Interview: Roland Emmerich Questions Shakespeare’s Legacy with Anonymous

Mostly known for destroying monuments with blockbuster fare like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, director Roland Emmerich now sets his sights on monumental reputations – specifically, that of William Shakespeare – with his new film, Anonymous. Emmerich sat down with us to discuss the theories behind the true authorship of the Bard’s works and how technological advancements permitted him to pursue less bombastic subject matter for a change.

Q: Was this a deliberate departure from your work of late?

Roland Emmerich: Sure, sure, but when the director reads a script he falls in love with, he wants to do it. And yes, they were like, “This is so different for you. Are you sure?,” and I said, “Yeah!” I can just totally get into that story and I think I can also, with my knowledge of visual effects, open up a movie like that… Normally, these movies are done a lot by theatre directors who go into movies, and because of that, they’re naturally a lot closer on faces, and I wanted to open it up and widen it out and also portray this city – which was, at the time, the biggest city in the world with 200,000 people. It seems small now, but the London Bridge was like the wonder of Europe. People went there.

Q: As compared to something like The Patriot, were there any challenges or…?

RE: It was actually easier to do it, because in The Patriot, I still had to use digital matte painting, which was not very successful for my taste. I wish I would’ve had this technology already for The Patriot. We did the first crowd duplication stuff, it was really quite successful, but everything else will date the movie pretty soon. In Anonymous, we could just go for it because we had no money and we had to do it like that. We took a couple of actors with some horses, and shoot some extras and shoot some extras and plop them in, and all of a sudden, you had a street scene!

Q: What’s the biggest challenge for you of shooting period films?

RE: On the one hand, you want to be very accurate to the time, and on the other hand, you want to be very accessible. You want to have characters that are very accessible, and it takes a lot of thinking behind what it takes to portray these people. It has a lot to do with the actors. I think if people feel if they are truly playing a period character, not a person from today with just some costumes on, I kind of felt that English actors can do a better job at that.

Q: How long have you yourself been attached to this project?

RE: The first time I read the script was roughly ten years ago. Then I went off for four, five years until the first time we got the green light. Then we went off to London, we wanted to shoot the movie there, and we realized it’s way too expensive, so we said, “Let’s do all the stage work in Prague.” And before I knew it, we had not shot even one scene or built one set, and we were already estimated to cost 45, 50 million dollars. It’s not good for a movie like that, and we also couldn’t quite get the cast we wanted, so we closed down again. Then I said to myself, “I will figure out a way to make this movie,” and with 2012, I shot with a digital camera pretty much the whole world and used a lot of CG, and I said, “Gosh, I could use this for Anonymous and it would make it so much cheaper.” We wouldn’t have to shoot it in England, we could shoot it in Germany and they have tax rebates. Slowly, the pieces came together, and Sony said to me that they wanted to stay in business with me. I said, “Well, bad luck, because I want to do my Shakespeare movie,” and surprisingly, when I told them the number – which was really very low – they said, “Oh my God, yeah, if you’re going to do it for that kind of money!” And then it all came together.

Q: What do you feel is the appeal of this film? How do you make this accessible to an audience that sees a period picture and maybe gets reluctant?

RE: I think, for me, it was very important that it starts today, and I used in a way the same technique which Shakespeare uses a lot in his plays, with inventing a prologue character… telling you a lot of the facts you should know in a way, but also tells you a different story. It’s all invention anyway. Whatever you do historically is invention, because nobody was there and there was too little known about this time… We’re just telling you now a different story, then the gentleman appears again and tells you a little bit about what happened to these characters.

Q: Was there any sort of reluctance in taking somebody as beloved as Shakespeare and willing to portray him as an opportunist?

RE: He’s an opportunist and he’s no writer… You can also say that, when you don’t believe that the man from Straford wrote it, then the poor Earl of Oxford or whoever the author was. I just want to inspire people to look into it. It’s been fifty, sixty, seventy years since this problem exists, since the turn of the century, more than a hundred years now where people write about it, and since that time, the Stratfordians have searched England for any scrap they could find, and they couldn’t come up with something. This is very strange – something must have happened there, and I think it was a political cover-up. When you use that story, you immediately get called a conspiracy theorist; I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I’m just asking questions and let my fantasy go wild. Certain things just make sense for me and certain facts let me believe that the man from Stratford didn’t write it, very simple things like why did he have two illiterate daughters? Why is there not one letter from him? The greatest writer of all time, and there were no books in his home. Why did his son-in-law, who wrote a very detailed diary because he was a doctor, not once mention that his father-in-law was the greatest writer of all time? I think that just doesn’t make sense, and I keep asking these literary professors and saying, “I’m not a scholar, you’re a scholar. Can you explain it to me?” And you get only excuses… Everybody has the right to read about it, and a teacher who takes Shakespeare seriously should open up to the authorship question: “I believe it was the man from Stratford, but others believe this.” Check it out, make up your mind yourself, it’s a free country. But it’s not like that. They say to people like Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi and Prof. Stanley Wells from the Shakespeare Verse Trust, they accost them and descend into madness. Or they call them “Holocaust deniers,” this is even worse! And that’s just because they have so much to lose, their whole life’s work. And I see it that way; I would probably get angry too. So I understand them, I understand these people. It’s just very, very strange to me.

Anonymous will be in select theaters this Friday and expand in the coming weeks.