Roland Emmerich, director of “Anonymous,” is “100 percent a believer” that Shakespeare wasn’t a writer but instead a businessman.
Updated: January 23, 2012 4:27AM
To be or not to be … controversial? For director Roland Emmerich that was never the question.
To wit: His film “Anonymous” proposes that the great works of William Shakespeare were actually written by someone else.
He asks: Was Shakespeare a fraud? On a warm autumn morning, the director of big-budget action hits including “Independence Day” and “Godzilla” is enjoying the fall of his discontent.
Shakespeare scholars claim that “Anonymous,” opening Friday, is filled with nonsense and that Emmerich is tainting the image of the literary giant.
“Are people riled up? Yes, and I like it,” he says. “I’m a bit of a provocateur.
“That trait made me blow up the White House in ‘Independence Day,’ although my writing partner said, ‘Roland, you’re crazy.’
“I like to provoke,” says the director, who then asks his assistant to please close the window.
“Protesters. The Italian are always protesting something,” he says, silencing the rumblings outside.
The rumblings concerning his new film are harder to keep quiet.
“I’ve had debates with all of these professors of the literary establishment,” Emmerich says. “I was right in their face about this Shakespeare controversy I’ve put on film, and they were foaming at the mouth.
“I just smile and say, ‘Whatever.’ At one point, I was at the English Speaking Union [in London] for an official debate. I couldn’t believe it. Me! Roland Emmerich! At the English Speaking Union about a film.”
It’s not like they invited him to debate the finer points of “Godzilla” or “The Day After Tomorrow.”
“Anonymous” is a political thriller that proposes that Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), was the great mind and writer who penned Shakespeare’s plays. The film suggests that the so-called William Shakespeare was nothing more than a businessman who was given the credit.
The movie also makes interesting claims about Queen Elizabeth I. Instead of portraying her as the Virgin Queen, Emmerich cast the mother-daughter team of Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave as the younger and older versions of Elizabeth. His Elizabeth has secret affairs and even hides a child or two around the kingdom.
But Emmerich is getting the most controversy over his Shakespeare claims.
“I was just trying to do something really interesting,” he says of his premise. “It’s always the script that gets you, and this is the story that got me. I fell in love with this script 10 years ago and worked hard to rewrite and rewrite it. When it was finished, I knew it would be my next film.”
As for his claims, Emmerich says, “I had always heard some inklings that Shakespeare didn’t author his works. I decided the film should go the whole way and say he didn’t write the great works. After 10 years of research and after reading just about every book on this topic, I’m 100 percent a believer that Shakespeare was a businessman. He wasn’t a writer.
“Of course, we’ll never know for sure what went on in those times, but none of his works were in his handwriting. There are six different signatures existing from Shakespeare.
As for his claims about Queen Elizabeth, he says, “In my movie, she’s the first cougar. Of course, nobody knows if she ever did any of the things I show in the movie.
“I’ve asked several historians, and everyone has a different opinion about Elizabeth,” she says. “I said, ‘OK, do I, Roland Emmerich, believe that she was a virgin?’ The answer was no. I believe she played the part of a virgin.
“She was accused of being with child, and she furiously denied it,” he says. “I believe there was definitely something going on.”
As for casting Redgrave and Richardson, he says, “It hit me during the writing. My writer actually asked me, ‘How do you want to cast this as a young and older woman?’
“I had worked with Joely on ‘The Patriot.’ Her demeanor is like her mother’s. They also played mother and daughter on the series ‘Nip/Tuck.’ I looked at those episodes, and it was quite amazing how similar they are, but they’re not exactly the same.”
Joely just had one request. “She had just watched a piece on the BBC of her mother when she was only 35. She said, ‘Roland, she was a different person at that age and then changed later on.’ That’s why I didn’t want them to copy each other’s mannerisms. I just wanted everyone to play their part.”
As for working with Redgrave, he says, “She always puts up a very intelligent fight, but then she backs off and does what the director says,” he says. “She’s just the best actress I’ve ever worked with. She’s also so merciless with herself. She has to really believe what she plays.”
Queens and Shakespeare. Did Hollywood balk when Emmerich decided to make a film about those subjects? After all, he’s most successful when he’s blowing things up or having the world end.
He laughs. “I think that’s why it took so long to make this movie. There were some people in Hollywood who didn’t want me to make a film about Shakespeare. My other movies were very, very profitable, and they knew something like this might not be as profitable.
“There are always the powers against you. But I’m a very persistent man.”
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