I just rewatched Little Women, the 1994 Gillian Armstrong version starring Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon. I love this movie and have seen it many times via my trusty old VHS tape. But that tape lives back home with my mom, where also lives a VCR, so I finally broke down and bought the DVD and this was its inaugural…um…spin. It is my opinion that this is a great movie.
Another period film I absolutely love is Pride and Prejudice. Say what you like about Austen and/or this film that’s been made, from what I can tell, a total of at least 9 times (a number that includes the made-for-TV versions, but not all of the knock-off or updated strangeness); I am big fan of Austen, this story, and the most recent film version of it in particular. It makes me love Joe Wright, Keira Knightley, and Matthew Macfayden (who I think looks much better as Mr. Darcy than he looks as a regular guy in modern dress. The man should keep those sideburns.).
So you get it. I like these movies. A lot.
With an older century (yes, P&P is 17-something-or-other, but it’s at the end of the 1700s, so just start counting to 100 from there) on the brain, I thought I would take the opportunity of using these great examples of period film to teach all those other wannabes out there what’s what. Therefore —
What You Need for a Great Period Film
or, All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned from Little Women and Pride and Prejudice:
#1. Put Susan Sarandon &/or Brenda Blethyn in your film.
This is an easy one, guys. Just do it. Even better if you can find something for both of them. The matriarch is a huge part of these stories as they often center around the home, and these veteran actresses make every scene they are in that much better.
#2. When doing a period piece, paying attention to every little detail really really does pay off. Your movie looks amazing. And you don’t look like an ass.
Be prepared to hear words like “frock.” Possibly “haberdashery.”
#3. Dance scenes are important.
They’re very important. After all, dances are where people are actually allowed to touch, so take the care that’s needed with them. This is where you get some of your best moments.
#4. A word of warning: During important moments, such as two people finally kissing for the first time, look out for spit strands, especially when placing all of the light in the scene directly behind your two leads.
I cringe a tiny bit at the moment when Laurie kisses Jo as he proposes, because there is a definite lingering strand of spit linking them, and it is perfectly lit up by the sun through the trees. We watched the movie in class one time (high school? history class? I really don’t know) and every adolescent boy in the bunch yelled “Ewwwww” upon seeing this. I like the moment, but I can’t help hearing them every time I watch it. I truly hope I haven’t ruined it for you. Sorry.
At the end of P&P, on the other hand, there is more sunlight behind Elizabeth and Darcy than you can shake a fist at, but there are no spittle mistakes. Perhaps this is because they don’t actually kiss at that point, but rather touch foreheads lovingly. It would have been a risky proposition seeing as the sun was rising.
Takeaway: Weigh your options – Beautiful silhouette vs. Shiny Glowing Spittle. Character-arc-culminating kiss or being mocked by 14-year-olds? Your choice.
#5. If lots of time needs to pass, blow through those seasons quick. Summer to fall to winter – three nice shots of pretty New England foliage and then snow and you’re good to go. Spring to summer to fall in England all done whilst spinning on a strange farm rope swing thing. Look there’s hay, it must be fall. Bing, bam, boom.
#6. Annoying little sisters – consider typecasting.
Find an American actress who is pretty good and who also may be slightly annoying. She will be perfect. (And we don’t care if she’s suppsed to be British. All the better.)
I’m starting to want to talk about the stories and not about how the movies are done, so I’m going to stop there. I really think both of these are beautifully shot, well-adapted, well-crafted films. I hope you will see them. Especially if you are planning to go forth and make thyself a moving picture hailing from a time prior to thine own. I leave you but one more lesson to keep in mind:
#7. Extra brownie points if you can squeeze in a line and a shot showcasing very large pig testicles. It doesn’t have to be at all relevant to the story. Probably better if it’s not – that’d be a weird story. This criteria doesn’t apply to both of these films, but it does help you win the Period Piece County Championship Trophy and certificate to Applebee’s.
Good luck and go get ’em!