Richard III | Notes
Ian McKellen first became intrigued with the idea of bringing a new interpretation of RICHARD III to the screen while still thrilling theatre audiences with his performance in the Royal National Theatre's world tour of the play. "I've spent most of my acting career in the theatre," McKellen notes. "I want as many people as possible to be put in touch with Shakespeare, whose characters and stories can be shown to be as relevant to our lives today as they were to the audiences who first saw them 400 years ago. I wanted to make a Shakespeare film that could be accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and it seems we have achieved that with this film."
As the theatre tour came to a close in Los Angeles, McKellen completed the screenplay, his first. Executive producer Ellen Little of First Look Pictures also took an active part in the development of McKellen's vision for this unique film version of one of Shakespeare's most challenging plays. McKellen later met Stephen Bayly and Lisa Katselas Paré, the producers who helped bring the film to fruition.
The choice of Richard Loncraine as director was pivotal. Many directors come to film adaptations of Shakespeare after having staged the play in the theatre. Loncraine, however, has had little connection to the theatre and, while he had great respect for Shakespeare, did not have a self-limiting reverence. As a result, he brought to the project not only an abounding energy, but a sense of innovation as a filmmaker.
Recognizing the limitations associated with bringing classic literature to the screen, Loncraine wanted to reach beyond the standard core audience for Shakespeare. He admits, "When my wife, who is better read than I, suggests we go and see a Shakespeare play or film, my response is, 'what else is playing?.' I want to get over the 'what else is playing?' syndrome with this film. We should be able to reach the likes of me. I'm an educated film director, yet I've been nervous about going to see Shakespeare. But what I discovered is that Shakespeare wrote with a roller coaster of imagery, and I believe if he lived today, he'd be writing screenplays. To me, this film is a terrific story with great actors, and it should just be an exciting evening out."
The director collaborated with McKellen on what would be the final version of the screenplay. The combustion between McKellen, an actor with a profound knowledge of Shakespeare, and the visually dynamic Loncraine, has produced a version of RICHARD III which sets Shakespeare's words in a context that is modern and recognizable.
Their film of Shakespeare's most famous villain—the conquering hero turned ruthless power monger, who creates hell in peacetime when he sets his sights on the throne—takes place in an imaginary Europe of the 1930s. It embraces all the richness of style and music of the period, as well as the political overtones of rising tyranny in that era.
On stage, RICHARD III is a fast-moving play that revolves around its central character; however, it also has some forty-five subsidiary characters and can run for well over three hours! To pare the text down to a hundred minutes, simplification and clarification were in order. Some characters were merged or dropped, while the presence of others was more fully developed.
Ian McKellen reprises his widely acclaimed stage performance in the title role of Richard. In translating his portrayal from the intimacy of the stage to the two-dimensional big screen, the actor maintains one important—and often humorous—device. Looking directly into the eye of the camera, McKellen confides his machinations to the audience, making them Richard's confidants and drawing them directly into the drama.
"Richard, the consummate liar, always speaks the truth to the audience, but only to them," McKellen emphasizes. "That is meant to be disarming for an audience, because they alone are privy to what he intends to do, and they become accomplices to his schemes."
Surrounding McKellen in the cast are some of today's most honored stage and screen actors from both sides of the Atlantic. The American contingent is headed up by Academy Award nominees Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth and Robert Downey, Jr. as her brother, Rivers. And, in a departure from most Shakespearean dramas, their characters are distinctly—and intentionally—portrayed as Americans. McKellen offers, "I wanted Queen Elizabeth and her brother to be played as Americans for several reasons. In the original story, they are strangers to the social camp of the King and Richard. A modern equivalent for the 1930s setting seemed to me in contrasting the British royals with a couple of Americans whose manners and voices are different, and of whom the Brits would be suspicious."
McKellen adds, "Far too often American actors copy an English accent in order to do Shakespeare. That really is such a pity because Shakespeare's own accent was probably closer to a North American one than to a modern English accent."
Executive producer Ellen Little points out a somewhat more chilling historical foundation for the Americanization of Elizabeth. In fact, England in the 1930s came within a hairsbreadth of having an American-born Queen at the side of a King who might have had dictatorial ambitions.
Little explains, "There is a strong parallel to Wallis Warfield Simpson, for whom Edward VIII abdicated the throne in the 1930s. It is commonly known that, upon his abdication, Edward visited Adolf Hitler, and that one of his best friends was Sir Oswald Mosley, the head of England's Fascist party. Intelligence reports only now being published show that, had Hitler conquered England, he might have put Edward back on the throne."
Acclaimed American leading lady Annette Bening stars as Queen Elizabeth, who sees the destruction of her family in Richard's ambitions.
"I read the screenplay and just loved it," Bening recalls. "It was that gut-level connection that you feel for a piece of material and know it's something you want to do."
She adds, "I think any time Shakespeare's done out of its own period, the task is the same: how to make the story vibrant, alive and emotionally interesting. It was so exciting to be among this group of actors because they know how to make the text personal. Even though it's Shakespeare, it's about brothers and wives, and sons and mothers and how those relationships work."
The actress also enjoyed playing a woman who is not duped by Richard's charms. "The strength of this story is Richard himself and his wonderful Machiavellian machinations. But, as Queen Elizabeth, I get to be the one who confronts him, who beats him at his own game."
Starring in his first Shakespearean production, Robert Downey, Jr. plays the Queen's brother, Rivers, and found that the project presented issues that are timeless. "It has treachery, murder, power struggles, a little debauchery, and, finally, evil not triumphing at the end of the day. These are really old themes, yet they can easily be transposed to modern-day stories, and I think setting RICHARD III in the 1930s makes it so much more tangible for today's audience members."
The project also attracted a virtual who's who of British stage and screen stars to complete the main cast. Jim Broadbent stars as Buckingham, Richard's willing accomplice, who becomes his unwitting victim. Nigel Hawthorne appears as Clarence, Richard's trusting brother, who does not learn of his sibling's duplicity until it is too late. Kristin Scott Thomas is Lady Anne, the widow of the young prince murdered by Richard, who becomes a testament to Richard's profound charms.
McKellen was especially delighted that Dame Maggie Smith joined the cast as Richard's mother, the Duchess of York. "It was a thrill for me just to be on the same set as Maggie. I've only worked with her once before on stage. She came to this project with the same enthusiasm that all the actors did."
In addition to making the story more accessible to a modern-day audience, Richard Loncraine notes that there were other advantages to setting the story in the 1930s. "It's a wonderful period visually—the clothes, the cars, the architecture are marvelous."
The filmmakers drew on elements they liked about the look of the thirties as they really were and used them as keys. The costumes, for example, were very specific to 1936. Costume designer Shuna Harwood first scoured the vintage clothing stores of London and Paris for 1930s originals.
Doing Shakespeare in contemporary wardrobe was familiar to McKellen, who asserts, "I've always done his plays in modern dress. If you put the characters in the sort of clothes we might still wear today, it's one way of showing an audience that Shakespeare is not old-fashioned.
"It's also very important to sort out all the characters if we're going to appreciate the parts they play in this power struggle: who's in the church, who's in politics, who's an aristocrat, who's royal, who's in the army, what rank they are in the army... It's very helpful to put people in clothes which tell something about their personalities, their professions and their social standing."
To give RICHARD III a look of heightened reality, Loncraine and production designer Tony Burrough collaborated to find or create settings that would be authentic and yet illusory. "I stylized the film," Loncraine says, "in order to mesh the twentieth century imagery and sixteenth century dialogue and allow people to suspend their disbelief.
We wanted to be brave. We were creating our own world. We were reinventing our own history of the 1930s—our own idea about what might have happened if Britain had been involved in a civil war and then Richard of Gloucester had come to power. We made a conscious decision to find what I would describe as eccentric spaces and turned them into elements of our story."
The list of eccentric spaces is long. Filming took place at over forty locations. St. Cuthbert's Church in London became the palace ballroom where King Edward and Queen Elizabeth dance to "Come Live With Me And Be My Love," a Shakespearean verse given a '30s big band treatment. Most of Richard's "Now is the winter of our discontent..." speech is played in the royal bathroom, actually the Holbein room at historic Strawberry Hill House.
"We decided Victorian Gothic was a nice way of placing Richard's older brother, King Edward, in a traditional context," says Burrough. "The exterior of Edward's Palace is St. Pancras Chambers, the Midland Grand Hotel until 1935 when its facilities ceased to be considered modern enough. When Richard takes over the throne, he moves his power base away from the palace. His headquarters are derivative of Albert Speer's Reichstag or Mussolini's Rome."
The scenes at Richard's headquarters were filmed at the Senate House, the chancellery of London University, with its large expanses of marble. Although designed and built for the University in the '30s, Senate House was occupied by the Ministry of Information throughout World War II and information about Dunkirk and the D-Day landings was broadcast from Beveridge Hall.
Bankside Power Station, a stone's throw from Shakespeare's original Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames, is glimpsed as the ominous Tower. (Bankside has recently been converted as the home of the Tate Gallery art collection.) A deep circular crater, which originally contained a huge gasometer, was the Tower's exercise yard where Clarence reveals his portentous dream. Another abandoned power station, Battersea, served as the location for the climactic battle scenes of RIchard III.
Earls Court Exhibition Center is frequently used for rock concerts and opera but no one has ever shown interest in the bowels of the building. The barren, concrete lower levels provided the behind-the-scenes area of the arena where Richard held a Nuremberg style rally. Soviet and Italian inspired murals proclaiming a new order of prosperity, productivity and full employment decorated the walls of the green room.
Richard's military headquarters were filmed at Steam Town, a train museum at Carnforth in Lancashire. In a touch of irony, the filmmakers utilized a German engine which was originally designed to pull Hitler's train.
Despite the authenticity of the settings, the creative team was determined not to be enslaved to period detail. In several cases, elements were incorporated which weren't necessarily accurate, but looked perfect in the context.
"We've created a completely fictitious world," says Loncraine. "We're saying it's some time, some place, immediately before the last war."
McKellen adds, "There is a wonderful tension in this movie between a history that never happened and what might have happened. Is it credible, could there be such horror going on in such high places? Well, yes: in this century of tyranny, the 1930s is the most recent period of history when it was possible for an English King to rise to a political dictator. When you put this amazing old story in a believable modern setting, it will hopefully raise the hair on the back of your neck, and you won't be able to dismiss it as 'just a movie' or, indeed, as 'just old-fashioned Shakespeare.'"
"The point is that Shakespeare's political insights and what his stories were about still hold true," Loncraine agrees. "It was a great discovery to find you could take his text as it was, edit it down a bit, and what was pertinent 400 years ago is still pertinent today, and probably will be 400 years from now. Jealousy, hate, love, violence...they're all still realities in our world."
McKellen concludes, "I want to say to audiences who are bored at the mere mention of Shakespeare, 'You're about to have a great treat, courtesy of Shakespeare.' And if audiences enjoy it, it will be Shakespeare they are enjoying, not Ian McKellen or Richard Loncraine or Annette Bening or any of us. We are just at the service of this extraordinary storyteller who can spring off the stage onto the cinema screen."
For a more in-depth analysis of making the movie, the published screenplay, with forward and notes by Ian McKellen, with photographs alongside the text, is available from this website.
"The best-organized screenplay ever published" — London Sunday Times