How did you get involved in this project?
Well the story goes like this: I was a moderately successful commercials director, not terribly good probably, but terribly successful. I did quite a few movies, but I was mostly doing commercials. So doing little movies didn’t really interest me, because you’d be asked to do little movies and you’d basically be paying for it yourself. So I wasn’t that interested, probably quite arrogant of me I’m afraid. So my wife and I were driving home from our house in France, and had a few scripts that my agent had sent me, and one of them was Richard III.
Now, I was very afraid of Shakespeare, very intimidated. I was taught badly at school, very intimidated, I thought: “That isn’t for me”. I read it, and it was based on a production directed by Richard Eyre, based in the 1930s, kind of a fascist Richard III. There was this wonderful line, this particular line, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” In the script, he was in a military jeep with the wheels spinning, and of course at that point, a horse would’ve got him out of trouble. And I thought, “Well that’s very clever, if we can do that with that line, I wonder what we could do with the rest of the play”.
I asked to meet Ian (McKellen), and he’s a very modest man, a very, very bright man. We met at his house on the river, and we sat and we got on really well very early on. The script he wrote, it was very good but it was still very theatrical, and that’s not how I saw it. I never saw the stage production so I don’t know what that was like, but I just knew that making it in the 1930s with fascist leaders in Richard III was a wonderful idea, and I was, as I said, very intimidated by Shakespeare, I never studied Shakespeare.
So far every Shakespeare adaptation, every director had studied Shakespeare in university or directed him onstage numerous times. We didn’t have much money; we had £5 million and they don’t give that much money to directors who wouldn’t be able to direct the movie, so I was very lucky to do it. It’s been a love affair after since.
The iPad app that we launched today is a continuation of that idea, meant to make Shakespeare more accessible. We’ve done The Tempest, and we’re planning to do all 37 of his plays. We’re doing Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the end of this year. If the app is successful, we’ll expand it to the rest of his plays, so you can choose any play. We’ll concentrate on the ones most popular in universities and schools. The app is designed not as a replacement to going to the cinema or theatre, but to help you when you get there.
What was the process of production like? Was it any different from other movies?
Hard. Well, on the day of pre-production, the leading lady pulled out from the part, and financing wants stars, so we had to stop production. I was at Shepherd Studios in my office, and Ian came into the studios with a big bunch of flowers to give to the line producer, and I said ‘Ian, don’t give her the flowers, come see me!’, and I told him that the movie had all collapsed. We were all very upset and we got in the car to drive home, and we had a driver, so we were sitting in the back and near to tears.
We’d been working very hard on the movie for over a year. And I said, ‘Ian, how about Annette Bening?’. We’d wanted Annette before but she wasn’t available at the time, but it was six months later and maybe she was available. I happened to have Warren Beatty’s (her husband) number in my Filofax or whatever it was in those days, so I thought ‘let’s give it a ring’. It was 8 o’clock, 9.30 in the morning in Los Angeles time, so I called and it rings and it rings, and I thought, ‘nobody’s going to pick up’. I was about to put down when suddenly, someone picks up the phone and it’s an English voice! It happens to be Warren’s assistant.
He’d parked his car in the parking lot of the house where they live, and he’s walking up through the garden, and he’s passed the little bungalow in the grounds which used to be Warren Beatty’s office 10 years before. And the phone is ringing in this abandoned house, so he opens the door, pushes his way through the abandoned office and there, under a box, is a ringing phone! A phone that was meant to have been cut off that no one knew about anymore, and it’s me on the other line. So he picks up and I said ‘it’s Richard Loncraine’. He happened to be an enormous fan of Ian McKellan, so he said ‘I’ll get the script to Annette today’. Someone had a copy of the script in LA and passed it to her. That was Friday night and by Sunday evening, she said she’d do the movie and we were back on Monday morning!
It was tough in the beginning but it got tougher. We had £5 million to make the movie, which sounds a lot but it was a very lavish film. We started filming but we didn’t really have enough money to carry on. There’d been a miscalculation as to how much money we needed. So after three weeks, we’d been getting telexes, or faxes, saying how wonderful the rushes were in the studio, and the producers were saying ‘it’s wonderful, it’s wonderful’, they’ll give us more money. Three weeks in, the head of the studio came over to see us, and he was very complimentary about everything, so I said, ‘can we have another £2 or £3 million please?’ And he smiled at me and went out of my office, and screamed and shouted and said, ‘the company is going bust, do you think we can give you three more million?’ The completion bond, which is an insurance that the investors’ money will be protected, when the completion bond comes in, it usually means the movie is dreadful. Because they finish the movie, but only what they have to do legally. But they looked at the rushes and said, ‘I’ll give you my fee’, and the producer gave his, and my assistant, who admittedly comes from a rich family, gave £50,000. So we put in £250,000 on the condition that they didn’t take away the movie. It was a real personal investment, I never earned a penny from the film.
We made a gamble, because the producers, who are very lovely people and remain friends, had effectively never made a movie before. When they realised that the film we were making was too ambitious, they said ‘look, we can’t afford to make the film’. So I said, ‘let’s close the film now then’. But they replied that we can’t, we’ve guaranteed our houses to the banks. I said ‘we’ll do our best’. We had a fantastic crew, very talented production designers and everybody was fantastic. We shot for three weeks at a certain level of production, and then the film closed, and normally what would happen is that then they had half the amount of money to spend, because we had to reduce our budget even with all the money we’d put in. But what was interesting was that because they’d set their own personal standard, and they loved the film — I always invite everyone to see the rushes, everyone comes, drivers, anybody — they all realised it was something special, and they managed to maintain the level of their departments. So the costumes didn’t get any worse, and the number of extras somehow arrived, and the effects man just found money from somewhere, or he borrowed and begged. So if we’d started production with the right amount of money, the amount we should have had, we’d have made a much less interesting film. In the end, it was a blessing in disguise.
What was the experience like writing the screenplay with Sir Ian McKellen, who comes from a theatrical background?
It was really good fun. He’s a fantastic writer, and I always tell him that I wish he would write more. Obviously he couldn’t write dialogue, but he’s a very very good writer. We’re working on a couple of projects I hope will come to life one day. It was great. We have quite a close relationship, so I’d say ‘What does this mean, I don’t understand this sentence’ and he’d usually know exactly what it meant. But occasionally, he wouldn’t be too sure, so we’d have to go back to the text, to the books, to the references, and I said to him, ‘Ian, I can’t direct an actor unless I know exactly what emotion, and what the sentence means’. Sometimes it’s obvious, but a lot of the time, in Shakespeare, it’s not obvious what the text means. It’s obvious once you understand the turn of phrase that Shakespeare uses, and it would’ve been obvious to the groundlings in the theatre, but that was 400 years ago and it’s changed. It was a joy working with him.
What were the challenges in meshing modern context with 16th century dialogue?
Well they clash, but they don’t clash as much as some other Shakespearean works. I’m not a Shakespeare expert but Richard is a simpler piece of writing. The Tempest is much more complicated, for example. We tried to make the period language not clash with the things they did. If it was a complex passage of speech, I would get them to mime what was in the speech so that the audience would have another clue as to what the scene was about. In the beginning of the film, the whole opening sequence, with the tank coming through the wall, it was my brief as the director, from Ian, that you’ve got to tell the audience exactly what was going on historically at the time. So what was the context at the time — who was Richard the Third, what was his relationship with the King — but without any text. So that opening sequence that would speak to anybody. We could’ve done it all with a rolling caption but that would be really boring. So we had just two captions, and it’s a piece of drama. It was fun to do. It was hard but it didn’t seem hard, because we enjoyed it. When you enjoy something, it doesn’t seem hard to do.
It’s been more than two decades since the release of the film. Looking back on it, would you have done anything differently, maybe with more money?
Well yes, there’s one thing looking back that I wish I could do, but that’s the only thing I think. To me, the character of Richard seduces everyone in the play. I like the idea that he turns and he talks to the audience. He really seduces the audience as well, even though he’s an evil bastard, you kind of like him. You hate him but he’s fascinating to watch. At the end of the movie, he’s at Battersea Power Station, he’s being chased by the young prince and his army’s been defeated. He’s walking along the girders 300 feet up in the abandoned building. He realises he’s going to be shot, and so he says, ‘If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell’, and he just falls backwards into the fire. He’s saying that line of dialogue to the young prince, but I wanted him to start that dialogue, as he does earlier in the play, to the prince then turn to us, say it, and grab the camera and pull the cameraman over with him into the fire, so we would fall down into the flames with him. We tried it, we did it, but it wasn’t good enough. And I still wish that we could do it, it would’ve been a pretty good ending. It was a pretty good ending anyway, which is kind of arrogant of me to say but it works. It was bizarre, we couldn’t find anything that had the same kind of energy. The thing about Richard was that he relished his own evilness and his own death. He was a true villain in the best sense of the word.
Do you think attitudes towards Shakespeare’s works have changed over the last two decades? How do you think that will affect how your movie will be received by contemporary audiences?
I’m really not a Shakespeare expert, and I don’t see a lot of movies, but the thing about Shakespeare is that he’s a clever enough writer that every generation will find another way of recycling his work. Things change, people get more sophisticated. I think films and theatre move on. When the cinema first came into play, when you wanted someone to move from one room to another, there would usually be a shot of a hand turning a door handle. If not, the audience wouldn’t understand that you were moving to another room. So I think that Shakespeare will always be there, he’s a perennial, and I think the new generation will find another approach. There’s an inherent truth in his writing, and there’s a beauty in the structure of his language that is magic.
If you could choose another Shakespeare play to adapt for the big screen, which one would you choose and why?
The Merchant of Venice, in a flooded New York. It would be wonderful imagery, I hope it doesn’t happen, but a hundred years from now, when the water is 30 feet up in Manhattan, and all the skyscrapers will be abandoned. Just somebody rowing.
BFI PRESENTS RICHARD III: LIVE Q&A with Ian McKellen and Director Richard Loncraine on Thursday 28 April 2016, 7.30PM in Cinemas Nationwide #RichardIII