Film | Interview | Nathaniel Rogers | Roland Emmerich | Shakespeare

Movies: Interview With Out 'Anonymous' Director Roland Emmerich

 Jamie Campbell Bower as the Young Earl of Oxford in "Anonymous" 

...would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.

German born filmmaker Roland Emmerich makes movies that only come in one size: XXL. Same goes for their box office grosses (Independence Day). Sometimes it's the title characters that are super-sized (Godzilla), but usually it's the setting. Take the disaster movie genre, for example, which usually involves one city, one building, one ship; that's not enough for an Emmerich picture. He'll destroy the whole world (The Day After Tomorrow, 2012). Initially it comes as a shock to realize that he's directed a period piece and political thriller called ANONYMOUS... until you realize that it's William Shakespeare (the world's most famous writer) and Queen Elizabeth I (easily one of the most storied royals) at the center of all the intrigue. I sat down with him recently to discuss his movies (will he ever make a gay film?) and "Anonymous" in particular, which wonders loudly whether it wasn't the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) who really wrote the Bard's immortal plays.

Shakespeare-actorThis is such a departure for you. I bet you're hearing that a lot.

A lot. [Laughter] It's a passion project. It was great to reconnect, in a way, with the art of filmmaking. And I went back to my homeland to do the film which was also cool for me. It was nice to not be responsible for tons of money, to have a really small budget but still do a very opulent kind of film. 

Did you miss the green screens a lot? Your movies generally have so many effects shots.

Well, there were a lot of green screens. Yeah, there were more than I'd ever used in a film. The theater was built but most of the street scenes and the wide shots and the courtyard [where a bloody confrontation takes place] did not exist. It was built in the computer. They've been saying for ten to twenty years that one day visual effects will make movies cheaper. For me this was the first time visual effects helped make the movie cheaper… and even possible at all!

I mean, you could have found this courtyard in England. You would have had to go there, change things (they wouldn't have had the green lawn. Then you have to put up the crew in a hotel. It's very expensive! We just had the same green screen and the same floor for different scenes.

But how do you do that with the actors? It must be hard for them with no environment to act in.

That's my job and they're good actors. You just tell them what will be behind them and they trust you. It doesn't affect acting at all. It's actually really good for sound, the stage. No waiting for airplanes. 

[On Shakespeare theories and his "gayest movie" AFTER THE JUMP...]

Roland with his Queen (Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson share the role)

Vanessa Redgrave plays Queen Elizabeth, a role that's been an awards magnet in the past. It must have been a real coup to get her.

 I always saw her in this part and I'd worked with her daughter before in The Patriot (2000). I thought they were ideal for it and I was really happy they felt the same way.

Redgrave-twiceVanessa is always so watchable. It's cool that she did this and Ralph Fienne's upcoming adaptation of Coriolanus in 2011 -- two Shakespeare movies in the same year!

Shakespeare and the Fake Shakespeare [laughs]. It's strange but I'm reading more about Shakespeare now than during the last ten years. I think Shakespeare is one of these writers you can read your whole life and you can still constantly find new things in it. It's the secret to why he's still relevant and performed after 400 years. 

It also helps that he has such a huge body of work. Even if it all wasn't written by one person -- there are other theories...

I know every one of them!

Did you have to totally buy into this particular theory -- that Shakespeare (an actor) never wrote a word -- to make your movie. Or was it more like a game to you to present one theory?

The whole thing is quite peculiar to me. I now know what people mean when they say "Literary Establishment."  It's all these professors who make their livelihood telling people one thing and they don't want to move off of it; they're a little bit like children.

So you're expecting that the scholars won't like it?

Historians have the hardest time because in a weird way for them we get a lot of things wrong. They're used to believing in certain things and all of a sudden you're saying something else. In their heads it's just not computing. But there are a lot of Stratfordians who have said "I like this film." They appreciate the way we show theater in that time -- how lively it was.


It was definitely fun to be reminded that theater was once for the masses. Did you always plan to have it framed the way it is, as a play that becomes the movie. It almost starts like Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street with the actor (Derek Jacobi) running to the theater. In a way it's also kind of like a storybook, like an old Disney movie. Open the book and you're off and running.

For the longest time we did not have that opening. We gave everybody who read this script these two page of facts about the man from Stratford. At one point i called up John Orloff the writer and said "We can't keep doing that. We have to incorporate this into the film somehow. So whenever you have an idea..."  but then I had it myself. I was editing 10,000 BC in London and Soho in the West End and you always walk by these theaters and one day it hit me. 'Why don't we do it as a play?  It can be on the marquee!' 

You're an out director, you've donated to gay causes. But you do all these huge mainstream sci-fi movies. Would you ever do a gay film? 

If the right one comes along. I would love to put more openly gay characters in my mainstream movies which is something I'm really working on. Honest to god, I'm constantly trying, like, "who can i make gay?" [Laughter]. But i also don't want to do it blatantly. That's not good. It's all about integration, show it as a totally normal thing without making a big deal out of it. 

So what you're saying is that Universal Soldier is going to remain your gayest movie.

[Laughs] Some people would say Moon 44. You'll have to check it out. People call that one gay. Dean Devlin [a producer], who I later worked a lot with, he's an actor in that film. When the movie came out Dean totally freaked out because a friend of his told him that his movie was running in a gay club so he went and checked it out and there it was playing.

Universal Soldier (1992) and Moon 44 (1990) -- Emmerich's gayest films?

So what kind of gay films do you like yourself?

 Um... [pauses] I like Brokeback Mountain. That was a good one.

So you'd still prefer to do something epic rather than something like, say, Weekend?

No, you know what? Look at Anonymous. I mean I have a certain taste for… I like other people's small movies but when it comes to my fantasy, my images. They always have to be… 

It has to be big?

It has to be big or I don't like it.

[Roland Emmerich's "Anonymous" opens Friday, October 28th in major U.S. movie markets.]

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  1. If Emmerich wanted to he could include at least one gay character in his pop corn epics.

    Posted by: jaragon | Oct 27, 2011 6:41:48 PM

  2. Ugh, gross. I don't care if he's gayer than Liberace in an Easter bonnet, he's still one of the worst filmmakers alive. He makes movies for retarded people.

    Posted by: endo | Oct 27, 2011 6:41:52 PM

  3. LMAO at the ending.

    Posted by: Jack | Oct 27, 2011 6:44:53 PM

  4. too bad there's no great stories with gays in them that he could put on film. truly a shame.

    and i never knew that it was so difficult to put gay characters in movies, too... apparently, we all look the same and stick out too blatantly and are very difficult to integrate in with the rest of the normal people. how embarrassing.

    Posted by: sleepy bear | Oct 27, 2011 7:04:43 PM

  5. "If Emmerich wanted to he could include at least one gay character in his pop corn epics."
    He did have one. Harvey Feirstein in Independence Day. So, one.
    And yeah, the character died really fast, but y'know a lot of people died in that movie.

    Posted by: JeeJay | Oct 27, 2011 8:22:02 PM

  6. His best movie is probably "Stargate"

    Posted by: jaragon | Oct 27, 2011 10:00:22 PM

  7. ditto about the ending... it made me laugh. I wish you had more time with the interview, Nat, and asked him what the hell with 10,000 BC. Easily the worst movie I've ever watched.

    Posted by: Jones | Oct 27, 2011 10:49:31 PM

  8. everything about this exchange is ( a lot) disappointing.

    Posted by: my2cents | Oct 27, 2011 11:46:35 PM

  9. One of my friends has a theory Shakespeare was a play 'fixer'. He got a reputation for his own plays doing boffo box office and yours just wasn't knocking them dead. Enter Shakespeare who throws some foreshadowing into act one, ends act to with a real hook, then rewrites act 3 to get the audience howling. Congrats, your play is a success but history will remember it as one of Will's. Mostly, maybe even he couldn't fix Tymon of Athens.

    Posted by: Chris | Oct 28, 2011 12:26:52 AM

  10. Independence Day was probably the worst movie I've ever seen. My brother and boyfriend got in trouble for cursing at the screen, and Harvey Fierstein was an absolute embarrassment. I would sooner have my fingernails pulled out with pliers than endure that mess again.

    Posted by: Paul R | Oct 28, 2011 12:42:25 AM

  11. In addition ,i honestly enjoy most of the articles and your different point of view.

    Posted by: The North Face Discount | Oct 28, 2011 1:30:42 AM

  12. I have to agree with Endo on this one. Gross ... and I find his arrogance and pretension about the "literary establishment" and all those pesky learned scholars, as he puts it, "childish" ... but I'm one of them, after all, so I guess that's why.

    Posted by: Pitt90 | Oct 28, 2011 1:49:04 AM

  13. His films are largely trash, but we need big trashy movies like that. 2012 was pretty rubbish, but the destruction was awesome, Independence day, again trashy, but great fun.

    Stargate was probably his best film, and they should have persisted and done the trilogy as it was intended, but we did get a TV series out of it, which i also liked a heck of a lot.

    Posted by: rovex | Oct 28, 2011 5:34:09 AM

  14. cool post!

    Posted by: term paper | Oct 28, 2011 6:31:15 AM

  15. 'The whole thing is quite peculiar to me. I now know what people mean when they say "Literary Establishment." It's all these professors who make their livelihood telling people one thing and they don't want to move off of it; they're a little bit like children.'

    As part of the "literary establishment", I hope this movie fails.

    Posted by: Bobsyouruncle | Oct 28, 2011 6:47:44 AM

  16. It will fail.

    Intelligent people who know anything at all about Shakespeare know the claims that someone else wrote the plays are rubbish, based on nothing more than snobbery. "Anonymous" presents this in a story so complicated the popcorn audiences that make blockbuster hits won't be able to follow it at all. Serious Shakespearians will find it ludicrous and that's not to mention serious historians. Accordign to Emmerich and his writers "The Virgin Queen" was Toatl Whore who had sex with her own son (the guy the films claims was the "real" Shakespeare) and tons of others. Why Vanessa Redgrave and Joley Richardson agreed to appear in this trash is beyond me.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Oct 28, 2011 8:19:31 AM

  17. Roland Emerrich can do exactly what he wants to with his movies and they will almost always make a zillion dollars (though not this one, of course -- I mean the movies he's actually supposed to be making). So the one and only reason there isn't at least one gay character in each of his films is because he doesn't want one there.

    What's the greatest tragedy -- that he's not doing any good whatsoever for the LGBT community when he could be part of changing minds on a global scale, or that he's a hack with an obscene amount of privilege in the first place?

    Posted by: justme | Oct 28, 2011 11:09:20 AM

  18. Emmerich doesn't want a gay character to be blatant in one of his movies? Is there anything in his movies that's subtle?

    Posted by: Glenn I | Oct 28, 2011 2:06:18 PM

  19. Actually, there's a reason that we all--beyond the "literary establishment" should find the Oxfordian "theory" offensive. Beyond there being no evidence--and real lapses in logic (really, he wrote Midsummer Night's Dream when he was 6?) it's also incredibly classist and undemocratic--completely based on the idea that for someone to have written these great plays they had to have been of the royalty. That's very offensive.

    Posted by: Daniel | Oct 28, 2011 3:15:04 PM

  20. It's amazing that somebody is taking the Oxfordian theory seriously enough to make a movie arguing for it. It's pretty much intellectually on par with the "9/11 was an inside job" crowd.

    Posted by: Dave | Oct 28, 2011 9:52:17 PM

  21. Anonymous, is a brilliant film, beautifully written, superb cinematography and acting great casting. All the critical components that make a great film were pulled together by Roland Emmerick.

    My partner remarked as we left the theater, What a wonderful film about "Literary Blasphemy".

    Posted by: ronsfo | Oct 31, 2011 12:49:21 PM

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