Putting the plays of William Shakespeare on film always presented something of a challenge. In the nascent days of the silent movies, American filmmakers with limited budgets depicted the Bard’s medieval settings via the alfresco route, often in rather unlikely ways: Bethesda Fountain in New York’s Central Park doubled for Verona in a 1908 “Romeo and Juliet” while a Bronx golf course stood in for Bosworth Field in the 1913 “Richard III.” In the late 1920s and 1930s, sound recording gave the cinema a voice to Shakespeare’s magical language, but expensive and miscast productions of “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” tanked the Bard stock in the Hollywood studios, while a British version of “As You Like It” was, to be cruel, not at all liked.
In the 1940s and 1950s, however, Shakespeare was brought back to the screen with gusto thanks entirely to the bold experiments of Laurence Olivier (with his propagandistic “Henry V” and the darkly Freudian “Hamlet”) and the guerrilla filmmaking of Orson Welles (with his no-budget “Macbeth” and “Othello”). In the past decade, Shakespeare has been stretched, modernized and flayed in a variety of manners, with a share of hits (Ian McKellen as Richard III), oddities (Mel Gibson and Ethan Hawke as Hamlet, Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes as Romeo and Juliet) and atrocities (Kenneth Branagh revamping “Love’s Labour’s Lost” as a 30s RKO musical, then casting actors who cannot sing or dance).
Perhaps the most unlikely player in the Shakespeare cinema orbit is Rhode Island-based filmmaker Richard Griffin. A producer/director for the New England-based cable TV provider Cox Communications, where he co-produces and co-directs the award winning magazine show “Rhode Trip” and directs a monthly hour-long live jazz/blues show called “An Evening at Chan’s,” Griffin has been making short films and an occasional short feature for the past dozen years but never quite secured a position of high recognition. This year, however, Griffin “arrived” with gusto thanks to his extraordinary film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.” Running nearly three hours and filmed in DV on a tiny $12,000 budget, Griffin brilliantly updated Shakespeare’s tale of gore and revenge in ancient Rome to contemporary times, where the machinations are just as grisly despite refinements in wardrobe and decor.
“Titus Andronicus” secured a theatrical run at the prestigious Cable Car Cinema in Providence, Rhode Island (no mean feat for a digital film without a distributor) and gained excellent reviews and smashing box office. Even the Daily Telegraph of London noticed, running a lengthy feature article on the unique production.
Griffin is currently at work on two more Shakespeare films: he is in production on “Macbeth” and pre-production on “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” both originating in Rhode Island. Film Threat caught up with Griffin to check on his unique relationship with that man from Stratford-Upon-Avon.
[ You’ve been making films since 1987, yet “Titus Andronicus” was your first film to gain wide attention. Where have your previous films been shown and are they available for either home video purchase or Internet viewing? ] ^ Two of my early movies “The Death Card” (1988) and “Berenice” (1991) won awards in local festivals, and a few of my later movies are being rented out at Acme Video in Providence, Rhode Island. Most of my early movies are just staying on my shelf where they belong – they’re just not very good – basically just crude sketches.
[ Why “Titus Andronicus,” of all plays? Doesn’t that play have the reputation of being among Shakespeare’s least successful? ] ^ When I was studying Shakespeare in grade school, my English teacher told the class not to read “Titus Andronicus” and used the old “Shakespeare probably didn’t even write it” argument. So, being a rather rebellious teenager, it was the first Shakespeare play I read just for the sheer pleasure of it, and being a teenager I loved it because it was so violent and brutal. Now, at 30, I love it because it’s so violent and brutal, but also because it has a timeless message about how acts of vengeance have no end – and I actually find it to be rather profound, and in rather odd way, strangely touching. There are really are no heroes, just victims and victimizers.
[ What were the challenges involved in adapting this Shakespearean tale of ancient Rome into present-day Rhode Island? ] ^ Oddly enough there was very little problems in making the adaptation work. “Titus Andronicus” has a theme of not only vengeance being an all consuming thing, but also of political corruption – and you don’t know what political corruption is until you’ve lived for a few years in Rhode Island. For such a small state, we are surrounded by little Neros and Cæsars. So, a great deal of working on the adaptation was pretty much automatic writing.
[ How did you feel when you learned that Julie Taymor was doing a film version of the same source? And when her film was released, how do you feel the two films compared with each other? ] ^ Well, I must say I was pretty crushed by the whole thing. It’s like working your a*s off to make a nice little cottage, then having someone build a multimillion dollar mansion right next to it. But, that being said – the reviews were extremely kind, and several pointed out that we tackled the themes of the play in a more down-to-earth fashion. Plus, the fact that her movie was seemingly released by the CIA made matters a little bit more pleasant for us. At least we didn’t spend millions upon millions for what amounted to pretty much a direct-to-video film. We did that with only 12 grand.
[ “Titus Andronicus” had a commercial run in Providence, Rhode Island. Has it played elsewhere? And where can people find it in 2001? ] ^ Right now “Titus Andronicus” is being sent out to just about every film/video festival that will accept us. Hopefully we’ll get some more attention, and along with it, enough money to transfer it to 35mm so we can get it booked in some art houses.
[ You are currently working on two other Shakespeare films, both of which have already been filmed several times: “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Why did you decide to pursue these plays? And how will your versions differ from other film versions of these titles? ] ^ One of the things most directors like about Shakespeare’s plays is the fact that you can mold them to shape your personal vision. My version of “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” will be different from the other versions not just because I wrote the adaptation, but also because of the different qualities that the actors give the material. I think the Orson Welles and Roman Polanski versions of “Macbeth” are masterpieces of cinema – there’s really no comparison – I’m just hoping to tell a good story with a slightly personal twist. As for the reason for selecting these two – “Macbeth” was actually brought to me by Nigel Gore, who played Titus. His theater company, The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theater, was about to do it on stage, and Nigel wanted to see if we could jump into a movie version of it right after it wrapped. So, in many ways, Nigel is the godfather of the picture. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” actually started as a joke I made while we were showing “Titus Andronicus” at the Cable Car Cinema in Providence, but if I told you what the joke was – it would give away what direction we’re taking it in.
[ There has been a small wealth of Shakespeare films in the past few years, coming from Hollywood, London and the US indie scene (not to forget the Oscar winning “Shakespeare in Love,” of course). How do you account for this new-found interest in putting Shakespeare on film?] ^ As hokey as this sounds, I think it just goes back to his timeless themes. There will always be a market for a new version of “Romeo and Juliet”, because there will always be a new generation of young people in love who feel torn apart by an older generation – much as I felt that “Titus Andronicus” reflected what is going on in our world now. It was a brutal planet when Shakespeare first wrote it, and it’s still a brutal planet now – which I think next to cutting about 40 percent of the text out was Julie Taymor’s biggest mistake with “Titus”… she tried to give it a happy ending. I think all it takes is a good look at the Middle East to know the sad truth that when bloodshed is set in motion, it’s impossible to stop it.
[ What is the state of filmmaking in Rhode Island? Has it been a blessing or a problem in creating films in the Ocean State? ] ^ In one way making movies in Rhode Island is a blessing – you have every kind of location you could possibly want within minutes, there are many wonderful theater groups that I can pick and choose actors from, and there are many hard working and talented crew people who haven’t been made cynical about filmmaking like you see in bigger cities. Plus, try getting a cast and crew to work for nothing for months on end in Los Angeles or New York. Ain’t gonna happen.
On the problem side, we have two film commissions who seem to be drooling over big budget films (ever since we had the Farrelly Brothers shoot a few scenes for their movies here, and also because of the television show “Providence”), and giving very little in the way of help to movie makers who are still playing at the two dollar window. But, it’s a small price to pay.
[ You are also in development for a film called “Season of Insanity.” What is this project about? ] ^ “Season of Insanity” is an original screenplay I’ve just finished that’s basically about a gay bashing in a small town and the media circus that follows – but it’s also about pretty much everything that pissed me off in the 90s. It should make for a pretty long movie. It marks the first original screenplay I’ve written since 1996 with a movie called “Dead Gay Porno Actor”…. so I guess every four years I feel the urge to write something about dead gay people.
[ What advice can you provide to anyone who is considering their own film version of a Shakespeare play? ] ^ Two things – don’t change or edit the text too much, and find yourself damn good actors for the roles. Don’t cast your buddy because you think he’s funny, cute or clever. Most of the reviews of “Titus Andronicus” singled out the acting for praise. 99 percent of what’s going to make it work is the play itself, and the performances. As a director I just try to stay the hell out of the way.
Visit the official sites for Richard Griffin’s films and learn more about Titus Andronicus and Macbeth.
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