Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Anonymous" with a Byline - Screenwriter John Orloff interview (part 2)

As of the writing of this blog post, the Oxfordian biopic Anonymous has earned $6.9 million in international box office revenue. The movie also continues to open in staggered release in countries all over the world through the end of February. Later in 2012, of course, its extended life will begin on home video, on television, on airplane flights, in classrooms, etc. 

Despite the sometimes astonishingly vein-bulging tantrums of Oxfordian deniers, Anonymous will continue to introduce millions of people to the Shakespeare authorship mystery and to the most likely alternative "Shakespeare" candidate -- Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. 

We're grateful for Anonymous screenwriter John Orloff giving this blog an exclusive long-form interview with him about the alpha to omega of his script. (Orloff has also generously provided some of his own personal collection of photographs he took while on set with director Roland Emmerich -- during the movie's principal photography last year.) 

In part one of the "Shakespeare" by Another Name Blog's interview with Orloff, we discussed the screenwriter's own discovery of the Shakespeare authorship question courtesy of the 1989 PBS Frontline documentary The Shakespeare Mystery. Orloff ultimately wrote a screenplay about Edward de Vere and "Shakespeare," a script he originally titled Soul of the Age

Orloff had, he said, shopped it around Hollywood. And on the strength of Soul of the Age, Orloff had had meetings with Tom Hanks -- who ultimately hired Orloff to write two scripts for Hanks' co-production with Steven Spielberg, Band of Brothers

(SPOILER ALERT: This part of the interview with Orloff (part 2 of 3) begins getting into the thick of the movie's plot.)

MARK ANDERSON: Does Tom Hanks have an opinion on the authorship question?

JOHN ORLOFF: We never discussed it. My guess is he's a Stratfordian. But we never got deep into it. But Soul of the Age led to me getting a writing career and doing other work. A lot for Tom. 

MKA: Beyond Band of Brothers?

JO: Only that was produced. But I wrote about three more scripts for Tom over the years. And then meanwhile, I got a phone call from my agent saying Roland Emmerich is looking for writers for this disaster movie he's going to make about global warming. I said, "I don't know if I'm the right guy for that kind of stuff. I don't know the genre that well."

But [my agent] said, 'Yeah, but he's heard a lot about you. He really wants to meet you.' 

MKA: So this was when?

JO: This was 2002 or '03. We sat down in his office, and we talked about "Day After Tomorrow." Which sounded totally cool. But it also sounded like a movie I didn't understand as a writer. It's very outside of my wheelhouse, as they say. 

The other thing is, as a writer, I have to write things I love. And I don't know that genre as well as I should. And I said that to Roland. I said, "I'm so flattered that you think I can do this. I'm not sure I can. And I think quite frankly you can get a lot of writers who are way better than me for this kind of material." 

He said, "Well, what else have you written?" And I do what I always do, which is, I say, "Funny you should ask. Do you know anything about the Shakespeare authorship issue." And as usual there's a blank face. And I start doing my spiel, my 20 minute spiel. And I could see he was really interested. He said he wanted to read it. And about a week or two later, my agent called me up and said, "Hold on to your seat. Roland Emmerich wants to buy your script."

Which was a surprise. As it would be to anybody. Now that I know Roland, it's not a surprise at all. But not knowing Roland it seems like a surprise. 
MKA: Could you elaborate on that?

JO: Roland makes movies, Independence Day, Day After Tomorrow, 2012, that are very big and action-y. And you don't quite sense the intellectual power behind them until you meet him. And Roland is this amazingly bright man. Very passionate. Very into art and politics. He has an amazing modern art collection, phenomenal taste. He's a very deep thinker. 

I since have realized when you talk about Roland's other movies, you need to put them into context. There's a reason why Roland's disaster movies make $800 million over and over. And other directors' disaster movies make $80 million. The reason is he's really smart. And he really knows how to make a movie people want to watch. That doesn't mean they're art films. He's not trying to make them into art films. But that doesn't mean he can't make an art film. It just means he's chosen not to. But like anybody, why would you think he's this other person? But once you get to know him, you realize how incredibly smart he is. 

As a rule of thumb, it's just been my experience in Hollywood, nobody succeeds unless they're very smart. Everybody. Actors, directors, it doesn't matter. You might get a one trick pony, they might just be lucky. But the people who make hit after hit after hit -- or manage to keep a career in Hollywood for longer than two years, they are very smart people. It is a really cut-throat and difficult business. 

So of course he would make this movie, now that I know him. It's about the things that are most important to him. It's about art, about politics, about the artist's life. It's about the power of art, about censorship, about being a young person with artistic gifts that are being shot down. Which I think Roland could relate to. Most artists could relate to. 

MKA: When I had a chance to speak with Roland*, he said he kept seeing Amadeus in your script. And though he said he loves Amadeus, we've already seen that movie. 

JO: And he's totally right. I was a young screenwriter. That's what you do. You copy. You are influenced. He's right. There was too much Amadeus in it. He also started to do his own research. And there were new books that had been printed in the intervening 5 or 6 years. It was a big time for Oxfordian scholarship. Roland read these books that I hadn't read. 

So he went off and made Day After Tomorrow. Then he came back to LA. And he wanted to meet with me. It was very sweet, because he'd read about this and thought about it deeply. And read all these books. And said, he wanted to talk about how to change the script. 

He knew the script was my baby and that I'd been working on it at that point for about 10 years. And he very gingerly said, Had I ever heard about what's now called the Prince Tudor theory. That Oxford and Elizabeth had a child, namely Southampton. 

I said I hadn't. I guess Ogburn mentions it very briefly. But not with any credence. And I was taken aback for an instant or two. And I thought about and said, I don't know if it's true or not. I haven't read anything about it. But then I said, it almost doesn't matter because it's really good drama. 

Suddenly we started to talk about this movie in this whole other dimension. It became much more interesting. And this is all off of Roland and us talking about what Roland's basic idea was and then going deeper. 

But this idea that if Oxford did have a child with Elizabeth, that bastard would be in the chain of succession. That suddenly became very interesting to me as a writer. Then talking about the plays as a political voice became really interesting. 

Suddenly there was reason and motivation for why things happen in the movie that there wasn't necessarily before. What is Oxford's agenda? In the original script, it was just the need to get it out. It's a good one. And I buy it. And maybe it's more historically true. But this worked way better in dramatic terms. Plus, we realized the movie suddenly became a Greek tragedy. We then made a formalized Greek tragedy, which it wasn't before. 

Then it became a Shakespearean drama. We were suddenly dealing with themes that are in so many of Shakespeare's plays: Succession, foundling chilidren, incest, all these things that find their way into Shakespeare plays, we started to dip into to. 

MKA: Watching Anonymous, I kept thinking of Hamlet. There's a lot of that play infused into this story. Would you agree?

JO: Obviously Oxfordians feel a close affinity between Hamlet and Oxford. And we played with that a little bit. But thematically speaking, Hamlet uses the theater to get what he wants, because all other avenues are closed. And basically that's our plot too. It is his last ditch effort. There's a line that Cecil says -- although I'm not sure if it's in the [final cut] -- he says, "He has his tools; we have ours."

There's a moment when William Cecil realizes what Oxford is doing. It's late in the second act. Cecil realizes that what Oxford wants is for Southampton to be on the throne. I don't think the beat is in the movie anymore. But the line is Oxford uses the tools he has, meaning writing, while we use the tools we have, meaning assassination. 

MKA: As I'm sure you're not unaware, the Prince Tudor theory is very controversial even among Oxfordians. So how do you see "Prince Tudor" fitting in to your film?

JO: I'm ashamed to say I've never read any literature on the Prince Tudor theory. I haven't read Charles Beauclerk's book yet. I hadn't read Paul Streitz's book. Roland just told me about it. This may rile people, but there's also a point when you're writing a movie where the movie is more important than anything else. 

I adapt a lot. This is my job. To adapt material and make it into a three-act movie. Even if you're doing fiction, there's a point where you have to walk away from your source material. Whether it's history or fiction, you have to walk away from your source material and figure out what's best for the story you're telling. So when I went back into rewriting with Roland -- and ripping up Soul of the Age to turn it into what eventually became Anonymous -- I'm not sure I did any more reading. I might have gone back once and a while to check some source material or what have you. But it's not like I'd suddenly read all the books that had been published in the interim. Respectfully, I didn't even read your book until weeks before we started shooting, because a) Roland really loved it. And b) I knew I needed a primer before the shoot. That's when I read your book. 

People might disagree with me. But as a professional screenwriter, you do have to walk away and ask, "What's with me? What's stayed with me since I did all this reading?" That's the important stuff

You get into this idea Roland and I talk about a lot that we call emotional truth vs. literal truth. In drama, emotional truth trumps literal truth every time. If the bigger idea is that Oxford was using these plays for political ends, how do you show that in a two-hour movie the best possible way? 

The bigger truth for Oxfordians is that these plays were used for political ends. That's one of the reasons why there is a lack of his name on it. The political issues. So if we're all in agreement that it's all about politics, how do you best dramatize it. We chose to use the Prince Tudor theory as our catalyst. To show the audience the political stakes in as simply as possible. And as emotionally as possible. If a father is doing this for his son, we have an emotional investment. The Prince Tudor theory gave us a lot of dramatic opportunities that the absence of it would made much more difficult to convey to an audience. 

Let's get to this one right now: Richard III vs. Richard II. It is actually the single most controversial thing internally in terms of do we do it or not. 

[Note: Anonymous portrays the Shakespeare play Richard III being staged just before the 1601 Essex Rebellion, when the Earls of Essex and Southampton staged an uprising against the crown. In historical fact, a Shakespeare play was performed before the Rebellion, but that play was Richard II.]

MKA: So there was a debate between whom?

JO: Roland, me, Mark Rylance, Vanessa Redgrave. It was the one thing that everybody was upset about. I'm only bringing it up, because I think it's a good illustration of what I'm talking about. 

Namely, as a screenwriter, I'm perfectly capable of putting in Richard II in our movie and making the metaphors and references necessary to explain to a 21st century audience why the enacting of Richard II would be a threat to the "Tower" and the powers that be. 

I could do that. Does everyone in the audience want an extra half-hour in the movie for me to do that?

The emotional truth is one of Shakespeare's plays was performed before the Essex Rebellion in order to incite the mob onto Essex's side. I could have done Richard II, but it would have required so much more exposition. Richard III, however, because of the hunchbacked king. Soon as you see him hunchbacked, and put him in a costume that looks anything like Robert Cecil's, the audience will make the visual connection between the two. 

I freely admit it is not a literal truth, that Richard III was performed the day before. But it is the emotional truth. 

MKA: So you also bring in Oxford as a possible son of Elizabeth. But as you've pointed out before, the only source for this claim in the movie is Robert Cecil -- who clearly has motive to lie to Oxford because he hates Oxford and would love to twist the knife by making him think he'd committed incest with the queen. The other thing, though, is the death-bed scene where Oxford recites to Ben Jonson the de Vere family's long and storied lineage. It's clear in that scene that Oxford thinks he's a de Vere. That he didn't buy the claim from Robert Cecil. 

JO: That was the other great question -- between me and Roland. Do we include the [Robert Cecil] scene? About the other scene, when he's talking to Jonson. That scene is from Soul of the Age. And it's almost never been changed. That was one of Roland's favorite in the script, de Vere's death scene. That went under very few revisions. 

We had people crying on the set when we were shooting that scene. Several of the German crew members came up to me and said that was the greatest scene they'd ever worked on. 

But the scene in question is at the end of the movie when Robert Cecil has just thwarted the Essex Rebellion. And, in our movie, Oxford's waiting. Again, it's the third act. All these stories have to come together. So of course Oxford wasn't really waiting to really have a meeting at the moment of the Essex Rebellion. Yes, that is called dramatic license. 

But in our film, we have him waiting to have this reuniting meeting with Elizabeth. And the Essex Rebellion fails literally as he's watching it in the courtyard. Which also is not true. And they're all arrested. And Robert Cecil comes in and informs Oxford that the rebellion has failed and that his life is a failure. Everything [Oxford] wanted, he didn't get. 

In the course of that scene, Robert Cecil tells [Oxford] that he knew Southampton was Oxford's child -- but that what Oxford might not know is that there's a little bit more information. And that is that Oxford is also Elizabeth's child, which is now even more controversial in the Oxfordian world. 

I actually begged Roland to take that scene out before we shot it. I said, "Please, let's just not shoot it. It's going one step too far." And Roland said, "You might be right. But we can always shoot it and not use it." The actor who plays Robert Cecil is this young guy nobody's yet heard of called Ed Hogg. And that was the piece he used for his audition. So we had seen him perform it before. So Roland said, "He's going to hit it out of the park. Trust me on this." And so then it came to the moment of shooting that scene, I'm not sure if that was the first Rhys Ifans shot as Edward de Vere. It may very well have been. 

But Ed started to play the scene, and without us knowing he was going to do it, he started to cry as he's talking to Oxford in the scene. As he's telling Oxford what a shit he is. Because he's really talking about himself too in that scene. They're talking about what William Cecil thought of Oxford. He's saying, "My father thought you were going to be so great, but now you're a failure." 

I think in some ways, he's talking about their childhood together, and how Oxford was the golden boy. The perfect kid. [Robert] was this pathetic, deformed little dark boy. And here's this shaft of golden light comes in to this household. He's 10 years older. Oxford is everything this boy [Robert] wants to be. He's sexy, he's brilliant, he's not deformed. Of course this little boy hates him. 

So when we shot this scene of the older characters, I always internalized it. And maybe it's a justification. But it is Robert Cecil lying to [Oxford] that he is the bastard of Elizabeth. That's my interpretation. 

I will say this. There is a core difference how we present the story of Southampton as child. We see that. We see them having sex. We see there's dialogue where Oxford is told he's Southampton's father. And then Southampton and Oxford meet as boy and young man. 

You can make the argument that we as filmmakers, in our story, that is truth. But you cannot make the same argument for Oxford as bastard. Because you don't see any of that. There is nothing cinematically that says we in the movie think it's true. It's only Robert Cecil thinks it's true. Or Robert Cecil doesn't think it's true, and he's just digging the knife deeper, something he's been waiting to do his entire life. To destroy his great rival -- for his father's affections and sister's affections and anybody's affections. 

So to me, it's a verbal destruction rather than a truth. 

MKA: How much do you think Anonymous deals with that question of reliable vs. unreliable witnesses? Because the late Elizabethan court was a complete hall of mirrors. There were very few or maybe no reliable sources of knowledge. To me, the question of Prince Tudor is almost an imaginative question. The real question is Do you think the author could have thought there might have been illegitimate heirs to the throne -- regardless of the historical and genetic truth.

JO: Absolutely. That's a good point. Just because you might not believe [Prince Tudor] historically, that doesn't mean Oxford didn't have questions about it. 

What I try to explain to people the first thing you have to remember is [Elizabethan England] is closer to North Korea right now than America right now. Elizabethan England was an incredibly totalitarian state. It was a feudal society, run by a dictator. Without free speech, without any of the things we might think they might have had, from a layman's conception. I would imagine that the Politburo of Kim Jong Il is a hall of mirrors there too. When truth is so dangerous, there is no truth. 

So it does become really complex, as to who is the reliable witness. What are the agendas. A simple thing like [claiming] the Virgin Queen was a virgin [because] her doctor said so. 

Well of course his doctor said so. That was his job. She needed to be a virgin in order to have the other courts of Europe think they had a chance with her. Which kept the kingdom safe. So her virginity was tied in to the kingdom's safety. The doctor is not an idiot. 

He might have been telling the truth, by the way. I don't know. I happen to think that is the most unlikely of things. When people get upset about our portrayal of Queen Elizabeth, I've got to say, that is the most unusual that people get so upset that we show her having sex. I can't imagine power not going with sex. They are almost one and the same. 

Roland and I were talking about this the other day, because the other big point that anti-Oxfordians say is, "Conspiracy! Conspiracy! They never work!"

All I always say is "Mark Felt."

If Mark Felt didn't do what he did, I don't think any of us would have known about Watergate. One man decided to talk to Woodward and Bernstein. If that one man, Deep Throat, didn't go into the bowels of that garage, I think G. Gordon Liddy would still not-be-talking about Watergate. That's my personal opinion. I don't think [John] Ehrlichman would be talking about it. I don't think [H.R.] Haldeman would be talking about it. I don't think [Charles] Colson would be talking about. It would still be an unknown thing, except for one man. Mark Felt. 

And that's not in a totalitarian state. That's with a free press. And they almost got away with it. 

You're almost asking me to disprove a negative. How do I prove to you successful conspiracies that have existed? There's no way I can do it, because if they're successful I don't know about them. 

All realpolitik is conspiracy. That's what realpolitik is. It is conspiracy. Sometimes it's successful. And most of the time it's not. 


*Many thanks as well to John Orloff for coordinating an opportunity to meet with and interview Roland Emmerich.  

Anonymous movie poster courtesy Sony/Columbia pictures. All other images courtesy John Orloff. 


Sonja Foxe said...

I saw it ... casting wonderful, the take on Marlowe, illuminating, Kit probably was as arrogant as Tamerlame -- I think he leaked state secrets on stage, & deVere had some sort of agency in his murder, writing the epilogue to Faustus about Marlowe, to be added to the bowdlerized version, Vanessa as QEi brilliant -- about as high a camp as possible. Any historical 'evidence' about Prince Tudor must be well aged papist propaganda. There is better evidence that Elizabeth informed Edward of his parentage presented by Anderson ... where he was so insulted when she called him her bastard ... and then he was arraigned for blasphemy against the Virgin Queen & Virgin Mary ... same accusation minus the calumny against the Queen levied about Kit Marlowe, Kit cum spy ferreted out interesting secrets.


jhm said...

Am I missing something, or did Part III get lost down the rabbit hole?