When Welsh actor Rhys Ifans arrived for his first casting meeting with German filmmaker Roland Emmerich, he looked a little bit like a rock star, ‘with wild hair and clothes’. Emmerich asked the actor which role he’d like to play in the director’s forthcoming movie, Anonymous. ‘I expected him to say William Shakespeare, or Ben Jonson,’ recalls Emmerich, ‘so you can imagine my surprise when he said that he wanted to play the Earl of Oxford. I think my casting directors saw the look on my face, because they quickly added, “Rhys does ‘posh’ really well!”’
With Anonymous, the director employs the controversy surrounding the disputed authorship of William Shakespeare’s works to tell a tale of love, murder and betrayal, all of which unfolds against the backdrop of the simmering powder keg that is Elizabethan London.
‘This has been the greatest filmmaking experience of my life,’ enthuses Emmerich, 55, who made his name in the early 1990s with the likes of Universal Soldier and Stargate, before shooting to stardom with Independence Day in 1996. ‘For me, Anonymous was one of those rare movies where everything works. I obsessed about the casting. I found the right cast, 100 per cent. Normally it is 85 per cent, but I gave a couple of people a big chance and they pulled it off.’
With a story unfolding in 16th-century England, Emmerich recruited an almost exclusively British cast, including Ifans, whose character, the Earl of Oxford, is regarded by many as the real author of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. Other established actors include David Thewlis, playing the Queen’s advisor William Cecil, and the sensational mother-daughter pairing of Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson, who both star as Queen Elizabeth I, albeit at different stages of her life. They are joined by a clutch of rising British stars, including Rafe Spall and Jamie Campbell Bower, and young Australian Xavier Samuel.
Emmerich’s most recent movies – The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 10,000 BC (2008) and 2012 (2009) – have all been huge blockbusters, so audiences will be surprised to learn that the director shot Anonymous for roughly one-tenth of the cost of 2012.
The original story idea came to Emmerich earlier this century, when he was searching for a writer to work with him on The Day After Tomorrow. Controversy has raged among scholars of English literature for some time, with many pointing to strong evidence suggesting that William Shakespeare did not in fact write the work that is ascribed to him. One of the theories, accepted by many scholars, is that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was in fact the real author but was prevented from attaching his own name to the works because of his high social standing; writing plays was a lowly pursuit and not considered a worthy pastime for the gentlemen of the age.
Emmerich worked with script writer John Orloff for a number of years, rattling through 20 drafts of the script, one of which ran to 200 pages. ‘It was a really long process – two to three years of constantly writing,’ says the director. ‘I wrote the script for Independence Day in under three weeks and never corrected it, but this was a lot more work.’
Emmerich’s interest in history stretches back to his childhood. Growing up in Germany he read avidly, and once established as a major player in Hollywood, he turned to the American Revolutionary War, shooting The Patriot (2000) with Mel Gibson.
But now that Anonymous is wrapped up, the director will go back to the future once again, starting work on a sci-fi project set 40 years from now. ‘A lot of the work I’m doing right now is coming up with ideas of how to show the world in the future, because in science-fiction films there are always these worlds, like Blade Runner, and they look incredible but they are always very unrealistic. When you look at Paris in 40 years in the future, it will not look so different but it will look different. Cars will be different, advertisements will be different, people will have different gadgets, and it is interesting to do a movie like that.’
He smiles. ‘I feel very excited right now, and especially for Anonymous – I can’t wait for people to see the movie.’
Anonymous is in UAE cinemas now.