Friday, November 11, 2011

"Anonymous" with a Byline - Screenwriter John Orloff interview (part 1)

Note: A year ago, the screenwriter John Orloff sent an email over the transom and started what has become a yearlong correspondence about his Edward de Vere biopic Anonymous (with which "Shakespeare" by Another Name is unaffiliated -- although that said, I very much enjoyed the film and hope everyone reading these words takes the opportunity to see this tremendous movie on the big screen).

When the publicity push for Anonymous was kicking into high gear, in early October, Orloff sat down for an interview for the "Shakespeare" by Another Name Blog at Orloff's office in western Massachusetts.

Orloff had already, three weeks before the movie's release, heard and read so much misrepresentation of what his movie was about and where it was coming from. In this long-form interview, Orloff wanted to help set the record straight. He also, very kindly, provided a number of his own behind-the-scenes photographs from the set of Anonymous, some of which are below.

What follows is the first part of the transcript (part 1 of 3) of our two-hour interview.

MARK ANDERSON: So let's start at the beginning. You're coming out of UCLA film school and eager to get into the film and TV industry. What happens next?

JOHN ORLOFF: What happened was 20-some-odd years ago, it was a very different film business. And it was a lot harder to get in to. Especially as a screenwriter. I first realized that I didn't have anything to write. I hadn't lived. I had nothing to say. And I was 22 years old. I had a relatively sheltered life. I lived in LA all my life. I'm actually fourth-generation film business. My great-grandparents were Fibber McGee and Molly. Jim Jordan and Marian Jordan. Their son, Jim Jordan Jr. was a TV director, and my grandmother was a B-movie actress. My father was a commercial director. And my brother's an Academy Award winning sound mixer.

In my 20s, I ended up working in advertising, because I could get work there. Just struggling to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. And then I met my now-wife, who at the time was working at HBO in the long-form movie division. She would bring home these long form scripts that tended to be non-fiction based. Movies about Dorothy Dandridge, the African American Baseball League. I've always been interested in non-fiction based movies. A lot of my favorite movies are David Lean movies. I love historical films.

One thing led to another, and I started talking to my wife about the Shakespeare authorship issue, which I'd already learned about through the "Frontline" [episode on the Shakespeare Debate]. This was probably 1995. But I'd learned about the issue around 1989. Which led me to then going, "This seems true. It seems crazy that I've never heard of this." That led me to reading Ogburn's book as my first book. I was really just blown away by it. As many people are.

At that point, I sort of put it away. It seemed a little too daunting to try to write a script about it. Even though I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. Although at that point, I wanted to be a director. That's the sexy fun thing to do in the film business.

MKA: Do you still want to be a director?

JO: Not so much really, no. Not at all actually.

MKA: OK, so John Orloff the screenwriter or soon-to-be-screenwriter is interested in the Shakespeare question. But at this point hasn't written anything about it yet.

JO: So five years later, I'm still talking about it. "Amadeus" was one of my favorite movies ever. I just felt there was another "Amadeus" in the source material. Really thematically exciting. Examining characters we think we know in a way we've never seen. This was before "Shakespeare In Love" came out. And I very early on [envisioned] Shakespeare as a sexy, young movie star. At the time, that seemed like a total revolution. Before "Shakespeare In Love," the only image we had for Shakespeare was the frontispiece [to the First Folio]. The bald man, with the round head and haircut and lace thing. That dude's not sexy in anyone's imagination.

That alone seemed like a fun thing to do. To make Shakespeare sexy. The character. To me, if he was such a successful actor, then he must have been charismatic and all the things we think of as a movie star.

But it still felt too intimidating as an idea. So I just put it away. And when my wife started bringing home all these crazy scripts, based on non-fiction books. And all these people have agents. I was like, "These people have agents? They're being offered work at HBO? I can write a script that good."

My wife basically called my bluff. She said, fine, write it. If it sucks, you don't have to show it to anybody.

So that was a whole nother two or three year odyssey of writing what was called "Soul of the Age." It was a different script from "Anonymous." This is still 1994 or 1993 when I started this process. So there wasn't nearly as many books as there are now.

I read Whalen. I don't think even Sobran (Alias Shakespeare) was out. There wasn't a lot of Oxfordian source material. Plus, this is pre-Internet. Or baby Internet. Trust me, Compuserve didn't have any Oxfordian pages. So I did this curious thing of going to this place that people won't recognize soon called libraries. I went to the Beverly Hills Library. I just started to read everything I could on Elizabethan England. So I read a lot about Shakespearean stagecraft. I read a lot about the Cecils. I read a lot about Sir Walter Raleigh. At one point he was an interesting character in the script. He's not now.

Then I finally had a very hard time figuring out how to tell the story. There's a lot of "ins" into this story. De Vere's life is so rich. Even giving somebody that he didn't write the plays he's an incredibly fascinating man. He had an interesting biography. He is a prototypical Elizabethan gentleman. So that in itself is a rich story.

If you add the fact that he wrote the plays, it now becomes incredibly amazing. But just the culture of the time, it's all amazing.

So how do you write it? I didn't know. But I was just struck by Ben Jonson as a human being. And as a character. And I read more Jonson and everything Jonson had to say about Shakespeare. I kept thinking, "He's talking about two different people." OK, wait a minute. Is he the "Poet-Ape"? Is he the thief? Is he the Sogliardo in "Every Man Out of His Humour"? The stupid guy with the coat of arms who has no wit of his own?

But they've got his coat of arms as the boar without the head. When I read the boar without the head, I said, "Oh. He is talking about two different guys." The "soul of the age" is the poet. And the actor is the boar without a head.

So soon as I had that Eureka moment, I said, Oh, Ben Jonson is our Virgil -- in Dante. He's the guy who's going to hold our hand. He's going to be the audience. He's literally going to be me, John Orloff. Because I couldn't relate as a writer or as someone trying to imagine what the writer of the plays was like... I couldn't relate to that human being. I could relate with a young playwright who's come to the big city to make a big name. That's where Ben Jonson was in 1595. That character I could write.

So that became the "in" to the script called "Soul of the Age."

In the dramatic situation, you have to have Shakespeare as a character. I took it upon myself to think that Shakespeare of Stratford in my universe was recognized as the writer. So the question becomes How did that happen?

Ben Jonson seems as a young struggling playwright to be a very logical person for Edward de Vere to go to say, "Won't you be my beard?" It seems like a very logical extension. And it seems very logical of what we know of Ben Jonson and his ego for him to be terribly offended by the thought of him being someone else's beard. So it felt very natural.

That said, "Soul of the Age" is a very different movie than "Anonymous."

MKA: So to use the "Amadeus" analogy, Jonson was sort of the Salieri?

JO: He was sort of Salieri. In the very first draft, it actually takes place in prison. The book ends are in prison after the Roundheads took control of London. And they burned down the theaters. And they arrest Jonson. And Jonson is giving a lawyer his defense from jail.

And in that defense he tells the story of de Vere and Shakespeare. As an old man. Who may or may not be crazy.

MKA: So this is much more "Amadeus"...

JO: Much more. And it becomes much more about jealousy. But in a triangle rather than a one-on-one. So de Vere, Shakespeare and Jonson are in this triangle of tragedy in "Soul of the Age" where all three want something that they're never going to get. Jonson wants to become the most famous playwright in the world. He doesn't get to be that because of Shakespeare. Shakespeare wants to be the greatest actor in the world. He doesn't get to be that because he's going to become a playwright instead. And Oxford wants to become the greatest statesman in the world. That doesn't happen either.

So nobody gets what they want. And ... everybody else gets something that the other one has.

That's the script that Roland [Emmerich] read.

MKA: I understand "Soul of the Age" made the rounds in Hollywood. What's the story of the script?

JO: Right after I wrote it, I had heard rumblings that there was this little romantic comedy being made about William Shakespeare. But it didn't seem to be a big deal at first. It actually starred actors nobody had heard of; it was directed by a director nobody had heard of. And it didn't seem to be a big movie ahead of time. So I wasn't too worried about it. Although I knew it would steal my thunder about the idea of Shakespeare as a young and sexy man. But I thought, OK, no bigee. My movie's about more than just that.

Then the movie, "Shakespeare in Love," came out. As we all know it was a huge hit. Humungous shock to everybody. Best Picture. Best Actress. Best Screenplay. Swept the Oscars -- in the year that "Saving Private Ryan" was made, incidentally. My script was kind of dead on arrival. Nobody else is going to make a movie about William Shakespeare in 1998.

So prior to the movie being released, a friend of mine who is also a screenwriter who is represented at [Creative Artists Agency] -- the big agency in Hollywood. He sent my script in to his agent, who promptly passed. And said "I don't want to represent this script or the writer." It then went to another agent, a powerful agent, who not only passed, but called me at my house. I'd never gotten a phone call in my life from an agent. This big powerful agent calls me up and says that not only is he passing, but how dare I write this script?

MKA: This was 1998?

JO: Yeah. He wasn't just passing, he was passing with malice! "I'm not only passing; I'm going to humiliate you first." [Laughs] Eventually my script found its way into the hands of a young TV agent -- he only represented TV writers. His name was John Campisi. He's still my agent today, thankfully. He's the one that started to send the script out. It thankfully got me a lot of attention and meetings in Hollywood.

But nobody wanted to buy it. But luckily one of those meetings was with Tom Hanks. And that changed my life.

MKA: As I understand it you really pushed hard to get onto "Band of Brothers."

JO: I was very aggressive about "Band of Brothers." Because I'm a big history nut, a big World War II nut. Big Stephen Ambrose nut. Tom had read "Soul of the Age" and really liked it. He didn't want to produce it. But he really liked it and liked me. And we were talking about another movie that I was trying to figure out for him, another historical-based movie. And every time I would meet with him, at the end of the meeting, I would say, "I don't mean to push, but I'm a huge World War II nut, and if you ever need any writers on 'Band of Brothers,' please give me a call."

On the third meeting, he finally said, "You still interested in writing?" ... I ended up writing the D-Day episode, and he asked if I wanted to write another one. "Band of Brothers" was three years of my life. An amazing experience. And I owe it all to "Soul of the Age."

NEXT: Roland Emmerich takes on "Shakespeare"

Image of John Orloff by Mark Anderson; images of Anonymous set & models by John Orloff; Band of Brothers poster: HBO/DreamWorks

No comments: