I am really excited. Today’s blog post is a first for me. It’s an interview with Jan Hendrik Verstraeten, the writer, director, and producer of 2015’s I am Henry, a wonderful short film about the afterlife of Henry VIII. In it, Henry (Sebastian Street) has conversations with his first two wives, Catherine of Aragon (Maria de Lima) and Anne Boleyn (Fleur Keith). Check it out on Vimeo. But first, read my interview (which has been very lightly edited).
Historian: My understanding is that when you started to write this film, it wasn’t originally about Henry VIII, that your starting point was simply a man in a white room. How did you decide to the man was Henry VIII?
Verstraeten: I just knew it was either Henry VIII himself, or a middle aged man who imagined that he was Henry VIII. Of course, during the process of writing, sudden ideas that pop into your head are quite natural, and as a writer you then have to decide if it is a good idea or not. Initially I was not convinced that it would work, but I allowed it to take shape, and was curious where it would take me.
H: Once you decided to make this film about historical people, how did that affect the way you approached the characters? Did you approach them differently than you would have approached an entirely fictitious character of your invention?
V: Yes, the approach to use a historic character, and certainly one that is so prominent in the history of England, was quite daunting to be honest. I am not English, and I doubted very much if I could do such a thing. I started by reading Henry’s love letters to Anne and the account of Master Kingston about Anne’s tragic final visit to the Tower, and her execution. I also watched several documentaries. I found especially the BBC documentary Henry VIII with David Starky fascinating. I knew that I wanted to be true to the real Henry, but instead of trying to do an enormous amount of research, I decided to ‘sense’ how the real Henry felt about everything during his life. The interesting discovery for me was that the real Henry, just like most of us humans, was complex and full of contradictions. A king without a doubt, who believed he was chosen by God for this role, but also a man who occasionally was ruled by lust and passion, fear and confusion. A man who in essence was not so different than anyone of us.
Hilary Mantel, who wrote Wolf Hall, said in an interview somewhere that a historian has to create the personality of the historic character as you can never know for sure how they really are, but also for dramatic reasons you need to make a choice as a writer. I think that is true, but for me in this short I chose to ‘sense’ him, and build on that with the facts I found about him. I took the same approach for the other characters, and so I was not aware of Catherine’s last letter before her death in which she claimed that her ‘dead’ children were with her. A fact that I sensed and used in the film, only to discover afterwards from a Tudor expert that it had happened.
H: Where did you shoot the film? Was it on location, or was it a set?
V: It had been suggested that we film a couple of the scenes in the massive crypt underneath St Mary Magdalene’s Church in Paddington, north London. We ended up filming the entire film on location at the church, as it had everything we were looking for. The crypt with its Gothic architecture and beautiful stained glass windows was recently seen in the film ‘Les Misérables.’
H: Tell us a little about the costumes you used. How closely were you striving for accuracy?
V: When you produce a short film the budget is usually very tight, and costumes are expensive. Even so, we were definitely trying to be historically accurate, and were very lucky with Kristen Ernst Brown, our costume designer. She won Best Costume for I Am Henry, and definitely succeeded without a lot of money to create a beautiful and authentic look, using black and gold as her main colour palette. This complemented the cinematography by Simon Rowling, which was inspired by Rembrandt, the great Dutch master painter.
H: The film’s basic conceit has significant theological implications, and the film briefly touches on the question of whether Henry is in Purgatory. Purgatory was a major issue of Catholic belief in the 16th century, but Henry’s reformation cast the whole concept of Purgatory into doubt. Did you think about this issue when you wrote the script? Did you make a conscious decision to not bring theology into the script?
V: I wouldn’t say that there is no theology at all in the script. You cannot have been a Tudor and not have been influenced by religion or the Catholic concept of Purgatory, although the Church of England dismissed it. Anne after all makes a comment that ‘Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because the righteous will live by faith and faith alone.’ This can be seen as a very ‘protestant’ remark. Both Anne and Catherine rely on their personal faith, and the strength of that, which is contrasted with Henry’s self-importance. Anne was concerned with salvation, Henry was concerned with the law and protecting himself and his country. But overall, the focus of the film is about the emotions between Henry, Anne and Catherine.
Our plan for the future is to develop this short into a full length feature or mini-series for TV. This would explore the afterlife in greater detail, drawing upon some very dramatic storylines involving other significant people in Henry’s life.
H: I find the idea of the developing I am Henry into a feature film or mini-series is quite exciting, and much more interesting than the usual take on Henry. If it does wind up happening, please let me know and I’ll be glad to provide a plug or do another interview to help promote it on the blog. Good luck with it!