“I saw (Sir Laurence) Olivier’s ‘Henry V’ in a small movie house. It was built up for me by my parents,” the 48-year-old actor says, sitting in the conference room of a Manhattan hotel. “My mother would put on a record of Olivier doing the speeches of ‘Hamlet.’ That voice led me into my theatrical world – the voice and the music take me back there.”
It instilled a life-long love of the Bard’s work, which ultimately led Fiennes to make his film-directing debut with “Coriolanus,” which opened Dec. 2 in limited release.
“Since I was introduced to it as a boy, I’ve thrilled at it,” he says. “I would hear great actors, like Paul Scofield and Olivier, and I knew I’m not alone. There are people who share this love. There’s something about actors on a stage. I’ve seen Judi Dench make Shakespeare so lucid on stage. Film has a different energy. There can be a tension because dense language on film can be a problem.”
So Fiennes knows that actually luring a movie-going audience into a theater – to see one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known tragedies, no less – is a challenge. It’s not the quality of the writing that’s the problem – rather, it’s the audience’s perception (or misperception) of how difficult it may be to understand.
“I believe Shakespeare and these stories are essential human drama,” he says. “He created extraordinarily three-dimensional characters. You feel they come from him watching human life. He has an extraordinary understanding of the human heart – and the most extraordinary ability with language.
“If an audience hears that it is something they can connect with, if the drama can communicate, despite people being anxious about the language, they’ll get on board. People are shocked and surprised that it’s about them. The tricky thing is the language. Does the language have any traction?”
“Coriolanus” offers a modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s tale of a Roman warrior, Caius Martius (played by Fiennes), who is vilified by the public for serving a regime that keeps food stores from the starving masses during a famine – until he is virtually deified for protecting his country against an invading horde. The war turns him into such a hero that he is proposed for public office – but cannot play the polite political games required to woo those same masses, causing his own downfall and eventual destruction.
“I always felt he was a very alone figure, who was locked into a view of the world,” says Fiennes, who played the role onstage in England and in a touring production that played the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “In the film, that sense of remoteness just got stronger.”
Asked whether Martius is meant to be admired or feared, whether he’s a liberator or a fascist, Fiennes says, “He’s bang in the middle. He’s a tragic hero with a personality disorder. You couldn’t say he’s a villain. There’s no question he’s heroic as a warrior-hero. As soon as it was proposed as a film, the question of sympathy comes up. He’s meant to challenge the audience in terms of empathy. I earmarked places that possibly show his vulnerability at work. I didn’t work at all at softening him. In a way, that’s not helpful.”
As he approached the task of directing his first film, Fiennes recalled other directors he’d worked with – everyone from Steven Spielberg to Neil Jordan to David Cronenberg: “I carried their collaborative spirit forward. But I also think I had a strong sense of what I wanted to do.”
He wanted to give a documentary feel to the battle sequences at the film’s center. For that, he turned to cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and relied on his expertise: “I said, ‘This is my idea.’ And he would tell me how I could do it or would tell me it’s a bad idea. I do think visually but, for a lot of this, I often put the camera in the simplest possible place.”
As an actor, Fiennes is usually on a project for a couple of months before he moves on. But a director lives with a film for a minimum of two years from financing and preproduction to release. It was, Fiennes found, an emotional rollercoaster.
“Initially, there’s the excitement and belief in what could be – and you’re meeting people who can envision the same thing, so that’s a kind of validation,” he says. “Then it’s necessary to continue refining the script – you can get lost doing that. There can be a moment of frustration with continual revising.
“Then you have the thrill of the physical world of the film starting to happen. Shooting is hugely exhilarating. It’s very scary, adrenalized – moments of brilliance mixed with disappointment when I feel I’ve fucked up.
“The first big downer is seeing the rushes. Everything looks like I made a series of errors of judgment. I find it hard to watch my own work, so I’m not able to have a point of view. I feel something like embarrassment. The first month in post-production was a very confusing time because I didn’t know what I had made. But sometimes the thing you’re making tells you, ‘This is what I am,’ in the editing. Then you’ve got the thrill of putting in the sound or the music – and the final mix is a real high.”
In fact, Fiennes – who was also seen this year in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II” – finished the film a year ago. But it was held for a year-end release, though it played at both the Berlin and Toronto film festivals.
“It’s a very weird thing being finished last December but having to wait to lead it out into the world,” he says. “It’s an end-of-year film, I suppose.”Print This Post