Second 'Elizabeth' could bring Blanchett second Oscar

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"Elizabeth" excitement: In predicting this year's likely best actress nominees Hollywood handicappers have their work cut out for them as we've already seen more than five worthy performances and others are on the way.

Despite differing opinions about various actresses' prospects, it seems a safe bet that Cate Blanchett will be in the race for "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," in which she stars opposite Geoffrey Rush and Clive Owen. Blanchett won a best supporting actress Oscar in 2005 for "The Aviator." Her already acclaimed second performance as the 16th Century English Queen could bring her a second Oscar, but this time for best actress.

A Universal presentation in association with StudioCanal of a Working Title production, "Elizabeth" was directed by Shekhar Kapur and written by William Nicholson and Michael Hirst. It was produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Jonathan Cavendish and executive produced by Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin and Michael Hirst.

Opening wide Friday, the film reunites Kapur, Blanchett, Rush and Hirst, who enjoyed great success with the 1998 production "Elizabeth," for which Blanchett was Oscar nominated and won a best actress-drama Golden Globe. While its only Oscar win was for best makeup -- Jenny Shircore, who won, could be a nominee again this time for her memorable makeup and hair design -- the first "Elizabeth" also received Oscar and Globe best picture noms and Kapur was a best director Globe nominee.

An early look at "Elizabeth" left me applauding and anticipating that it will be turning up in some prime races this awards season. I was happy to have the opportunity last Thursday to focus with Kapur on the making of the film.

"I hated history when I was a kid," he began. "When I was offered (the 1998) film it was my first English language film and my first film outside India and I took on a challenge. It was very challenging for me at that time to say, 'Oh, my God, I'm going to deal with English history -- something I hated -- and I know nothing about this queen.' So it was a discovery. When I was making the film I discovered that actually the film was about power -- love in the context of power, survival in the context of power, betrayal in the context of power -- and it ended when she survived. She survived and had just overcome all the dark forces that surrounded her in her own court. I started to realize that if this is about power, then I haven't told the complete story.

"And then we started (planning) the second one and I thought (it would be good to) take the power question further -- especially considering what's happening in this world right now, where power and the conflict between power's becoming very important. And especially the rising tide of an interpretation of the way people use the word of God so everybody interprets their own sense of what God said to them and then they're in conflict and they believe that they have a certain sense of purity amongst them. Really that's kind of what was happening at that time when Philip (Spain's Philip II) was interpreting the word of God as something fundamental and something pure. Elizabeth, on the other hand, who had (a country with) both Catholics and Protestants was able to be tolerant because she was able to look at faith in a much more complex way and look at life and power in a much more complex way. And the acceptance of complexity and the contradictions is what tolerance is all about. So the second film emerged out of that."

What "Elizabeth" deals with, he continued, is "absolute power and the concepts of divinity. Like, for example, when Diana died, to us she was divine even before she died. And Elizabeth and people (like her) feel that they rule by divine right. So what is divinity and to become divine what do you have to do to your personal life? And what is the conflict between your mortal life and, say, your divine life is what we were dealing with in this film."

How did the idea of doing a second film come about? "Well, we'd been talking about it for a long time and then finally Working Title came to me and they had by that time developed a first draft of a script, which did not embody what I'm talking about right now," he replied. "So when I came on and I started to work with Michael Hirst and we refigured the script as to what is the story we really wanted to tell. But Working Title had, anyway, commissioned Michael Hirst, who wrote the first film, to write another film. I wasn't part of the writing of that story. It's when I came on that we started to tell the new story about Walter Raleigh (played by Clive Owen) and Elizabeth and her relationship with (her favorite lady-in-waiting) Bess Throckmorton (played by Abbie Cornish) and the conflict between Spain and England."

There is, of course, a very contemporary feel to people doing things in the name of God. "That's why the film suddenly at one point became very contemporary and that's why I wanted to push the film that particular way," he noted. "There is only one reason to make a film about historical characters or about history (and that is) to draw from history lessons of the past into what our lives are now. So unless they have contemporary relevance to the psychology of our lives today or to the politics of our lives today and ultimately about the mythology of our lives today, then there's no reason to make that film. And that's why a lot of times when people talk to me about me adapting history I'm saying history's always been adapted to contemporary lives. It's always been retold every day, every moment of time it's been retold through contemporary lives of the people that it's been told to. And that's exactly what I'm doing."

The film's screenplay was written over the course of the last three years. "It's been a long time," Kapur said. "A long time in development. And it's taken us a long time to convince Cate to do it. And then once the screenplay was ready and everybody read it, everybody signed on to do it. But it took a long time to do."

How did they convince Blanchett to come aboard? "I think that Geoffrey Rush was also part of it," he told me. "You know how destiny works at times? I happened to be in Los Angeles at the time of the Golden Globes about two years ago and Geoffrey was also here and Cate was also here. Geoffrey and I met at the Four Seasons Hotel and there was a draft of the script written by William Nicholson ('Gladiator') by that time. We talked about it and Geoffrey said that we should really do it. I said, 'Cate still needs some convincing' so the three of us had dinner together. I have to admit that Geoffrey did most of the weight lifting there. He and Cate have been such friends for such a long time. He just came on very honestly and said, 'You now, there very rarely are films like this made and very rarely that women act in these kind of parts and the appetite for the second film based on the last film will be interesting to explore further.' And Cate just said, 'Yes, let's do it.'

"The fact is we would not have done it (without Blanchett). If Cate had not agreed I would have certainly not have jumped on board because, you know, it's an interpretation. There have been other interpretations of this. Helen Mirren's, for example (for HBO, which brought Mirren best actress Emmy and Golden Globes awards last year to go with her Golden Globe best actress movie win for playing Elizabeth II in 'The Queen'). Each interpretation is as valid as any other interpretation. Helen Mirren, herself, was terrific in what she did. But they are different interpretations of an historical character's life. And the interpretation that we're doing is actually telling the story through the mind and the heart and the skills of Cate Blanchett. And you can't jump ship now because it's becoming Cate Blanchett's interpretation of Elizabeth I. I can't make it with another actor because it would not be a continuation of the story. It's Cate Blanchett's interpretation."

Asked how he worked with his actors, Kapur explained, "I believe that the first instincts of an actor should always be captured on film so what I tend to do is talk a lot and challenge a lot. When actors interpret a scene, I try and come out and challenge their interpretations -- not because they're wrong, but because I like to dig deeper and deeper into scenes and draw out other meanings out of the scene. We all try. We don't always succeed. Hopefully, a film can work on a plot level, which is very obvious because the screenplay's there and the dialogue is there. But it should (also) work on a political level. It should work on a psychological level, which is what actors bring to it. And then underneath that it should work on a physical level, which is more what the director or the camera or the lighting brings to it. So we would sit down and keep talking about what a scene means and then interpret it when we shoot. But I believe that (with) actors always, if you have selected them you should always capture their first instincts so rather than rehearse them a lot, we just rehearse the moves and then I like to capture (their first instincts).

"I do ask my actors sometimes to not emote during rehearsals, to pull back and to bottle up their emotions to allow me and allow the camera to see their first instincts. Now, does it always work? No because sometimes you have angles that are based on a certain actor so the other actor who, for example, has his back to the camera has to emote and correspond with the actor who has his front to the camera. So it's all very well for me to say all this in theory, but in practice sometimes that really works."

One of the decisions Kapur said he typically has to make "is do I do the close-ups first or do I do the wide shots first? What I prefer to do, as far as possible, is to shoot all the close-ups first, which from an actor's point of view is terrific but it becomes difficult from a lighting point of view. What the cameraman would like to do is to capture the wider shots first so he knows exactly how and where the actor will end up. So it's a combination of both, but because my films are so actor dependent and I try and tell (the story) through the actors' eyes, I really always like to capture the first instincts of an actor.

"I saw this film in a way (as being) operatic. I don't hold anything back from my actors. I discuss the way I'm going to shoot the scene. I discuss my motives behind the scene. Everything. I state all possible intentions -- whichever intention then becomes the prime (one) in the shooting of the film I discuss openly and throw it out to the actors. With Cate a lot of the discussion that we had was that this film is ultimately a journey into becoming divine. When you work backwards from the film, it ends in a storm. For whatever people say about the Armada, England won because of the storms, which I interpreted as divine intervention."

As soon as he began, he said, "to interpret the storms as divine intervention, you had to look back and say, 'Well, the end is about divine intervention, so where does the film start to gradually edge into concepts that are more infinite than finite?' Where you do you stop dealing with the finite and start to edge into the infinite both in the camerawork and the lighting and how do you edge the audience towards that? But then you come back to actors and say, 'How do I talk to an actor?' And this was particularly (the case) with Cate and with Jordi Molla (who plays Spain's Philip II). I used to talk to them both about interpretations of God and interpretations of the divine and their belief in the divine because it's not something that you can tie a string to and say, 'This is what it is.' It's something much more open-ended.

"(In) Cate's performance, theatrical as it was, she started to adapt these concepts and then move towards the concepts of leaving behind the exactness of performance into making it a bit vaster and a bit more complex. That was a skill that she used. It's not a skill that an actor can learn how to do. It's a skill that can only come through an exploration of life. However skilled you are, your technique may be 100%, but when we're dealing with the kind of performance that she's given you have to bring your life to that performance. You have to live your compassion and your life experience. I'm assuming that part of that Cate was able to handle because between the last ('Elizabeth') and this film she's been a mother twice. For a mother and child the bond has to be enduring. You can't explain it. You just say, 'I love' and then beyond that you don't explain it any more. There's no reason. There's no psychology. At one point, psychology stops working. And so, when psychology stops working, how does an actor deal with a situation that's beyond psychological?"

Shooting took about 70 days and was done, Kapur said, "mostly in cathedrals around England (that) I doubled up as palaces sometimes and sometimes as cathedrals. For example, the El Escorial, which is Philip's palace in Spain, we cheated that at Westminster Abbey. The boat sequences were all shot in Cambridge where there's a little canal and we cheated that as part of the River Thames. St. Paul's was shot in Ely Cathedral and certain other parts of Ely we used (in other scenes) -- for example, the hall in which all the parties (in the film) are held was at Ely Cathedral."

Looking back at the challenges of production, he pointed to creating the Spanish Armada as one of the biggest: "We essentially created the whole Armada by constructing one ship. Half of the ship was Spanish and half was English. If you looked at it from one side, it looked like an English ship. If you looked at it from the other side, it was a Spanish ship. And from that one ship, we created the whole battle. It was quite a feat. One of the challenges of this film was (lighting). One of the first conversations I had with (cinematographer) Remi Adefarasin was about Rembrandt because Rembrandt had this amazing ability to paint with a central light falling on the characters that surrounds them with darkness. I interpreted the first film as a Rembrandt because she lived in a palace and was surrounded by so much intrigue that she was always in darkness within her environment.

"In this one, she was much more powerful. She started to create the Golden Age, which was an age of light so there was a lot of light. How do you take a cathedral and make it lighter and light it up? Lighting up these cathedrals was a huge job. (We would) just light up the stone a little bit to make it lighter so that people who (saw) the last film and see this film see it as a different environment. Where the darkness was really coming from outside was from over the ocean from Spain."

This time around, he added, he was looking at paintings by Turner: "Turner was this great English artist who painted great big landscapes and when you look at the landscapes you get a sense of God. You get a sense of the immensity of it. And the word 'immensity' kept coming into our script. And the immensity and the infinity and the divinity you notice in Turner's paintings. When you're doing visual effects, all visual effects companies today have a natural tendency to aspire to photo realism. They make it as real as possible. And yet because of the operatic nature of this film I wanted it not photorealistic, but painterly. One of the reasons I think (the visual effects) work is because they're not even aspiring to be photorealistic. They're aspiring to be as if they were Turner paintings.

"I have to say that I had a terrific support system. No director can actually create any cinema that is worth it without (such support). Everything is a completely collaborative effort whether it's the costumes of Alex Byrne or the production design of Guy Dyas or the DP Remi Adefarasin, who did both ('Elizabeth') films with me. These are questions that we constantly discussed all the time. In fact, if you go to my website, which is ShekharKapur.com, there's a place where I recorded and (have posted) the first conversations we had. It was very interesting for me to put down the first conversations and see how much of our first ambitions we actually achieved."

Great "Gangster":
An early look Wednesday night at Universal and Imagine Entertainment's drama "American Gangster" leaves no doubt that the Ridley Scott film will be a major contender in prime categories for Oscars, Golden Globes and other awards. Directed by Scott, produced by Brian Grazer and Scott and written by Steven Zaillian, "Gangster" stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Opening wide Nov. 2, it's a must-see film, especially if you're an awards voter.

At year-end you can count on finding "Gangster" on a long list of 10 Best Lists, including my own. The film's 157 minutes fly by as Scott tells the gripping violent story of the rise to power of a 1970s Harlem crime boss (Washington) thanks to drug trafficking deals done directly in Thailand through his connections with U.S. military personnel there. His undoing comes at the hands of a uniquely honest outcast cop played by Crowe. Both Washington and Crowe deliver performances that should put them back in Oscar and Golden Globes action this season. There's also a terrific supporting actress performance as Washington's mother by Ruby Dee, who's never been Oscar or Globe nominated and clearly deserves to be for "Gangster."

"Gangster" has an incredibly high awards pedigree, by the way. Washington won the best actor Oscar for "Training Day" and the best supporting actor Oscar for "Glory." He won the Golden Globe best actor-drama award for "The Hurricane" and won the best supporting actor Globe for "Glory." Crowe won the best actor Oscar for "Gladiator" and won the best actor-drama Globe for "A Beautiful Mind."

Scott is a three-time Oscar and Directors Guild of America nominee for "Thelma & Louise," "Gladiator" and "Black Hawk Down" and was a Globe nominee for "Gladiator." Grazer won the best picture Oscar (with Ron Howard) for "A Beautiful Mind" and also received noms for best picture for "Apollo 13" and for original screenplay for "Splash." Zaillian won the Oscar and Globe for his screenplay adaptation for "Schindler's List" and was Oscar nominated for "Gangs of New York" and "Awakenings."

There also are strong supporting performances in "Gangster" by Cuba Gooding Jr., a best supporting Oscar winner for "Jerry Maguire," and Chiwetel Ejiofor, a best actor-musical or comedy Globe nominee for "Kinky Boots."

Wednesday words: In next Wednesday's column my guest will be director Kenneth Branagh, whose first class reimagining of the thriller "Sleuth," starring Michael Caine and Jude Law, opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles via Sony Pictures Classics.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Jan. 19 and 22, 1990's columns: "With Oscar ballots going in the mail and with the Golden Globes coming Saturday, one film that's generating some positive and very timely talk is Warner Bros.' 'Driving Miss Daisy.'

"'Driving,' a Zanuck Co. production produced by Richard D. Zanuck and Lili Fini Zanuck, was directed by Bruce Beresford ...'It was a very difficult picture to get made,' a very pleased Dick Zanuck told me Tuesday. 'Not that anybody didn't want it. It's kind of a nice piece of film to have on your production menu. Everybody was interested in it. But when we first went out with it we were heavier cost-wise. We went out with a $9 million budget.

"'Nobody's appetite was really satisfied with that figure. We hit every conceivable place, actually. Then we came back with a lower figure. Our actual figure was $7.5 million. We came back with that after doing some extensive budget cutting and sacrificing all along the way. We came back to Warners and they said they would take the United States and Canada for $5 million. We got the rest by selling the foreign to Jake Eberts and Allied Films. And that's how it was done.'

"At one point,' Zanuck recalls, it looked like 'Driving' wasn't going to be made: 'We had everybody lined up. We had everybody except the distributor. I must give the lion's share of the credit in terms of perseverance and just sticking with it to Lili, who hounded this thing. There's a (production) executive at Warners named Allyn Stewart, who embraced this picture from the moment she read the script. Along with Lili, she just hounded them at Warners and they finally came through. I must say, once they said 'yes' they have been tremendously supportive in every way...'

"'I had almost reached the point where I was going to throw in the towel,' Zanuck told me. 'I had kept Beresford strung out waiting. I'd kept the cast (including Morgan Freeman, Jessica Tandy and Dan Aykroyd) waiting. Every day I would call them and call their agents. Morgan, in particular, was being offered other parts and was turning things down. There was great concern that this picture wasn't going to fly. Lili never reached that point (of giving up). She just doggedly kept hounding everybody and finally the (deal with) Warners came through. It looks like it's turning out to be a very wise decision on Warners' part..."

Update: "Daisy" turned out to be a major success both at the boxoffice and on the awards front. It opened Dec. 15, 1989 to $73,745 at 3 theaters ($24,581 per theater) and went wide Jan. 26, 1990 with $5.7 million at 895 theaters ($6,375 per theater). It wound up grossing $106.6 million domestically. "Daisy" won Oscars for best picture, actress (Tandy), adapted screenplay and makeup and Golden Globes for best motion picture-comedy or musical, actress (Tandy) and actor (Freeman). Among the film's many other awards was the Producers Guild of America's Motion Picture Producer of the Year Award to the Zanucks.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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