Shakespeare in Love Q&A with director John Madden at Chiswick Cinema

Images above: Jonathan Maitland and John Madden

The film turned down by several directors and actors as being too risky, which went on to win seven Oscars

It is 25 years since the film Shakespeare in Love was made, with a cast that reads like a Who’s Who of British actors and a script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. The film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Director John Madden was at Chiswick Cinema to talk about it a quarter of a century on from its creation.

“I was nobody” he told Jonathan Maitland. “Well, not nobody. I’d made Mrs Brown.”

Why was he offered the film to direct? It had had a particularly difficult gestation. Various actors and directors had been associated with the project. Julia Roberts had been interested in doing it with Daniel Day Lewis but the project had all fallen apart until Harvey Weinstein had picked it up.

“Whatever else he was, he was a brilliant producer” said John Madden. Weinstein recognised a good script when he saw one, and he had the money to pay the £6m price tag, which he did after the project had been dormant for six years.

“Weinstein had incredible passion and a ruthless belief in something once he was committed.”

Image above: Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare In Love; photographs IMDb

Universal did not want to make a film with Shakespeare in the title

Tom Stoppard, who had written Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, happened to be on the payroll of Universal and was brought in to rewrite the script. “He is a brilliant writer”, said John Madden, and as he had made a couple of films before with Harvey Weinstein, Weinstein asked him if he would like to direct it.

The reason the path to production had been so tortuous was that Universal did not really want to make a film with ‘Shakespeare’ in the title, John told the audience, thinking it would give the impression of being dry and academic.

Shakespeare In Love is anything but, with very attractive young actors in the lead roles – Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare and Gwyneth Paltrow as his muse, whose on screen chemistry could teach the Love Island lot a thing or two – not to mention Ben Affleck and Colin Firth.

There is a lot of running around, sword fights, banter, and a very witty script brought to life by the cream of British character actors – Imelda Staunton, Mark Williams, Martin Clunes, Tom Wilkinson – not to mention Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth, Simon Callow as Master of the Revels, Geoffrey Rush and Anthony Sher.

Image above: Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes; photographs IMDb

‘Romeo and Ethel, the pirate’s daughter’

It treads a very fine line between respecting Shakespeare’s ability as a story teller and taking liberties by creating a totally fictional love story which runs in parallel with the play the playwright is creating in the film – Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare is supposed to be writing a comedy, Romeo and Ethel, the pirate’s daughter, but junks it in favour of Romeo and Juliet when he meets Lady Viola de Lesseps, who becomes his muse and breaks his period of writer’s block. Geoffrey Rush’s character, the theatre owner, spends the whole film bewildered that there is no shipwreck and no slapstick scene with a dog.

“There was a long list of directors who fought shy of it” John Madden told the audience, because they thought it was too much of an ‘in’ joke. Actors too, though he declined to name the actors who had turned it down. “Some actors I thought were absolute naturals didn’t want to do it. They fought shy of it.”

Gwyneth Paltrow had not wanted to do it initially, until she was persuaded to meet Joseph Fiennes, “and it moved on from there.”

Colin Firth originally said ‘no’ too. John Madden revealed an interesting titbit of gossip about our local film celebrity.

“He was a little hurt that I accepted his ‘no’. I thought ‘no’ meant ‘no’.” But apparently it didn’t. Colin Firth wanted to be wooed.

Images above: Ben Affleck; Colin Firth and Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love; photographs IMDb

“There were definitely times I thought we weren’t going to make it.”

John Madden had his own moments of doubt about whether the film would work.

“I remember waking up in the middle of the night thinking: ‘There’s a woman in a moustache. This is never going to work’. I said to my wife ‘it’s all unravelling’. There were definitely times I thought we weren’t going to make it.

“I felt it needed to cleave to Shakespearean comedy. While we were making it I felt terrified because there were so many fragments. I told people ‘don’t look at the rushes, it won’t make any sense until it’s all put together’. I didn’t know it would work until we put it together. At the preview I relaxed, because people were roaring with laughter.”

There are lots of different threads and as if that was not difficult enough, he had to withstand Harvey Weinstein’s pressure to make Ben Affleck Romeo.

“What nobody knew about Joe [Fiennes] was that he had a really good comic gift. It’s really hard to be the serious one when everyone around you is cracking jokes.”

Weinstein was notoriously a bully, said Johnathan Maitland, so it was surprising that John Madden had managed to withstand the pressure.

“I was never, weirdly, scared of him” John Madden told him. “This was the third thing I’d done with him and when he wanted Mrs Brown I said ‘You can’t have it unless you agree in writing not to change it.”

Mrs Brown, about Queen Victoria’s relationship with her ghillie, with Judi Dench and Billy Connelly in his first acting role, was already finished and John did not want it messed about.

Images above: Jonathan Maitland and John Madden; audience

Compromising with Harvey Weinstein

Shakespeare in Love had several alternative endings, and one in particular which Weinstein was pushing for. When the film was first shown to an audience 65% thought it “excellent or very good”.

“I thought that was wonderful but for them it wasn’t good enough. Harvey wanted to rewrite the ending and Tom came up with a brilliant solution.

“Harvey wanted to test the film again after we’d finished it. I said ok, but I’m not coming back to change it.”

One alternative ending was, as Viola goes off to the New World and her ship is wrecked, as she struggles up the beach she asks the first person she comes to: “What country is this” and is told “This is America, lady.” “Well, good.”

John Madden told the audience: “That was not the poetic Shakespearean ending people wanted.”

They shot one version which he did not print. He did not want anyone to see it, especially Weinstein, but he felt they eventually got it right. Tom Stoppard, he said was “the consummate politician, who was entirely on my side.”

Images above: Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe; Judi Dench as Quen Elizabeth; photographs IMDb

“This one was special”

Tom’s comment on Shakespeare: “He writes with extreme compression that results in an explosion of meaning.”

He showed Shakespeare to be something of a magpie, pinching ideas from all over.

“Tom pulls the rug out from under him, but at the same time treats him with respect” said John.

Does the film stand the test of time? He had not seen it for years, he told us.

“There are some things I can’t watch again, but this was special.” It also “was so anachronistic, it existed in a time of its own.”

He brought his grandchildren and their friends to the screening to see what they thought, and their reactions seem to confirm that yes it did.

Image above: Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare; photograph IMDb

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