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PBS and DDE Shatter the Mold for Presenting Ancient History

By Stephanie Mardesich

Lyn Goldfarb, co-producer/director, with Margaret Koval, of <em>The Roman Empire in the First Century</em>, with production crew in Turkey.

It all started with the ancient Greeks. Not the scholarly concept of the roots of western civilization, but the first program of Empires, the PBS and Devillier Donegan Enterprises (DDE) co-production that premiered in February 2000 with The Ancient Greeks: Crucible of Civilization. The strand series now numbers five already in the can, with five in production or development, taking programming well into 2004.

In reviewing many of these programs and how the producers chose to present ancient material, one must reconsider the academic concept of documentary vs. non-fiction filmmaking. Notwithstanding the latest technological advances, the primary challenge for the producers of Empires seemed to lie in telling a story that, in most instances, has no photographic records, archival footage or interviews with the subjects.

The Ancient Greeks was the first to air, and it was a program around which we had to make the mark for Empires,” comments Greg Diefenbach, supervising producer for DDE. “We had to shatter the mold of how to tell ancient history and make it emotionally engaging, not encyclopedic and dry.

“With The Greeks, there was a unique problem—no photo record, very little in the way of paintings, and, because we’re talking about the early classical period, very little statuary,” he continues. “So you have to invent new ways to do this and break through that with living statuary.” In this instance, actors depicted such icons as Cleisthenes, Pericles, and Socrates. “ It’s not a technique you have to use every time, because other eras have more artistic representation. We showed the world you could make ancient history powerfully dramatic and compelling, so we feel we achieved what we set out to prove with The Greeks and paved the way for more programs.”

Roman soldiers in <em>The Roman Empire in the First Century</em>.

Diefenbach feels that from the beginning, the key to Empires was that it was driven by “the connection human beings have to the past.” The success of Greeks confirmed for him that history can be presented in the structure of traditional dramatic narrative. “There is a great degree of latitude in the perception of Empires as people and passions that change the world,” he notes.

The epic Napoleon, under the helm of producer/director David Grubin, who recently received a Peabody Award for the program, was the second show to air under the Empires banner, in November 2000. This past May, Islam: Empire of Faith, produced and directed by Robert Gardner, unveiled the spectacular story of the rise of Islamic power and faith during its first 1,000 years. June’s broadcast captured the majesty and mayhem of Queen Victoria’s Empire in a joint effort of DDE and Brook Lapping of England. In July, The Roman Empire in the First Century (Lyn Goldfarb and Margaret Koval, producers/directors) debuts. Upcoming are Martin Luther (Richard Bradley, producer/director), The Egyptian Empire (Richard Bradley and James Hawes, producers/directors) and The Kingdom of David.

As with The Greeks, Napoleon broke new ground with the use of classic art, exclusive interviews and dramatic re-creation, forming an intense and insightful account of the life of the legendary conqueror and ruler.

“What’s great about Empires is that it’s opened up a whole new area that hasn’t been established of this length and depth, because there hasn’t been a strand for this type of programming on public television,” observes Grubin. “DDE has created this wonderful opportunity that wasn’t there before. American Experience is about America; there’s not a series called the ‘The International Experience,’ but we’re part of a very interesting and complicated world, and DDE has opened it up.”

Cinematographer Michael Chin capturing Roman antiquity.

While history might seem ripe for the picking for relevant, if not obvious, topics, it’s not as simple as that. Margaret Koval had worked with Lyn Goldfarb on The Great War and The Shaping of The 21st Century (PBS) and knew they wanted to pursue something else together.

Koval stumbled across a translation of Pliny the Younger talking about Mt. Vesuvius and was amazed that there were such explicit first-person writings preserved. An Emmy-nominated writer and researcher, she began considering the era and such historical ramifications as the New Testament, the letters of Paul, the sacking of the temple that created Judaism, and the birth of Christianity. She found “lots of wonderful stuff written in the first century and writings of people less famous,” whose poignant and personal observations could serve as the narrative for this ancient tale.

As Goldfarb, herself an award-winning and Academy Award®-nominated filmmaker, recalls, “We bounced ideas around and Margaret had this great idea about the Roman Empire. I knew little; as a history major in college, I focused on recent history. So for me this project was fresh and exciting.” What inspired Koval was the idea of telling the story through the voices of people who had lived it. She knew there was ample material on Senneca or the poetry of Ovid, for example, but what else was there? What could be said about the non-elite of the Roman Empire? So from the very beginning, the goal was not to tell the story of the familiar and famous people, but those less known, to whom people in this century could relate, with their humanity, pathos and foibles. Koval and Goldbarb employed the same first person narrative style for The Roman Empire as they had for The Great War.

Koval came up with a short treatment, and Goldfarb pitched it to Ron Devillier. He expressed interest, so a longer version was submitted. DDE passed, but stayed in touch. Goldfarb and Koval then approached PBS, where the pitch sat in a holding pattern. So Koval wrote a proposal for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and she and Goldfarb submitted their re-worked treatment to DDE, who let them know that there were two other shows being produced on the Roman Empire (for other channels). “I told them we were different,” Goldfarb recollects. “Hear us out! We had writings that had survived from the first century. Why not use them? And we had proposed to tell this story in the first person throughout. We knew it had not been told this way.”

Supervising producer Diefenbach responded affirmatively and kept the project on the burner. Goldfarb and Koval had two additional meetings with PBS and DDE, who eventually concluded that the Koval/Goldbarb approach to the subject was, indeed, unique. The program was essentially green-lighted, and the filmmakers secured development funds from the NEH, substantive support from scholars and fiscal sponsorship from the IDA. Koval took on the writing role, and directed two parts of the program, while Goldfarb focused on producing, and also directed.

With an apparent plethora of material from which to select among the written accounts and art works, the filmmakers found the choices daunting. “We were lucky because DDE had just launched the Empires series. But they weren’t interested in ancient Rome until they saw our treatment because it was fresh,” Koval recalls. “We were so committed to telling it in the first person that the material almost selected itself.”

Koval and Goldfarb wanted to make sure they told as much about slaves, women and soldiers as about Caesar Augustus, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

The filmmakers also worked very closely with scholars. “Making any film is a series of subjective decisions. With this sort of historical documentary, or nonfiction film, having good historical advisors—and listening to them--is key,” Koval maintains.

Shooting took place for about a year in eight countries and 47 locations. “The most daunting place was probably Pompeii, for all the right reasons,” Koval recalls. “Pompeii is largely as it was found--no plumbing, no flat surfaces to roll equipment across and very hot, cramped quarters. It was nearly impossible to get empty street shots, because tens of thousands of tourists are there every day. The logistics were unbelievable.”

Adds Goldfarb, “What’s exciting is that every moment was a wonderful challenge of how to tell history in a pre-photographic era. How do you deal with inanimate objects and make them alive?” She and Goldfarb resolved to achieve a visual style that conveyed Rome as it was, not as it is now. They had rich resources in frescoes, mosaics, pottery and sculpture, and they carefully thought out re-enactments, with the utmost care taken to achieve an authentic result.

According to Diefenbach, “There’s a reason we remember these stories—radically overlooked, but very rich—for a thousand years. We’ll forget Jon Benet Ramsey, but we’ll remember Pericles. One of our driving philosophies is that high quality will win. If somebody rose to the challenge they would be well rewarded.”

And the audience reaps the rewards while the challenges continue.


Stephanie Mardesich is a San Pedro, CA.-based public relations consultant, freelance writer and USC graduate, who divides her time between California and the UK.