I love period films! They take us back in time, reminding us of our personal past or introducing us to worlds we’ve never experienced. Period films can connect with audiences in a way that contemporary movies can’t. As a filmmaker, I love the challenge of trying to recreate the past in such a way that it’s indistinguishable from films produced during the time period. But it’s not easy, especially on a limited budget. Here are a few tips we’ve learned from our experience of recreating the 70’s and 80’s for Providence and the 50’s and 60’s for Summer of ’67.
- Pick a time period you’re familiar with. Nothing marks a movie as cheap more than obvious errors. If you don’t know when something was invented, look it up. Don’t assume anything. Research is key. Keep all modern conveniences out of the picture. Be aware not only of what’s in the foreground, but make sure to check the background as well. There’s nothing worse than discovering too late a modern car or someone’s water bottle or cell phone in the shot.
- Use primary sources for your research. Don’t depend on modern accounts of what life was like. Go to the original sources. Read books, newspapers, and magazines from the period. Seek out diaries, catalogs, speeches, sermons, and letters. These can be found online or at local research libraries or museums. Make notes of little things you can incorporate into your movie. Be sure to pay attention not just for design and costume helps, but get a feel for language and social norms that may vary greatly from today.
- Film in locations that are period correct. It’s ok to film a fifties movie in an 1800’s home. But please don’t try to film a Victorian movie in a modern house. It just doesn’t work, and no amount of set dressing will make it authentic. On the other hand, a historic location won’t require much to be convincing, even with more contemporary furnishings.
- When purchasing props, go for big and unique rather than small or cliché. A tiny prop can be overlooked, so go for props that are easily noticed and that call attention to themselves. Early in our shopping for Summer of ’67, we discovered an eight dollar sixties exercise bike. Not only did we get it, but I wrote it into the script. It added a new layer to one of the characters and gave a touch of fun to her scenes. It also made much more of an impact than almost anything else we could have bought for the same money.
- Know the difference between period inspired and period correct. Period inspired is modern items that are made to look old. Period correct is actually old or is reproduced as correctly as possible using appropriate materials and construction. Many of today’s styles have a hippie look. However, the fabric, color, and construction are different from the originals. They’ll look similar, but not the same. It’s just as easy in most cases to find authentic clothes at thrift stores and estate sales. You can also buy old patterns and vintage fabric to make new period correct costumes. You can have both. Just put the period correct front and center and the period inspired in the background.
Have you made a period film? What was your greatest challenge? What was your best find?