Roland Emmerich, perhaps better known for his blockbuster action movies like Independence Day and 2012, changes pace with his upcoming period drama Anonymous. Emmerich takes the controversial Shakespearean authorship issue and shapes it into an effective political thriller set in Elizabethan England.
Recently, the director took some time to sit down with us and talk about the film recently, mentioning his belief that Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, is the real legendary author. He also mentions working with the stellar cast of British talent, which includes Joely Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Rhys Ifans, and David Thewlis.
We Got This Covered: How do you feel about the Shakespeare authorship controversy, and putting Oxford forward as the true author in your film?
RE: Well, first of all I got the idea that Oxford was the candidate, I didn’t want to challenge that, right now I one hundred percent believe that the man from Stratford didn’t write it. And I would say that Oxford is the most likely, and also the most interesting candidate of all of the candidates. So I think it’s appropriate that Oxford is the true author…in our version.
WGTC: It’s been awhile since you first acquired the script, can you tell us about that?
RE: Yes, it’s been like ten years since I first read it. And then I worked on it for three of four years with John Orloff, and then it was just laying there, ready to get shot. I mean it was a real pleasure to finally do it, when you have something that’s waiting so long to do.
WGTC: How does doing a movie like this, a period drama, differ from doing a big-bugdet action moive like Independence Day or 2012?
RE: On the one hand, it’s exactly the same. It’s shooting a movie; you have a camera, a crew, and actors. The only thing…the fun part is, normally when I’m doing a big movie I’m always dreading the days when I have to do action scenes or visual effects scenes, because they’re actually very boring.
And it’s very, very hard to constantly keep the energy up with the actors and stuff. Like ‘John! You have to run faster!’ and he tries to run faster on this like walking machine…it’s just ridiculous you know? And in this movie, everything was there for me, because the actors were all there.
The actors actually had the problem (not me). The actors would ask me ‘what’s behind me?’, and I would say, ‘A street…In London’. You know, that was kind of hard, and in like the scene when everyone is shooting at them and they were surrounded, there was nothing around them. So that was a little difficult part there.
WGTC: That was all green screen?
RE: Yeah. And I would be there but it was really, in a way, more fun. Also because this movie was so much cheaper than my other movies, just a fraction of the cost, so there wasn’t as big pressure on me. I could do whatever I wanted in a way.
WGTC: Did you have more time to spend with the actors on set, giving them direction?
RE: Well it’s English actors, and English actors always…if you look at my other films I use a lot of English actors because I love how well prepared they come, and how easy they are to direct. You can have a normal conversation with them, they have like no ego, and they just kind of want to please you. Then when you’re good with them, and say the right things to them, then they give the most amazing performances. And I think we have some of the best performances in this film.
Like in the scene when Robert Cecil tells the Earl of Oxford the truth, which I think is really stunningly acted. Like Ed, a tear comes out of his eyes exactly when he says ‘you could have been a king’. I don’t know how he did it. Ed Hogg controlled even the tears in his eyes, and he did this two or three times.
WGTC: Did you have an open casting call to fill the roles or did you go to the actors you wanted?
RE: No, you would never do an open casting call for these really like high class English theater actors. You’re actually really honored that they would take meetings with you. And then some of them are absolutely really my favorites, David Thewlis…I’ve always thought he was like a terrific actor…and Vanessa (Redgrave), and also Rhys Ifans. A friend of mine shot a movie with him like ten years ago, and he said ‘he’s probably one of the best actors I’ve worked with’.
And I kind of started studying him. When we met…It’s so interesting, I think he gets pigeon-holed. I mean I think we pigeon-hole directors, but we also pigeon-hole actors. And he’s been pigeon-holed since he was in Notting Hill in his underwear; he was the clown. That’s it. And when I invited him to meet with me, he kind of came and said some very nice things about my script, and I asked him (like I ask every actor), ‘what would you like to perform in this film?’.
Because from the age group, it was very much in a way open and no one really knew for what I saw them. And I secretly had him down for William Shakespeare. And he said ‘well you’re probably thinking William Shakespeare, but I would love to play the Earl of Oxford’. And he probably saw something in my face, because I’m not such a good actor, and then my casting director said ‘Oh Rhys can be quite posh, he’s really good at playing posh’.
And that started it. Over days and days I thought about, and I was like ‘I think I’ve found my Oxford’. Because he’s incredibly eccentric himself, he can totally relate to the role. And I asked him if he would test, and he said yes that he really wanted the part and would test. And then he just blew us away.
WGTC: Was it by design or accident that you had both Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave playing those roles?
RE: Yeah, but I always had them in my mind since I wrote the final draft. I said I know how to do it, we cast Joely and Vanessa. And that was the idea at that moment, it totally made sense to me, and we’re very lucky they both wanted to do it. Because for Joely it was…she always stands a little bit under the shadow of her mom. So I thought she gave an amazing performance. And is was tough for both of them in a weird way, they were competing in a way…to overcome…that it wasn’t competing but that they were showing two sides of a character and they understood that.
And at one point, I kind of offered to them that ‘maybe we should talk about having certain mannerism or something like that’, and they were like ‘no-no-no let’s not do that. You tell us on the set what you want to have and we’ll do that’. And then I never did, because they’re both the same. There’s something about them that’s absolutely convincing that they were the younger and the older queen. And they had such a similar voice, which really helps.
WGTC: Talk about some of the cinematography. I mean advancements in digital allows you to film in low light, talk about how that freed you up and how you used that.
RE: …Then because we shot in Germany word got around to Arriflex and they called us up and said they had a prototype that comes out next year and maybe we can use that. So we said ‘can we shoot with it or not?’…so the ARRI people and Red people competed in a way.
But we found out that the Red camera had some little bit strange banding, and some slight ghosting images from the candles. Also from the Red camera, which I think is a disadvantage, it’s compressing inside the camera. And the Arriflex produces raw material and then you compress it.
Then we could suddenly shoot 600 ASA and not one grain…it freed us; it was like a revolution. The actors said ‘when do we switch the light on?’ and we said ‘the lights are on’. They couldn’t believe we could shoot in that level of darkness. It was brighter outside, around the set, then inside. It was incredible.
I also think it puts people in a different mood. I notice myself, when I have a TV interview under the glaring lights, you feel watched. And when you’re in a normal room you don’t feel watched, and I think that helps the acting.
WGTC: This theme of challenging Shakespeare’s authorship; have you met with any challenges or negativity?
RE: Well yeah, I mean it’s a little bit like…you feel like a heretic in the Middle Ages. I feel like any minute they’re going to stone me. Because you have to understand that the people who believe in the man from Stratford are like the literary establishment, the orthodox believers; they pretty much have made whole careers about the man I have said is a fraud. I’d be pissed off to, to be honest.
But that’s also a little bit the problem, because they are actually more biased than anyone else because they have the most to loose. And the Shakespeare Birth Trust, like it says, they have a 2-3 million people-a-year industry. If those numbers would go down they would freak out.
But I kind of just think that art has to be provoked and you have to ask questions. I do nothing different than what Shakespeare did; mess things up a little.
WGTC: How did the discussion with the English theater actors in your cast go, did you convince any of them of your views?
RE: Well, Vanessa was undecided, and she’s now a believer. Which I actually say “believer” but I don’t like that term. For example, David Thewlis was totally onboard, he knew more about it then I did…and then some people like Rhys just took it like it’s a story…and then Rafe Spall just thought this movie is a celebration of Shakespeare’s work.
And we went to great pain to recreate how it felt to be in an Elizabethan theater, and what kind of a hot house it was, and how loud it was. People booed and threw stuff; they threw vegetables or oysters, so a lot of people got injured because they got an oyster to the head. And vegetables were thrown because they were the popcorn of the Elizabethans, and there were vegetable stands outside of the theater. So I also wanted to capture that atmosphere, and you can only really do that when you love Shakespeare and love the theater.
WGTC: What was your approach to depicting the character of Shakespeare?
RE: Well, there was just that everything that we have about William Shakespeare, it wasn’t even written by Shakespeare in his lifetime. The scraps of evidence, none of them point to a writer, they point to a trader and a business man, a minor actor, a play broker, a theater partner…and at the end of his life he was accused of hoarding grain in times of famine. He was not the most sympathetic guy, and that’s all that we have.
Then about seven years after his death, all of a sudden, his first folio gets published and all of a sudden a writer, who was belittling him as an actor and a poet ape, all of a sudden writes two dedicative poems to him and calls him ‘the soul of the age’. But I think he was talking about the writer William Shakespeare, and not the man from Stratford. And he made this really clear because he put parentheses around the name Shakespeare. Why did he do that?
The Elizabethans were like experts at decoding because they could never say anything outright. They could never ever say anything outright, so they found a way that everything was in with them, because they had to circumvent the people who told them what to write and what not to write; there was a lot of censorship at that time.
So I think it had to be a political story. And it was such an important subject matter, the movie has to be about succession, because succession is the only important thing; who will be the next king. So I decided to make the movie not just about someone else writing that stuff, but why he would have to put another name on his work.
That concludes our interview with Roland Emmerich. We’d like to thank him for his time. Make sure you check out Anonymous, out in theaters on October 28th.