Stoppard Finds the Right Man to Direct His Film

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tom Stoppard breezes into the hotel room that is crammed with telephones and fax machines. His Canadian publicist is urging the world-renowned British playwright to try to squeeze in "just one more interview." Stoppard falls theatrically into a heap at a visitor's feet. "Oh, God, no, not at all," he shouts sarcastically, grabbing the visitor's legs.

The long campaign to launch the film adaptation of his play "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead" began for Stoppard at last year's Venice Film Festival, where he won the top prize, and was still going on last week when he wrapped up a round of interviews in New York and headed west for a blitz of interviews in Los Angeles.

The intercontinental commuting is obviously getting to him, but since he has a lot invested in "Rosencrantz," which marks his debut as a film director, he is more forthcoming than he might otherwise be.

The film is, strictly speaking, more a massive revision of the postmodernist play first performed in 1967 than it is an adaptation. Taking two minor characters from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and thrusting them onto center stage, the play structured itself around some 250 lines liberally borrowed from the Bard. Clearly influenced by Samuel Beckett's earlier "Waiting for Godot" and other self-conscious absurdist drama popular at the time, its irreverent rewriting of a sacrosanct classic made it an instant hit in London and New York, where it won many awards.

Filmed in Yugoslavia, the movie preserves the play's emphasis on language, jokes, and double-talking but, having rewritten Shakespeare, Stoppard has not been shy about rewriting his own play, adding a lot of new and even zanier stage business.

"I didn't feel protective toward the play at all," says Stoppard. "I mean, the play's still there anyway. And there were one or two things that I was quite glad to lose. Also, I've been engaged with the play intermittently in various productions throughout that time. Mainly, it was just an old friend that I could abuse a little bit."

Stoppard, 53, came to direct the film somewhat by chance. After writing the adaptation, he joined producers Michael Brandman and Emanuel Azenberg in interviewing about 20 director candidates.

"I couldn't see why any of them shouldn't do it," he says. "I knew half of them, and some of them were my friends. And somehow, almost in conversation, it began to become clear that it might be a good idea if I did it myself--at least the director wouldn't have to keep wondering what the author meant. It just seemed that I'd be the only person who could treat the play with the necessary disrespect."

Stoppard says surrounding himself with experienced people kept him from feeling too insecure. "The one thing I had sense enough to know was not to try to bluff my way through anything. I wasn't the least bit concerned about my credibility as a director because I had none to lose . . . . It was a small film with big film people working on it. I was in a 'Hamlet' really."

Still, Stoppard found himself relaxing a little too much at times.

"About three weeks into the filming, someone said to me, 'The camera doesn't move a lot in this movie, does it?' And I said, 'Oh my God, that's right, it doesn't!' and I started moving the camera all the time from then on to make up. But then in post-production I realized that when it wasn't supposed to move, it didn't, and when it was supposed to, it sort of did. Once or twice it could have been done differently, but that's true of all films."

In the transposition to the screen, Stoppard has eliminated a lot of dialogue that he felt had lost its zip over the years. In fact, he says that about half the original play is not in the film.

"I think that I was much stricter (this time) about trying to produce things that were engaged with narrative, rather than showing that I could write, which young writers tend to do, bless their little hearts," he says. "And, like any other writer, there are things written 25 years ago that I now find embarrassing."

Interestingly, there's a great deal more Shakespeare in the film than in the original play. "I needed it to provide more continuity to the story. And I perhaps I was braver this time. Perhaps I was more nervous back in 1967 about the conjunction of these two very different languages, I'm not sure. If I had thought about using Shakespeare the way I did (in 1967), I probably would never have written the play. It seems extraordinarily pushy now."

As the original author, he also felt at liberty to add a great deal of material to fit the new medium.

"Let's face it, for better or worse, plays are events in which people are almost continually speaking to each other," Stoppard says. "You speak to the audience through characters. And a film doesn't have to do that. But that doesn't mean it mustn't. People sometimes forget that the old movies they love are called 'talkies.' Because 'Rosencrantz' comes from the stage, and because I've got a notoriety as someone who uses a lot of words . . . there's supposed to be some sort of challenge in making a film of this. I don't think there is. I mean, 'Rosencrantz' ran on Broadway for a year, it's not some esoteric piece, so why wouldn't a cinema audience find it accessible too? So I never had that fear--oh, my God, how do we crack the cinema with this incredibly arcane piece? It's nonsense."

Critics have praised Stoppard's choices for the cast, which features Tim Roth and Gary Oldman in the title roles and Richard Dreyfuss as the enigmatic "Player," the leader of the group of tragedians Hamlet employs for the play-within-the-play. Asked whether Dreyfuss agreed to less than his usual fee, Stoppard bursts out laughing.

"Are you kidding? His usual fee is more than our entire budget!"

The tight budget was apparently felt throughout the production. "I wasn't allowed a lot of takes," Stoppard says. "We only had 38 shooting days, so I was a bit strict with them. I had no experience so I didn't know how long things took myself. Most often, though, we did things in no more than four or five takes."

Perhaps as much for budgetary reasons as for aesthetic ones, the look of the film is severely minimalist.

"I didn't theorize a lot about how it ought to be," Stoppard says. "We just looked around, and liked this and didn't like that. For example, the screenplay opens by the seashore, but we went up and down the bloody Adriatic looking for something as interesting as the bluffs around Lake Ontario in Canada, where we had originally planned on shooting it, and couldn't find anything.

"In the event, that scene took place in a cement quarry in Zagreb. I was quite pleased by the cement quarry, but in the end we don't get to see the seaside. So you start off with some kind of notion about the waves, and the ocean, and the cliffs, and it makes sense, and then you can't get there, so suddenly the cement quarry makes good sense too."

The experience of adapting "Rosencrantz" hasn't convinced Stoppard to change careers, but he doesn't rule out directing another movie.

"Well, I don't want to be a director or anything, but I'd like to write something for cinema instead of for the theater. And if I were to succeed in that, I'd probably like to direct it myself, yes."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°