Interview with Screenwriter Gayla Kraetsch Hartsough (HELOISE + ABELARD)

What is your screenplay about?

A young French girl does the unthinkable – she falls in love with her professor, who is 20 years her senior. Their forbidden love became the greatest sex scandal of 12th-century France and spanned two decades amid the searing backdrop of political and religious turmoil. The affair costs the lovers everything they had, but their love for each other prevails.

What genres does your screenplay fall under?

Historic romance, based on a true story.

(Note: Today, Heloise is buried next to Peter in Paris. Many Parisians view their love as the best example of absolute and eternal love. Young lovers visit their grave and leave love notes in hopes that they too will have eternal love.)

Why should this screenplay be made into a movie?

Even though HELOISE+ABELARD is set in 12th century France, their love story is relevant to today. Heloise and Peter’s timeless love was forbidden on so many levels: their age differences, teacher-student relationship, and social morals.

Forbidden love stories tear at our hearts, yet there are few forbidden loves that remain. Our society has become increasingly accepting of interreligious, interracial, and single sex marriages. The one love affair that remains taboo today is between a teacher and student, considered by many to be worse than pedophiles because the teachers use their status to seduce young victims. Such love affairs violate our sensibilities. Parents and schools alike trust that teachers will not take advantage of young students, especially girls.

Today, college professors who sexually seduce their students lose their positions. In the case of Heloise and Peter’s love affair, Heloise was complicit. She vowed: “I would go into hell if you so bid me, dear Peter.”

For Heloise and Abelard’s love to survive, they had to work harder than could ever be imagined to be together since everyone was against their love. Two lovers overcoming familial, social, and religious challenges make for great drama.

I believe films need strong female characters – not just physically strong superheroes, but female characters who are intelligent with clear moral compasses. At age 15, Heloise was already regarded as the most brilliant female in France. She had mastered four languages, mathematics, the classics, and science. Her mind surpassed the skills of the best tutors. She refused to follow the traditional path of women of her age. Similar to Heloise, many women today struggle for intellectual and positional parity and are victims of institutionalized sexism. Heloise can serve as a role model for many.

How would you describe this script in two words?

Eternal love

What movie have you seen the most times in your life?

This question is tough for me to answer because I like so many films.

I’m a Sci-Fi junky (e.g., ALIEN, MATRIX, BLADE RUNNER, MAD MAX, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) that depict dystopian worlds.
I’m drawn to strong characters, particularly strong female characters, who must battle to undo some societal wrong or make it in a man’s world (e.g., ERIN BROCKOVICH, HIDDEN FIGURES, BROADCAST NEWS).

Characters’ stories are even more compelling when they are up against all odds (e.g., DEAD POETS SOCIETY, GLADIATOR, SCHINDLERS LIST, SEVEN SAMURAI, or HOTEL RWANDA).

Films that show basically decent people in bad situations and forces one to think about what they would do in such situations (e.g., SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION).

I also like stories that delve into their characters’ psychological make up (e.g., SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). I’ve also seen any Ingmar Bergman film that I can find because of his ability to convey complex characters’ emotional struggles with such clarity (e.g., THE SEVENTH SEAL).

I also cannot forget to mention the classics (e.g., CHINATOWN, THE GODFATHER, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, PSYCHO).

So bottom line: I don’t have just one film.

How long have you been working on this screenplay?

I received a grant to write and produce a short film on the life of Heloise in 2010. Prior to receiving the grant, I knew nothing about their story other than they were lovers whom I had seen depicted in Medieval art.

As a Ph.D., I’m a bit compulsive about research and was enraptured by their tale as I read their love letters that had survived 900 years, including the pillages of the bubonic plague, world wars, and book burnings. During the 19th century, their love story was well known because it had been part of U.S. high school curriculum. During the 20th century, their love letters were replaced by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The love of Heloise and Abelard is basically the love story of Romeo and Juliet if they had not committed suicide.

Therefore, I felt their story had to be told and wrote the feature script, HELOISE+ABELARD, which just won FilmWay’s Romance and Relationships Festival. (Note: I’m always honing my scripts so I’m not sure a script is ever finished until it is made and released.)

Since writing the feature script, I have also written a TV pilot and prepared a bible of HELOISE+ABELARD that expands even more into their lives and the times. The Vatican in Rome and the King of France are at odds over power. The Pope needs funds for the Crusades. Jews are being slaughtered. Two Popes are put in place. Battles are fought. There are conflicting religious values between the academic intellectuals and religious fundamentalists. Women are burned at the stake for adultery or having children out of wedlock. Abbeys and convents shelter abandoned wives, the elderly, and the poor. All of these events had an impact on our lovers Heloise and Abelard.

How many stories have you written?

I have 6 feature scripts that have won enough contests to demonstrate that they are ready to market. I have had 3 feature scripts optioned. I have also written 3 TV pilots with bibles, including a TV pilot for HELOISE+ABELARD. I have also written and produced three short films, including one on Heloise and SLAP, which won the Best Cinematography Award and Best Acting Award at the WILDSound Film Festival in Toronto a few years back.

What is your favorite song? (Or, what song have you listened to the most times in your life?)

“I am Woman” by Helen Redding, followed by “Piece of My Heart” by Janis Joplin

What obstacles did you face to finish this screenplay?

Finishing the feature script HELOISE+ABELARD was not difficult. What has been difficult is finding a way to have it produced. Producers are reluctant to take on period pieces, despite the success of historic love stories. Other male producers are shocked and turned off by Peter’s castration. (See my response regarding Peter’s castration to Question No. 13 below.)

Apart from writing, what else are you passionate about?

My day job involves strategic planning and public policy. I’m passionate about working on issues to make society better. I also enjoy hiking and art, particularly creating multi-media works on social change issues. For example, my most recent artwork is on gun violence in schools. My short film SLAP is about our inability to discuss civil matters civilly. In SLAP, two mechanics discuss world affairs and slap each other whenever they disagree. The short SLAP has more than 140 slaps in under 7 minutes.

You entered your screenplay via FilmFreeway. What has been your experiences working with the submission platform site?

It was the first time I had used the FilmFreeway platform. It was easy to set up and, of course, since my script HELOISE+ABELARD won, I think FilmFreeway is fabulous!

What influenced you to enter the festival?

There are few festivals that focus on romance and relationship stories. When I saw that focus, I thought the story of HELOISE+ABELARD would be a perfect match. I was concerned that a modern-day rom com would take precedence over a timeless love story.

On the romance side, I was pleased to see that the festival saw the importance of the moving love story of Heloise and Abelard.

On the relationships side, their love endured for decades after their romantic love and lives were ripped apart.

What were your feelings on the initial feedback you received?

The feedback was constructive and positive. I smiled when the reviewer noted: “Peter’s castration is one plot point that didn’t seem to have relevance to the rest of the story, although it’s absolutely brutal.” Peter’s castration is an actual event, perpetrated by Heloise’s uncle. Peter is the most famous castrated lover in history. Despite Peter’s lost libido, Heloise’s love for him was unwavering. This violent act against Peter is even more significant since the love letters that have survived were written after the castration and over the following 20-year period until Peter’s death. The castration scene is central to their eternal love and struggles.

Watch the Screenplay Reading:

Based on a true story. Heloise d’ Argenteuil (15, a brilliant young scholar) has a forbidden love affair with her tutor, the popular Professor Peter Abelard (35). Their love is against the searing backdrop of political and religious turmoil and costs the lovers everything they have. Today their love story has changed feminist theories, French literature, and the myth of the love story for all time.

CAST LIST:

Narrator: Val Cole
Nicole/Sister Catherine: Hannah Ehman
Jacques: Steve Rizzo
Heloise: Kyana Teresa

By matthewtoffolo

Filmmaker and sports fan. CEO of the WILDsound Film and Writing Festival www.wildsound.ca

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