. “I want to create my drama,” Franzoni says. “I do a lot of research beforehand so it’s never going to be completely wacko, but then if an advisor wants to show me where I’ve gone wrong, that’s great.”

Franzoni’s opinion of the studio system is less favorable. According to Franzoni, studio representatives often attempt to pigeonhole his scripts into pre-established archetypes, going so far as to rewrite them in ways that eliminate any semblance of historiographical relevance. “With ‘Gladiator,’ the studios assumed the genre––what they imagined to be guys in skirts with swords and sandals––was dead,” Franzoni says. “If they weren’t going to make it into a Clint Eastwood revenge movie, which it was not, then what was it?”

NEW FRONTIERS

For the moment, due largely to what Franzoni sees as the anti-intellectualizing forces of Hollywood, he’s focused his efforts on television. The writer is currently working on a mini-series with Steven Spielberg about the 17th-century wars between the Algonquin and Iroquois Native Americans, along with four other projects. “The writer calls the shots, which is why television has not only survived, but is flourishing,” Franzoni says.

One of Franzoni’s film-writing heir apparents, who is a former student of Coleman, Elizabeth C. Adams ’10, also has her finger on the pulse of the small screen. She has penned a screenplay based on the life of Arminius, a Germanic general who defeated a Roman battalion in 4 C.E., and is now looking to television as her preferred platform. “Last year I was 100 percent about film...but right now, television is the place for groundbreaking and intellectual stuff,” Adams says.

It remains to be seen whether television can provide an escape from the corporate forces that undermine scholarship on the big screen. But regardless of what the future holds for television, it is clear to Adams that the delicate balance between cultural accessibility and historical accuracy that underlies historical films will not go away with the rising generation of filmmakers.

“I often struggle with ideas like, ‘Maybe I should change a name to make it more accessible, or take a part out that makes the script too unwieldy,’” Adams says, adding that knowing how contemporary to make her characters’ speech patterns is another source of confusion. It’s no surprise, then, that she has a desire for scholarly guidance, and is still in contact with her mentor, Coleman. While the world of academic film consulting is just as theory-heavy and tangled as the history it attempts to make sense of, those who work in the field believe that it is an indispensable process in the filmmaker’s journey from word to screen.

—Staff writer David J. Kurlander can be reached at david.kurlander@thecrimson.com.

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