John Madden Talks Shakespeare in Love

Director John Madden discusses his experiences on the set of this Best Picture Oscar winner, making its Blu-ray debut January 31

Director John Madden had primarily been known as a TV director before making the 1998 Best Picture Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love, which makes its Blu-ray debut January 31. I recently had the chance to speak with this talented director about his experiences on the set of this drama, which features an all-star cast including Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Judi Dench, Colin Firth, and Ben Affleck. Take a look at what he had to say below.

I read there was quite a lengthy development process for this before you came on. Can you talk about the point where you did come on board?

John Madden: Yeah, well, as you know, there was one manifestation of the film, earlier, which was going to be directed by Edward Zwick. Actually, the person who was cast was Julia Roberts, but they didn't have anybody to play Shakespeare. They carried on the search for a long time, but he couldn't find a candidate. That was already in production, I think maybe five years before our production, and that collapsed, even though they had already been building sets and so forth. So that just completely folded, and the project got a price tag around its neck from the amount they'd already spent on production then. Miramax and Harvey Weinstein bought the project in turnaround, from Universal, and, essentially, it all started again, with nobody attached at all. So it was starting from scratch at that moment, really. They had the project for awhile, and a number of directors had been punitively attached. I had an earlier association with Harvey, and I had just gone into business with him again, because he bought Mrs Brown, a film I had made about Queen Victoria. So they sent me the script, and asked if I would be interested, and I said, 'Absolutely, I would.' We started from that point onward, with nobody attached at all. (Screenwriter) Tom Stoppard was there to work on a new draft, and we worked on a new draft together.

Was Tom attached before that, or was it just Marc (Norman)'s draft?

John Madden: No, Tom had done a draft of the screenplay in the original version, because he was under a contract with Universal at that point. He was contracted to do two or three rewrites on other projects, and this was one of the first ones that came to him. The draft I was working from, was, more or less, the draft that they had when the project went down. It was substantially Tom's work, although it was polished by somebody else. We went back to his draft and we started again.

Given all the prior difficulties in casting Shakespeare, can you talk about what you saw in Joseph Fiennes that stuck out for you. Was he ever considered when they were casting the first time?

John Madden: I think he wouldn't have been, because I think he would've been too young. The kind of age range they were looking for at the time was in the Daniel Day-Lewis/Colin Firth range, and Joe is about 10 years younger than that. I told Harvey Weinstein that if I was going to do it, I had to have the ability to read anybody, or audition anybody, regardless of who they were. The material is so specific, and everybody has to know that they can handle the material, including the actor themselves. I carried out, over a six-month period, auditions for both roles. Actually, Joe was one of those in the first round, but I have to say, on the first time, I went past him. His audition was slightly left-field, and I didn't consider him very closely, the first time around. There were a number of people vying for the part, but there really wasn't anybody I was interested in. Somewhere in that process, Gwyneth Paltrow had become involved, after not initially wanting to do it. I think she had been approached about doing it after Emma, but she didn't want to do another costume drama. She became involved, and we sort of reached the same position they reached the first time. I went back with my casting director, and I said, Joe Fiennes just has to be the guy. At that time, Tom and I had started working on the new draft, and we had a couple of scenes that weren't in the original draft, including one with Christopher Marlowe. I called his agent, and said, 'He can come in, but he musn't prepare anything" (Laughs). So I gave him the scenes before we started, and it was just me, him, and the camera operator, and he just completely clicked with it. The scenes were actually very witty and very funny, and he just brought a sparkling kind of natural wit to it. I told the Weinstein's that I had found the guy, and Joe was not known at all, at that point. I brought him together with Gwyneth, and had them read together, and that was very, very good. So that's how that happened.

I also read about how detailed and elaborate the sets were. Can you talk about that attention to detail, and how thorough you had to go in and research the buildings and facilities?

John Madden: We did as much research as we could conceivably do, in terms of the material and information that was available on Shakespeare's life. We re-created that as far as we possibly could, the little room he used to write in, which was above the Rose Theater, and how the staircases worked and the trap doors, and all those kinds of things. We observed that very, very closely, and we built the whole thing out of timbers, some of which have now been pressed into use elsewhere, but the only difference is that it had a scaffolding shell, as a modern building would. Otherwise, it was exactly as you saw. We held them together with pegs instead of screws, to get to the real thing as much as possible. There's not a massive amount of research available, because there's just not that much known about it. Tom put together every piece of information that was known about Shakespeare, into the script.

Can you take us through an average day on the set? There's such a phenomenal cast here, so can you talk a bit about having such an eclectic mix of talent?

John Madden: It was a very odd piece to do, because it was written very small, but there were obviously a lot of very big set pieces. Often, one was dealing with, what I call ribbon scenes, scenes that start at one point, and then hand off to something else. It was the kind of piece where it was very hard to tell whether you had targeted everything correctly. The second thing is, because it mixed comedy with romantic drama together, it was hard to know whether or not you were getting the tone completely right. I think, because Tom's screenplay is very audacious, just like Shakespeare does in his mature comedies. He juxtaposes very, very broad comedy and jokes with very serious emotional circumstances. That's quite confusing, when you're doing it in fragments. I think all these actors arrived very energized in the morning, and felt very unsafe and unsteady at various points throughout the day, particularly the ones who had the comedic parts. I'd have actors like Geoffrey Rush coming up to me and saying, 'Is this funny? I have no idea.' It was only when I started putting it together, that I felt it was buoyant. The more you invested in the humor, the deeper the emotional commitment seemed to become. That's just remarkably, incredibly good writing, and that's true of Shakespeare as well.

Is there anything you can say about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? I see you're also working on Masters & Johnson for Showtime. Is there anything you can say about either of those?

John Madden: Well, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is interesting because it's the project that most resembles Shakespeare in Love in some ways. There are quite a few analogies with it, and I think it's quite a Shakespearean piece. It's an ensemble, it's about a group of people in a suspended circumstance, which was the writing of the play in Shakespeare in Love, and the hotel in an incredibly exotic and foreign place. Different rules apply, and it has a mixture of tones. That's the closest relative, I would say, to Shakespeare in Love, in the work that I've done subsequently, and it reminded me a lot of it. Masters & Johnson, that's a different matter (Laughs). Sex is the only overlap there. It's based on the lives of Masters & Johnson, the sex researchers in the 1960s.

Do you know what you're doing next after Masters & Johnson?

John Madden: There are several projects that are hovering. There's a production of My Fair Lady that is a possibility, and there are two or three others that I am involved with, but I'm not quite sure what will come up to the front, as it were.

What would you like to say to fans Shakespeare in Love, or maybe those who never quite connected with it, about why they should pick up this new Blu-ray?

John Madden: I think it's one of those pieces that, because of a particular way the subject is dealt with, it has a timeless quality to it. It's one of the few movies I've made that doesn't seem to be dated at all. The last time I looked at it, it felt as if I made it six months ago, not 14 years ago. It's really defiantly respectful of its time, and its chosen period, but also defiantly anachronistic. Just as Shakespeare doesn't date, I don't think this dates either. I think there's a treasure trove of things for people to discover, for those coming back to it again, because it never stops yielding its secrets.

Great. That's my time. Thanks so much, John. It was a pleasure talking to you.

John Madden: OK, you too.

You can pick up director John Madden's Shakespeare in Love, which makes its Blu-ray debut January 31.