Interview with Margaret Koval, executive producer, writer, director
|Filmmaker Margaret Koval
How did you become interested in making a film about the Roman Empire?
A couple of years ago, my second-grade son was studying volcanoes in school. When the time came for a final project, he wanted to write a play. I remembered reading a survivor's account of Mt. Vesuvius the Italian volcano that buried Pompeii almost 2,000 years ago. We pulled a few books off the shelf and quickly found a letter by Pliny the Younger that described the entire event. My son and I were both staggered by how fascinating the description was by how colorful and contemporary it sounded. A few months later, his play opened to rave reviews among the second-grade set and I headed to the library, looking for more first-hand accounts.
What I found surprised me. Pliny was hardly alone; the first century offered a rich and fascinating collection of primary material. Some things, of course, I had known about but hadn't connected to Rome. The writings of St. Paul, for example, his letters or "epistles" in the Christian Bible, are deeply personal chronicles of his life in the Roman Empire in the first century. The philosopher Seneca wrote in the first century. He wrote some pretty stern tracts on ethics but he was also one of two principal advisors to Nero. His actions didn't always live up to his words. And that made him, in my mind, a complex and contemporary figure. I tripped over other wonderful stories recorded by writers such as Tacitus and Suetonius two first-century historians. I was also amazed to find authors like Juvenal who was a satirist with a ribald sense of humor that often drifted into lewdness. To my delight, this shattered the idea that ancient Rome was a stuffy, classical world with little relationship to modern life.
Why are people still interested in the Romans?
I think that everybody learns a little bit about Rome in elementary school. Most children are told that our federal government is based on the Roman Republic; that our Senate is modeled on the Roman Senate. Probably most people have heard somewhere that ancient Rome is part of the foundation for "Western Civilization." But I think what really grips people, what piques an interest in Rome isn't any of that admittedly important stuff. Instead, it's the great, resonant stories that have been passed down through the ages. The stories of ancient Rome have lodged themselves into our collective imagination and have been repeated over and over again. For instance, the love affair and personal drama of Antony and Cleopatra... the lurid tales of Caligula's incredible hedonism... of Nero fiddling while Rome burned... the life of Jesus. These are stories of incredible extremes. And they have stuck with us often becoming the models for more modern plots and characters. Any time you can reconnect to the source of our collective imagination and place it in a narrative context, I think people can't help being fascinated.
What were some of the greatest challenges you faced making this film?
Stylistically, the biggest challenge was to make Rome come alive for the viewer. As I read the primary material, I heard intimate, immediate voices in my head and I wanted the film to convey that impression visually, too. I didn't want Rome to look distant and long gone; I didn't want to show broken columns lying in the Roman forum with modern structures in the background. So that was a big challenge: how do you make ancient Rome look as vibrant as it sounds? Lyn Goldfarb and I scoured the region that was once ruled by Rome in search of the most intact archaeological sites in which to film. Some ancient tragedies turned out to be great boons for us. Most spectacularly, Mt. Vesuvius buried several cities and preserved them in breathtaking detail. The resort town of Pompeii, for example, stands almost completely intact. This is important because the town includes domestic buildings houses, brothels, and cafes as well as the big stone marble buildings that are usually associated with antiquity. So we were lucky in a lot of ways.
Filming in such places was not easy, mainly because the responsibility was immense. You're always aware that you're working in a national treasure. Pompeii is a world heritage site. I couldn't forget for a second that if I turned around too quickly I might gouge an irreplaceable work of art. But, in almost every instance, the curators and site managers worked with us to make it safe and successful. There were no mishaps. We were allowed to "dress" the locations for example, to put pillows in the dining areas and plates of food and wine in the cafes. Everywhere, we were trying to create the impression that someone might have just left the room. Michael Chin, our director of photography, maintained that sense of intimacy with his cinematography.
In our effort to bring Rome back to life, we also filmed in reconstructed locations or "open air museum," as they are beginning to be called. These are sites of Roman habitation where curators have rebuilt Roman structures forts, inns, homes to exacting standards of authenticity in an attempt to give modern visitors a fuller sense of Roman life. That was important to us. Since our series is so intimate, we needed to find even more domestic sites than Pompeii had to offer.
Shots of authentic archaeological sites and reconstructed locations were supplemented with first century art. Fortunately for us, the ancient Romans liked to decorate their homes with frescoes with wall paintings depicting all kinds of narrative scenes. The art work shows people engaging in all the typical activities of life cooking, building, flirting, and so on and we were able to use those images almost like a photo archive to tell our stories. Much of this art was buried by Mt. Vesuvius so it was preserved for two thousand years, in brilliant color. These three elements archaeological sites, recreated locations, and period art all helped us meet the challenge of reviving first century Rome in the mind's eye.
How did the re-enactors help make Roman history come alive?
We got a lot of mileage out of empty rooms. We created the sense of human presence by leaving remnants of human activity around a burning oil lamp, a dripping ink pen. In some instances, though, we felt we needed more: we felt the scene demanded more dynamism. So we turned to a handful of amateur historians to help animate the shots. We worked with individuals who've dedicated their adult lives, in a number of cases, to studying and recreating the costumes and the habits of ancient Romans particularly Roman soldiers.
We worked with two groups that are particularly well known for their authenticity one in Germany and the other in England. We asked them not to re-enact any specific event, but just to fill the shoes of anonymous Romans. We shot them in a stylized way both to signal that the action was being re-enacted and to maintain a trance-like atmosphere. Michael Chin often used long lenses and a lot of diffusion. We frequently positioned something in the foreground and shot through or around it. We avoided complete figures. You're more likely to see some shoulders or knees or the backs of the helmets. We didn't want to look into real people's eyes or faces because we felt that would break the mood. So you're seeing movement; you're seeing shapes. But you're not being asked to believe that what you're looking at is, in fact, a Roman soldier at a particular moment in history.
What was it like shooting on location at the ruins of Roman cities?
We shot on a lot of different ruins from Egypt to Britain, from France to Turkey. The location that affected me most personally, though, was Pompeii. Pompeii is alive like no other place from the first century. Thanks to the wonderful cooperation we received from the superintendent there and with the help of one of our academic advisors, we were able to enter places that tourists rarely see. Once, I was following our guide down a dark staircase inside a first century villa. At the base of the stairs I almost tripped on a... I felt at the moment like it was a body. It was actually a plaster cast of a body that archaeologists had found in that exact spot when they first excavated the site. It was a man, huddled on the floor, gasping for air, trying to cover his head. I leaned down to look him in the eyes and come face to face with the moment he died. It was a powerful view. Plaster casts of other victims are still in position all around Pompeii. They remind you that the first century was a heartbeat ago. These people are just like us.
That impression of familiarity is underscored by the portraits from ancient Rome. The painted portraits are breathtakingly modern and the people they depict look so real you swear you know them. The artist included warts, wrinkles, jowls all the imperfections of humanity. I often felt as I was looking at these faces that they had an uncanny resemblance to people in my past... a high school friend, an old gym teacher. So you read the words of ancient Romans. You look in their faces. You feel like you're really in touch with people and events from two millennia ago.
Why are the events of the first century so critical in shaping our perception of the Romans?
I think the one-word answer is Augustus. Caesar Augustus was the emperor that really shaped Rome for centuries to come. When Julius Caesar was killed, Augustus was just a teenager. He raised an army and, after forming a number of alliances, conquered Rome and then most of the known world. His ascent ended a hundred years of civil war and strife in the Mediterranean basin and inaugurated a long period of stability. It was called the Pax Romana and it enabled trade, cultural exchange and the intermingling of ideas that flowered into the cultural legacy that we have today.
So basically, Augustus plowed the garden of the first century. And think what grew there! Virgil, Ovid, Tacitus... the cultural flowering was remarkable. But there was so much more. The birth of Christianity, for one thing. Jesus of Nazareth was a Roman subject, for better and worse and his story is part of the story of Roman imperial rule. Then there was the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Not only did that event give us the incredible story of an entire city buried alive, but it bequeathed an archive of art, architecture, and social data that historians are still mining two thousand years later. The conquest of Britain, the absorption of much of Europe into the Roman Empire were all first century events.
It's possible, though, that none of this would be remembered if it weren't for a handful of others: the great writers that snagged my interest from the beginning. The first century kicked forward some fascinating individuals who chose to immortalize the epic events they witnessed, and good fortune has preserved their words for us. For example, a man called Josephus was present when the Jerusalem Temple was burned to the ground. He became a Roman citizen and wrote one of the most important books on Jewish history that has survived from antiquity. Suetonius was a librarian in the imperial household, among other things, and used his access to the imperial archives to write steamy biographies of the emperors. And there was Pliny the Younger. He was not only a prolific letter writer, but decided that it would be kind of cool to publish his correspondences. It seems like such a modern vanity.
I guess I'm saying that the first century had it all: it had the opportunity to make a splash on subsequent history, thanks to Augustus' Pax Romana. It had huge events. And it had some all-time great story tellers.
How does exploring the lives of the people living in the Roman Empire help us understand Roman culture?
Despite all their merits, one thing the writers I just mentioned don't present very fully is the everyday life of common people. Tacitus, Suetonius they're focused on what people call high politics or high scandal, in some cases. But they're much less interested in what slaves or women or laborers are doing unless one of them happens to be whispering into the ear of the emperor.
So to present ancient Rome through the eyes of these writers exclusively would give a distorted view of ancient Rome. It helps to turn to other sources. I was often touched by funerary inscriptions the writings on tombstones. One ex-slave wrote a heart-rending cry to his dead wife. It provided a good counter-balance to the more politically motivated marriages of the upper classes. In another case, you can almost hear the sobs of a mother as she writes emotionally about dressing her dead daughter for the last time. Words like these help us connect emotionally to ancient Romans. And they're not always sad. The series quotes a very funny exchange that was written in graffiti on the walls of Pompeii. One man taunts another man for loving a serving girl that spurns his affections. Under that, you see in the rival's handwriting, a sarcastic reply accusing the first writer of sour grapes. Next, the first man returns, declaring that the serving girl really loves HIM. You can almost hear the exchange. It echoes across two thousand years. It makes you feel like "Ahhh... I recognize these people. These people are like me I'm familiar with them." I don't think you can get that by reading the main historians at all. They have a different agenda.
How did Roman culture help shape Western civilization?
Well, there's almost no area of life that doesn't bear some stamp from ancient Rome, it seems to me, except maybe the internet. Government, of course: the very idea of the American republic was based on the Roman republic. Religion: Christianity was a product of the first century in the Roman Empire. Judaism as we know it was a product of the first century in the Roman Empire. Many literary forms and conventions owe a debt to that period.
But what I want viewers to take away from the series is a little different. I want them to recognize that the first century in the Roman Empire brought together a huge range of very diverse cultures and churned them together to make a cosmopolitan society not unlike our own. Don't get me wrong: the Romans didn't always have a soft and loving touch. Often they brought peoples together through violence: often, but not always. The Romans mixed cultures and welcomed cultural innovations from outside. It was a rigid society in some ways, with a hierarchical structure. But the most striking stamp of the Roman Empire in the first century was its inclusiveness and its cultural diversity compared to other empires that came before. That is what historians increasingly say gave Rome the power and endurance to cast its shadow all the way to the twenty-first century.
What did you discover about the Romans that you didn't expect?
In a British town called Vindolanda a few years back, archaeologists discovered wooden tablets that had been buried in mud. They found letters home from Roman soldiers, average soldiers, that had been apparently thrown away. There was a birthday party invitation. One woman the wife of a soldier was writing to the wife of another saying "We're having a party. We hope you'll come. We're a long way from home, please help to celebrate." It just felt so real. It felt so unbelievably real. Another letter was asking people back home to send more underwear. It's cold. The food's no good up here. Please send some warm underwear some socks and tunics. I was endlessly struck by how immediate that all was. That their world wasn't gone.
What can the Romans teach us about ourselves?
I think we moderns often think of ourselves as the first multicultural era. We imagine ourselves uniquely grappling with the rewards and problems which that condition brings. I found it fascinating to look back two thousand years ago to see that the Romans struggled with similar issues and in some ways were very successful. Then, as now, one people achieved world dominance. That people enjoyed a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity. And then, as now, prosperity brought cultural and psychological challenges in its wake. Immigration, sexual identity, social permissiveness: these issues and many others were very much on people's minds. That, I think, provides a little perspective to the debates of today.
Where to Next:
Interview - Executive Producer Lyn Goldfarb