Starz doesn’t shy away from epic period pieces, but its newest historical drama “The White Queen” (premieres Sat, Aug 10) centers not on bloodthirsty Romans of “Spartacus” but on the turmoil that surrounded commoner Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson) after King Edward IV (Max Irons) shocked the realm by marrying her. The ensuing power struggles and back-stabbing came to life in Philippa Gregory’s celebrated novel series, as well as the BBC adaptation that aired in England last year and is only now making it to the states. We sat down with executive producer Gregory and series screenwriter Emma Frost to find out how these two British gals worked together to bring this soapy period drama to the screen.
CableFAX: First of all, walk us through how you collaborated to make this happen. It must have been quite a task to boil these books down into one 10-episode series that focuses on “The White Queen.” All of these stories are so interconnected.
Frost. Well, there are six books in the series, but they’re not consecutive books. “The Red Queen” actually starts 14 years earlier, so it cuts through roughly the same chunk of history but from a different woman’s point of view. So half of it is the same, and half of it is different. And of course they’re each the hero of their own story. Suddenly it became clear how incredibly complicated it was going to be.
Gregory: So what I do with the history is that I read the history, I do all sorts of detective work—and then I pull out from it the story of Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort and Anne Neville. What Emma has to do really is put it back together again because she wants to tell a chronological story with these three women. (To Frost) So actually I take my hat off to you. I thought it was really complicated because I pulled it apart, but I couldn’t remember how I did it.
Frost: (Laughs) I know. And it was brilliant as well because I ended up doing accidental detective work on your choices. So when you try to put them back together into a timeline, you go, ‘Ah, she slightly cheated a little bit on that one.’
Gregory: Actually, what I really liked was that by the time I’d written up to Richard III, you learn who his mother Cecily Duchess of Neville was—and she appeared as the fantastic, nightmare mother in law in Episode 1. That’s in the novel, but I kind of lost sight of her. (To Frost) But because you knew she was going to be huge later on, you kept her in. It was really interesting to see actually.
CableFAX: So when you look at something so complicated and out of order, how do you gauge which characters to bring more into the forefront for the screen adaptation?
Frost: I did a breakdown of each book… just breaking them down to events. And then put them all together into one timeline and then realized that the biggest timeline challenge was that a big chunk of Margaret Beaufort’s life has already happened [before “The White Queen” begins]. So we toyed with whether we should have a flashback episode. It’s amazing stuff. It still breaks my heart some of what we couldn’t put in the show.
Gregory: (Motioning toward Frost). If you were going to chart this love affair, the first lover’s quarrel would be ‘What are we going to do with this enormous amount of very, very significant material, which forms Margaret Beaufort, who in a sense is going to be the ultimate winner? What are we going to do with this early life?’ And in the end, I said ‘Yeah, it’s just going to have to be left out’.”
Frost: And we got in what we could.
Gregory: We refer back to it, and we make sense of life in terms of it. But there was a very important period that we just said, ‘It’s before the start. We’re not going to do it.’ And the thing we decided, which I’m sure is right, is that there’s enough material going on there that we’re not going to do any flashbacks. And I’m so glad.
Frost: We nearly did because there’s this brilliant line in “The Red Queen” where Philip writes “For 10 years, I wait.”
Frost: And it’s a dramatist’s nightmare. You’re like, ‘Oh, thank you so much.’ I’ve got 10 years to dramatize and we have to wait. So what we did was cheated a little bit… We sort of took 10 years and slid it down, so in the early part there’s a slight cheat on history to have both of them in the story. The point at which Jasper and her son Enrique go off to France has actually already happened at the beginning of our series in history. But we slide it along a little bit. We cheat a little bit.
CableFAX: That must drive historians crazy. How do you strike the balance between accuracy and doing what’s best for the story?
Gregory: With a novel, you’re not writing a history. In a history, you’re almost legally obliged to start with the birth. That’s almost always boring. You write a history and go from there to there and include everything that you think is relevant to the life. When you’re writing a novel, thank God. I like to start with the Gestalt Moment. So that the opening chapter in the first page encapsulates everything I want you to know about this person. So I start there, and that really determines where I’m going to end. I want it to end at the end of the arc of their story. I’m not going to go on until they’re dead because everybody dies. I’m a historical novelist. Everyone I love is dead. How tragic my life is. It’s a very depressing life. (Laughs).
CableFAX: OK, so then why are audiences so fascinated with all of these dead people? There seems to be an unending appetite for historical drama.
Gregory: The reason I like this period and the reason I like the monarchs in this period is that it was about absolute tyranny and people trying to achieve absolute power. So it really could be Nero or Caligula. It’s like, ‘How do you get into a position in which anything you want happens?’ I think that’s a really interesting question. In our four-year-old toddler heart, that’s what we all want. We really want to be in a position where anything we want happens. But against that, there is this kind of incredible richness, and this incredible glamour, and this incredible opportunity. And you’re in a world in which it’s magical. Stuff happens as God rules it because you’ve managed to make it happen. So you’ve got this really extraordinary, sort of magical, supra-normal experience, which I as a novelist find very, very rich.
CableFAX: Any thoughts on that, Emma?
Frost: I think there can be a tendency in TV in trying to create shows that have a lot of female characters for a female audience that can get a bit domestic. Because people’s perceptions are that women’s lives are all a little bit domestic. It tends to get pulled back into that relationship territory. So I think the appeal for me, massively, was that these are huge characters in the series, but they are all playing with big stakes—there’s life and death and betrayal and murder.
CableFAX: It seems like female characters have to be more clever about it.
Frost: They have a different arsenal of weapons. Women fight in a different way.
CableFAX: The scene in which Elizabeth meets her new mother in law—and they summarily threaten each other—seemed to really play with that dynamic.
Frost: It’s a very modern scene.
Gregory: It’s timeless because everyone knows what it’s like to meet your mother in law, and she’s a bitch. Everybody knows that. But by and large, we’re not allowed to talk about it. We are educated to think of women so often as passive and so often victims. And we have a drama that shows real women not being passive, being incredibly active. And when victimized by the circumstance, they’re picking themselves up, dusting themselves down, going out and having another go. I find it very empowering to write about and to see, but also I think it’s more like reality. I know an awful lot of women, and only a few of them are tragically battered. By and large, most of us are out there trying to express ourselves and doing what we want to do.