Interview: John Orloff on writing 'Anonymous' and controversy over Shakespearean authorship

Posted by · 11:03 am · October 27th, 2011

Something like 20 years ago, screenwriter John Orloff happened upon an episode of PBS’s “Frontline” about the authorship question surrounding the works of William Shakespeare. It was something he had never heard before, so, in those antiquated days of pre-internet, he took to the library for a little research.

There weren’t a lot of books out at the time dedicated to the issue. He didn’t then and he doesn’t now have a definitive idea of who might have written the plays attributed to Shakespeare, even though the film bearing his own signature, “Anonymous,” props up the Oxfordian theory (that Edward de Vere penned them). But Orloff is, if nothing else, certainly a believer that Shakespeare wasn’t the guy.

“I think it’s more about education and life experience, not class,” he says. “To me, it’s not that a man from a lower class could not achieve all of this. Ben Jonson was from a lower class. So was Marlowe. So were most playwrights of the time. But the difference between those people and Shakespeare is they were educated. And to me, it comes down to education and personal experience. And they”re kind of separate.”

The argument, of course, made by non-believers for years and years, is that the author of Shakespeare’s works would have had to be able to read Latin, Greek, French, Italian and Spanish, given the source materials of a number of the plays and the lack of translations for many of them. And Shakespeare may or may not have even gone to grammar school, Orloff says, but that’s a guess because the assumption is he must have had some sort of schooling.

“We can prove he didn’t go to university because there were only two universities at the time, Cambridge and Oxford,” he says. “And there’s no record of him going there. But there are records of Marlowe going there and other playwrights of the time. And then you get into the very specific knowledge that Shakespeare had to have had, like sailing, or the law, or falconry, or tennis, all of these upper class things. And you know, four U.S. Supreme Court Justices don’t think the evidence is there to say that Shakespeare wrote the plays. Walt Whitman believed this. Sigmund Freud believed this. Mark Twain wrote a book about why he didn”t think Shakespeare wrote the plays. This is not crazy time.

“One of the things that’s kind of interesting about Shakespeare scholarship is it’s a very organic thing, because we don’t know anything. And so people just sort of guess. It’s an evolving story, Shakespeare’s life, because we only know like 20 real facts and everything else is guesswork. And the amount of guesses that have come down to us as truth, it’s really kind of weird.”

And all of that, really, is just background for the story Orloff wanted to tell. He wasn’t interested in proving or disproving anything with a screenplay. That’s a documentary, he says. To him, “Anonymous” wasn’t even expressly about the authorship question (though the op-ed sections of countless newspapers this week nevertheless have scholars and authors up in arms and pulling their hair out at the possibility of the film setting back the generally agreed-upon belief that Shakespeare WAS the guy).

Rather, the authorship issue was a setting more so than a theme. For him, the film was about the power of the written word, and, more precisely, the power of ideas.

“Ideas are more powerful than might,” he says. “And I think that’s an incredibly timeless theme.”

The original incarnation of the script was more like “Amadeus,” he says, a tale of jealousy between de Vere, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, a triangle and a devil’s bargain. The script might have found some real traction, but then 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love” came along and Orloff’s work was pretty much dead on arrival with potential buyers.

But it became a calling card of sorts for him and got him into Tom Hanks’s office, which led to a job writing on HBO’s “Band of Brothers” television series and later the Angelina Jolie-starrer “A Mighty Heart” and Zack Snyder’s animated film “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.”

Disaster director Roland Emmerich, however, had an interest in it all those years ago. Orloff met with the filmmaker, famous for blockbuster entertainments more so than Elizabethan period pieces, and Emmerich really wanted to make it. But he had a number of ideas that upped the intrigue and melodrama to an extent that made Orloff realize that the way into the material was to make it a Shakespearean, née, Greek tragedy.

“He went off and made another movie and came back having done all this research on his own and he really is the one that sort of injected the whole succession issue,” Orloff says. “You know, who was going to be the next king? The Prince Tutor Theory. I’m not sure I believe that, but whether it’s historically true or not, I thought it was dramatically fantastic.”

Upping the stakes to a “16th Century melodrama,” as Orloff calls it, began to inform a number of other creative choices. Particularly, the Shakespeare character in the film.

“We made him a little broader, a little sillier than maybe he was before,” he says. “Because he suddenly became the fool, the sort of stock Shakespearean fool who also is very wise at the same time. Like the fool in ‘Lear’ is really the one who, let”s just say manages to be on top or, you know, he is the wisest. He somehow navigates all of this treachery and is on top. That”s a very Shakespearean thing.”

Orloff’s script was smaller in scale before Emmerich came on board, too, he says. “It was more about censorship and jealously and a little bit more of a character study than it is now,” he says. “And when Roland came and we talked about it, it suddenly became a political thriller, which necessitated opening it up and talking about London larger and the effect that these plays were having on a larger canvas than what I originally had.”

The “Independence Day” director upped the production ante, bringing his deft touch with CGI into the fold. Pretty much any exterior in the film is a soundstage with green screen, Orloff says. And yet it’s seamless. Emmerich also employed digital photography for the film, which is already being considered one of the most beautiful implementations of the technology on a feature thus far.

“I think the thing that”s really interesting about the film for me, just as a viewer, is I”m not sure any period movie has been made quite this way,” Orloff says. “Like the degree of green screen is – it”s just unheard of for a period piece. Occasionally they”ll do a money shot, like in ‘Titanic,’ you know? They”ll have the money shot of the Titanic or in ‘Gladiator,’ that was one of the early period movies that had CGI in it, but it was just a couple of long shots of Rome or whatever. In this movie every other shot, pretty much any exterior you see in the movie with the exception of one road or any theater, it”s fake.”

From here, Orloff moves on to his next big, just-announced project, Bryan Singer’s feature film version of “Battlestar Galactica,” which he is excited about mainly because it gives him the chance to write in the science-fiction genre he loves so much. Though judging by reaction to the ideas proposed in “Anonymous,” you’d think he was being outlandish enough as it is.

With the film’s release imminent, Orloff is very aware of the stir it’s causing, as it did when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September. And naturally, being a questioner of Shakespeare’s authorship for so long, he has had plenty of time to digest and consider what makes people so angry about the notion, whether at dinner parties in idle conversation or now surrounding his work on “Anonymous.” And it boils down, for him, to a sense of loss.

“I think people subconsciously, it”s almost as though you”re attacking their entire education,” he says. “Because you”re sort of saying, ‘Hey, you were taught all this stuff in school and I don”t think it”s really true.’  And people get defensive about it. And I think in addition to that, Shakespeare in particular is like this one figure that we all have a common experience with. We don”t all read ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ but pretty much you”re forced to read some Shakespeare.

“And people who consider themselves more educated, they take their Shakespeare seriously. I don”t know why. Because I keep on saying to people, if we make the exact same movie and everywhere we said the word ‘William Shakespeare’ we put in the words ‘Thomas Decker,’ who was another playwright in the 16th Century and have the exact same story, nobody would care. They wouldn’t be mortally offended. Luckily, though, the film is mostly getting well-received, even if they think the premise is ludicrous. Because the film stands on its own.”

“Anonymous” opens in limited release Friday, October 28.

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