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Few directors have had as eclectic a career as Robert Schwentke. His 2002 German-language debut Tattoo — a slick Se7en-style serial-killer thriller — got the attention of Hollywood, and he initially appeared to be on the classic studio-director track, helming the Jodie Foster starrer Flightplan, the all-star action hit RED and its sequel, and, most recently, the G.I. Joe movie Snake Eyes with Henry Golding and Andrew Koji.
But even from the start, Schwentke was a difficult director to pigeonhole. Best known for his action-thrillers, he also took time to direct romantic sci-fi drama The Time Traveler’s Wife with Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, supernatural comic-book adaptation R.I.P.D. with Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges, and two films in the Divergent YA sci-fi franchise with Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort.
He has also continued to make smaller, more personal, German movies. The Family Jewels, his 2003 follow-up to Tattoo, is a comedy based on Schwentke’s own battle with testicular cancer. 2017’s The Captain, a harrowing black-and-white drama set in the final days of WWII, makes All Quiet on the Western Front look like a comedy.
His latest, Seneca – On the Creation of Earthquakes, fits solidly into the second category of personal Schwentke movies. It stars John Malkovich as the Roman philosopher, statesman and dramatist, famous for espousing stoicism and the simple life, who also wrote violent and disturbing tragedies, including Medea and Phaedra. Seneca was also an advisor to the infamous Emperor Nero and when, in A.D. 65, Seneca was implicated in a conspiracy to assassinate Nero, he was ordered to kill himself.
Seneca’s suicide is, quite literally, the stuff of legends, and it is the focus in Seneca – On the Creation of Earthquakes, which debuts in Berlin late on Monday. The bulk of the film plays out like staged Greek tragedy, as Malkovich’s Seneca prepares to meet his fate, all the while debating the meaning of life and death with his wife Paulina (Lilith Stangenberg) and dinner guests played by the likes of Geraldine Chaplin, Alexander Fehling, Samuel Finzi, and Samia Muriel Chancrin.
Schwentke spoke with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the world premiere of Seneca at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Where did the idea for this film come from?
Frieder Schlaich, the producer, suggested we shoot a film in Morocco along the lines of a movie we both love dearly by Pier Paolo Pasolini [Oedipus Rex] that imposes a sort of aggressively anachronistic rendering of antique times, but with a very, very primal force to it. I first looked at various tragedies to possibly adapt, and I couldn’t really find a way into it. Then I came across a description of Seneca’s suicide, and I found it interesting because it contradicted his life. I delved deeper into who Seneca was, and I found that he was a very complex character and a paradox. I grew more and more interested in him because he was famous as a stoic philosopher, a school that treated riches and possessions as being of little value. And at the same time, he was among the wealthiest men in Rome. You know, he was a moneylender, he had vast properties. Some say he was the second-richest man in Rome.
And he was also renowned, of course, as a moral philosopher, yet he served one of Rome’s most notorious tyrants [Nero]. So the irony, I guess, is what interested me. And this is an irony: a moral philosopher who was getting richer and richer raises concerns in Seneca’s time as it does in ours. I think it was [Roman politician] Decimus Brutus who said: “No one excelled this millionaire in singing the praises of poverty.”
I was very much drawn to the character and to the tragedy really of an artist and a philosopher who pimped himself out to a corrupt tyrant for personal gain and vanity. You know, he definitely committed the sin of vanity and gave up art and truth in a way for money and power and status and became complicit in murder and what I would consider rampant immorality.
Is there something that you could feel a direct connection to?
Well, I think the political dimension is that, well, first of all, you know, the movie is concerned with death, as was Seneca, but it’s also a satire. It’s quite funny in places. I don’t know if you felt that way when you saw it. And it’s a satire also on the elites and on their inability to stand up to tyrants and despots. We’re definitely living in a time where democracy is being hollowed out under the guise of protecting it. And I think latent anti-democratic sentiments are bubbling to the surface quite openly now. And these, you know, these tyrants always have people who support them, who collaborate, opportunists both philosophers and artists, and I think that’s what makes it relevant to today’s time.
Now, this might sound rude on my part, but would you include yourself in that group, as an artist who has also worked in Hollywood, directing action and military films like the G.I. Joe film Snake Eyes? Do you understand that kind of Senecan hypocrisy?
Well, I know it. I’ve been in contact with it. But unlike Seneca in his plays, this movie deals with tyranny, which is not necessarily rampant in Hollywood. The play written by Seneca, that we show in the film, embodies his reflections on his experience during Nero’s reign, and it is concerned with the nature of tyranny and emotions running amok. I believe that Seneca’s tragedies are an inversion of his prose works. They are kind of instructions by negative example, if you will. For example, in one of his treatises called “On Anger,” Seneca argues, and this is one of the basic tenets of stoicism, that anger can and must be subdued so that the rational mind can prevail. While in his plays, anger runs amok, mushrooming into this gigantic, hideous form.
I believe that Seneca wrote these tragedies as a covert critique, a release of his moral revulsion that he could not otherwise express, and kind of a vomiting out of the bile he was choking on. So I think he was very much aware, and he alluded to it in his writings, about the paradox he was in and the dilemma he found himself in.
Now, there were no public theaters in Rome. Theater was a private affair. After a dinner, a play would be handed out to the guests and the servants, and they would read the characters and the dialogue. That’s also the nature of the play in our film. It is a private invite-only occasion because tragic dramas tended to center around arrogant and deluded monarchs, around tyranny, and they were always risky under the principles, of course. It is not clear again that Seneca ever had his plays performed or even allowed them out of his house. Seneca himself says absolutely nothing about them in his writings. So that’s why we treated them as sort of private documents and secret works shared only with a trusted few. So I think his unique situation is pretty different from mine.
I guess what I was trying to get at is if you used this film, a bit in the same way Seneca seemed to have used his plays, to, in your words, “vomit out the bile”?
Absolutely. My ideal situation would be to alternate between more personal works and the work I do in Hollywood, which I also enjoy tremendously. There’s great joy in making these big films. You know, I love making them. But I also have very eclectic tastes when it comes to films, and that eclecticism, I think, shows in my resume. I went from a thriller to a love story to an action comedy. So to me, making these small films is just a continuation of that eclecticism in my resume.
The big difference, of course, is that in Hollywood, filmmaking often is accomplished by committee. And the higher the budget, the more this becomes the case. And that is not the case in my small films. That wasn’t the case in Family Jewels (2003), which I made long before The Captain, which I would also call a very personal film. It was about my own experience with cancer. It was as autobiographical as I’ve ever gone. So to me, this is these small films are a natural extension of what I’ve been doing all through my career.
Did you immediately think of John Malkovich to play Seneca and what is it about him that you thought fit the role?
Well, I had worked with John on RED, and he immediately came to mind when I started writing the script. I didn’t tell him that I was writing the script; I sent it to him because I wasn’t sure there was a movie there. Which was also the case, by the way, with The Captain. And I think that’s a challenge I thrive on. Both of those projects, I just didn’t know whether they would ever come to fruition as a film. And so, I wrote the script, and when I felt it was a movie, I sent an email to John and said, “John, I took the liberty to write a script for you. Would you…?” And he graciously agreed to read it. Three days later, he called and he said, “I would love to do it.” Now, if John had turned me down, I don’t think I would have made the film.
What is it then about him that made you think he was the right one for the role?
He’s drawn to and not afraid of complex characters, and characters who are, you know, not necessarily the cookie-cutter protagonist we’re used to in other films. He’s a great comedian, which was important again because a lot of moments in the film are quite funny. But at the same time, he brings the gravitas necessary to the character. He has, you know, what one could call a 70-page long monologue, and there just aren’t many actors who could pull that off.
Basically, he brings a tremendous amount of humanity to the character. And I think in the script, it was maybe a little bit more of a torch job than the final film. That is due to John bringing humanity to it and accomplishing something. When he finally dies, you feel for him, which is very important. After all these histrionics and shenanigans, you still feel for him when he dies.
In writing the script, how much did you draw on historical sources and how much did you invent?
The way he dies is completely based on The Annals by Tacitus and On the Happy Life by Seneca. So we went back to the sources written in antique times, which is what drew me to the project in the first place. In the research, I came across digression on the history of Imperial oratory, where it mentions that earlier emperors produced their own speeches that they took great pride in writing their own speeches and that Nero was the first emperor who didn’t compose his own speeches. Seneca was his ghostwriter and de facto spin doctor, as we would call it today. It marks the unique decadence of the Nero era and Seneca’s complicity in it. So, we didn’t just take the description of the suicide from these sources, but also the figure of Seneca.
You have to remember, Seneca was obsessed with death and with suicide. Nobody else wrote more about death and dying than Seneca. And of course, he was also obsessed with his legacy. How posterity would remember him was of great importance. His life was performative in that respect. And his final death scene, of course, was his histrionic suicide, which was also performative and intended for an audience. And that is all from those sources. The movie is also about death and how to die well, which is one of the basic teachings of stoicism. And suicide as a way to prove that we walked the walk and didn’t just talk the talk. So this was Seneca’s opportunity to create the image of himself that he wanted to bestow on posterity.
What’s your opinion on Seneca and stoicism, having spent so much time in his head and with his ideas while making this movie?
Well, I can’t help but think of him a little bit like a life coach, and less a philosopher, who instructed the wealthy elite of Rome on moral issues without really challenging them.
What’s interesting and challenging about him is that he said many truthful things. Despite the fact that he was playing a double game, a lot of what he said was quite useful and truthful. He’s not just sizzle and no steak, which makes it more interesting. And it’s the perennial question: does an artist speak truth to power, stand up to power with everything that means, in terms of consequences, or does an artist play along? That’s been a question as long as we’ve had artists.
How much was modern politics on your mind when you wrote the movie?
It was very much on our mind when [Matthew Wilder] and I were writing the piece. Nero is referred to as “Mr. President,” for example, not referred to as Emperor Nero. The film is aggressively anachronistic to draw some of these parallels to today. As much as modern politics was on my mind when I wrote The Captain. In a way, this is a continuation of many themes touched upon in The Captain. I’m interested in the darker side of humanity. And I’m interested in the individual within a specific political context.
Did you make any efforts to make Nero more Trump-like in your portrayal?
No, no, we didn’t. Because it’s bigger than Trump.
You mentioned Pasolini as an inspiration. Those types of films, experimental and confrontational, were quite popular in the 60s and 70s in Europe. Have they become more difficult to make?
It’s very difficult to make those films, and you have to make them cheaply. And the audience has changed. Lest we forget, people used to line up around the block to see Cries and Whispers by Bergman in New York, which is not an easy film to see by any stretch of the imagination. I think people used to come to the movies like they did to other art forms, seeking answers to profound questions. And I think now film has become more of a diversion.
I have a great yearning for films that focus me. I’m so distracted in my regular life. I want to be focused by a film, I want to be confronted with ideas. And I like films that have an afterburn, that you don’t immediately forget once you step foot outside of the cinema, that force you to think, that might even create a debate of some sort. That’s definitely what we were aiming for with The Captain. And that’s what we’re aiming for with this film, a film that you take with you out of the cinema that you have to think about, that you have to, to a certain degree, draw your own conclusions on. I think that’s part of what cinema always was for me.
How long was this shoot? Most of the film has the feel almost of a Greek play, and it seems to be almost all in one location.
Given the fact that we knew we would have limited resources, budget-wise, I scouted Morocco. And in Morocco, you still find sets from other films like [Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic] Kingdom of Heaven. You also find film museums that have standing sets, so I scouted all of those standing sets before I wrote the script. We did build the main Seneca house, where most of the story takes place. It required too many specific qualities to find in somebody else’s set. You know, Seneca’s life was performative, his art was performative. His speeches were performative. So we built what I would call sort of a fashion ramp that runs through the length of the house that he used to prance up and down while elaborating on his stoic ideals. The film was shot entirely in Morocco, using a great deal of Moroccan crew. And it was a wonderful experience being in the desert for months and making this film. It was a very joyous experience. We shot for 32 days.
As you’ve said, you’ve had a very eclectic career. Do you know what you’re planning to do next, another big Hollywood studio production or a more personal film?
I would really like to alternate them. That would be my biggest joy. So next one up will be another Hollywood production. I can’t really talk about it yet, but that’s the plan.
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