Dialogue: Roland Emmerich on the Key to Figuring Out 'Anonymous'

Dialogue: Roland Emmerich on the Key to Figuring Out 'Anonymous'

Oct 27, 2011

AnonymousRoland Emmerich is a fascinating filmmaker. He makes the movies he wants to make and he doesn't particularly care what anyone else thinks about them. That may make him sound brash, but the reality is that he's a very friendly, charming man who has spent decades working on some of Hollywood's biggest films and his earned him final cut in the process. If he wants to make a movie about the world literally falling to pieces, he can. If he wants to make a movie that looks at the debate behind who really wrote Shakespeare's plays, he can do that, too.

And that's precisely what Emmerich did with Anonymous, a film that is perhaps being prematurely written off by those who aren't into his usual bombastic films about people running front giant special effects. It's an interesting, controversial topic, though it's less about trying to settle the Shakespeare authorship debate and more about telling a legitimately interesting story about politics, art and the complicated relationship between the two in the Elizabethan era.

Movies.com: Obviously the story of Anonymous interests you on a deeply personal level, but was part of your motivation for directing something that isn't a large scale blockbuster to silence critics?

Roland Emmerich: I think you should never make movies to silence critics. I think life is too short to think about critics. It really just touched me on a personal level. It was an original script and one I just fell in love with. There's this scene at the end where Ben Jonson gets called to the dying Oxford and he says, "What do you think of my work? I never saw you clap." And this guy who was eaten up by jealousy and pretty much ratted him out and turned it all into a tragedy has to say what any other artist would have said, "You're the soul of the age." Even though that's what he wanted to become. That was deeply touching for me.

You have to understand that Ben Jonson is the reason that we think William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote it. I think the whole first folio was kind of just a cover up and Ben Jonson was somewhat involved. He left a lot of hints that it was not the truth. Don't forget, in Elizabethan times, you couldn't say anything clearly and openly or you'd be beheaded the next day. That's what people forget. It was like living under Stalin. I think it might have been a little worse than living under Stalin.

Movies.com: There seems to be a resurgence in popular interest in that time period right now.

Emmerich: It's an incredibly interesting time. I think there are like 10 more movies in the works to be made about this time. I thought about doing a mini-series about the Earl of Oxford.

Movies.com: Was there any point where you guys seriously considered doing it as a TV mini-series instead of a film?

Emmerich: No, no. We always wanted to make that film. I'm not into TV, anyways. I never watch TV. But it's something you have to ask yourself, especially when you consider the editing and bringing it in on a certain length so people don't fall asleep in the aisles. There's so much good material on the digital editing room floor. I understand why people like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg wanted to do something like Band of Brothers after they did Saving Private Ryan, because I totally believe they learned about so many stories that they just had to do it.

Roland Emmerich

Movies.com: Do you tend to leave a lot on the cutting room floor?

Emmerich: No. First of all, I have final cut, so I don't have to test at all. But I do test to kind of calm the studio. I'll do friends and family screenings and invite like 30 of my friends – and I think I have great friends who give me a lot of criticism – so by the time I test on a big audience, I pretty much know how it'll end. I always try to do it in a way where I time it right so that I could still do something if a test brings up something that I hadn't thought about.

Movies.com: When it comes to unraveling this particular story, how do you walk the line between keeping the mystery and intentionally misleading audiences so you'll have a more dramatic payoff at the end?

[Warning: Mild Spoilers]

Emmerich: I always had a fear to make a biopic. That was always a fear, but I had to delve into his past, otherwise you wouldn't have understood what was happening. Then we had the idea to have the clue in the past, and it's just very late that it comes out that whenever she got a child, she went on recess and then it got placed in some nobleman's house. Then, at the end the big reveal that he is one of these kids too...people don't really see it coming. But it's all about placing things, that South Hampton is his son, he finds out about his son, and that's it. But when it gets revealed that he is one of those kids, too, it hits you like a hammer. It's also because incest is totally taboo here in America, but it is something which happened.

Movies.com: I appreciate that the clues as to what time and characters you're dealing with are hidden in the make-up, particularly with David Thewlis. How did you guys go about making those decisions and structuring the film around them?

Emmerich: It was a whole complicated thing. I had to do so much talking! I've never done so much talking on a film. [laughs] For example, we'd have to explain that David Thewlis is this age, and this age, and this age, and this age. And when he first appears, as his youngest self, and the next moment as his oldest self. So that keeps you grounded.

But I also believe that after a while the audience will realize that it's constantly jumping back. They maybe confused in the first two, and they may wonder what's going on, but then they'll get the gist of it. I had the same kind of feeling the first time I saw 21 Grams. I was totally lost and then somewhere in the middle of the film you go, "Oh, I get it!" And I think that's a strength of a movie, so when people say, "Oh, it's a little confusing..." I say, "Yeah, it is. It's on purpose!" And also, to be honest, this isn't one of my big movies that has to work for a four-quadrant audience. This is for a more adult audience, people who love films and history and care about what the movie says.

Movies.com: So are you moving back to four-quadrant films? Is Foundation next?

Emmerich: Yes, I am, but no, Foundation is not next. I have a script I wrote with the same writer I wrote 2012 with, my old friend Harold, called Singularity. It's a very interesting story which takes place 40 years from now.

Categories: Interviews, In Theaters
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