Behind-The-Scenes Facts About Historical Dramas That Made Us Say, 'No Way!'

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Vote up the behind-the-scenes facts about period films that make you nervous.

Making a movie is never an easy prospect. Even the least ambitious films still require hundreds - if not thousands - of hours of hard work from the cast and crew. But you've got to give it up to those filmmakers who put themselves through the special hell that is a historical drama. For films like The Revenant, Braveheart, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the onerous task of making a movie is made exponentially harder by trying to recreate a time period decades or centuries in the past.

We've gone behind the scenes of nostalgic comedies and marveled at the making of classic action flicks, so now it's time to dive into the gritty details of period dramas. Many of these may have you shaking your head and musing at how wild the art of filmmaking really is. 

  • Sure, Los Angeles is known for its glitz and Hollywood glamour, but it's also known for its intense traffic. Quentin Tarantino is a lifelong resident of the area, and needed all his clout in order to shut down the busy city's freeways to film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

    In many ways, Tarantino's ninth film is a love letter to his hometown. There are several scenes of stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) cruising the city streets of La La Land in his blue Volkswagen Karmann and Rick Dalton's cream-colored 1966 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. When Booth is out and about driving around in the period movie, he can't be filmed with modern-day cars passing along the highway next to him or street signs advertising Apple iPhones or Tesla cars. 

    These cruising scenes meant that the production design team led by Barbara Ling had to essentially change the entire landscape of Los Angeles without the use of CGI. As she explains:

    We did it all practically, which is not done much anymore. That’s why it stands out, because it’s not footage, and it's not CGI. [...] Not only period cars but period services: ads for diapers, plumbers that you saw in commercials, the buses with the TV ads, which is what LA is all about. Sometimes on set you’re racing to do things, and until you see it all together in the end you’re like, Wow, I hope this works. And it did. We really captured the feeling of driving on freeways in California in 1969.

    It also meant shutting down the city's congested freeways and then adding over a hundred period-appropriate vehicles.

    The results of the production team's recreation were so effective that some spectators could not believe that Tarantino did not use special effects. Location manager Rick Schuler explains: 

    With the cooperation of the city, the permitting office, Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol, we were able to secure a window of time during the day that saw over a hundred period automobiles and trucks travel in both directions on the 101 Freeway. [...] I’d say more than anything else, the sight of this really pulled me back in time. [...] At a recent showing of the movie, Quentin had to dissuade some viewers of the fact that the scene was not the result of visual effects.

    • Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning
    • Released: 2019
    • Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

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  • Director Steven Spielberg recalled that some of the German actors who sought small roles in Schindler's List sent him audition tapes, and actually apologized on their country's behalf on these tapes:

    Many of the German actors who interviewed for Schindler's List - and I saw many of the interviews on tape - many of them, actually, knowing I was watching the tape or would be watching the tape, apologized for the generation preceding theirs, and talked about their guilt, talked about their feelings, and very openly. I was so surprised at how many German actors would actually look at the camera, into the video camera, and talk to me 6,000 miles away. It was sort of a fascinating experience.

    However, Spielberg noticed a change when he saw the German actors in full costume:

    Once those same German actors put on the uniforms of the Waffen-SS, my attitude changed, and I couldn't talk to them. And between shots they would be schmoozing with me, trying to ask me questions about E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark - questions that someone who liked those movies would ask the director. And I didn't really want to make small talk; I couldn't get past the uniform, and then my prejudice began to come out...

    Spielberg's attitude changed after the German actors came to participate in a Passover seder with the Jewish cast members. Spielberg recalled:

    All the German actors showed up. They put on yarmulkes and opened up Haggadas [the Seder text], and the Israeli actors moved right next to them and began explaining it to them. And this family of actors sat around and race and culture were just left behind.

    • Actors: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Segal
    • Released: 1993
    • Directed by: Steven Spielberg

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  • In 2017, Robert Greenhut, who was one of the producers on A League of Their Own, told ESPNW that the film was difficult to cast because they were looking for actors who could play baseball. While it might look easy when watching a game on television, the producer admitted, "We all quickly learned how hard it is to throw from first base to third to get somebody out."

    Director Penny Marshall told

    There was a big tryout where [the actors] were judged on running, catching, hitting. Throwing is always the hardest for girls because they throw differently. But I would not [audition]... actresses unless they could play ball or were trainable.

    Reminiscing about the film with Rosie O'Donnell on the latter's television talk show, the director said that there were several good actors who didn't get cast because they couldn't play. One, Marshall remembered, showed up to the tryout wearing ballet slippers.

    Marshall's daughter Tracy Reiner, who ended up being cast as outfielder Betty "Spaghetti" Horn, went to the open tryouts with one of her cousins, even though she had stitches in her mouth from recently getting her wisdom teeth removed. "There were about 2,000 girls auditioning at USC with [former USC baseball coach] Rod Dedeaux, and his coaches and trainers were going to evaluate the girls to see if you were trainable," Reiner recalled to ESPNW.

    Dedeaux was impressed with Reiner's arm, but she ended up spitting blood because she had popped the stitches in her mouth. When she returned home, she thought her mom would like that Reiner and her cousin had gone to the big casting call. Instead, Marshall's reaction was "[How'd] you two [end up] testing in the Top 20 girls?"

    Geena Davis's audition for the role of catcher Dottie Hinson took place in the director's backyard. "[Marshall] wanted to make sure I could throw a ball, so that happened," Davis told USA Today in 2017. "I threw the ball to her, competently got it to her, she caught it and said, 'OK.' That was the whole audition." However, the actor, who wasn't an athlete growing up, trained rigorously and ended up impressing the actual baseball coaches on the set with her play. "When the coaches would say, 'You have real untapped athletic ability,' it was like, 'Oh, my god, I am coordinated.'" Davis later took up archery and even competed in the US Olympic Trials in 1999.

    Lori Petty claimed that she auditioned eight times for the part of Dottie's younger sister, pitcher Kit Keller. "Every woman in Hollywood was reading for this movie," Petty told The Ringer in 2017. "It was a strong female movie, which, you know, we don’t have now, and we didn’t have in 1991 either. I mean, Marla Maples auditioned, for Christ’s sake. Everyone."

    • Actors: Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, Lori Petty, Jon Lovitz
    • Released: 1992
    • Directed by: Penny Marshall

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  • The makers of Gladiator had to face a challenge no one wants when one of their main actors passed during production. During a break from filming, Oliver Reed went to a pub, where he challenged the crew of a British destroyer to a drinking contest. He is alleged to have consumed at least eight pints of lager, 12 double rums, and half a bottle of whiskey. Not long afterward, he is believed to have suffered a heart attack.

    Oliver Reed's sudden demise was sad because he was a talented actor who worked hard on the film, but it also presented a rather large obstacle that needed to be addressed - he hadn't finished filming all his scenes.

    His character, Proximo, was meant to survive. The script was rewritten to change that, having Proximo sacrifice himself to the Praetorian Guard. To complete the necessary sequences allowing them to get to that new ending, director Ridley Scott had a stand-in replace Reed, then filmed the stand-in from behind so his face would be obscured. He then digitally edited and inserted unused footage of Reed into the scene when he needed to be seen head-on. 

    • Actors: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi
    • Released: 2000
    • Directed by: Ridley Scott

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  • Known for taking his roles seriously, method actor Robert De Niro trained with the real Jake LaMotta to appear and move like a real boxer in Raging Bull. He remembered, "I sparred with people with gear on, but we were careful. We weren't looking to kill anyone." De Niro took his new skills even further by agreeing to anonymously take part in three professional matches set up by LaMotta, of which the actor won two.

    After the scenes of LaMotta as a young fighter wrapped filming in Los Angeles, De Niro put the production on hold for four months to gain the weight needed to portray LaMotta as an older, out-of-shape man realistically. He flew to Italy - where he had previously filmed the movie 1900 - and visited all of his favorite pasta restaurants. He then spent four months binging carbs to gain 60 pounds for the role.

    Doctors were worried about his newly belabored breathing, but De Niro wanted to make his transformation genuine. He noted, "I knew I couldn't do it past that age - I was 34, 35. That was my one chance."

    • Actors: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Colasanto
    • Released: 1980
    • Directed by: Martin Scorsese

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  • Although not intentionally, Mel Gibson nearly sacrificed his life to make Braveheart. During the filming of one of the battle sequences, he was nearly crushed by a horse. The actor said,

    There was a horse that nearly killed me. He had a good trick where he did this whole rear-up thing, but he'd also fall backwards, which is a problem if you've fallen off first and you're behind him. He did that to me.

    Fortunately, a lightning-fast reaction time averted catastrophe. Gibson's stunt double recognized what was happening and rushed in to pull the actor to safety before the horse landed on him.

    • Actors: Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan, Catherine McCormack, Brendan Gleeson
    • Released: 1995
    • Directed by: Mel Gibson

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