Total Film Magazine (3/99)

Will, Quills & Bellyaches
By Garth Pearce

A Gwyneth Paltrow rom-com about Elizabethan theatre? Stop yawning at the back: Shakespeare in Love has survived picky starlets, disgruntled directors and five years in Production Hell to become one of the most intelligent comedies of the decade.

No small amount of love has been lost for Shakespeare in Love to reach the screen.

The fruity story of a young and horny William Shakespeare - whose writer's block is removed after a secret affair with society girl Gwyneth Paltrow - has now become the hot Oscar tip.

And off screen, there have been the sort of intrigues and political machinations that any Elizabethan quill-scrawler would give their doublet and hose for.

When it first rolled into production in 1993, the line-up for Shakespeare in Love was very different. Then it was a vehicle for Julia Roberts, still riding high on the success of Pretty Woman and cast as The Bard's lover, with Ed Zwick (Legends of the Fall, Courage Under Fire) as director. The sets were built at Pinewood, the film crew had been hired...and then Roberts pulled out.

The problem? Daniel Day Lewis, her first choice as Shakespeare, had rejected the role. She was offered Ralph Fiennes, but decided against him. She met Colin Firth, but he didn't fit the requirements for the then A-lister. Rufus Sewell was to attend a meeting with Roberts in New York, only to have the invitation withdrawn before he even boarded the plane. Roberts headed for the likes of poop scoopers I Love Trouble and Something to Talk About. Meanwhile, Shakespeare in Love was mothballed.

It was a kick in the codpiece for all concerned. The crew was laid off and the sets dismantled, amid much bitterness. Even in 1995, two years after the project was put on ice, director Zwick admitted: "I still bear wounds in my heart over it. I am not by nature a vindictive person and I do not spend any of my time thinking malign thoughts towards Julia Roberts. But it was her fault. It was all down to the fact that she could not find someone who she believed would be best suited to play opposite her."

Zwick's discontent became open hostility when Miramax bought the film rights from Universal and he was ruled out as director. The helmer sought $10 million in damages against the new producers for allegedly ignoring his rights as a director and producer. The case has since been settled out of court: Zwick now has one of four producer credits on the film, but no artistic involvement.

Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax, rejected another approach to Roberts, who had been the main draw in only one major hit during the intervening years with My Best Friend's Wedding. Instead, Weinstein hired fast-rising 25-year old Paltrow, who has twice delivered immaculate English accents in the Miramax-funded Emma and Sliding Doors. He fixed the budget at a relatively cheap $25 million for the entire shoot: Julia Roberts would have cost half that for her fee alone.

Director John Madden tactfully observes: "Time has moved on and I did not concern myself with the abandoned movie, although I did keep finding out that bits of the set still existed. This could not have been easy for Ed Zwick, because he is so passionate about the film."

Madden simply thinks that he was in the right place at the right time to be picked as director. Harvey Weinstein had just bought distribution rights for Mrs Brown, and was so delighted with Madden's work on that film that he handed him Shakespeare in Love's screenplay, written by Tom Stoppard and Mark Norman.

Madden was bowled over by the script. He recalls: "By the time I had finished page one, I knew that I'd never be offered another script as good. What it meant to me was that I would be able to get virtually every actor I wanted, just by showing them the script. Even the tiniest role has an interesting journey and everyone has something to say."

Geoffrey Rush, the Shine Oscar-winner who comes on like a ruff- collared Arthur Daley as impresario Philip Henslowe, says: "The script had "eat me" on the front page. I was soon belly-laughing when one Elizabethan says to another "Talk prose." Once I started doing research on the real Henslowe - his diaries are available for public reading at Dulwich college - I realised that this part was written so well, because he was a commercial shark. He wanted commercial crap to fill his theatre - not art." This modern sensibility extends to other characters: John Webster is shown as a teen, obsessed with gory theatre scenes. Ten years later, he was writing blood-soaked drama such as The White Devil.

Paltrow, whose star status was needed to sell the film in America and overseas, simply states: "It was the best script I've ever read. In fact I was going to take a break, because I was so burned out after so many films back-to-back, like Sliding Doors and A Perfect Murder. But one of the producers insisted that I read Shakespeare in Love."

There was a surprise for Paltrow's current date Ben Affleck, who plays Ned Alleyn, the star actor of the day. "He based his voice on Simon Callow," she explains. "Then Simon Callow showed up to play one of the parts and he was horrified. He said "I can't do that accent now." But it was too late to change."

Yet despite the A-list draws, the film celebrates British talent, with Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty), Antony Sher (Mrs Brown), Rupert Everett (The Madness of King George), Imelda Staunton (Sense and Sensibility), Martin Clunes (Men Behaving Badly) and Mark Williams (The Fast Show) providing staunch support.

Some have even returned, despite being rejected for the original project: Colin Firth is now cast as Wessex. "I first met Julia and Ed Zwick with a view to playing Will Shakespeare," he admits. "I'm not bitter about being turned down for the part, but a lot of people did lose work as a result. It all left something of a nasty taste."

Fiennes, 28, back in tights after his turn as Robert Dudley (alongside Geoffrey Rush) in rom-com drama Elizabeth, says: "Shakespeare is difficult to pin down. So I had to think: "He is a young guy called Will, looking to make a packet, get his name in lights, secure the rent and ensure his family is looked after, He was my age when he wrote Romeo and Juliet, so I have a feeling for his emotions at the time. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to point towards him having an affair with a woman already betrothed, but I have a feeling that it's probably as close to the truth as we will get."

Dame Judi Dench - now reprising her role as M in the latest Bond The World Is not Enough after her success playing Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown - adds: "I was so taken with the whole thing that they actually gave me the replica of The Rose theatre which was built at Shepperton Studios. I am now paying for it to be stored, want it to be used as a working theatre and am in negotiation for a site. My husband (the actor Michael Williams) said: "You are absolutely mad." But this is what Shakespeare in Love has done to us all."

And as for Julia Roberts, possibly one of the few people on Earth who'll feel like throwing up when - hell, if - she views the film? "I think," says Dench, arching a queenly eyebrow, "that she's going to feel rather frustrated..."


© 1998-2000 Joy of Joseph Fiennes