Interview: Michael Almereyda
When Michael Almereyda transposed Hamlet to modern-day, millennial New York, he audaciously set the “mortal coil” soliloquy in the Action aisle of a video store. Sporting a ski cap, Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) considered his options in the wake of his uncle Claudius’s takeover of the family multinational, Denmark Corp. Such embellishments could have come off as arch or affected, but Almereyda’s film demonstrates how surface alterations only crystallize the perpetual resonance of the play’s universal themes.
Fifteen years later the filmmaker returns with Cymbeline, a distinctly unorthodox take on one of Shakespeare’s later, less familiar works. Cymbeline (Ed Harris) is the head of a drug-running Briton motorcycle gang, facing reprisal from the police force if he stops buying their silence. His daughter, Imogen (Dakota Johnson), has secretly married the indigent Posthumus (Penn Badgley), who, banished by Cymbeline, is compelled to wager on his bride’s fidelity by Iachimo (Hawke)—who in turn forges damning evidence through means Shakespeare could have never contrived.
Almereyda’s Cymbeline, which opens theatrically today and played in Film Comment Selects, is set in the United States, complete with modern accouterments (iPhones, Google Maps). His film of pioneering social psychologist Stanley Milgram, Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder, premiered at Sundance in January and garners strong praise from Amy Taubin in our March/April issue. Almereyda spoke with FILM COMMENT about zeroing in on the prickly emotions and drives at work in Shakespeare’s play.
What made you choose to adapt Cymbeline?
Partly because I feel it’s been neglected. There hasn’t been a movie of it to speak of. There’s a BBC production that’s pretty tame and insubstantial. It was done for TV, and it’s more of a filmed performance than a true movie. And there’s a 1913 American silent film, which I didn’t know about until just a few months ago. Twenty minutes of that survive. But in terms of really dealing with the play, taking it on its own terms and also trying to interpret it, I knew no one had done that. It would be fun. And Ethan Hawke agreed. He was the key figure in making it possible to make the film, and between the two of us, we felt it was an opportunity to introduce people to the play—to start from scratch and make an exciting new movie.
How does adapting a lesser-known play differ from working with Hamlet?
It’s very different. But I still tried to approach it step by step, scene by scene, as a collision between contemporary reality and the world that Shakespeare was defining, and to see how those two things talk to each other and intersect. And there are things that feel very resonant in all of Shakespeare’s work, and we were just trying to focus on what was resonant to ourselves. So there’s a whole element of Cymbeline that I cut out or minimized, that has to do with national identity, about the British empire, and that obviously didn’t translate into a version that’s set in America with American actors, with themes that seem particular to the moment.
But Shakespeare anticipated so much and dealt with themes that were timeless. So what drew us in had to do with the relationships between men and women. It’s not as referential, you could say, as Hamlet, but there are still a good many layers to it—of things that get referenced or reflected from Shakespearean tradition. But maybe audiences can’t chuckle as much. There’s a different relationship, it’s true. Different expectations.
What guided your edits of Shakespeare’s text?
I wanted to distill what was most moving to me. And that had to do with the way the men were underestimating the women in their lives, and misjudging them, mistrusting them, and trying to manipulate them. That seemed poignant. As Ethan pointed out, it’s almost like a Neil LaBute play in places. So the edit had to do with what we focused on. And we minimized the epic sweep because it’s a low-budget movie and that wasn’t within the budget. So there’s still a fair bit of violence—the play’s violent—and there’s a fair bit of dissonance between the violence and the black humor. But there’s also a triumphant happy ending that Shakespeare wrote, and that I tried to embrace, and I think we’re pretty true to the play. I don’t think we really deflated or deflected many things that Shakespeare intended. Or who knows what he intended?
Granting the timelessness of Shakespeare’s themes, there’s always some difficulty transposing a Shakespeare play to the modern era. A few points present themselves where you have to confront their illogic in a contemporary framework, and the one that stood out here for me was: why would Posthumus give Iachimo permission, by way of a bet, to seduce his new bride? How does that fit into a recognizable 21st century?
Ethan was very articulate in coming to terms with that. And he said what at first might seem to be clunkiness in the writing may in fact be the point that Shakespeare’s making. That Posthumus’s pride is just the cover for his insecurity, and that there’s a habit that men can have—especially younger men—to either idealize the women in their lives or consider them whores. It’s an either/or, and there’s no middle ground. The messy truth that they might be just as complicated as men is inadmissible. So, since he’s projecting this idea of innocence on Imogen, he’s altogether too ready to accept the worst, and he does. And the speed at which he falls and flips is very human, and it’s a kind of ugly truth. And Penn [Badgley] was able to embrace that. I thought he did a convincing job.
The play has comic-book and fairy-tale elements, but that part of the play points to a psychological truth, I think. I hope it’s not too implausible in the movie, because we meant to take it head-on, and to convey him as a character who goes under, who submits to his worst fear. And fear and death are invoked throughout the text of the play, and they are the enemies, in a way, more than the villains themselves. There are dark currents that rise to the surface of Posthumus, and I felt it was truthful within the context of the story.
It’s a late play for Shakespeare, and it consolidates and perhaps mocks many ingredients of his past works—tropes like exiled princes and sleep potions and characters passing for the opposite sex. Do you see a parodic quality to it?
Yeah, I think it’s pretty much without question, but it’s not merely a self-parody. It’s a way of playing with his materials. It’s like he’s reapplying, re-exploring material that he’s been through before. And also, most movingly to me, there’s an element of forgiveness. There are plot elements and situations that result in death and disaster in the Tragedies, but here Shakespeare rescues people, he allows them to live, he gives them a reprieve. And the theme of the play is redemption and forgiveness, and I find that powerful, and it surely rises beyond parody. But there’s certainly a sense of playfulness, and I hope that’s in the film, too—that there’s a mix of tones, the parody jostling up against a sense of real. Auden has written about the late plays: it’s a world of fairy tales, but it’s also a world that, as it unfolds, you’ll be inclined to cry, because there’s a real sense of emotional connection to the characters even though it’s a fantasy world. I hope to convey something of that in this version.
Was the biker gang context always in your mind?
This was written before the advent of that little show called Sons of Anarchy, which I really haven’t seen. So it’s an embarrassing reflection of my own delusion, my own stubbornness, that I was thinking of Roger Corman movies, Wild Angels, I was thinking of friends of mine who had experience with bikes and bikers, and I wasn’t paying attention to TV. And maybe that’s sinful, but I was rankled when Jupiter tried to retitle the film, but I couldn’t really control it. I was glad that they went back to the original title. I watched half an episode [of Sons of Anarchy] on the back of an airplane seat, and I didn’t think it had much to do with Shakespeare, even though I’ve been told it has a lot to do with Hamlet. And stylistically, the mood, the tone, the look of it, I don’t think has much if anything to do with my movie. I mean, have you spent time with Sons of Anarchy? Did it remind you of Cymbeline?
I haven’t seen it. What your film reminded me of was Knightriders, where Ed Harris plays the leader of a Renaissance Fair bike gang.
I haven’t seen that either, I’m remiss. Yeah, that was like his first movie. George Romero, right? Well, maybe it’ll be on a double bill sometime.
I read an interview with you from around the time Hamlet came out, in which you said you had a number of biopic scripts you were interested in getting made: Nikola Tesla, Amelia Earhart, James Dean, Edgar Allan Poe. What’s the status of those, and why is it more difficult for you to get a biopic made in this climate where the market is flooded with them than to get a Shakespeare film made, which seems a lot more difficult?
They’re both difficult. Biopics tend to be difficult because they’re period, so there’s a whole layer of artifice and money. But I had some luck, you know. I have another movie coming out this year [Experimenter] that’s a biopic, about Stanley Milgram, an experimental psychologist, and the reviews have been heartening. It was at Sundance and I’m very happy with how it turned out, so I gained some courage and dusted off my Amelia Earhart script and I want to make that next. This is not an easy thing to do because you need airplanes that fly and crash, but the key is casting, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to make that movie sooner rather than later.
And I dusted off the first script I ever wrote, and I was startled to find how much it still spoke to me—it’s a biopic about Nikola Tesla. The trick with biopics, obviously, is you focus them. The clichéd biopic, the sprawling biopic where someone’s life is a conventional arc, doesn’t interest me, and probably doesn’t interest many people. But it’s still thrilling how much reality serves up, how many true stories there are—there are lots of great stories to tell.