Written by Dylan Callaghan
Bruno Heller, co-creator of HBO's award-winning historically dramatic series Rome and son of acclaimed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? screenwriter Lukas Heller, readily admits that his father's successful career likely kept him from the scribe trade for years. “I'm sure there were some good oedipal reasons why I didn't put pen to paper until a couple years after his death.” Heller instead spent years working nearly every other below-the-line job in film, from location manager to clapper loader. “When I'd failed at everything else, I finally had a crack at this.”
In fact, the British-born Heller spent the bulk of his pre-screenwriting career as a successful boom operator -- listening carefully to dialogue and studying the interactions of writers, actors and directors on movie set after movie set. “It turned out to be extremely useful for screenwriting because you have to know everyone's lines, the camera lenses and how the scene is supposed to play out so you can capture the dialogue.
Far better to spend a few years as a boom operator than go to film school,” he says.
Co-created by Heller with John Milius and William J. McDonald, the second season of the ambitious show that Heller calls “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Rome” began January 14. The drama uses the historically accurate height of the empire's power as a backdrop to tell the visceral personal dramas centering around two Roman soldiers and their families. Heller spoke with the Writer Guild of America, West Web site about the new season and how writing for the series is a delicate balance between the ballast of historical fact and the fickle freedom of fiction.
Going into this sophomore season of Rome, with Julius Caesar dead -- describe to a viewer who's never seen it why they should get into the show?
The show delivers all the things that people want from TV in terms of drama and spectacle, sex, violence and love, revenge, and betrayal, but it also takes you to a completely different world. It has the added bonus of time travel, which is always compelling. And it's a different moral universe, which is always somehow liberating.
Photo: © 2007 HBO
Tobias Menzies in Rome.
Do you get to learn a little bit of history as well?
Oh sure. I don't think [I'd] pass any university tests on ancient Rome, but you certainly get a sense for the shape of the history and learn who the big figures were and what they did.
How much of a challenge is it grappling with all these serpentine plot lines while still leaving the series open to newcomers at each episode along the way?
That's the trick, I guess. On the one hand the historical facts are extremely useful as the backbone of the show, but on the other hand it means you can't just fly off into fantastic story lines. Once we see what the shape of the history is for a particular episode -- the arc of the show -- then it's a question of finding fictional narratives that intertwine, in both a technical and emotional way, with the larger historical story.
We try to think of the smaller personal stories as the A stories and the big epic story as the B story, which, generally, you would do the other way around. From the very start I felt with this that the sort of rank-and-file people's stories would be much more relatable than say Cleopatra or Caesar's. Their lives have very little immediate connection to our lives compared to the way an ordinary soldier's life does.
So the minions and citizens are the omnipresent entree for viewers to get into this narrative?
Give me some idea of how much research you've done now on Roman history and how expert have you become.
It would be tempting fate to say I'm an expert. Before I started writing I read solidly for about two months and then kept reading through the show. You can get the bare chronological facts fairly swiftly, but what was most important and useful was finding little details, which are harder to dig out. Most of the books focus on the bigger picture whereas what you want is what kind of objects did they have in the kitchen or how would they shake hands with a relative as opposed to a friend?
So you kind of want the anthropological stuff?
Yeah, exactly. Anthropological is correct. We wanted to do a sociologically and anthropologically authentic take on this period rather than just an epically historical perspective.
What we were going for -- which is more of a conceit than a genuine technique -- is to make a world that Romans would recognize. They might say, “That's not exactly how it happened,” but they would recognize the world. Making it brutal and dirty and chaotic and strange was key.
Can you give me a distilled thumbnail of your process writing one of these episodes?
After we've got the sort of bare beats of the story worked out, I tend to just go in and say, “Scene one, interior,” and go from there, you know? The formal way to do it is to note it to death before starting to do the actual screenplay. But my feeling is that the more you know what's going to happen, the more nothing surprises you when you get to it. It's better to try and make it feel organic -- that the narrative is just going the way it wants to go and characters are doing what they want to do. The more you have planned in advance, the more it feels like the show is following what the writer's doing. The more stuff just happens, the more lifelike it seems to be.
So you sort of surrender yourself a bit to the fate of the fiction?
Yeah. I try to. The more you have to structure things, because in this case you've got the historical structure you have to follow, the more important it is to let the rest just live on its own. If you just did a schematic of this, you'd just wind up hitting all the textbook beats and would never find fresh ways of looking at the thing. When the formal structure is already there, then you should be sure that the informal aspects are as free as they can be.