by Luke Hickman
Do you remember the 1999 Academy Awards? Do you remember how 'Shakespeare in Love' won Best Picture over 'Saving Private Ryan,' 'The Thin Red Line,' 'Life is Beautiful' and 'Elizabeth?' It was quite the upset – especially when you note that it took home a total of seven Oscars that night. I don't know anyone who predicted that outcome, but 'Shakespeare in Love' is still a very fine film.
With 'Shakespeare in Love' finally coming to Blu-ray domestically on January 31st, director John Madden took some time between flights to talk to us about the new Lionsgate Blu-ray release of the film and his upcoming movie 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.'
HDD – Luke Hickman: How are you doing this morning?
John Madden: I'm fine, thank you. Just sitting in an airport lounge waiting for my flight. It should board in the next 15 minutes, so you'll have to forgive me if I'm speaking softly.
HDD: You'll have to forgive me too because I'm come down from a cold and my voice sounds terrible.
John Madden: (Laughs) Too bad. I'm sorry to hear that.
HDD: No worries. I don't feel bad, I just sound bad. But since our time is limited, let's kick this thing off. When you were making 'Shakespeare in Love,' did you have any idea you were making a movie that would win seven Oscars?
John Madden: Not at all. First of all, this project had a history. They tried to make it when it was at another studio – Universal. They tried making the film over five years earlier and it fell apart because they couldn't cast a certain famous actor as the part of Will. In the meantime, the property had languished until Harvey Weinstein bought the script. I think there was the misconception in a lot of people's minds that it was a very esoteric piece – it's hard to understand that now. It deals so much with theatre, which is famously hard to make it at the box office; it's about Shakespeare, which was seen as an esoteric sort of interest to people. I remember when I read the script for the first time, it was smack in the middle of my wheelhouse. I thought, 'I'm going to enjoy this movie and some people I know will enjoy this movie.' But I was just so thrilled and amazed that someone was prepared make it because it seemed so specific to this sort of interest. Of course, that level of interest was shared by the actors involved who immediately realized that it was a gem of a piece. But none of us necessarily knew that it would reach as wide an audience as it did. I think one has to give a lot of credit to Harvey Weinstein, who, of course, invested a lot of money in it - mainly, buying the script in the first place for $6 million, I think he bought it for – which was a statement of faith. I acknowledged that, first of all. But we, of course, didn't know that we'd get it as right as we now all know we did. You know, when [screenwriter] Tom Stoppard had done the first re-write on it, I think he envisioned the piece to be a comedy, and that was my model for what it should be.
HDD: Were there any unique and specific challenges that you had with the shoot?
John Madden: The only – you know, I'm on record having said this elsewhere – I realized halfway through that we didn't have the right ending – not the "right ending" as in terms of what happened, but the right mise en scene for it because in the original script Shakespeare and Viola – although she was known as Belinda before we started shooting – said goodbye to one another in a large sort of crowd scene with a whole lot of other things going on. I realized very quickly that that was not going to be right. I could feel it, in terms of what we already shot. We slightly realigned ourselves while we were shooting, taking advantage of that realization. There weren't any disasters, as I remember – the set didn't fall down – but I know there was one thing that Tom Stoppard had written into the script that I was determined to realize, which was that there was a downpour when it started to rain during the fifth act of the first production of 'Romeo & Juliet.' Mind you, that didn't happen in reality. There's no record of that. But it was a choice that Tom had made that I found so incredibly satisfying and brilliant that we all labored for weeks trying to figure out how to do this. Of course, it meant that we were going to have to film out of order drastically for the scenes and have to deal with the whole getting the set wet issue. It became a huge logistic issue about how we could get 400 or 600 or 800 costumes wet and then dry them out again overnight for another part of that sequence the next day. In the end, I sort of tore my hair out when I realized that we weren't going to be able to do it, we didn't have the resources to do that. I had this image (laughs) of the audience as tears pour down their faces. I told Tom that it seemed like such a terrible loss to have to get rid of that. It was such a shame. And he said, "Well, I really only had one reason for putting it there." I said, "What was that?" And he said, "I needed a puddle." (laughs)
John Madden: And that's a reference to the joke where Queen Elizabeth walks through the puddle and all the courtiers throw their capes down for her. And that was a joke that he had in his head, but he figured out that it would be tough to find that big of a puddle outside without rain. (laughs) There weren't any sort of major disasters that I can remember.
HDD: I know that the powers that be at the studios who are involved in transferring catalog titles to Blu-ray like to involve the directors and as much of the crew as possible for the process.
John Madden: That's right.
HDD: Were you brought on to assist in the transfer of 'Shakespeare in Love?'
John Madden: I have to say, my schedule didn't allow it. Actually, I know that they went back to the neg – as you know, it's first transfered from an original negative – so they obviously did that matching the guidelines from the original grade as closely as they could. I'm sure they'll have done an amazing job with it. But, no – my schedule wouldn't allow it, unfortunately.
HDD: I understand that. I spoke with a studio's VP of restoration a while back and he told me that it's hard to get directors involved with the transfer process because they've moved on and are busy making other movies.
John Madden: That's right! That's right!
HDD: I know you've got to go, but before you do I just want to ask you a little about 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' because the trailer for it looks great.
John Madden: Good! (laughs) It's strangely fitting since this is a conversation about 'Shakespeare in Love,' but I think that there's a sort of similarity between the two films not just because I cast Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson are two of the stars, but there's something tonally that's very similar about the films. They're sort of melancholy comedies, I would say. They're both about transformation, about people who go through an experience in a suspended environment – which is the environment of the play, I suppose, in 'Shakespeare in Love' and is this foreign exotic culture and strange building, the hotel, they're in in 'The Marigold Hotel.' I found some distinct similarities. It's certainly the film I've made that's closest to 'Shakespeare in Love.' It's very funny, I think, due to a similar kid of ride with some sharply opposed tones that I like and enjoy about it. You know, it's pretty great to have those people [on the set] again. Judi is playing an abashedly different character. And so is Tom Wilkinson – he's unrecognizably different. And I suppose everyone else in the cast could have easily have been in 'Shakespeare in Love.' It's hard to believe that Bill Nighy wasn't in 'Shakespeare in Love.' (laughs) It's Shakespearean in theme because it's about high life and low life, young people and old people, and a collision of all of those things. And it's got a central kind of joy at the center of it. We'll have to see how it goes.
HDD: I'm excited for it.
John Madden: That's great! Now I'd better head off towards the gate so I don't miss my flight. Are there any other questions that you'd wanted to ask?
HDD: (coughs) Nope. We made it through the main points in my notes. Thank you.
John Madden: You're welcome. Feel better, Luke.
HDD: Thank you! I appreciate it.