John Orloff wrote the screenplay for Anonymous, in theaters Friday, October 28th, the film that questions the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. The film posits the theory of some historians that Edward De Vere wrote the plays and hired William Shakespeare to pose as the author, to keep himself out of trouble with the authorities. Orloff and I got really deep into analyzing the theory when we spoke about the film, and his upcoming Terry Pratchett adaptation.
CraveOnline: There are multiple theories on who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Is this the one you subscribe to?
John Orloff: Yes. Short answer, yes.
And long answer, why this versus the other theories?
Actually first off, it’s the way I was introduced to the real problem to begin with. I’m one of those people who had no idea that there even was a Shakespeare authorship issue. Now I am one but 20 years ago I certainly wasn’t. The way that I learned about it was first learning about Edward De Vere as a possible candidate. So I never even really looked at any other candidate other than Edward De Vere. So once the whole issue was presented to me, it was with De Vere and it just all made sense to me.
Could you have written the screenplay if you didn’t endorse the theory?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I like to think that the movie works as a fine film above and beyond the character named William Shakespeare. If that character were named John Middleton or Robert Greene or Thomas Nash or any other playwright of Elizabethan England that we’re not so familiar with, I would hope the movie still is great and it’s enjoyable and it is fun because I think ultimately, the movie’s not a documentary. It’s not trying to prove to the audience anything. It’s supposed to be a good, fun, interesting story that’s thematically driven and driven by character, not by a conspiracy theory.
How did you find the beginning, middle and end of this story?
About 20 years ago I first learned about the Shakespeare authorship issue and I thought wow, that would be an amazing film. But I was a little intimidated by the subject matter, by the idea of writing dialogue for William Shakespeare, much less proposing that he didn’t write his works. Then in addition, as you might be able to hear, I’m an American, not a Brit. So it just seemed way too intimidating for me to write so I didn’t write it, but it kept on gnawing at me in the back of my brain. About five years later, my then girlfriend/now wife said, “Stop talking about it and just write it.” I was about 29 at that point and I started to do a ton of research, couldn’t figure out how to write it into a movie because it is so complicated and so dense. There are so many ways in. Is it a biopic? Does it take place in the present day as people are trying to discover who wrote the plays? There are all sorts of different ways that you could get your hooks into the story. I couldn’t figure out any one until I started in my research to do a lot of reading about and by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Ben Jonson. What I noticed in Ben Jonson’s writings were that Jonson sort of had this love/hate thing with Shakespeare. Depending upon what you’re reading, he either thinks Shakespeare is a poet ape, a thief, literally a thief stealing other people’s works, or he’s the greatest playwright and poet that ever lived. Those things didn’t seem to be consistent to me. That was my eureka moment which is wow, what if Jonson knows the truth and was talking about two different people. When he’s talking about the greatest poet of all times, he means the writer of the plays. When he’s talking about the poet ape, the thief, he’s talking about the actor. That’s how I figured out how to start the movie.
And then finding the structure of a narrative?
What ended up happening is I wrote that script which was called Soul of the Age about 12-15 years ago. That’s a very different script than the one that was finally shot. Soul of the Age was the script that Roland read and bought, but then he did his own research in the intervening years from when I had written my first draft to when Roland read it, which was five or six years, maybe even eight years. New study had been done about Edward De Vere at Oxford. It’s a very new theory and people are discovering stuff every year. He posited this idea: well, what if we made the movie about the Elizabethan succession problem. Who was going to be king after Elizabeth? Set the movie in that world, which the script was not originally about. The original script had none of that and Elizabeth wasn’t in the script at all that I originally wrote. If she is, it’s one or two very short scenes. That then turned into a two or three year odyssey with Roland where I just kept on rewriting the script over and over and over, trying to figure out this incredibly complex structure. By doing that, by making that story that Roland wanted to do, by inserting the politics which, by the way, I loved the idea, because my favorite things are art and politics. This movie now is about the interplay between art and politics. Ultimately that’s what the movie’s about. It’s not about who wrote the plays. It’s about the relationship between art and politics. So I loved that idea but then, how to execute it was really, really tough. I probably did 20 drafts, literally, just tweaking it and figuring out how many flash forwards, how many flashbacks? Will the audience be able to track it? How long do we see these flashbacks? How much are they weighted in the movie? What do we leave out, what do we keep in? It was a very long process. Do we have Marlowe in the movie at all? Well, there’s drafts where there is no Marlowe. He’s actually dead when most of the things that happen in the movie happen. We sort of push his death back a little bit but then his absence was felt. Here’s this great world and the other great playwright of the time isn’t in the movie, so we brought Marlowe back in. Okay, what do we do about Marlowe’s death? How do we make that part of the movie? Well, we had versions where Shakespeare killed Marlowe and we had versions where Shakespeare didn’t kill Marlowe. The one where Shakespeare kills Marlowe, or at least it’s hinted that Shakespeare killed Marlowe seemed to be the best, so that’s why it’s in the movie. Some people might get very upset at that choice which is clearly a dramatic choice. I don’t really believe that William Shakespeare killed Christopher Marlowe. I think his death is pretty well established, in a pub by other people, but it works very well in our movie. It was a very complicated process with very, very many different choices made, tried and rejected before we ended up with the structure that now exists.
When Shakespeare demands more money, Edward pays him to avoid being exposed. He never even thought about if he didn’t pay him, how could he pass off a new pseudonym? That style is so distinct it could only be one guy.
Oxfordians get very interested in this payment because there is a payment in Oxford’s history where he mentions that he’s paying off somebody and we don’t know why. Oxfordians say that’s the smoking gun and Stratfordians say it has nothing to do with anything. But that actually comes from a bit of history, that beat.
I was thinking Shakespeare had him by the balls. Once he agreed to be the name of the plays, you can’t replace him.
Absolutely, he’s got to do it. It’s an inevitable choice but it’s not a choice that makes him any happier.
Is the ‘Anonymous’ story high Shakespearean drama itself?
It’s attempting to be that. I mean, I would never say it’s Shakespeare. No, of course it’s not Shakespeare but it’s an attempt at mimicking Elizabethan drama. What I mean by that is we have the archetypes of Elizabethan drama. The fool, who happens to be in our movie William Shakespeare. All the archetypes that are in Shakespeare’s plays and the themes are very Shakespearean. Sex, murder, power, fake identities, all of these ideas are in so many of Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, when Roland first presented to me this idea of bringing in the succession issue and discussing the Earl of Southampton as the love child of Elizabeth and Oxford, which I’m not sure I believe as an Oxford, and that theory actually split a lot of Oxfordians. A lot of people who think Oxford wrote the plays don’t think Oxford had a son with Elizabeth. I would say most don’t think that. So that theory that’s presented in the movie, which is called the Prince Tudor Theory is in the movie but I’m not sure even I believe it. But, what I do know is it’s A, possible. It’s not impossible and B, is great drama. Again, that’s what opened up the movie from something that was a little bit more along the lines of something like Amadeus, which my original script was more close to, to something that is as you said a Shakespearean drama, where it is big. It’s bigger than life, these things. We’ve got incest, we’ve got illicit sex, we’ve got all these things that are very, very Shakespearean. So I’d say the movie is a little broad in a Shakespearean way, proudly so.
Even the productions of the plays are crowd pleasing gore fests in ‘Anonymous.’
Absolutely. Well, they were. I think one of the things we all have to remember, no matter who you think the plays were written by, is that they really were crowd pleasers. Now when you go to Shakespeare, you think, “Oh, I’m going to sit five hours being bored to death and I don’t understand half of what they say.” All of those things you might bring to a Shakespeare play. Obviously 400 years ago, it was a totally different thing. This was network TV. This was what people were dying to watch. Whether they could read or write didn’t matter. They could listen, they could hear, they could see the action. When we were staging MacBeth, we talked about it like the first horror film and it should be really f***ing scary when those witches are throwing their stuff into the cauldron. It is a horror movie to this audience and it should be as vibrant and as visceral to that 16th century audience as Halloween movies are to a modern audience.
Is there any explanation for why Edward or whoever actually authored the plays decided to use such a heightened language?
Now you start to get into matters of authorship. It’s a very slippery slope when you try to explain why the writer who wrote these plays did anything. I would like to refrain from doing that because I can’t speak to why his style was the way his style was. I don’t know.
If you were working with Roland 12 years ago, did you always have a sense of the epic scope he’d give the movie?
Well, no. Obviously I’d seen The Patriot which had some amazing epic qualities to it. In fact I would argue that all of his films certainly have an epic quality. They are big movies on big campuses. Interestingly, they all have political undertones. Regardless of that, certainly when we started talking about making this movie, Roland was always talking about figuring out a way to give it a big epic scale, unlike the other Elizabethan dramas we see. Elizabeth is a great movie, Shakespeare in Love is a great movie but they’re extremely tight, small movies. Whereas Anonymous, the scale is just extraordinary mostly because Roland has the knowledge and technology has caught up in a way that both of those things give him an ability as a filmmaker to do things that have not been done before for a period movie.
Are you kind of amazed there is a movie called ‘Anonymous’ coming out in theaters? It’s almost like ‘Untitled.’
Yeah, I mean, we grappled with titles and I think that was Roland’s idea. I think it plays very, very well with the film. It is about anonymity, the film, so I think it’s a fine title.
Were you a Shakespeare fan before you learned of the authorship issue?
Yes, I was. This was around when Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V came out. Ran, a Kurosawa film which is based on King Lear, is maybe one of my favorite films of all time. And like everybody, I’d read it in school and maybe I’d read it a little bit more than the average joe because I found it interesting. So yes, I was definitely interested in Shakespeare, though once I learned of the Shakespeare authorship issue and started reading more, that got me more interested in Shakespeare as a writer. One of the strongest arguments for Edward De Vere as the writer is the plays themselves. What I mean by that is if you think William Shakespeare, the man from Stratford, wrote the plays, you sort of have to say he made everything up. Because there’s nothing in the plays that anybody’s ever been able to find that relates at all to the life of William Shakespeare. So you sort of have to say this guy who’s this incredible genius who not only knew Greek, Latin, French and Italian, he not only was a falconer, he not only was a sailor, he not only was a lawyer, he not only was a musician, he not only was all these things but he also made all this sh** up out of nowhere. But if you look at Edward De Vere’s life, you suddenly see things in his life that are in the plays and are reflected in the plays. Suddenly Hamlet becomes autobiographical. Suddenly Prince Hal is a real person. Suddenly these events that happen in Shakespeare’s plays don’t come out of the ether. They come out of biography. I actually think that that makes those scenes all the more powerful for having come from real human experience, rather than imagination. So I ended up reading a lot more of the plays once I learned about Edward De Vere. I became more interested in Shakespeare’s art as opposed to the biography, just by the fact that I got drawn into the Shakespeare authorship issue.
What is your writing process? Are you a 9 to 5 guy?
No, I wish I were.
Eh, don’t worry about it. I’m not.
Yeah, but I’m always envious of those writers. I’m sort of 40% inspiration, 60% perspiration. I write all through the day off and on, and sometimes even at night off and on, in short bursts mostly.
I’m a late night guy, maybe also dictated by my schedule.
You probably don’t have kids.
I don’t. I look forward to that though. It’ll get me up earlier.
I was a nighttime guy too. It’s the best time to write because there’s no phone calls, everything’s quiet, but you can’t do it when you have kids.
No, although if you hear Robert Rodriguez, he totally changes his body clock to work nights and be up with the kids.
Well, he’s a better man than I. Although there are nights where I work late into the night. I used to write almost always from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. Those are my choice hours but I can’t do that anymore.
I just don’t know how people get up at 6 and be creative. I’m useless that early.
Writing is a mystery. It’s a total mystery to me still and I do it every day.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on an animated movie for Dreamworks based on a Terry Pratchett book. It’s called Truckers.
Has animation become a big aspect of your career too?
It sort of happened. I am a huge science fiction/fantasy nut. When I was a kid I was a geek in science fiction, fantasy and history. What I’ve sort of learned over the years is they’re all very similar because they’re using these alternate universes, whether it’s 16th century England or Ga’Hoole to talk about stuff that is important to us right now. Using the history as sort of a metaphor or a filter lets us examine these universal truths in a way that we might not otherwise be able to. So for me, when I got hired on Legend of the Guardians, I never thought of it as an animated movie even though it obviously was. I always just thought of it as real. Then when Zack, the director, came on board and said they’re going to be photoreal, we’re going to make it look as real as possible, we still stopped talking about it as animated. At Dreamworks it’s kind of the same idea. The movie I’m writing at Dreamworks isn’t like Madagascar or Kung Fu Panda, which are great films but they clearly take place in a nonreality. The film that I’m writing for Dreamworks right now takes place in our universe, our reality. There are no talking animals. There are no exaggerated special effects abilities. It takes place in this world.
Are there people in it?
Very minor. It’s based on this book Truckers which is about a tribe of gnomes that live in a department store. They come out at night when the store is closed and then they go back into the walls and under the floors when the store is opened. So the entire movie is shot from their perspective, two inches above the ground. So yes, there are people in the movie but they’re always seen from this gnome’s perspective. It’s not like the Smurfs movie. In our movie, there’s no interaction between the gnomes and the humans in any dialogue way.
Has Pratchett ever been filmed?
I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure that they haven’t. They might have done a Truckers on the BBC but I’m not even sure they did that. I’ve purposely tried not to look at anything else because we’re doing our own film.
Anand Tucker is directing?
Not who you’d expect.
And his first animated film, probably his first science fiction too.
Yes, but it turns out he’s also really into science fiction and fantasy. In fact, he was going to direct The Golden Compass for a while. He was doing it and then Chris Weitz came back on. He’s also really interested in fantasy and science fiction. He’s a great director, really interested in the human condition. We’ve been working together now about 18 months on this project and it’s just been an incredible joy. It’s just been a blast.
Have you gotten to the point where you have to lose some real gems from the book?
Oh yeah. Dreamworks started developing this project 9 years ago. Anand and I replaced Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, who were developing it just before us. It’s just a hard movie to lick. I don’t know how many drafts had been before I came on board. When I read the book and read the script, I pretty quickly realized that this was a book that was in some ways unfilmable. You really had to make some breaks from the book in order to make it a film. So yes, there are many babies from the wonderful book that are not in the movie.
Were you gratified to see ‘Legend of the Guardians’ make it onto ‘30 Rock?’
Yes, that was hilarious. I actually bumped into Matt Damon one day in L.A. and I don’t know him at all, but I just said, “Thank you for putting me on the cultural neon board by making fun of my movie for the entire f***ing episode.” Yeah, I’m a huge 30 Rock fan so to be the butt of a 30 Rock joke over and over was a great thing.