Written by Shira Gotshalk
A series on Henry VIII was not an easy sell. There was not a loud clamoring for historical dramas on TV, nor was the dearth of them widely felt. But it was this void that viewers didn't even know they had that Michael Hirst filled with The Tudors, now in its second season on Showtime and just renewed for a third. “I had to find ways of telling the story, sticking as close as I could to historical truth, but making the stories entertaining and relevant to contemporary audiences,” says Hirst, summing up his challenge. “Showtime took a huge leap in the dark, and it would only have worked if we pulled off the trick, as it were, of making it resonate to modern audiences and modern issues.”
Hirst (Elizabeth, Elizabeth: The Golden Age) was an obvious choice as this go-to guy to make history exciting and pertinent. He started out as an academic at Oxford and Columbia University, writing his thesis on Henry James. His short stories caught the attention of Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth), “probably the greatest English filmmaker of recent times,” who said to Hirst, “I want you to write a film script for me.” He responded that he had no idea how to write a script, to which Roeg replied, “That is brilliant, [I] much prefer working with virgins.” And so a screenwriting career was launched.
His next project, The Royal Physician's Visit, a historical piece set in the 18th century and directed by Lasse Hallström, begins shooting later this year. Hirst is also working on a Camelot-based soap opera for the BBC. He recently chatted with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about feeling like God, why historical dramas needn't be reverential or dull, and why we should be pleased to have been born in this century.
So what made you think TV viewing couch potatoes were craving a historical drama about the early reign of Henry VIII?
Well, the truth is I didn't. My friend Ben Silverman, who now runs NBC, was the head of a small TV production company called Reveille. He looked me up a couple of years after Elizabeth came out and asked would I be interested in turning the Tudor dynasty -- or did I think it was possible to turn the Tudor dynasty -- into a TV soap opera like The Sopranos?” And I seem to remember that I laughed a lot and said of course not, it wasn't possible! And then I thought about it and I began to say, “Well… maybe.” And it kind of developed from there because I hadn't really worked in TV before, and I certainly hadn't done episodic TV, so I didn't even know that I could do it.
Photo: © 2008 Showtime
Natalie Dormer and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in The Tudors.
And on top of that, I wasn't sure when he said “soap opera” whether he was saying you have to dumb it down or something silly like that. So I said, “Well can you send me some examples of shows that you really like in the kind of standard we're looking for?” He sent me lots of shows, but they were all The West Wing. I realized that what he meant was that we could be entertaining and serious at the same time.
The Pride and Prejudices already have a proven track record for drawing audiences in -- I always think of those books as literary soap operas and are, therefore, much easier to adapt…
Absolutely. And you know, frankly, I increasingly find that sort of conservative, rather reverential, museum-type of production unsatisfactory, and I don't think it resonates much with contemporary audiences. You can enjoy things like that on an intellectual level, but I think we wanted something a little more visceral. To some extent, I'd say the historical drama has always been a little too reverential, and I thought that the more extreme, within limits, but the more extreme we could make it, the closer it would get to some kind of reality.
In other words, I think that the Tudor period was filthy, physically filthy. The palaces were filthy, but it was also very beautiful. Mortality rates were very high, and people lived, as it were, extreme lives. I have never seen that represented. And I am not saying that The Tudors totally achieves that, but it was something that I wanted to explore and dramatize.
It must have been a very juicy, exciting time.
It was an incredibly juicy and exciting time, but I don't suppose neither you nor I really would have liked to have lived then.
I think that, for example, as a woman, you would 70 or 80 percent likely die either in childbirth or of fever or plague. And certainly to live beyond 45 was unusual, and also, you had the added complications of going to war and what have you. So life was short usually; however, I do think that they didn't take so many things for granted as we do. And their sense of beauty and richness of life was more acute than ours is. It was an amazing period. The more I read, the more I think about it, it is quite extraordinary.
How do you approach your season arc and, in a larger scheme, the series arc for a historical drama? At some point the story ends. Henry must die -- or at least he gets fat and bald and unhealthy.
Well, I don't have a set method. I've never done it before so I am just kind of feeling my way. I was commissioned initially just to write a two-hour pilot. I knew what I wanted to do -- start with the young Henry, because in all my research and reading I'd come across so many wonderful things that had happened to him and to his court when he was younger. And it was so against the usual iconography and the usual picture of the fat, bearded guy. I read this fantastic account of a meeting between Henry and the French king. The French king was also a young man, and they wrestled almost naked at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and I thought, no one has ever seen that. No one would believe it.
So I started there and then Showtime said they were very happy with the pilot and they'd go straight to a series. After I'd written the first three or four episodes, under immense pressure, I decided that I would have to end the series on a dramatic note and on a note of change. So I decided that it would end with Wolsey's death. And when I was thinking about the second [season], I realized that a lot of it would be about Anne Boleyn, and therefore, it was logical to maybe finish with her death. I thought, wouldn't it be neat if the last episode was just the last day of Anne Boleyn's life?
A kind of structure evolves as I am doing my reading and research and thinking and jotting things down. I spend a fair bit of time initially in a kind of dreamy state just considering the possibilities. The poet thrives in a sort of reactive creativities, and ideas and thoughts tumbling over each other in the darkness, so I spend a fair bit of time allowing that to happen and hoping that out of that will come some thoughts for structure and basis for individual episodes and for the series. You know, basically I have no particular method. But I don't believe that films have three acts, so I don't go along with too much rationality in this business anyway.
Having written screenplays prior to this, are you enjoying writing episodic television?
It is the most enjoyable thing I have ever done. Of course, one of the reasons is totally selfish. In movies, the writer is, beyond a certain point, incidental and a bit of a nuisance. But in series TV, the writer is God. And given the choice, I prefer to be God. Although I did say to the production team the first year, considering I was God, they'd given me a pretty crappy car to drive around in.
And the other is because you have time to develop ideas and fall in love with your characters. I just find it's very pleasurable and a great creative joy to do that.
Do you really write every episode yourself?
I write every word, yeah.
That is very unique. Is it important to you?
I know that there are a couple of soap operas here on British TV that have been written by the same person, but I think in terms of American television, it is unique, yeah. It is just something that happened that way. And, of course, I prefer it. It is a hell of a lot of work, but I prefer the control, I suppose. And it is easier for everyone else, you know, because they've just got one person to deal with and one person's ego instead of six and eight people.
And what is your process? Do you live with your characters in your mind and write it down in one shot or is it a laborious process of rewriting and editing?
It is a continuous process, which starts with me reading, doing the historical research, and then with these ideas and thoughts tumbling over each other. The beginning of an idea for maybe the first episode emerges, and I write a first draft and send it to two people: the executive producer at Showtime, Randy Runkle, and the executive producer in Ireland, Morgan O'Sullivan. I send it to Morgan because he can tell me the realities of the production. He says, “No you can't have a battle with 40,000 soldiers, Michael, so you've got to cut that scene,” for example. And Randy will give me Showtime's notes.
So then the process of rewriting begins, which goes on really until we've shot it, because we use different directors -- we have five directors for each [season]. They each do two episodes, and as each director comes on board, I work with them because they each want to stamp their own signature on the piece. That involves rewriting. I deal with the actors and sometimes they want rewrites as well.
And then later, of course, in the editing, you start changing scenes around and things have worked and other things maybe haven't. Being an executive producer as well, this is the first time I have been so closely involved with every aspect of the production… It is wonderful. It has just been heavenly, really.
How do you decide what liberties to take with historical fact? I know that sometimes time is conflated, names are changed or characters combined, but what other liberties do you take?
That is pretty much what I do. I find it amusing sometimes to be attacked by amateur historians, usually for things that actually happen to be true or things that I have read in history books. Because I am always looking for the slightly quirky detail, people think that I make more up than I actually do. The throughline of The Tudors sticks very closely to actual recorded facts. Although one has to say having read so much, historians contradict each other. They disagree completely about many things, so the idea that there is one fixed historical truth is not true. It is usually someone's best guess or a question of likelihood. However, I take the history very seriously.
But drama is different, it has to have shape so, as you said, sometimes you conflate things, or I could bring something forward about a year or two. But I am not worried about that myself, because I am not doing a documentary. I am trying to write an entertaining drama, which sucks people in. If it leads to people being interested in history, and from a lot of the e-mail I get, I guess that it is also having that effect, that is brilliant, that is wonderful. People can read the history for themselves, but it is not my job to be a teacher.