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Anonymus: Interview with Roland Emmerich

Anonymus: Interview with Roland Emmerich

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Director Roland Emmerich presented his latest film "Anonymus" in a rather unusual way at the Frankfurt Book Fair. After a screening of the film, the filmmaker, who is more known for big special effects blockbusters like "Independence Day" or "2012", commented in a panel discussion on the theses he puts forward in his film. Moderated by Hellmuth Karasek, who was somewhat overtaxed with his hand microphone, Emmerich, Prof. Dr. Tobias Döring (Chair of English Literature and President of the German Shakespeare Society), Dr. Kurt Kreiler (author of "The Man who Invented Shakespeare") and Frank Günther (Shakespeare translator) discussed the various theories that have long been circulating about Shakespeare. Has he now written his own works, or do they come from the pen of someone else? Like a nobleman? While everyone involved agreed that Emmerich's film is not only visually convincing, but also offers good entertainment, the question of authorship was discussed very vividly. In the end, of course, no agreement was reached, since everyone naturally regards his own view as the only true truth. But this round of discussions was always entertaining.

Afterwards it was much calmer and more relaxed in a small circle. In a cosy atmosphere Emmerich answered the questions of interested journalists. Very sympathetic and in a good mood, Emmerich revealed why he chose this rather unusual material for him, what he thinks of the Shakespeare discussion and what he plans for his cinematic future:

Question: Why did the preparation for the film take so long? That lasted for a few years.

Roland Emmerich: It took such a three-quarter year until the script was there. And then I brought it to my agent and he said, "That's great, let's go to Sony with it. And they said, "Super. Let's make this movie" and asked how much budget I need and I said "40 million". "Great." And then I thought we were going to London now, was excited, but after three to four weeks of planning the budget was 45 million dollars and at some point it was 50 and then it was 55 and we still didn't have a single cast. Then the studio said, "Stop this whole thing again." Then I wasn't mad, I got that. That's why I knew that I had to make the film with a certain fixed budget, otherwise somebody would come along and say "Stop it again". That's why I more or less invented everything myself, how the film is made, how it is financed, where it is made. And then I went back to Sony with existing facts. And after Amy Pascal, who already liked the film at the first meeting, asked about "2012" "What do you want to do next?" I said that I finally wanted to make my Shakespeare film. And then she immediately said, "Yes, but it's so expensive." And then I said: "No, 25 million and the worldwide rights and you're there". And we kept to the budget.

F: The special effects didn't have to be there. One could have staged the whole thing as a chamber play.

RE: Yes, but then it wouldn't have been a film of mine. That was very important to me. I just wanted to do this. I also wanted to somehow show you how you can make a historical film look big for little money. It was just one of those private things I wanted to show off. I wanted to show the city, I wanted to show the bridge, I wanted the bridge to be a connection between the wicked Bankside and the capital, those were all things I wanted to show. And you simply can't explain them in words, you have to show them.

F: According to which guidelines was this designed? Can you be sure that it really looked like this?

RE: I have to say: Research! I have to praise my production team, they used everything from that time in meticulous work and then drove to original locations, where there are still old streets in some form, they photographed them all and then this material became our London. The bridge, for example, is absolutely identical except for the last nail. They did a really good job. And I always told them: "We have to be especially accurate with this film. We know that for dramatic reasons we're claiming some things that didn't happen like this, so let's at least make the first movie in which London and the indoor shots look the way they really looked," look at "Elizabeth". I liked "Elizabeth" as a movie, but when I saw it later with the look I have now, you almost want to believe that Elizabeth lives in a church. And she didn't, but it's cheaper to shoot. I know exactly how this works, because you don't get a single permit to shoot in an Elizabethean house, because there are wall hangers everywhere and they're so cautious that they won't let you shoot them. But for me it would have been wrong to shoot in a church.

F: And how did you manage that with "Anonymus"?

RE: This is really so interesting when you think about it. I came to Berlin and everyone was so eager to be in this film, and I said: "Not so fast! That's not one of my "big movies" and of course there was a lot of horror when the individual departments heard their budgets. But then everyone said: Let's do it! And for example, all the interior shots were taken in a modular system. We had high walls, half high walls and low walls. They were each in a very specific style and you could combine them endlessly like building blocks. And so we built endless sets out of a few walls.

We also produced a lot digitally, many streets and houses for example. The Courtyard, it didn't exist. Only one goal was real. We only had one goal at all, and that was always done differently with different pieces. The only thing I insisted on was that the theater was real. And that was a long discussion. Then my line producer, Larry, by the way the only American in the team, said: "Roland, can't we at least make the upper part digital?" and I always said "No".

F: Why was the bracket with Derek Jacobi in the movie? It could have been limited to the historical alone.

RE: I wanted to make it a bit clear that it is also a fictional story. I didn't want to make the mistake that Stratfordians make of everyone saying, "Whatever my book says, that's exactly what it was". That's why I made use of exactly what Shakespeare did a lot in his plays, that he simply lets someone enter the stage in a prologue, like in "Henry V." for example, who explains to the audience what it's all about and asks them to use their imagination. And in my film, I wanted to teach people who didn't know anything about the subject: In the story there are a few problems, now we show an alternative version of the whole thing. I think it's great that we let him reappear at the end and then he speaks a final monologue.

(Picture: The ANONYMUS Discussion Round at the Frankfurt Book Fair)


F: Aren't you worried that your old fans might be alienated by this completely different film?

RE: I don't think it's that important for people to know who's directing it. I mean, you'd be taking yourself too seriously. I think if you make the right movie, people come and if you don't make the right movie, they don't come. That has nothing to say about the quality of a film, because when it comes to quality, the audience is usually completely wrong and I believe the critics as well. But my next film will also be a more expensive one, but also something completely different, more like an attempt to make an intelligent film about the future, set in 2050 and asking itself a big question.

F: Was "Anonymus" a different work because the special effects weren't so important, but rather the actors?

RE: Absolute. This is also due to the fact that throughout my career I have often used English actors, Ian Holm ("The Day after Tomorrow") or Jason Isaacs ("The Patriot"), I always look to England when there is one I could occupy. And it was absolutely clear to me that "Anonymus" must have a completely British line-up. And then Amy Pascal agreed and said that today is also easier to sell because of "Harry Potter". Potter has achieved a great deal. And when you look at how many British actors play a role in big American movies today, it's almost uncanny. And I have to say that every day when I went to the shoot I was really happy, like a little child. Because it's also the case that the older you get, the more you realize how much everything is already fixed in the action scenes, from storyboards to previz, because you want to be absolutely sure that everything is right. When you turn something like that, it's just hard work. You can't change that much then. But then you look forward to moments where you have someone like John Cusack (in "2012") and you can shoot a long dialogue scene with them. You're really looking forward to it, because there's fireworks going on. And the older you get, the more you look forward to those moments.

F: Was it because of the budget that more unknown actors were engaged at "Anonymus"? There are actually only four big names.

RE: Yes, but it's actually also the case that this is due to the genre. I leaned a little on "Amadeus", you hardly knew anybody. He made it even more extreme than me.

F: Were there any reactions to the film especially in England?

RE: Yes.

F: Angry?

RE: Angry, not so angry, praising. There were some particularly angry ones from Stratford. There's this guy named Stanley Wells. He always gets a red throat. I always thought that if the Kreiler and the Stanley would talk to each other like this, there would be an explosion. But I welcome the discussion, because of course I made the film first and foremost as an entertainment film, but I think that such a topic only really works if people are shaken up and start discussing and making noise. How else can you get attention with a movie like that? Because also the advertising budget, simply everything is smaller with this film.

F: what was the feeling to shoot such a film in Germany, which would not have been possible a few years ago?

RE: It was interesting. For me it was especially interesting to come back, just with a movie like that. All of them, some after initial doubts, have fully committed themselves to the film and two or three of them will work on my next film again.

F: Without Germany?

RE: No, because it's getting bigger again and the control system is good for smaller movies, but bad for bigger productions. I've always told the two owners of Studio Babelsberg: You have to try to do something like England or Canada, because that's when big movies will definitely be shot in Berlin.

F: How long has it been since you shot in Germany?

RE: 23 years ago. I used to rent factory buildings that just went bankrupt. With my first film, "The Noah's Ark Principle", it was a washing machine factory, with "Moon 44" it was a textile company. That was cool because everything was clean. (laughs). Then I said, "Great, that's great." Back then at "Moon 44" I already used the same module system that we used at "Anonymus". My camera assistant at that time, Anna, has now also stood behind the camera on "Anonymus" again. I actually wanted to work with her again on "10.000 BC", but then the film got bigger and bigger and then she herself said that it was too big for her and that it was too big a risk for her. And then I said: "If I make a film that is a little smaller, you will make the camera". And now, until something terrible happens, she's gonna be my camerawoman. It's also great that it's a woman, that's extremely unusual. The Kamera Union in America is a total men's club, there are, I think, one or two other women, that's it. Of all the cameramen! And I think I've never worked with a camera that was so creative before. Anna came every day with new paintings and showed me how the light is there and how there, said that we have to imitate that and then tinkered endlessly to get a very soft light. She came up with a lot to make the film look like it finally became.

F: Did Shakespeare inspire you at school?

RE: I don't know where you went to school, but I went to a science high school and in English class our teacher didn't dare to show us Shakespeare, but he got out plays by Pinter and the like. And in German lessons, of course, you take Schiller, Goethe, Hölderlin, etc. through and through. I myself as a high school student was totally enthusiastic about literature, I read everything there was of modern literature, Thomas Mann, Dostojewski, I devoured everything. My mother used to say, "Can't you go out and play like everybody else?" Then I said, "Nah, I don't like football, I'd rather read". That's why I've always been calibrated for literature, but I had no idea about Shakespeare. It wasn't until I was in film school that I saw a few films made after Shakespeare plays. But it wasn't until I read the screenplay for "Anonymus" that I took a crash course and watched all the films based on Shakespeare's works. Then you also get to know how different something like "Hamlet" can be, from one director to another. And that's why my Shakespearean knowledge is so from the last ten years. And now, of course, I'm constantly renewing them and looking forward to every new Shakespeare filming.

Many thanks to Roland Emmerich for the nice conversation and to the colleagues present in the group for the interesting questions.

You'll find all further information about the film under:


Pictures: Copyright Alexander Heimann (Great), Sebastian Betzold (Small)

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