Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Ethan Hawke & Michael Almereyda

Brushing Up Shakespeare

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

You're an independent filmmaker with a vampire picture and an "Irish druid witch mummy" picture under your belt. You've just shot a low budget movie in New York city on 16mm and Pixelvision, and Miramax has picked it up for distribution. You find yourself in San Francisco with your star, a good-looking twentysomething with several critically acclaimed gems under his belt, including A Midnight Clear (1992), Before Sunrise (1995), and Gattaca (1997). Oh yeah, and your movie is based on arguably the single greatest piece of literature yet produced by human hands.

Your name is Michael Almereyda, the star is Ethan Hawke and your film is Hamlet. You find yourself a little bewildered by all the attention. You begin your conversation by talking about Orson Welles. "I was inspired by this great throwaway statement he made about his movie Macbeth (1948) being a rough charcoal sketch of the play. And in many ways it was an index for how you can do exciting work without having a big budget. His Macbeth, as you probably know, was shot really fast, in 21 days, on a Republic soundstage. The irony is he took forever to edit it. He had done something even wackier than that, though. He had pre-rehearsed it elaborately, then he used the soundtrack and filmed the movie like a musical, where he had pre-recorded all the dialogue so the actors were lip-syncing through the production. It was crazy, but since he was in radio, he was so attune to voices and sounds and timing and rhythms that I think it made more sense. I'm just inspired by Welles in general."

Hawke lends a hand, talking about his first exposure to Shakespeare, "It was in high school English class. I think they showed us Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948). You know the day in class where you really enjoyed it because you get to fall asleep while they show you a movie? And then slowly, over time, I really got turned on by Shakespeare. To be candid, I think the first thing that really made Shakespeare visceral [to me] was Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989). Once I saw that, I got turned on to [Welles'] Chimes at Midnight (1966) and some of the other great Shakespeare films."

Hawke talks about memorizing Shakespeare's dialogue for the first time, using the natural Iambic Pentameter. "It works in a rhythm, and the rhythm perpetuates itself. It's easier than learning a volume of contemporary prose. Also, his ideas are very logical. One thought always leads you to the next. It's exceedingly well-written. And the interesting thing about it is, Shakespeare is obviously pre-Method acting. The subtext of the characters is all right there in the writing. Everything they're thinking and feeling is presented for you. So learning your lines ends up becoming a study of what the character's consciousness is."

When it came time for Almereyda and Hawke to begin their own movie, all the actors in the film; Kyle MacLachlan (Claudius), Diane Venora (Gertrude), Sam Shepard (the Ghost), Bill Murray (Polonius), Liev Schreiber (Laertes), and Julia Stiles (Ophelia), came together with different levels of experience and different kinds of study in Shakespeare. "We worked together with Michael on a cohesive idea as to what style of acting he wanted," says Hawke. "There are so many different styles for doing Shakespeare. One thing that we all were was American. There were no RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) grads."

Hawke says of the production, "We had a nice combination of people who considered themselves experts and people who considered themselves amateurs. There is something about the love of an amateur that can be unbeatable. It was a nice mix. I hadn't played [Shakespeare] before, I didn't know much about it. But the nice thing about it is that you can throw a lot of love and enthusiasm at it. You hear those stories about how if Paul McCartney had gone to music school he never would have written half those songs? He's screwing with music in a way that if you knew the rules, you wouldn't be able to. I think Michael and myself both felt like, 'let's just throw ourselves at this and try to learn as much as we can and just do it' because if you fall under the weight of the tradition, and don't get charged by it, you can drown."

Perhaps the biggest shock in the new movie is hearing Bill Murray doing Shakespeare lines. "The guy's a great actor!" Hawke exclaims. "He should do Beckett, he should do Shakespeare. He should do whatever he pleases." Almereyda continues the thought. "I look forward to seeing him do a bigger Shakespearean role. I'm sure he can handle it."

Strangely enough, there were two former Hamlets in the cast. Schreiber recently played the Dane on stage in New York, and Venora has played both Hamlet and Ophelia (to Kevin Kline's Hamlet). "She knew the play better than anyone," says Almereyda. "She was good at barking at us if she thought we were going astray." Hawke adds, "I think that I was the first Hamlet to play Hamlet with a Gertrude who had played Hamlet! Every once in a while she'd stop me and say, 'Let me tell you how I did it.' It was both enlightening and frustrating."

Besides his unusual cast, Almereyda next had to figure out a way to adapt the play to modern day New York City. "Watching the movie requires a certain suspension of disbelief," Almereyda says. "People don't really talk like that. But the language has a tone, and its own life and its own logic. I hope you get acclimated and you're in it, so you can just forgive words you don't understand or even words that don't seem quite right, because of the general sense and force of it." Hawke adds that lines like "Get thee to a nunnery" actually do make sense in a modern setting. "It's just taking everything to a really heightened, poetic level. The idea of 'Get thee to a nunnery' is just, 'Stay away from sexual relationships. Go be chaste.' That's an idea that is not unheard of in a modern setting, that men will destroy you and you will destroy men. That's what he's talking about, and that's still very much true."

"There's a terrific book," Almereyda breaks in, "that was kind of a simple overall guide, by a Polish scholar named Jan Knott called "Shakespeare, Our Contemporary." His point is that contemporary themes and ideas are either anticipated or embodied by the stories and characters Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago, and if you treat him as an equal he speaks very directly to you. So it never was a question to me whether it could be updated or if it shouldn't be updated. It just made a lot of sense, and it was the easiest and most fun part of the whole process, to type Shakespeare into my computer."

Perhaps the most controversial scene in the new movie has Hawke delivering the famous "To be or not to be" speech walking up and down the aisles of a Blockbuster video store. Moreover, the aisles he's walking in are the "Action" aisles, and little "Action" placards appear in the edges of the frame throughout the speech. "I thought it was a great idea," Hawke says. "I've always thought that if space aliens were to look at our movies as representative of our life, you would think that everyone carried a pistol or at least had some kind of gunplay in their life. Like it was just an ordinary thing that everybody was being shuttled away on helicopters that explode. It played into Hamlet's dilemma, which is this idea of, 'everybody out there being so active, doing all these things, yet I feel so stuck and I don't know why.' Not to mention that I don't think there's anybody who hasn't walked through a video store and thought that perhaps they should kill themselves."

Almereyda follows that thought with his defense of the product placement in the movie. "There have been some cynical asides that suggest we were just lining our pockets. Most of the so-called product placement was in fact paid for by us, not by the companies. We had to pay Blockbuster. We had to pay Pepsi. Coke said no, so we went with Pepsi. There was a point being made about how we're surrounded and crowded, and how our lives are cluttered with all these names and logos and announcements and seductive images of how we're supposed to be enjoying our lives if we owned these things, or participate in their idea of the world. It just seemed like a natural corollary to Hamlet's troubles." He adds, "The beer is intentional, though. Carlsberg is a Danish beer."

Hawke adds his own take, "I really love that element of the movie because Hamlet is really in there trying to hear his own voice and figure out who he is and what he is. And he's submerged in our modern culture. You walk outside and you're just inundated with all these things you should be buying or having or doing, the same way with the "action" aisles. You pick up the phone, you get an advertisement. You drive down the street, you get an advertisement. All these people telling you there's somewhere else you're supposed to be and someone else you're supposed to be."

Another scene that Almereyda and Hawke defend is the final swordfight scene between Hamlet and Laertes. It was filmed as a fencing match with modern electronic fencing equipment, but many dismissed the scene as being too old fashioned. "Fencing matches do happen," Almereyda says. "The swords are wired. They have a wire running through the hilt. And that metaphor of two opponents being on the same wire was really interesting. It seemed like it was a good way into it." Almereyda admits, though, that he's slightly disappointed with the scene. "We got on the roof and it started raining and it was cold and all the actors and extras were cold. Our fencing equipment suppliers took their equipment in a fit of peak at 2 in the morning and left us dangling. It was overwhelming. I don't think that's the best part of the film, but I have a great editor and she worked with it. All the actors worked very hard. It was just the one scene we were really disappointed by. We really wanted it to be great."

Hawke adds, "the whole notion of Gertrude sacrificing herself for Hamlet, I think is really moving. I love Kyle nervously smoking that cigarette. There's so many great things about it, but people touched a nerve on that scene because it was so cold and we were all so grumpy with each other."

Hamlet fans may be disappointed to find that the Gravedigger scene ("Alas poor Yorrick") isn't in the movie. "It was a difficult decision, but it didn't fit. It didn't sustain itself or help the movie flow. As good as the scene is, as good as Jeffrey Wright is [as the gravedigger], it just somehow didn't work. The simple fact is, the film is better without it."

"It's one of those things where you have to remember you're making a film," Hawke says. "That scene is really designed to start the fifth act, and to have some humor. It's a beautiful scene, and that was one of the things that I was most worried about having to perform. There are certain elements to it that just don't lend themselves easily. How do you find a skull and in a modern day cemetery? And also, it's one of those things where everyone thinks they know it, so it almost makes the movie more unexpected to surprise you by not doing it."

Above all, Almereyda and Hawke stand by the notion that Shakespeare was meant to be toyed with, and their passion about the film is palpable. Hawke says, "people who get all caught up thinking [Shakespeare] intended it a certain way are wrong because he never published the plays. The plays were published after he was dead. He just produced them, and that's why there are all these discrepancies. He was just writing. He had like a Hamlet file with all the things in it. When people say, 'you can't move the soliloquy over here.' It's not for sure that he published it and said, 'this one goes here.'" Almereyda adds, "aside from that, he was a popular entertainer. To say that these are plays that should be looked at through a glass case and they can only be done one way [is wrong]. The greatest reverence for Shakespeare is, like anything or anyone that you love, by being playful, by trying to bring yourself into an active relationship with it and not just stand off and be precious."

A grateful Hawke concludes by acknowledging his good fortune at having played Hamlet. "My sister last night was talking about how much she wished that she could take an English class again. She feels like she's so much more interested in reading now than when she was 15 and how much she'd like to sit in a room and talk about literature. We sat in rooms for six months and talked to really smart people about Hamlet. I was just thinking about how lucky we are that we actually did that."

May 4, 2000

Movies Unlimtied