LOS ANGELES — Whatever you say about Russell Crowe’s up-with-people campaign against unresponsive, property-grabbing government in “Robin Hood,” don’t suggest to its makers that the historical epic is the first tea party movie. “No, no,” says screenwriter Brian Helgeland. “That would not be good.”
For all of its 12th century trappings, Helgeland and director Ridley Scott’s retelling of the mythical English archer story tries to be thematically contemporary. Rather than a steal-from-the rich yeoman, the film’s titular hero is a disillusioned war veteran just back from a distant, violent campaign against Muslims. “We wanted to tell the story of how the myth was created,” says producer Brian Grazer.
Hood’s homeland is ruled by a king with little concern for his subjects, and somebody — maybe that guy who’s so good with bows and arrows? — needs to step up and take the country back. “There’s a very strong destiny story in this,” says Scott, who shot most of the film on British locations, including Sherwood Forest.
Hood and his merry men are far less interested in redistributing the wealth than in making sure King John (Oscar Isaac) focuses on the people in England. King John is in cahoots with a villainous adviser (Mark Strong’s Sir Godfrey purports to be English, but he’s as French as foie gras). “That’s where the heart of this Robin Hood is,” says Helgeland, whose credits include “L.A. Confidential” and “A Knight’s Tale.” “He is trying to give the people a voice.”
But don’t expect Scott, whose “Gladiator” turned Crowe into a global, Oscar-winning star, to focus on shuttle diplomacy. The movie is filled with fighting, including a reverse D-Day landing by the French on England’s shores that casts Hood as a battlefield strategist in the mold of Eisenhower. “The biggest challenge,” Scott says of some of the film’s inventions, “is how can we be original? Because if you don’t, it becomes cliche.”
Even with so many horses and quivers and lances, “Robin Hood” also aims to have something for women. And that’s where Maid Marian (Cate Blanchett) comes in. Her husband has been killed and she might need someone to help around the house — maybe that guy who’s so good with bows and arrows? “You have to remember,” Scott says, “that you have to be romantic.”
“Robin Hood” had any number of starts and stops — once delayed by a screenwriters’ strike, and star Crowe, who had just played a portly journalist in “State of Play,” needed to get into fighting shape for his starring role. Originally set for release last November, “Robin Hood” will now premiere May 14 — one week after the behemoth “Iron Man 2.”
Helgeland says he came onto the movie when Scott was looking for revisions to a screenplay by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris (“Kung Fu Panda,” “Bulletproof Monk”) that had been much more focused as an old-fashioned “CSI” story about the Sheriff of Nottingham (the film’s original title was “Nottingham”) and less focused on Robin Longstride, as Crowe’s character is called in the finished film. (Played by “Price & Prejudice’s” Matthew Macfadyen, the sheriff is scarcely in the movie now.)
Helgeland had written a script about Cortez called “The Serpent and the Eagle,” with Ron Howard penciled in to direct, but the wheels came off the project when Mel Gibson made “Apocalypto.” Apparently there was only so much room for a drama about the conquest.
“Ridley really liked it, but wasn’t ultimately interested in directing it,” Helgeland says of his Cortez screenplay. Specifically, Scott admired how Helgeland had taken a historical figure and brought him to life; he wanted Helgeland to do the same in “Robin Hood.”
“There’s a legendary DNA about Robin Hood that’s in everyone’s bones,” Scott says. “They know who he is.” The challenge, he says, was to reinvent the character — and who better to do that than Crowe, Scott’s star in “Gladiator,” “A Good Year,” “Body of Lies” and “American Gangster.”
“He likes to do accents,” Scott says of his frequent collaborator. “He likes to put on weight. He likes to lose weight. And I kind of like that passion.”