Roland Emmerich on Anonymous — 'The Single Greatest Filmmaking Experience of My Life'

I interview a lot of people at this job -- many talented artists on an intellectual spectrum so wide and sometimes with personas so canned and specific that you rarely know from one chat to the next who you're going to get, or if they'll even be the same person the next time you meet. That's not a problem with Roland Emmerich, which is why he might be my favorite interview going right now.

After all, the director responsible for Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 and a handful of other megafilms with a collective gross of more than $4 billion worldwide doesn't need guile to get his point across. He also doesn't need to defend his terrific but challenging new film Anonymous, which dares to posit -- in lush Elizabethan detail with a great cast including Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis, Joely Richardson, Edward Hogg and Rafe Spall -- the theory that William Shakespeare's works were generated entirely by Edward de Vere (Ifans), the Earl of Oxford and ex-lover (and, um, more) of Queen Elizabeth I (Redgrave). Instead, Emmerich looks back on the film as a synthesis of ideas and mischief that he has called "the single greatest filmmaking experience of my life." The experience reflects in the director's glee simply talking about what he does -- which is to say, doing what he loves.

Love his films, hate them, or retain a mild indifference to modern cinema's most prodigious apocalyptic visionary (even Shakespeare's legacy wilts in his obliterating gaze), there's a joy to be found in Emmerich's work both on and off the set. Simply sitting down to talk to him yields the kind of down-to-earth chat you can't expect with virtually anyone else making movies these days. You just can't take that for granted.

You've called Anonymous "the single greatest filmmaking experience of my life." Can you elaborate?

Maybe because I didn't have to work for four quadrants! [Laughs] I don't know. Everything in this movie went extremely well. It was just one of these rare occasions where have a great script, you have a great crew, you find great actors, you have a great shoot, you make the movie, you have the first test screening, great reaction, done. Everything went well and seamlessly. And it was fun to do it.

What specifically was fun?

Just to see these actors go at it. Every day I was so psyched up to go there. I was really curious how certain scenes would work; they worked in the script, but when you see them performed, it's just a whole other dimension.

What would you offer as an example?

There was the scene, for example, with Ed Hogg and Rhys -- when Robert Cecil tells [de Vere] the whole truth. And he enjoys telling him the truth -- to stick another dagger in his heart.

You were just talking about quadrants and marketability, and I've got to say: I was watching this enthralled, but at times I couldn't believe this movie got made in this day and age.

Oh, yeah.

A film about ideas -- a film for adults basically -- with a huge budget. How did it get made?

Well, the budget is not that huge. It was a little over $30 million, but we got a tax rebate and government funds from Germany, which reduced it to pretty much $25 million.

This film cost $25 million?


It looks like so much more than that.

I know! I know.

You really stretched it.

Well, it's the first time that anyone really... I mean, everybody always talked about it -- that you could one day make true visual effects films cheaper. This is the one. There's much more bluescreen and visual effects than you think. For example, the scene when [Essex and Southampton] are surrounded by the soldiers who shoot at them? It's just a floor. That tells you. It's just a big action scene out of nothing. That said, that was also the fun part of it, because what we did was we got these actors from England, and they could not believe what we created. We built the theater. We had all these sets. And when they saw little [pre-visualizations] or drawings on the wall, they said, "This is how it will look?" I said, "Yeah!" It was so inspiring for them, because usually what you do for a movie like this is you kind of move through England -- there's a street, there's a castle. You live in bad hotels. There's real mud, not film mud, you know? And this movie was shot on stage -- the whole movie.

But you did build the theaters?

Yeah, that we shot outside. But it was shot right next to the stage. It was actually leaning against the stage.

I was talking to Rhys about the stage productions and how they were shot -- kind of like rock concerts, live with multiple cameras. How did you approach those?

With all the theater scenes, first we did wide shots -- where the camera's nearly hidden. We just played two, three, four, five times, just to rile up the people and stuff. Then we went tighter. You know how wild they have to go, and they know that in closer shots they'll have to do it, too.

Didn't you also hand off the direction of the play performances themselves?

Yeah. It was just too complicated. I had to place all the cameras, I had to direct all the actors in the audience, I had to direct the extras. I just didn't feel up to the job to also direct the theater scenes. It also would have just taken too long, you know? It was pretty much like theater was done then: There was an acting troupe that was cast by Tamara Harvey, the [stage] director who handled that, and they had their own little production. They had rehearsal time and all these things. It was an acting troupe inside our film. It was fascinating.

I was fascinated by the ways you approach exposition in this film. There's a ton of dialogue, but there are always things going on around, drawing us into the era -- a hedge maze, or a bear fight or something. Where did these settings as dramatic ideas come from?

From research. You see things. You see that they had a lot of bearbaiting, and then you want to put it in your film to show how brutal this world was. And at that time, big houses had these mazes made out of hedges. I said, "We have to use that." Also, it's a bit of a symbol that [de Vere] lures [Jonson] into a game he doesn't understand.

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  • Martini Shark says:

    I found the movie to be heavy-handed, especially when Emmerich had The Globe Theater crashing down onto The Groundlings because of his opposing the use of contractions.