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Looking around corners


I phone Michael Almereyda at home in New York. He’s funny and also careful as he speaks, his voice quietly energetic. His photo — which I spot in the New York Times, alongside a piece he wrote about making his movie of Hamlet — reveals that he wears glasses, that he’s young, and even, despite or because of the grainy black-and-whiteness of the newspaper, that he’s a little intense. He’s certainly not afraid of a challenge: in 1992, when he was unable to find conventional (or much) funding, he made a film with an old Fisher Price toy video camera, a Pixel 2000. He transferred his 56-minute pixel-film Another Girl Another Planet to 16mm, and took it round to the festivals, where it won acclaim and prizes, like the Golden Gate at the SF International Festival and notice from the National Society of Film Critics for “expanding the possibilities of experimental film.” Before Hamlet, Almereyda’s best known movie was 1994’s Nadja, a wicked-dry urban vampire comedy starring Elina Lowensohn, Martin Donovan, Suzy Amis, and Peter Fonda as the slayer, Van Helsing.


Almereyda’s Hamlet is speedy and lean, meaning that it’s pared down to bones and then juiced up with extraordinary super 16mm visuals and a pulsing soundtrack that combines contemporary and older musics as well as variously abrupt and interesting noises. I ask the filmmaker first how he conceived this complex mix, which both enhances and changes its verbal and visual poetry.



Michael Almereyda:

It’s great that you ask because no one is noticing the music. The music was crucial in creating a balance of tones, and there are three kinds. One is the score by Carter Burwell [who has scored all the Coen brothers’ movies, as well as Being John Malkovich and Three Kings], which unifies things. There’s source cues, contemporary music and then there’s classical cues, which are used in a way that straddle source and score. A lot of the music was either written for Hamlet over the years or inspired by the play. There’s a piece by Tchaikovsky, written for The Mousetrap, others by Liszt and Gade, and a Nick Cave song called “Hamlet (Pow Pow Pow).”



Cynthia Fuchs:

The music seemed to reinforce and also jumpstart the narrative’s moves back and forth in time.



MA:

That’s a good way of putting it. I wanted to invoke old-fashioned romanticism and contemporary concerns.



CF:

But it’s not only old-fashioned, in that it seems relevant for young viewers: were you thinking about audience?



MA:

I’m not good at that, if I were, I would make more movies. I did have a generational axe to grind in that I wanted to make everyone in the movie younger than is standard for those parts. In every other movie version, it’s strange but the actor playing that part is middle-aged. So if you make Hamlet a young man [Hawke is 29], everyone else gets correspondingly younger, and the relationships make a bit more sense, they’re more immediate. And some of the best comments I’ve had are from young people who hadn’t read Hamlet before or hadn’t felt so charged up about it. But I’ve also had good responses from Shakespeare scholars, so I’ve been lucky to have a good balance.



CF:

The combination of actors is pretty vibrant, their rhythms all complement and conflict, sometimes at the same time.



MA:

They’re great actors in great parts. It was the easiest thing I’ve ever worked on, getting the players: everyone wanted to work with William Shakespeare. The parts are archetypes, they’re so well-known, but everyone can invest themselves.



CF:

Diane Venora, just for one example: how did you think of her for the movie?



MA:

She’s always been one of my favorite actresses ever since I saw her performance in Bird, and I was intrigued why she didn’t work more. I happened to meet her agent, and mentioned this, and she called me the next night. She had played Hamlet and Ophelia, so she knew the play better than anyone else and was always telling us what we were doing wrong.



CF:

Your resident dramaturgue.



MA:

Exactly. And Ethan and I have been friends for a long time and had wanted to work together. He’s unusual in his willingness to take risks.



CF:

The film does a good job of breaking down this conventional nexus, where Hamlet’s youthfulness is part of a supposed inability to make decisions, as well as insanity.



MA:

Ethan and I thought that he didn’t have a problem making decisions, he would make a decision and then he’d reverse himself, which is a very different thing, more truthful to human nature and to the character. We kind of dropped the ball on the madness issue. Hamlet wasn’t mad, he was feigning madness. I mean, he was dangerously depressed, which is a kind of madness, but the whole element of him acting goofy, we downplayed that, or maybe it just eluded us, and stuff that we shot in that direction, we didn’t use. One key figure for Ethan was Kurt Cobain, who wasn’t crazy, but suffered a particular form of depression, or just being overwhelmed with reality. I don’t think you have to be young to feel that. It’s an element of the character that he’s got contradictions and has passionate feelings. So we tried to milk that idea without making him mad.



CF:

And Ophelia has to carry the burden of madness.



MA:

Yes, I think she walks away with the madness prize. But Goethe was one of the first people to say that even if Hamlet’s father hadn’t appeared to him, Hamlet would still be in bad shape. Even if his father hadn’t been killed, there’s something in him that’s full of turmoil and doubt, and would always be looking around corners and reexamining what a lot of people take for granted. You don’t have to be mad to do that. He could be apathetic at one moment and really urgent and passionate the next. We wanted to play more with that, than make him hopping mad.



CF:

The look of the film and your use of New York make his responses feel reasonable.



MA:

Right, the world’s a bit mad. We shot in super-16 and were moving pretty quickly. The DP [John de Borman] is British and was a bit amazed by the city, he hadn’t spent much time there, so I think he was alert to it as a spectacle. A lot of it is a kind of document of what’s available to the eye. It’s a key thing in any movie that the locations are a manifestation of the way your characters are feeling.



CF:

What informed your use of the surveillance technologies?



MA:

A lot of the play is about people spying on each other and being watched and playing parts and being aware of themselves playing parts. And that corresponds to contemporary reality where cameras are on the present and images within images are on the present, at least in the city. So that seemed like a natural way of mirroring things that were going on in Shakespeare’s text.



CF:

How much interacting and story shapeshifting took place on the set? Or did you go in with a strong vision of what you wanted?



MA:

I always try to go in really prepared and then everything changes in the heat of the moment. Everything’s storyboarded and then disaster strikes. Sometimes the disaster’s better than anything you could have planned.



CF:

It makes sense, to me, for the translation of royal court power and anxieties to a corporate, consumer setting. How did you come to that?



MA:

There’s still a class system in the world and in America, people who have things and people who don’t, and people who have things tend to make sure they keep having them and controlling them, and that’s aligned with corporate power, which is such an overarching power that you can’t even attack it without becoming part of it. It simply absorbs any kind of criticism. I don’t know that that’s the most profound aspect of the film but it seemed like a natural way of talking about contemporary power, and it’s aligned with consumer culture, people telling us that the more we buy, or if we buy the right things or wear the right things, we’ll be happy. I don’t think that’s completely divorced from what Shakespeare was talking about, because he was drawing lines between private experience and public experience, and authentic being and inauthentic being, all still a problem, if you’re awake and alive. So, Hamlet sparks a lot of these questions, and we’re just kind of scribbling in the margins sometimes, but I hope the film does also directly address some of those themes, and ideas that are spoken about in the soliloquies.



CF:

Can you say more about what you mean by “authentic being”?



MA:

A lot of Hamlet is about people caught in roles, either as the King and the Queen playing out their state functions, or in contemporary terms, their corporate functions, or Polonius trying to be a father, Hamlet trying to be the good son, and Laertes mirroring that same struggle in a more crude way. Shakespeare, maybe because he started as an actor, or maybe because he saw into human nature more deeply, he understood that a lot of life was about this role-playing and that presumably there’s something separate from that, which you could call authentic. And finding that in the middle of tragic circumstances can be pretty tricky. Hamlet is trying to find himself in the midst of really impossible circumstances, and I think that’s why so many people can relate to him, you don’t have to be a teenager, or a prince, or have your father killed by your uncle who remarries your mother, but somehow that heightens the confusion and the challenge.



CF:

Somehow. And then there’s this romance attached to the idea that if he finds that self, he does so in his dying breath.



MA:

I think he arrives at a kind of peace.



CF:

How did you decide to restage key scenes, like the final duel or “The Mousetrap” as a film?



MA:

Most of it was kind of natural. The duel is probably the hardest and the one I feel least good about, and wanted to reshoot up until the last minute. Contemporary fencing involves a wire linked from the swords through the fencers’ outfits, and a pulley system, so they’re literally linked on the same wire. The electricity that connects them seems like a natural metaphor for the violence that connects them. Shakespeare is incredibly challenging, in that he gave all these characters a chance to die and say goodbye to each other, and in some cases forgive each other, but to really do it justice, you’d need a little more time and money than we had: we were on a roof and it was raining and people were complaining and ready to throw the director off the roof. But everything else, I’m proud of, because it feels very natural and direct and clear.



CF:

What’s an example of something that is particularly direct and clear for you?



MA:

Well, the film within the film. It answers what Shakespeare called for in the play, in that a mirror is being held up to nature: the audience of the movie is watching an audience watch a movie. It’s a hall of mirrors.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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