"Hamlet' was written as a popular tragedy for the masses, but over the centuries it's come to be seen as a work of art for the elite and has lost its connection with the mass audience," says film director Franco Zeffirelli. "I want to return the play to the audience it was written for and want this man to be remembered--and I think people will remember the 'Hamlet' of my film."
Starring Mel Gibson in the title role, Zeffirelli's "Hamlet" is a risky picture on several counts--the most notable being the casting of Gibson. Will audiences who adore Gibson as a 20th-Century action hero accept him in Shakespearean drama?
Zeffirelli, an expansive character who's devoted much of his life to the revitalization of great works of the past, isn't worried--for him, "Hamlet" has been a success on every score. He brought the film in on budget ($10.5 million), his vision of the play comes across as he intended, and he's thrilled with the performance Gibson turned in.
"Audiences might fret about Mel a bit at the beginning," he concedes, during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel, "but he quickly becomes very convincing, and I'm sure he'll attract an audience to this film that otherwise wouldn't see it. Who'd go see 'Hamlet' with a lesser actor? Today you need someone who offers the image young people worship and Mel has that.
"The critics could really harm this film," he adds, "and they must understand one thing: I didn't cast Mel because he's a big star. I chose him because in addition to the admiration I have for his work, I felt it important that people be able to identify with the actor I cast because I'm trying to lure an indifferent generation to 'Hamlet.' Who would've seen my version of "The Taming of the Shrew" in the '60s had it not starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton? Their presence in the film brought a lot of people back to Shakespeare, and that's what I hope to do with Mel."
"Hamlet is the most infuriating, magnificent character ever written," says Zeffirelli. "There's no superstition in Hamlet, nothing of the middle ages, and he was the first dramatic character to deal with the questions that make a modern man's mind so tormented and rich. And, this supreme achievement remains unsurpassed--man has not gone beyond 'To be or not to be,' let's not fool ourselves. No matter what one achieves, finally we all must ask ourselves 'To be or not to be?' It's a question of faith really, a problem we all share, because with what we've been given we can't find God--no one is 100% sure. It's the human condition to be in this darkness of the soul because we don't have the equipment to perceive what's truly around us."
"Hamlet" is the realization of a dream Zeffirelli says he's had for almost 30 years. In 1964, he directed a touring stage production of the play, and in 1980 financing fell through as he was about to mount it at the Ahmanson Theater. Finally, with the aid of producer Dyson Lovell, who's collaborated with Zeffirelli on several projects, backing was secured and the 11-week filming got under way this year on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday.
Interior scenes were shot at England's Shepperton Studios, while exteriors were done at Dover Castle in the south of England.
"We had our ups and downs but mostly it was a really great set," says Glenn Close, who portrays Hamlet's mother. "Franco's a passionate, decisive director who creates an exciting mood, and he has a highly operatic directorial style. He often acts things out as if he were in a silent movie as a way of making himself understood, and though it can be quite funny, it does help you get the gist of what he wants."
"Franco was quite irreverent with the play and not at all frightened of it," says Helena Bonham-Carter, who plays Hamlet's lover Ophelia. "He cut several lines from the play and at first we gasped 'Oh no, you can't do that.' But he was right. He's a very economical director--he knows when just a look will do--and he was disciplined with this piece. He could easily have created big, ornate scenes that existed simply for beauty's sake, but he kept it intimate and sparse. Much of the film takes place in close-ups and there are none of those great, huge scenes Franco's famous for. He just tells the story straight and with a lot of pace."
Economy is not a word that often comes up in connection with Zeffirelli. In fact, most of his work has been marked by an opulence that's attracted a popular following and offended more than a few critics. He's come under particularly heated fire for his lavish productions of opera for the stage, which have elicited accusations of artistic vandalism.
"Critics don't take a kind approach with me because I'm not exactly a creator--I'm a person who assumes the very serious responsibility of reviving incredible masterpieces," says Zeffirelli. "And I promise you, I don't use these opportunities to show how clever I am and approach the material with a humble attitude because I love these great works deeply."
Born in Florence, Italy, in 1924, Zeffirelli credits the city of his childhood as playing the largest role in shaping his sense of aesthetics. "Growing up in Florence I lived with the great myths of culture from the very beginning," he says. An only child, Zeffirelli lost his mother at the age of 6, and recalls that "the death of my mother led me to have a black answer to life very early on. As I opened my eyes, I saw what death can do to you, how it can devastate your illusions."
Following studies in architecture at the University in Florence, Zeffirelli moved to Rome in 1945 to pursue an acting career but instead wound up working as assistant director to Luchino Visconti. In 1953, Zeffirelli directed his first opera for La Scala in Milan, and in 1957, launched his directing career with the small film "Camping." His first major directing effort was "The Taming of the Shrew" in 1967, which was followed by "Romeo and Juliet" in 1968, for which he won a best director Oscar nomination.
For "Hamlet," Zeffirelli felt it important that the film communicate the violence of the Elizabethan age--a consideration that played a role in the casting of Gibson.
"I liked Mel in his early films, then 'Lethal Weapon' prompted me to go back and look at the 'Mad Max' movies, and it was there I saw the qualities I was looking for. Mel had the violence and wildness of Hamlet. One must remember the Elizabethans had a very short time to live--they were explosive characters who burned their own souls and burned those around them."
Using Gibson as the bait to lure audiences into theaters, Zeffirelli believes viewers will have no trouble with Shakespeare's verse once they settle into the film.
"As Shakespeare progressed his language became more and more lean, and though the language in 'Hamlet' is high-strung, it's also quite clear. The language in 'Romeo and Juliet' was much more convoluted and baroque and people had no trouble with that, so I foresee no problem here.
"It may appear the odds are stacked against them, but the classics aren't in danger of disappearing--that will never happen," insists Zeffirelli. "As long as I live, I'll give my blood to keep these great works alive for the new people because I know they need them. Young people today have been abandoned to the planet of the apes, and we must let them know there has been this immense talent before us."