TV Directors Strive For Historical Accuracy in Period Dramas

When it comes to the Emmy race, what’s old is new again. The Television Academy is known for embracing series that revolve around bygone eras and the directing category is no exception. Since 2010, directors of 14 drama period pieces have been nominated, including multiple noms and wins for helmers of “Downton Abbey,” “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire.” These series harken back to watershed moments in world history, from Madison Avenue in the 1960s to the dawn of prohibition in Atlantic City.

While dramas of any genre call for meticulous attention to plot, character and script, directing a period show generally requires even closer scrutiny when it comes to big-picture elements such as language syntax and dialogue and below-the-line aspects like costumes, props and decor.

“I literally immersed myself in ‘Downton Abbey’ and watched all the boxed sets of the previous seasons before I walked onto the set,” says Minkie Spiro, who’s helmed several episodes of Julian Fellowes’ acclaimed PBS series, which depicts the lives of an aristocratic family and their servants in post-Edwardian England. “I would be mortified if I didn’t get it right. Liz Trubridge, my executive producer, once said (these) few words to me: ‘ “West Wing” meets Merchant Ivory.’ And I thought, ‘I need to inject that.’”

Spiro also consulted with on-set “Abbey” historical adviser Alastair Bruce, doing a daily “page turn” of the script while discussing what the upstairs family and downstairs staff would and should be doing at any given moment per the custom of the day.

“He supplied a lot of the historical context when he mentioned that the behaviors weren’t so much etiquette as protocol,” says Spiro of Bruce. “For example, seating at dinner was (in the order of) male-female-male-female and we can never change those chess pieces. The dowager is always the first person served. Speaking cannot be allowed if the footman is serving. Carson doesn’t ever serve food — he’s the wine man. Let me tell you, if it’s not done correctly, according to the protocol of the day, we sacrifice performance if necessary, and we reshoot it.”

While most viewers of “Downton Abbey” weren’t around in 1925, the year the sixth season of the series takes place, there are plenty of “Mad Men” fans who sharply recall the bell bottoms and martini glasses of the late 1960s. That pushed director Jennifer Getzinger to continuously make sure that every last cigarette and kitchen utensil featured in the AMC series, which sang its swan song in May, was correctly and fastidiously recreated.

“You are re-creating something that a lot of people still remember,” says Getzinger, who helmed 10 episodes of the Matthew Weiner series. “Researching everything and getting the detail right to transport you back to that era is an ongoing part of the job. There’s a lot of work involved in doing that.”

Getzinger was able to apply her experience on “Mad Men” to her work directing a first-season episode of “Masters of Sex,” Showtime’s Emmy-winning reimagining of pioneering human sexuality research team William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Set in St. Louis during the 1950s, everything from Johnson’s form-fitting attire to the acceptable social cues of the era had to be made perfect.

“In one scene I had to question the bar glasses (the characters) were drinking from,” Getzinger says. “I had learned from working on ‘Mad Men’ that the bar glasses were a lot smaller back in the 1950s and 1960s. The fruit was also smaller in that era. We couldn’t use the oranges that we had. We had to find smaller fruit.”

Fellow “Masters of Sex” director Michael Apted mostly relies
on the producers and showrunners to nail down the intricacies of the period.

“I would be deeply involved in the body movements and the costumes and the hair and all of that if I were directing a movie,” Apted says. “But in television series, I’m usually immersed in only script and performance, because I’m not there at the inception. Those other decisions have come before me and are made on an ongoing basis by the producers and showrunners. I approve a lot of what I see, but I don’t get intricately involved. If something doesn’t work, say a costume for a certain scene, we’ll go to wardrobe and discuss it. You’re adjusting usually, and not creating.”

But Apted also keeps his eyes and ears open for any lapses in authenticity.
“I lived through that period,” says Apted. “I know what the slang sounded like, and I do have input into the script, and will exercise that if I think that the dialogue needs to be changed. I’ll discuss it with the actors.”

Per “Outlander” director Anna Foerster, adjusting to the historical demands of each script can be as simple — or challenging for those addicted — as ditching modern technology.

“Doing a period piece is much more difficult for actors than a contemporary drama,” she says of the Starz hit, which bounces back and forth between the years 1945 and 1743. “(The actors) need to work harder than normal, and I try to help create the environment for them to do so. I try to help them let go of all the baggage of instant knowledge on our cell phones that we carry around. ‘Let’s not bring that with us,’ I’ll say. There was a much bigger sense of mystery and superstition in the 1700s and even in the 1940s.”

Of course, when it comes to directing period series, there’s also something to be said for not being a slave to every historical detail. It is, after all, television. In WGN America’s atomic bomb drama, “Manhattan,” for example, the setting is Los Alamos, N.M., during the 1940s, but helmer Thomas Schlamme was keen on taking a few creative liberties.

“I care deeply about the authenticity and the accuracy but I want the actors to play with contemporary feeling,” Schlamme says. “We applied a sci-fi quality to the piece. I also didn’t go for 1940s music, but an atmospheric sound, to give it a ‘Twilight Zone’ feel.”

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