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John Orloff Talks Anonymous, Shakespeare, Emmerich, Ifans, Redgrave, Stratford vs. Oxford

by Anne Thompson
October 27, 2011 5:31 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

One of the surprises of the season is Roland Emmerich's Anonymous, which opens Friday amid ongoing controversy over its premise: that William Shakespeare did not write his plays and poems, and the Earl of Oxford did. Screenwriter John Orloff has been obsessed with this mystery since his college days; the screenplay served as his ticket of admission to Hollywood. First, Shakespeare in Love put Anonymous on the back burner, to be resurrected decades later by German digital master Emmerich, best known for such action adventures as Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Emmerich helped, for better or for worse, to turn Orloff's identity crisis into a rip-roaring Elizabethan succession drama, with Queen Elizabeth --played by the always riveting Vanessa Redgrave--at the center of dangerous head-lopping court intrigue. Emmerich was able to deploy his considerable digital filmmaking chops to shoot this elaborate period piece in Germany with an ensemble of character actors-- led by Redgrave and Rhys Ifans, in an uncharacteristically glamorous role--for just $30 million (think George Lucas or Zack Snyder). Emmerich even filmed one scene with three actors at different times and locations and merged them seamlessly. (We reveal the scene below, with trailer.) The movie could nab some tech nominations. Here's Orloff's Q & A for Sneak Previews.

Anne Thompson: You were in college when you first discovered this Shakespeare identity crisis?

John Orloff: I'd been thinking about it for 20 years. I became obsessed with the Shakespeare authorship issue. I wrote two scripts at UCLA film school. And then it took me about five years to grow the cajones to write my first screenplay out of film school. I finished writing the first draft in 1998, about two months before Shakespeare in Love came out.

AT: So that was the reason that it didn't get made?

JO: I thought I had come up with this fantastic, original idea—of making Shakespeare a young, sexy, handsome character. Which was Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love. So the script became this calling card, getting me lots of meetings. Until one day, about 10 years ago, I was sitting in Roland Emmerich's office because he wanted to talk to me about The Day After Tomorrow, and he's going, 'Yah, yah, so you know, ze boat goes down Fifth Avenue and it's snowing and the world is ending,' and I'm going, 'Wow, that sounds really cool, I don't know how to write that! And you don't want to hire me for that.' And he said, 'What else have you written?' And I went back in my head. Anytime I was having a meeting with anybody and they said, 'What else have you written,' I'd say, 'Have you heard anything about the Shakespeare authorship issue?' And Roland hadn't, and I started talking about it, and he said, 'Yah, yah, I want to read the script.' And here we are, ten years later.

AT: You made the movie in Germany on a modest budget? With a new digital camera?

JO: We shot it in Germany for $30 million, which is nothing for this kind of movie. There were scenes where all we built was a floor. And everything else was just walls painted green. So you save a lot of money doing that because you're not physically building stuff. It was a very quick schedule, we shot it very fast—and with actors that didn't cost a lot of money. This is the first film shot on the best brand new digital camera, the ARRI Alexa. And a lot of it was shot with candlelight. Which has never been done with video before. It's back to Barry Lyndon, which they shot with a million candles because the film was not sensitive. But this digital camera was incredibly sensitive to light. When you see candlelight, it's almost all candlelight. Sometimes cinematographer Anna Forster put one light in for fill. It was her first feature. She's German, and she was a B camera operator for Roland on other movies.

AT: In The Day After Tomorrow, Emmerich did some of the first visual effects work where you use old photographs to create a city. It seems technology ended up catching up with this movie in a positive way.

JO: Five years ago, we almost made this movie, and it fell apart as these things do.

AT: Too expensive, too many big stars?

JO: And the effects budget. We were originally going to build London on a model about the size of a football field. That was our plan five years ago. That didn't happen, and in five years, obviously, technology has changed. When Roland made 2012, there was this new 3-D technology: they took pictures of buildings and scanned them into the computer, and once they had a building block of a building, they'd put another building in, and another and another until you've built a city. What Roland realized was, we could do the same thing with this movie, in a period piece. So before we started shooting they took 36,000 pictures of any Tudor building they could find in England. There's not a lot of Tudor buildings left. They didn't age well. So a film like Elizabeth, which is a great film, is set in a Medieval world because they shot in real locations older than Tudor. So they took 36,000 pictures of roofs and eaves and windows and not just the building itself but the parts of the building, and then they scanned all these images and literally reproduced London brick by brick. They had maps. That's what London was! Those wide shots, the streets are in the right places, the cathedral's in the right place. It's not just made up.

AT: So this is actually very accurate in terms of how England looked back then?

JO: The art direction is extremely accurate. Just for example, the third act takes place historically slightly inaccurately, when the rebellion is staged at Whitehall Palace, the Queen's palace in Westminster, which is upriver from London itself. That building doesn't exist anymore, but what you saw is what the building looked like. That entire set is digital. The only thing that was real was the ground, the cobblestones, but the palace, the walls, the courtyard they're stuck in, that's all fake. Only the floor was real. Roland was bringing a skill set that isn't normally brought to this kind of period movie, and helicopter shots. We were shooting really, really fast, five weeks in Germany. Roland is really good at the nuts and bolts of how you make a movie.

AT: Miniatures, CGI, big crowds?

JO: It wasn't just that. He goes on set and there's never a problem. I've been on set with other directors where somebody throws you a curveball, 'well, we can't do what you wanted,' and they just freeze for 45 minutes to figure out what they're going to do. And Roland is just like, 'yah, yah, so we can keep on moving here instead, and you go up there and I'll cut away over here and we'll be fine.' So he's very fast, the crew was very fast. We were shooting on a stage, which you can control. You don't have to wait for weather or the sun clearing up or all that.

AT: Sony finally came on, were they supportive?

JO: Yeah. I think they appreciated how complicated the movie was, and gave us extra time to make it all work.

AT: And it got better?

JO: Way better. The movie six months ago was 20 minutes longer; you had a little more character and sense of why people were doing what they were doing, but at the expense of pacing. It some ways it was more confusing when it was longer.

AT: There's a scene where three people were shot at different times in the scene?

JO: Yes, at the very end when Derek Jacobi comes back on to give the final bookend, we have Mark Rylance doing 'O for a muse of fire' in front of King James. And we had cast a guy who looks like King James—and could do a Scottish gay lisp---he was doing a stage production and was only available two days. Rylance was only available some other two days, and Jacobi was only available some other two days. So the final sequence in the film, none of the actors could be there on the same day, and none of us were sure how Roland was going to make it work. There was this feeling of, 'what is he doing?' The DP didn't understand it, the visual effects guys who were on the set didn't understand how it was going to work, we were all like, this isn't going to work. And it works.

Stratford vs. Oxford

AT: There's some historical accuracy here, but obviously, there are huge debates. How many people believe that the Earl of Oxford was Shakespeare and how many people don't?

JO: Most people don't. Most people reasonably think that William Shakespeare wrote the plays that are attributed to him. But a lot of very interesting people, actually, don't think so. Henry James, the author, once said he was haunted by a conviction that the divine Shakespeare was the biggest and most successful fraud ever perpetrated on an unsuspecting public. The last book Mark Twain ever wrote was about why he was convinced Shakespeare didn't write the plays. Walt Whitman didn't think Shakespeare wrote the plays. Four US Supreme Court justices don't think Shakespeare wrote the plays. Sigmund Freud thought Oxford wrote the plays. Not that that means anything.

There's a real reason: it's shocking what you don't know about Shakespeare. It turns out the things we're taught about Shakespeare are actually just educated guesses, because we don't really know anything about it. There are three big reasons why I for one don't think Shakespeare wrote his plays. Mark Twain's whole theory is that he, Sam Clemens couldn't have written about the Mississippi if he had not had the experience of being a Mississippi river boat pilot. And he extrapolated that there was no way you could convince him that this country boy wrote the plays. Not that he wasn't a brilliant writer, but he didn't have the life experiences of being in court to have written this plays. There's a lot of reality in that. A lot of people come to it from that place.

Second of all, it comes down to education. We don't know whether Shakespeare went to school at all. We know he definitely didn't go to university. There were only two universities at the time, and those records exist, and he wasn't there. We're taught that he went to grammar school in Stratford, but what we're not taught is that there's no mention, proof or evidence that he went to that school. Nor are we taught that his father was illiterate and his children were illiterate. Those are facts because they sign their names with Xs. So William Shakespeare didn't teach his children to read or write. Also, imagine this: Not a single piece of paper of any kind has ever been found written by William Shakespeare. Not a letter, not a poem, not a play, not a manuscript. Now remember, he was living in London half the time and he was living in Stratford half the time. He had businesses in both towns, and he never wrote a letter. Or at least none have ever been discovered. But we have letters from all his contemporaries. We have a list of 12 or more Elizabethan playwrights you've never heard of, and we have letters from all these people. But we don't have letters from William Shakespeare. I would argue that the reason we don't have letters from William Shakespeare is because there's none to have. They don't exist. That's the simplest answer. Otherwise we have to sort of say, 'well, there's been a lot of floods and fires to keep us from seeing these pages.'

AT: You're saying Shakespeare was illiterate?

JO: It's possible. There's no proof Shakespeare could write. The only thing we have is six signatures, where he spells his name differently in many of them. But spelling was an inexact science in Elizabethan England. But he didn't spell his name twice the same way.

AT: The court intrigue is intricate; where do you take license?

JO: Well, that's complicated, because it weaves in and out. The basic thesis, that Oxford wrote these plays, is conjecture. There's a lot of people who think so, but there's no proof. So with that basic thesis you're already getting into breaking from historical, absolute, known facts.

AT: And the Oxfordians have reason to believe it was the Earl of Oxford?

JO: There are many people who believe it was the Earl of Oxford. If you take it as fact that yes, he did write the plays, then even more of the movie is accurate. That said, he was a man, he did write plays—we know that for a fact—he was considered the best playwright of his time—we know that. We know that he had to write anonymously—that is a fact. It was mentioned at the time. Certainly, the background of the film is all true. Elizabeth did have affairs. Did she have children? I don't know.

AT: We don't know that, right?

JO: Well, there are people who said while she was alive that she did have bastards. But obviously most orthodox historians say that never happened. And there are orthodox historians who say she never had sex. I find that kind of unbelievable, and then it doesn't seem to be that big of a jump to say, 'well if she was having sex, and she didn't have contraception, it's certainly possible that she had children.' I'm not sure I believe that part of my movie. What happened was the script originally didn't have any of that. The script that Roland was attracted to had none of the power, bastards, who's going to be the next king stuff. It was really only about Oxford, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare, and the triangle devil's deal they made with each other that made all of them miserable and unhappy. In the intervening five years from when I did my original draft to when I'm sitting down with Roland hearing about The Day After Tomorrow, there had been more research done. Because the Oxford theory is a new thing. It was first "discovered" in the '20s. When Twain died, he was saying he didn't know who wrote the plays, he thought it was going to be like a brontosaurus yet to be discovered. And indeed, five years after he died, Oxford was brought up. So none of that was in the script. Roland did all this research of his own and came back to me after he made The Day After Tomorrow and said,' yah, yah, I'm very nervous about this but I have an idea. What if the movie's about succession and they have a child and this and this and this?' And I thought, 'Wow, I don't know if it's true or not, but it's really good drama.' And suddenly my pretty OK script turns into this Greek tragedy. A Shakespearean tragedy!

AT: You didn't have Oxford having a romance with the Queen? So her character became more important.

JO: Correct. And the flashbacks weren't in my original draft either. There were bookends, but it was just one linear story. We didn't go into the biography of Oxford as much. But then once you start to talk about the things that we talked about in the movie, you have to show the love affair between the young Elizabeth and the young Oxford in order for the third act to make sense. Without those scenes setting it up, I think with the third act you'd have no emotional connection. You'd say, why are they doing all these things?

AT: So you wrote some 20 drafts in the last five years?

JO: I did 20 drafts when Roland came on. Because as you may have noticed, it's a pretty complicated piece of business with a lot of flash forwards, flashbacks, characters, conflicting agendas.

AT: You have Rhys Ifans' hands covered with ink. The ink-stained wretch.

JO: Yeah, and there's also that beat when Shakespeare decides he's going to be the playwright. He's about to run onstage for Henry V when he stops and hesitates, puts his hand in the ink, grabs his makeup and props. Rhys always had ink on his hands—through the whole movie.

Audience member: If there are other writings from the Elizabethan period, are there samples of Oxford that you could match?

JO: Interestingly enough, Oxford did write poetry under his own name. I think we have about 15 or 20 of that exist. When he was 20 or 21, or maybe a bit earlier, when he married Anne, he never published under his own name again. We don't know why. Although, as I said, he was still called a playwright and a poet. He just had to work anonymously.

Audience member: And did he have that curse, that historical personality disorder?

JO: Yes. He was a failure. He was one of the richest men in England when he became an earl, and he was not totally broke but close to it—he made some really bad investments. He was a crazy man. He was a lover of Elizabeth as a younger man. The thing about Oxford, when you start to get really deep into this stuff, is that Oxford—his life is in the plays. And that's why a lot of people become Oxfordians like Mark Rylance, who has a little cameo in our movie. He's a theater actor. He used to run the Globe Theater for 10 years in London, and he's an anti-Stratfordian. He doesn't think Shakespeare wrote the plays. Think about that for a second.

AT: He's the great Shakespearean actor of our day.

JO: Maybe the greatest living Shakespearean actor—certainly of his generation! But he ran the Globe Theater from 1995 to 2005, and he doesn't think Shakespeare wrote the plays. But Mark's point has always been that as an actor, he looks for motivation. Why do things happen? Why does a character walk across the room? Equally, why does somebody write a play? And if you believe that Shakespeare wrote the plays, you eventually have to come to the conclusion that he did it for money, and that he was just pulling stuff out of the air. Like the sonnets have nothing to do with Shakespeare's life. So if you're a Stratfordian, what they now say is that it is a literary exercise. People who think Shakespeare wrote the plays, they now say that the sonnets have nothing to do with the emotion of a human being. And the reason they say that is because there's nothing in the sonnets that had anything to do with the life of William Shakespeare.

Audience member: I agree. I was an actress at 17, at the Stratford Royal Shakespeare, and all of my contemporaries in the '70s agreed that William Shakespeare could not as an actor have written them. So I agree with that theory. But I had never heard of Oxford. It's long been a question in the theater community.

JO: When we were casting this movie, some actors got really angry that we even asked them to be in the movie. I'm serious. Simon Callow was very upset. Judy Dench called it 'that film.' Vanessa Redgrave doesn't believe Shakespeare wrote the plays. And neither does Sir Derek Jacobi, he' s a very big Oxfordian.

Audience member: Talk about casting the main characters.

JO: We always knew we wanted Vanessa to play Queen Elizabeth, particularly because in my script she has Alzheimers and she's a bit batty. So thankfully she said yes, and then her daughter [Joely Richardson) said yes. Rhys came in to read and he assumed we wanted him to read him for Shakespeare, because if any of you have seen Rhys in anything else, he's a very different person than this character. So we had to convince the studio to cast him. He had to go through a couple hoops. And David Thewlis, the guy who plays William Cecil at five different ages from young to very very old, never complained about the four hours in makeup. The guy who plays Essex, he was still in acting school when we made this. He'd never been in a movie before. And his first day on set was the scene—the first time he's ever going to be in a movie—is the scene where the older Elizabeth comes in and sees the play. So he's got Vanessa Redgrave dressed as Queen Elizabeth on his arm, and that's his first moment on a movie set, even. Sebastian Armesto, the guy who plays Ben Jonson, read for the part of Marlowe, and we were having trouble finding Ben Jonson, and it was like, wow, 'that guy is really good, we should just have him read for Ben Jonson.'

AT: Is Rafe Spall, who plays Shakespeare, the son of Timothy Spall?

JO: Yeah, he is. And he's really great. The movie's so melodramatic, it's kind of a Greek tragedy and a little over-the-top. In the sense of this movie being a Shakespearean drama, Rafe is the fool. He's the one that's smarter than everybody else but plays the fool.

Audience member: Is it true that Shakespeare was an actor?

JO: Yes. Yes, he definitely was an actor. We don't know very much about that, though. This is the thing about Shakespeare that gets my blood boiling. We know like 25 facts about William Shakespeare. It's so minimal you can't believe. And a lot of those facts are just about him selling grain in Stratford. So the times where he's mentioned as an actor are like three or four times in his lifetime. And his name was in a Ben Jonson play.

Audience member: The play Richard III was inspired by Robert Cecil? Did he have a hunchback?

JO: Richard III in life did not have a hunchback. Only Shakespeare's Richard III has a hunchback. And it just so happens the real Robert Cecil had a hunchback. Another problem with the traditional theory of Shakespeare is that these plays are very political. And people were arrested. Elizabethan England is not like our life today. It's more like North Korea. It is a totalitarian dictatorship. There was no free speech. Ben Jonson was arrested five or six times. People had their hands cut off because they wrote things that Elizabeth or William Cecil didn't like, so they would never write again. So when the Essex rebellion was staged, there was a Shakespeare play performed to incite the mob. And Shakespeare was never arrested. Now, as we saw, Essex had his head cut off. Southampton was in jail for a year, and a lot of other people were thrown into jail. But not the guy whose play incited the rebellion.

AT: So what are you doing next? Do you have other things in the works? You're doing an animated film and another Emmerich movie?

JO: Yeah, I did an animated film last year and I'm doing another animated film now based on a Terry Pratchett book, who is an English science fiction/fantasy kind of writer for Dreamworks. And I'm writing a movie for Lu Chuan (City of Life and Death) in China. Roland's is a period piece that takes place in the Kennedy years (more details here). We're having a very hard time finding someone who wants to make it. So we think it'll be in a few years.


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