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BERLIN — On a lot adjacent to the Babelsberg Studios, London’s Rose Theatre, the venue of choice for 16th century dramatists, has sprung to life. Extras, whose main qualification seems to be really bad dental-work, mill around the stage where an actor treats them to a German version of Shakespeare’s St. Crispen’s Day Speech as a warm-up for shooting. The summer heat and the accompanying smells from hundreds of faux-peasants add to the realism of the scene, despite the constant mingling of technicians and the visiting flock of journalists – but the person who really stands out is the film’s director: Roland Emmerich, who has, so far, been associated with invasions from outer space, earthquakes and tsunamis and seems more alien in this Elizabethan setting than his critters from Independence Day.
Popularly labeled as “Emmerich’s Shakespeare project” since its inception, Anonymous is indeed a departure for a director best known for destroying landmarks on a big scale – but instead of hitting the White House with an aircraft-carrier, like he did in 2012 or burying Manhattan under tons of ice and snow in The Day After Tomorrow, his current target is cultural icon William Shakespeare, whose reputation as the world’s greatest poet the film sets out to debunk.
Based on a myriad of theory’s that claim authorship of the Bard’s works for a number of notables – including Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe – Anonymous makes the case for Edward De Vere, a nobleman and patron of the arts, whose social position would have prevented him from taking full authorship, but, according to proponents of the theory, supplied him with the tutelage, experience and means to create the 38-odd plays and more than 150 sonnets more commonly attributed to the lesser-born and lesser-educated Shakespeare.
Heady stuff – and not necessarily the kind of subject one would associate with Emmerich, whose calm demeanor, quiet authority and Teutonic pragmatism do not lend themselves to conspiracy theories and have made it possible for him to turn the most outrageous scenarios into, if not completely believable, fun joyrides for the multiplex-generation.
This becomes especially apparent when confronted with “authorship experts” such as Laura Wilson, who has worked as an advisor on Anonymous and is on hand to brief the press. But while her arguments – Shakespeare’s lack of breeding and experience and an absence of records pertaining to authorship and payment – ring true for a moment or two, a cynic might conclude that they probably would fit any number of screenwriting careers in Hollywood, since a vivid imagination combined with bad representation somewhat sounds like a typical writer’s lament. And while the theory Wilson proposes has been established long ago and continues to be discussed seriously by experts, her complete negation that Shakespeare could have ever written any of his works does take the “Authorship question” from the cold, intellectual realm of academia very close to the thin line separating it from religion, Apple-against-Windows and boxers-versus-briefs.
But while the argument at the core of his film does not sound like something Emmerich would blindly endorse, the real departure for the 55-year-old director is of a financial nature: while being able to demand (and get) budgets north of $200 million greenlit for his disaster-extravaganzas, Emmerich took a deliberate step back to make Anonymous for a fraction of that sum. And while the subject matter enabled him to assemble a first-rate cast (including Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, Rhys Ifans, David Thewlis and Derek Jacobi), the film’s FX-budget ended up at about 1/25th of what he had on 2012, according to co-producer Volker Engel – pretty low for someone who is used to pushing half of Los Angeles into the sea in what amounts to an opening-sequence.
Then again, Emmerich has always been quite adept at getting the biggest bang for his buck. And while this might not translate to “most expensive explosions for his Euro” in this case, his inherent thriftiness shows nevertheless – even if rumors about him writing personal checks to keep the production going are true. The Rose-Theatre will miraculously become the Globe Theatre a few shooting days later – but only after it has been singed a bit to simulate its burning down. FX wizards Volker Engel & Marc Weigert, instead of fully rendering all virtual sets and buildings, took still-photos of historic sites in and around London and added depth with a method that is most aptly described by Engel as “projecting slides onto building blocks”. Add to this a system of cataloging and reusing certain buildings, that they call “OGEL” to avoid a confrontation with a Danish toymaker, and you’ve saved enough time and money to allow for an epic aerial shot of the frozen River Thames with hundreds of people congregating on the ice.
Which leads back to the “authorship question” itself, the only element that is difficult to square with a director who might have touched upon sensitive issues like climate change during the course of his career, but is clearly more interested in a good yarn than airing his personal beliefs, even if they are as remote as a centuries-long debate about literature. Emmerich himself is of little help here on this day, clearly being more comfortable when talking about logistics than the possible conspiratorial underpinnings – only rising to the authorship theory’s defense when it is unavoidable.
But, then again, while cherishing the marketing-aspect of the premise “What if Shakespeare was not the author of his works?,” he might be most intrigued by the first two words at the beginning of the sentence: “what if?” – two words that served him well over the years.
As legend has it, when, more than a decade ago, he was asked by a Swiss journalist if he believed in aliens, he answered: “I believe in the great ‘what if’? What if aliens suddenly appeared in the sky?”, then turning around to his producer, Dean Devlin: “I think we’ve got our next film.”
Said film became Independence Day – but it is actually possible to judge Emmerich’s entire career by using this principle, since his biggest successes had great “What ifs” at their core, which his failures are sorely lacking – at least if you don’t count “What if someone could successfully do a Godzilla-remake?”
Which is why, in the end, Anonymous might not be a departure for Emmerich after all, but just another challenge to take a big question and go from there. He might not even care where he ends up – but as long as he does it entertainingly and puts the money on the screen, the audience might not either.
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