Making films the Emmerich-an way

At first glance, Anonymous seems like a strange choice for director Roland Emmerich. What is a man who made his name depicting the end of the world in films like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 doing getting himself involved with the question of the true authorship of Shakespeare’s works? But hearing him defend his actions as he comes under a barrage of accusations in The Oxford Union’s debating chamber, it starts to become apparent why so many of his cast and crew refer to this film as his “pet project”. He clearly isn’t exploiting the setting for some cheap publicity, but because he has a real interest in the story.

The film is a departure from form in more ways than just the subject matter. This is a distinctly less financially viable venture than his previous movies, and it is commercialism that defines Emmerich. As he recounts his formative film education: “When I came to the film school it was like 1977 and that was the year when Star Wars came out. And it was quite interesting because everyone in my film school wanted to be the next Fassbinder [one of the most important figures of New German Cinema] and I was actually so taken by Star Wars and Close Encounters of The Third Kind and I was more into that. I was very open about it and it was kind of quite strange how at that time it was immediately “ah, he wants to make commercial movies” and commercial movies at that time, at least in Germany in my film school, was a bad word.” He set out his commercial intentions early in his career. When it came time for his film thesis, he shunned the typical short film route that most of his cohort would go on to make because he “didn’t see quite the need for short film”, also knowing that creating a feature would provide “a much better launch impact for your career”. Because of his ambition he convinced his film school to present his script for Government funding and took on two producers to raise 450,000 deutsche marks. And then during filming he “went exactly 100% over. Which was very, very bad. We had to refinance, we had to sell the video rights, we had to sell the TV rights, it was two years of one bad news after another.” But the story has a happy ending; his debut film The Noah’s Ark Principle went on to open the Berlin Film Festival, providing a huge splash for such a young director.

Since then he shot up the studio system in Hollywood, grappling with bigger and bigger budgets (2012 had a budget of $200m). But those films might not reflect his real passions. He describes action shoots as “tedious”, and confesses to “looking forward to the days when I would shoot only dialogue.” Anonymous is a considerably smaller project than he is used to, with a budget in the region of $35m. Emmerich has said that “one day, visual effects will make movies cheaper” and brags that it “wouldn’t have been possible to make this movie a few years ago”, and it certainly features a staggering amount of special effects for a period film. But then, this is the man who once sailed a Russian cargo ship through New York and obliterated the White House. Recreating Tower Bridge is pretty tame in comparison. He is clearly a fan of visual effects, believing that they can make films “come to life”, especially historical ones.

It might seem odd that Emmerich, who in 10,000 BC built the pyramids with the help of woolly mammoths, should come under attack for questions of historical accuracy. But with Anonymous he seems to have managed to piss off every Shakespeare academic in the country. There have been protests in Warwickshire crossing out Shakespeare’s name on signs, and famous scholars such as Columbia University’s James Shapiro have clamoured to denounce the film. A list of historical inaccuracies is meticulously updated on Wikipedia.  With all of this criticism, it’s little surprise that Emmerich feels defensive about the film. Addressing questions as to its authenticity at the Union he fought back against the perceived wisdom being repeated in schools, saying that “teachers have a responsibility to tell the whole truth”, and that in education about Shakespeare we have “guesses presented as facts. This is not a responsible way to teach.” In the interview after his speech I asked him if he felt this standard applied to him as well. He acknowledges the implications of these statements and says, “with a movie like this comes responsibility. So you want to really be sure that you’re right. And it led us to take the whole theatre scenes and how we present the works of William Shakespeare really importantly. Throughout filming the theatre scenes became more and more a bigger part of the film and we’re actually really quite proud of it.” He acknowledges that there are inaccuracies in the film but believes that the tone and mood of the film are what are important, and cites the many examples of other films based on real life that have been held to less scrutiny, from Amadeus to The Social Network.

Anonymous is a step forward for Emmerich from simply making entertainment to using his movies to say something. Talking about the protests he says that, “I am seeing the whole controversy and it promotes the writer, right? Whoever he was. When people see the movie, most of them come up to you afterwards and say “gosh, I have such desire to revisit William Shakespeare’s works” and that’s what we wanted, and that’s what’s happening.” It will be interesting to see if he continues this approach in his future works. When I spoke to him he was excited to get to Montreal and start filming his next project, a science-fiction film called Singularity about the emergence of artificial intelligence greater than our own, but this week Sony Picture halted the film in pre-production to rework the script. Regardless, it’s unlikely to faze the director. Relentlessly commercial and fascinated with visual effects, Roland Emmerich is the perfect embodiment of modern Hollywood.