Ian McKellen on Richard III and Shakespeare on film: 'You can have a wonderful “Shakespeare movie” with hardly any Shakespeare in it all...'

UK-USA 1995

Directed by Richard Loncraine

103 min Digital 15

Playing in the BFI’s Shakespeare on Film Season.

RATING: ★★★★★

Back on the big screen in a new Park Circus digital restoration, and part of the BFI Shakespeare on Film Season, Richard III is looking mighty fine at age 21. A bombastic and zippily-paced adaption of the bard’s epic study of villainy and ambition, this version, originally released in 1995, was adapted by actor Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine from the National Theatre’s stage production by Richard Eyre. It helped make McKellan the international star he is today, he himself admitting it opened up the roles of Magento in X-Men and Gandalf in Lord of the Rings  (though of course he had a long history of film and TV work before).

This take on Richard III is set in a glamorous, alternate history of 1930s England, full of silk and champagne and braided uniforms. A vicious civil war is taking place, one fought with WWII-era submachine guns and tanks, and within the first five minutes a gas mask and trench coat wearing Richard, Duke of Gloucester, has murdered the current besieged King (after driving his tank through the King’s HQ wall) with a pistol. To the sounds of gunshots, the RICHARD III title flashes up on screen as McKellan rips off the gas mask, revealing a sneer under a pencil mustache. The film never deviates from this hyper-stylised tone, and the fact it embraces it so fully makes it all the stronger.

Impressively squeezing the huge play into just two hours (McKellan and Loncraine have claimed only about a quarter of the text is on screen) through bold visuals, vivid set designs and costuming that clearly defines each character and place, and working with actors who deliver the ornate dialogue with comfortable ease, Loncraine gives us a rip-roaring tale of the classic ambitious ruler who could ‘murder while he smiles’. At the heart of the film is the oversized but compelling performance from McKellan, bedecked in regalia that blends British aristocracy with Italian and German fascist pomp, lurching about the place due to his character having a limp and withered arm. Though a disgusting, murdering villain, what makes Richard III so compelling is the way we are given access to his thoughts via to-camera addresses, a very postmodern touch from the bard which survives today in the shape of characters like House of Cards’ Frank Underwood. Through these intimate conversations about his schemes, we the audience become complicit in his deeds, as Richard moves, out of a mix of spite (he is a physically disabled child of his mother’s brood after all), ambition and his own self-hatred, to murder his way through his own family tree to get to the throne. We are both shocked at how far he will go and how brazen his scheming becomes - at one point Richard woos the wife of one of his slaughtered foes in the actual morgue where she mourns - but we also come to understand that an unstable but all-too-human mixture of feelings drive him.

Aside from McKellen, there is a great cast on hand; from Jim Broadbent as Richard’s sycophantic, but increasingly fearful and guilt-addled ally Lord Buckingham, to Nigel Hawthorne as the tragically innocent Duke of Clarence, who even when being knifed to death on Richard’s orders cannot believe his brother would do the deed. The use of London’s many atmospheric and often derelict locations, including the Battersea Power Station, makes the film work well as a time capsule of a bygone era. The costumes are a riot of colour and glamour, and when added to the striking shooting locations, make the film look far more expensive than it actually was (the film was budgeted for about $5m and actually ran out of money in the early stages). Overall, a great way to introduce the unwilling or fearful to the many ways Shakespeare’s classic tales can be told on film.

Director Richard Loncraine and actor, writer and producer Ian McKellen were at the BFI to take part in a post-screening Q&A of the new print of Richard III:

On the translation of Shakespeare from stage to screen.

IM: Well I’d played Richard III for the National Theatre, just a few blocks away from where we are now today actually, directed by Richard Eyre, which I guess makes him “Richard the first” and you [to Loncraine] “Richard the second!”! So I had a lot of the play inside me, including its long speeches: thought we actually had to cut out of lot of the characters and long speeches which link to the play’s past. The last third actually only really makes sense if you know about the history that preceded it. I was stuck with the idea that the audience comes to hear, rather than to see, and that an audience for Richard III would like a lot of talking! But here we are; this is a film. How much the cinema could replace the words was the question. I wasn't at all confident it could be done. But I presented a cut-down version, knowing the play very well and the essentials, to Richard. He looked at it with beady eye of a cinema man! 

RL: I just thought it was still a bit “pros-arch” still [prosenium arch], but I went to see Ian at his house, and instead of showing me the door, he asked me what we could do to fix it. We sat down, talked, and very quickly worked out - well it took months actually -  how to carve up the text. You [to McKellan]handled the text as I knew nothing about it, and I tried to create images that I guess would be…disrespectful in a way. I always thought it needs debagging in a respectful way. I think that’s where the toilet idea came from didn’t it?

IM: When you do that speech [Richard III’s first on-screen address to audience] on stage, it breaks, it starts as a public declaration, then gets very personal, inviting the audience in to the private insides of Richard. Cinematically, to make it a public occasion and then reduce it to the most private place that a man can be, was actually cinematic, but Shakespearean too! You have to give up as a stage actor on the idea that you can make a film of Shakespeare and it'll be just like the play. It won’t. It’s a translation as it were. You don’t have to regret it.

You can have a wonderful “Shakespeare movie” with hardly any Shakespeare in it all: Throne of Blood for example. Because those directors are sympathetic towards Shakespeare they get to the heart of the matter, which is the character, the complications and human nature, which is why Shakespeare has survived all these years.

RL: I was taught Shakespeare really badly at school, I really came out of school thinking Shakespeare wasn't really very good. I was the idiot, not Shakespeare! It took me 38 years, until I met Ian, for me to realise he was a genius. But I felt we had to make it accessible, easy to understand: because I didn’t understand it! I wondered how I could direct actors if I didn’t understand what each scene meant. I had to understand every nuance of what was going on. Sometimes it was not possible. Obviously we couldn’t write Shakespeare, but we did things like create names that would be spoken on screen, like “Prime Minister". Ian cut the text back and back, and I tried to create imagery to extend the story, for example trying to establish the political situation at the start of the play, with the tank driving through the wall.

IM: For the first ten minutes of this movie, nobody speaks, you think it’s going to be a silent movie. I rather like that. I want people to be sitting there wondering “when are these people going to speak”. Then they are ready for Shakespeare! Of course when they get it it starts “Now is the winter of our discontent”. What a great way to begin. I was terribly, terribly aware of the words, and wanting them to come through. So I was very pleased when Richard cast the actors he did. Maggie Smith! In just two speeches: doesn’t she give it the welly it needed!

On the character of Richard III

IM: Some actors have played Richard as if he’s a psychopath, he can’t stop killing people. But he actually only kills one person in this story, and then as a soldier. He issues orders: he tells other people to kill. Thats what tyrants do. This man is not unstable in the sense of a mass murderer. He is after power. He has ambition. He can do this because he doesn’t care. And Maggie Smith, bless her, texted me before this show saying; “stop saying its Richard’s mother that is the source of this”. But if you are born being told you are hateful and horrible, and your mother doesn’t like the look of you, it’s not a good start is it?

On the use of modern sets and clothing:

IM: Why do it in modern dress? Olivier after all had everyone in the accurate costumes for the time in his version.  Because: if you don’t, you might not know who in this story who is in the royal family, and who is just an aristocrat, or who is in the church or the armed forces and their rank - there was no uniform in Shakespeare's times to tell this. Richard is moving amongst them all. He gets on because he has a certain amount of charm.

You don’t have to relate it to the actuality of a history that might have been. It’s not real history. I think Shakespeare knew that. It’s a comment on history. In “modern-ish” dress, you just know who everyone is.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

“Russell Brand...he’s like a phoenix from the ashes,” director Ondi Timoner on making "Brand: A Second Coming"

 The mercurial Russell Brand is the subject of Dig! director Ondi Timoner's new documentary

The mercurial Russell Brand is the subject of Dig! director Ondi Timoner's new documentary

He used to be just a naughty boy, but now he might actually be the messiah. Or, maybe, he is a bit of both. Viewers can make up their own minds about comedian-turned-political revolutionary Russell Brand after catching director Ondi Timoner's (Dig! We Live in Public) documentary Brand: A Second Coming. The film is released in UK cinemas on October 23, having premiered in the country in a gala spot at this year’s London Film Festival. You can read the Smoke Screen 4-star review here.

Timoner only got invited onto the documentary project as a result of Brand being unable to find a director who could shape it into something coherent, even after years of shooting, and she at first simply planned to follow him on his comedy tour Messiah Complex. But over the course of an arduous, strange and fascinating shoot, Brand’s life took a very leftward turn. He broke up with then-wife Katy Perry, abandoned a blossoming Hollywood career, headed back to the UK in an attempt to overthrow the government, and thrashed out a manifesto called Revolution. The unkempt, mercurial comedian, famed for his libertine hijinks and cheeky public stunts, now found himself installed at the head of a political wave and a new icon for younger voters.

Timoner, a director who has twice scooped the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, took some time out from the London Film Festival press circuit to discuss how the shoot took such a sideways turn, the challenges of gaining the trust of the notoriously media-shy Brand, and how the film fits in with her fasciation for “disruptors” of the status quo.

 Ondi Timoner

Ondi Timoner

The film premiered at SXSW festival, since then have you spoken to Russell Brand, has he made peace with the film following his refusal to turn up to the film’s launch event and see it again?

He had seen the film, but he was feeling sick from it. I don’t think he’s made peace with it, no. But he agrees that it was the right move: to make the movie about him. To see the myths, to see how fame plays out through his eyes. To see him be lambasted for trying to step out of that and do something different with his life. I think the journey is inspiring to watch though, and I think he’ll be happy with that. Its tough for him though, as he’s said to me, his life was tough enough to live the first time around.

What do you think about the more recent news that Brand has shut down his Youtube channel The Trews, and wants to spend more time educating himself politically?

I can’t imagine he wont come back to social media, in particular because it is such a powerful tool for organising people and disruptive activity. We couldn’t have the revolution he proposes before the internet, so he needs to use it. 

How did you get involved in the project in the first place, was it through working on the short film Russell Brand’s The Bird?

No, I got involvedbecause of my work on Dig! and We Live in Public, Russell thought I’d be good at dealing with “difficult mavericks”. The film had already been shooting for several years, Oliver Stone originated it, but it was going under a different title called Happiness: which was built around Russell interviewing different people about the concept of happiness. You seen a tiny bit of that in the film: the scenes where he interviews Mike Tyson, David Lynch and others.

Russell never gave up creative control and took it over, he wasn't happy with the way it was going, and went through various directors. At one point even he tried to direct it. So I ended up being sent the film and being asked to save it, and I didn't see a film in there to save really. So I went to a meeting to give them notes on how to make it better, and Russell was at that meeting. He was so magnetic and intelligent, and I didn't really see any of that in the footage. So that was my first hook.

Then I got sent his books and other material; actually I didn’t even really know who Russell was. I knew he was Katy Perry’s boyfriend, but I hadn't seen any of his standup, I hadn't seen Get Him to the Greek, nothing. But I was blown away, and I couldn't believe that here was this really intelligent person, and I’d been thinking of passing on the project.

He pursued me to go to his standup show when I was still on the fence about doing it. I saw him with all his scattered papers and notes about his show Messiah Complex. I saw a person just grappling with the distracting tabloid celebrity cheap fame that he entertained, thinking it would make him happy, versus this immortality that figures from his childhood like Gandhi, like Malcolm X and Che, had attained as they had put something else before themselves. He was trying to figure out who he was going to be, and how it was going to work, even as those icons are being co-opted by pop culture. It was all so disturbing to him, but I thought it was really interesting; I could look at the role of ego and narcissism in people who want to change the world. That was the original concept then, I would watch this play out on stage, start a new movie pulling back the veil on Brand’s creative process, and go out on the road and film Messiah Complex.

I had no idea that he would then move back to London, try to overthrow the government, start The Trews, write his manifesto Revolution. He left the US, he’d just bought a house, Laurence Olivier’s house. I don’t think he’s ever been in it. He left and never went back. Who does that?

 Messiah complex: Russell Brand at work

Messiah complex: Russell Brand at work

Some of Russell Brand’s work did have a political flavour to it though, as your archive footage shows.

Yeah and that made me want to seek out in the trajectory of the man. He comes from a lower middle class from a really common town which he jokingly called ‘the penitentiary of anonymity”: Grays in Essex. But you can see that he is pissed, pissed at the inequality, even back then, but he doesn't have any power, except the power of his winning personality, to cause chaos in the streets, dress up like Jack the Ripper and try to stop a corporation taking over Spitalfields Market and so on. But he had to become famous before he could truly disrupt things. But now he is called a hypocrite for it. I’m not sure even he knows how to balance it out, he could give away all his money, but then he would have no resources to make shit happen.

How did you and Russell Brand work together, and develop trust?

I had to remind him that I wasn’t the paparazzi every day. It was extra challenging as I’d never made a movie about someone as famous before; they have all this armour. They have a way of managing anyone trying to get near them, with kid gloves on.

It took a lot of work to get the filming accomplished; as Russell is someone who doesn’t like to be documented, living his private life. But he knew we were doing good work, and I would keep challenging him, keep showing him that I was listening and that I cared, that I had respect for him.

At first the way that I established trust was by putting up boundaries. Like for example we were supposed to be going travelling, getting shots, and Russell hid from me for several hours. Then I got call from his management saying I could travel with him, but not ask him any questions or film him on the way. So I just didn't show up at the airport. What was the point? I’d already told Russell that the thing I needed to make this work was travel shots! He called later and apologised, he took responsibility for trying to over control things before when filming before me, and now here he was doing it again. I showed him in that moment what I would not waste my time. It wasn't about kissing ass to earn trust.

I did finally get creative control and final cut, when he moved to England and started doing all this disruptive stuff, that meant following him to do all the interviews with his family and friends. I didn't want to leave my child at home to chase Russell around, do all this work, to then have him have final say. Given that there had been four or five directors before, obviously there was a story as to why this thing wasn't getting done. Life is too short for me to put myself in that position, and I already ended up editing thousand of hours of footage outside of what I was getting paid for, I shot the movie, produced it, it’s a lot to take on only to have someone come along and tell you to change the whole thing.

Did he object to anything you wanted to include in the film?

Yes, and I did give a lot. I changed a lot of things for him, out of respect for him and his humanity and our relationship.  There were ethical reasons too, where he felt he was transgressing in the footage, or if it was really, really private. There were some scenes with Katy Perry which were cut too. I just drew the line where he started telling me where to put stuff. I told him; “you win in this film, at the end.”

There is a line Brand speaks where he shouts to a crowd: “I may be a narcissist, but I’m your narcissist”. Your film does engage with the question of where political idealism ends and narcissism begins.

I actually ask him in the film, in that scene in the car: “So you think you’re just better than everyone else?” I think he struggles with that, all the time. I think he knows he’s special. Of course he does! How could you not have the career he has had without being special? He loves chaos, he loves mucking about, disrupting. When shooting, he loved riding his bike and having us run after him, he loved the chase, all that. He's a complete kid in so many ways, but also really, really serious! He can’t stand the fact that he is part of the distraction. He hates that our society is so unequal. But he also is in the one percent. So its this conundrum that he is trapped in. And it is so interesting.

What do you think Russell’s potential is as a disruptive figure? The defeat of Labour in the UK election in May had many questioning his reach. Has he maybe not reached his potential yet? Is that why he has retreated from the public eye recently?

I think he’s thought about that, yeah. He wears his heart on his sleeve in many ways. He said in The Trews after Miliband lost: “Maybe I just don’t have any impact in politics?”  He was very self disparaging. It was eye-opening for him, how much work there was to do. 

We talked once in his tour van, and I wasn't filming at the time, and he said to me that he doesn’t think that artists have ever had any impact on history, meaning he felt he wouldn't be able to. I argued him I totally disagreed with that, and that our commentary was extremely vital to opening people’s eyes and seeing people questioning, holding up a mirror to society. He utterly disagreed. I nicknamed it “the art debate” and I really wanted to include it in the movie. It is interesting to think about the timing of that conversation, as he was about to write the Revolution book, but we had no idea he was! He didn't say anything.

That book was his manifesto, but Russell comes from a very personal place with his humour, and I think he did that again with his book. So he mixed in his personal anecdotes and humour - as he really believes in the power of humour - in with his manifesto. People and critics did not like that. I think the problem was not just he was stepping out of the doc but that he turned it into this gonzo journalism, a self-reflective and slightly narcissistic manifesto. That was the problem. It was painful for him to be criticised so much on that book. He just feels like he can’t win.

But I think that he has the power to really get kids involved in a way that they never were before. He speaks to them, engages with them, he can explain and make politics entertaining. Look at The Trews for example; its great, and for him to think it cant make a difference just because Miliband didn't win, well, that’s not right. Never underestimate Russell Brand, he’s like a phoenix from the ashes.

Brand: A Second Coming played at London Film Festival 2015 and is on general release on October 23.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Interview: Lucy Smee and her Bechdel Test Film Club

  Mildred Pierce,  one of the films screening at the Bechdel Test Film Club

Mildred Pierce, one of the films screening at the Bechdel Test Film Club


The Bechdel Test, to the uninitiated, might sound like something you have to pass before getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time. It is in fact a simple test, named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, that any film viewer can use to check if a film, or any work of fiction, features gender bias. It was introduced in Bechdel's comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For": in a 1985 strip titled "The Rule”, a female character says that she only watches a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:

    1    A film has to have at least two women in it,

    2    Who talk to each other,

    3    About something besides a man.

You may well wonder if such a test would have any use in this progressive 21st century. Take a minute and think back over the last five or so films you watched, then apply the test to them. You might well find yourself coming up with a 100% failure rate. Consider the sad truth that report after report shows that gender bias in the film industries of the US and the UK continues, with women (and other groups) under or mis-represented at all levels in front of and behind the camera. It is with this depressingly persistent situation in mind that film archivist Lucy Smee set up her London-based film club, who’s name honours the original Bechdel Test. It provides, in Smee’s words: “a space where lots of different female experiences are represented.”

“It's been going for a bit over a year now and I'm having a great time running it”, says Smee. “I started it because I felt fed up about the media we consume every day and how women are represented in it. It's also great to meet people from my local area! I like that the film club has become a room full of (mostly) women who talk to each other about things that aren't men.”

When it comes to the film choices, Smee says: “I like the process of researching good films to show that aren't necessarily on Netflix or that aren't shown that often in cinemas, that pass the test. One of the most popular films has been Desert Hearts, which is famous for being the first positive portrayal of a lesbian relationship in film; lesbians in films often die or commit suicide or are punished in some way. “

The club is small, operating usually in New Cross upstairs in a pub, where Smee says: “20-30 people is a good turn out.”  But for the Desert Hearts screening Smee says she got a full house: “It was a full house as someone posted the night on a South London Lesbians forum. I do think this is an example of why the club is popular: it’s a relief to see women being normal and living full lives and having agency, and it's a relief to see something akin to your own experience onscreen. It's not something that queer women get to see much, or women of colour, or trans women for example.”

Smee continues: “Crooklyn (directed by Spike Lee) was another popular screening, and again, the people of colour in the audience spoke afterwards how pleased they were to see something familiar to them onscreen. I do strongly believe it's damaging to your sense of self not to see yourself represented in the media you consume, and it's sad that often people don't realise what they're missing. It just makes me mad that marginalised groups of people have to live this way; not seeing or rarely seeing any aspects of themselves in the media. So I just thought it would be nice if occasionally there was a place where you could!”

The Bechdel Test Film Club will be screening Mildred Pierce on 26 January at 19:30 at The Amersham Arms in London

See more at http://www.bechdeltestfilmclub.com/


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.