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Q&A With 'Anonymous' Director Roland Emmerich: We 'Glorify' Shakespeare

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Roland Emmerich knows he's no William Shakespeare, but that's exactly the point. The director behind such catastrophe films as "2012," "Godzilla" and "The Day After Tomorrow" has found himself at the center of a heated academic debate questioning the true authorship of Shakespeare's plays, thanks to his new film "Anonymous," out in theaters this Friday. The theory that Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff propose -- that the works were actually penned by Edward de Vere, 16th Earl of Oxford, in a ploy to overthrow the Elizabethan court -- is just one of many conspiracy theories that have supporters ranging from Mark Twain to veteran Shakespeare actor Derek Jacobi, who appears in the film. "Anonymous" was made for a scant $26 million dollars ("in cash") but looks more like one of Emmerich's large-scale productions with an elaborate set of costumes, theaters and the twisty, cavernous streets of 16th-century England.

Emmerich isn't stuck on convincing everyone that his 130-minute version of the events is real, but he hates that scholars snap at the very idea of resurrecting the authorship issue in the first place.

"There's just this arrogance of the literary establishment to say: 'We know it, we teach it, so shut the fuck up,'" Emmerich sniffed last week at the Sony headquarters in New York, before telling us about using real life as inspiration, the time he wrote a love poem, and why he thinks his new movie glorifies Shakespeare, whoever he may be.

We heard that you initially pitched the project as from an anonymous director? Why?

My first idea was really to do this as anonymous. I thought, my name would only hinder or damage the project, but I very fast learned that "anonymous" would never get the money to do this film. Also, it would be a little gimmicky.

Like you were calling yourself Shakespeare.

Exactly.

You've said that great artists look at their own life for inspiration. How has your own life inspired you to write your specialized oeuvre of disaster films?

I put personal experience in my movies. For example, look at "2012." The whole lead character John Cusak is pretty much my co-writer. I know his ex-wife very well, I know his kids. We just decided to take his story -- we just said, "Okay, you, Harald [Kloser], learned that this happening. What would you do? You would go to your ex-wife, you would grab your kids." I said, "Would you take her new boyfriend?" He said, "Huh, I probably would, because I'm a nice guy." And that’s when he knew how to write these characters.

Sometimes you also make political comments about our society. For instance, in "The Day After Tomorrow" I wanted to show Americans when their country is under fire, they would illegally immigrate into Mexico. What would the Mexicans say? The irony of that. It can go endlessly on. For example, somebody said to me on stage lately, "Were you there when the White House exploded?" I said no, but at that point, there was a lot of frustration with politics in the air. I was frustrated. Somewhat that was a release of that frustration. I remember that was a little bit taboo -- you cannot explode the White House. People saw it, they realized, wow, somebody dared to do it. I'm a little bit of a provacatour, you know.

Also I’m not like writing Shakespeare. But somebody who writes as good and complex as Shakespeare must have lived it. I think the more it lives, the better it works. Look, everybody knows that. The literary establishment wants to make you believe that the sonnets are literary exercises. The sonnets, the poems? They're personal. That's what poems are for. To pour your heart out.

Have you ever written a poem?

Yes, when I was kind of love sick. I was a kid, a teenager. It was very deeply felt, and it was really bad.

Did you read a lot of Shakespeare growing up?

I didn't think about him much. I grew up in Germany. We grew up with Goethe, Schiller and other German writers. Our English teacher felt it was too complex and too difficult to teach us about Shakespeare -- more comedies from other contemporary writers. We even had to perform in one of these stupid things. I first saw Shakespeare in theater in German. They had very good translations. Do you know that the German Shakespeare Society is the oldest one in the world? Older than the English one.

It's a sad fact that kids don’t read much these days. How do you feel about affecting a whole generation of kids who will go watch the film and think they know the real truth -- affecting their opinion about Shakespeare, and bothering their English teachers about it?

I hope they just fall in love with William Shakespeare, the writer. I think we glorify him. We present him in a very fun and involving form. I hope they all run out and rent all of the Shakespeare movies which every year two or three come out. I can only go by myself. I'm now, because I know that there's the authorship question, more interested in William Shakespeare the writer than I was before. And I think a lot of people will be the same. I think think all these professors do a disservice to the writer William Shakespeare because they deny the students or children to learn about this.

Which academics have approached you about the film?

We discussed this in open forum. I discussed this with -- James Shapiro, who wrote the [Times] op-ed piece. Who totally denies that there's even a problem, on stage too, during our debate. But the interesting thing about this man is, he doesn't do it with any other scholar who thinks different than him. We offered it to him several times, and I asked him several times at least the writer John Orloff is there with me. And he didn't allow that either. And that told me a lot about him as a person. You know what I mean? He also sometimes claims certain things which then I then as a scholar cannot dispute, but later I check on it and find out he was totally lying. Just outright lying. It's bizarre. But they also have a lot to lose. He wrote a bestseller about William Shakespeare called "1599" which is one year in the life of this mine which is incredible to read when you all of a sudden realize where did he get all of this stuff from?

So "Anonymous" marked a departure for you in terms of film and subject matter. Are you directing an indie film next?

No. My next film is for Sony again called "Singularity" and it's quite expensive. Sorry Amy!

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