Tuesday 20 March 2018

What's in a name: Anonymous

Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, claims Roland Emmerich,as he talks to Declan Cashin about conspiracy, trust and his knack of creating stars

Declan Cashin

In his 20-year directing career so far, Roland Emmerich has blown up the White House, buried Manhattan under floods and ice-glaciers, and sunk the entire city of Los Angeles into the ocean. Now the German-born buster of blocks is about to demolish a famous landmark of another kind: William Shakespeare.

Emmerich's new movie, Anonymous, is set in Elizabethan England and posits a contentious theory that has raged for 400 years: namely, that Shakespeare didn't write any of his plays and was in fact an illiterate chancer, charlatan, and, possibly worst of all, a bad actor.

Instead, Anonymous argues that the real author of the Bard's canon was Edward de Vere (played by Rhys Ifans), the Earl of Essex and a challenger to the throne of Elizabeth I, who penned the works as 'anonymous' and recruited Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), a drunken bit-player, to publicly take credit for them.

That de Vere couldn't put his own name to the work was tied up with the Essex rebellion against Elizabeth I. Indeed, Emmerich also unleashes a metaphorical Godzilla to stomp all over the reputation of the famed 'Virgin Queen' (played, in a nice touch, by the increasingly dotty Vanessa Redgrave in later years and by her real-life daughter Joely Richardson in flashback), offering the alternative narrative that the theatre-loving, good-time-gal Lizzy had bred a whole runt of secret offspring, complicating the succession battle even further.

The move into ye olde historical drama is a surprising one for a film-maker best known for helming CGI-soaked apocalyptic popcorn fare such as Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 (the only special effects used in Anonymous are to render on-screen a thriving 16th-century English town).

Speaking to Day & Night in the Corinthia Hotel on London's Embankment, Emmerich -- dressed in 'trendy dad' garb of jeans, shirt and trainers, and looking not unlike a young Christopher Lee -- appears to revel in the prospect of catching people off guard and kicking up a bit of a fuss with his new project.

"I always think a good controversy should be welcome after a movie," he says in his fluent though idiosyncratic English, sporting a half smile. "At least people have something to talk about or discuss afterwards."

So let's get to the crux of the matter right away: does he believe the theory that Shakespeare was a fraud?

"I believe William Shakespeare has not written these plays," Emmerich replies. "I wouldn't say 100pc that it was de Vere [either]. We'll probably never know who really wrote them." He pauses and fixes me with a stare: "But there's definitely something fishy going on."

Don't just take Emmerich's word for it. Down through the years, figures including Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Henry James and Sigmund Freud have all articulated their doubts about Shakespeare's credibility.

"It's a popular theory, but it's very heated, and I've only begun to understand why since making the movie," he explains. "The Stratfordians are the people who believe Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon wrote the works. They are professors who have been studying this all their lives, and written the seminal works on Shakespeare.

"For them, to just accept that their life's work is not true is like contesting their existence. That's why it's so emotional, but it shouldn't be."

There's no stopping Emmerich on the topic now. "There's very little known about William Shakespeare, so there's a lot of conjecture," he continues. "For me, because I'm a very visual person, it was the little things that got me.

"Take, for example, his signature. There are eight signatures surviving, and they don't look like they belong to a learned man. When you see them compared to other signatures of other writers you think, 'Was someone holding his hand when he was writing this thing?' They all look different, and are spelled differently.

"Plus Shakespeare owned no books. His father was illiterate and so were his children. Then, when you look at his plays they are not the work of a commoner. If Shakespeare was this great working-class hero, how could he write so knowledgeably about princes, kings and queens?"

By now, you might be thinking that this debate belongs more in the Oliver Stone conspiracy theory end of the cinematic spectrum. But Emmerich doesn't mind at all; in fact, he says that he spoke with Stone about the project recently.

"We had an interesting discussion about how we believe that politics through the ages is one long conspiracy," he says. "Us ordinary mortals have always been left out of it, and ruled by other people. Look at the Church. The whole history of the Catholic Church is one big conspiracy. I think it's really strange in our society that 'conspiracy' is seen as a bad word. When did that happen?"

Emmerich believes his status as an "outsider" made him the ideal candidate for this job, but in a way he's always been something of an outsider in Hollywood, despite his staggering mainstream success.

For starters, Emmerich is openly gay, though it's very rarely commented upon. He does some work for gay and lesbian causes in the US, and supports liberal American politics (he held a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in 2008), but tries to avoid discussing his sexuality in film promotion scenarios.

Born in Stuttgart, Emmerich studied film in Munich, having been influenced, like many of his generation, by Star Wars in the late 70s. Having made some smaller movies in Germany, Emmerich came to the US in 1992 to direct the Jean-Claude Van Damme/Dolph Lundgren actioner Universal Soldier.

He followed this up with Stargate (1994), before co-writing and directing Independence Day (1996), thus starting a run of hugely commercial, if critically indifferent success that would see his films gross some $3bn at the global box office.

That ability to generate an enormous amount of moolah for movie studios has gifted Emmerich a good degree of creative control over his projects. Anonymous had been languishing in 'development hell' since the late 90s, having become sidelined by the Oscar-strewn success of Shakespeare in Love.

However, when Emmerich went to Sony in the mid-Noughties with a plan to make Anonymous for half the projected budget price, the studio got interested again. There was one condition though: he wasn't going to cast any big names in order to keep costs down to around $36m.

"The budget was so high that the studio felt we needed a famous person," he says. "At that time I proposed Daniel Craig, but he was not famous yet. That tells you something."

So is it a measure of his standing in the industry that he could get the movie made with a lead star, Rhys Ifans, still most famous for appearing in his underwear in the romcom Notting Hill and for dating Sienna Miller?

"When I cast Rhys, I had to explain to Sony who he was," Emmerich says. "Next thing I know they're casting him as the villain in the new Spider-Man." He stops and smiles.

"Don't forget: all my other movies never have big stars. When I cast Independence Day, nobody really knew who Will Smith was. For me, that wasn't a risk because I knew how good he was and that he'd be a big star. Nobody knew Heath Ledger when I cast him [in The Patriot]. So for me, it's about trust."

Next up, Emmerich will be back working on some bigger projects (see panel), but in the meantime he is enjoying refuting the charges that he's leading an entire generation astray about the bard.

"Everyone who has seen this movie wants to get back and read Shakespeare afterwards," he says. "People want to investigate things more. So when people ask, 'Are you not afraid that you're damaging the interest in Shakespeare?', I reply, 'No. I think it's the opposite'."

Anonymous is released on October 28

Day & Night

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment