Inside “Shakespeare In Love”: The Bard’s Romance Hits Blu-Ray

Universal Pictures

All the world may be a stage, but the cheeky tale of Will Shakespeare’s first romance found perfect expression on the screen.

Even though its leading character was a wordsmith who’d penned stories that have remained popular for centuries, “Shakespeare In Love” remains one of the most unlikely candidates to not only have made it to the movie screen but also score with a wide audience and ultimately claim seven Academy Awards, including trophies for stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench and the biggest prize of all, 1998's Best Picture Oscar. As the film makes its bow on Blu-Ray, director John Madden recalls the much ado that the film inspired every step of the way.

So many amazing things conspired to produce "Shakespeare In Love." Where was your entry point with the film?

There was a whole earlier manifestation of the film at Universal: Ed Zwick was going to direct it, and Julia Roberts was supposed to play the part that Gwyneth Paltrow eventually played. But they couldn’t cast the part of Shakespeare to anybody's satisfaction - and God knows it's not an easy part to cast. And so the film folded at that point and languished in turnaround until Harvey Weinstein brought it about five years later. And I don't mind saying that I think a lot of people had been approached – certainly several directors had been approached about directing it, and they were quite nervous, always, I think. There was definitely a view that the film was possibly a very long in-joke. That it was about the theatre, which famously has not found a comfortable birth in films, really, in any way. And I suppose it was right out there, in the sense that it was very outrageously funny but also taking Shakespeare quite seriously at the same time. So I think a lot of people thought, 'Hmm, don't think I'll touch that one,’ and I'm so glad they thought that, because the piece eventually landed in my lap. Harvey had just acquired this film I'd made called 'Mrs. Brown,' and so he certainly thought that's a connection – and it was. Shakespeare had been a part of my life and my world up until that point in quite a big way, and I simply couldn't believe somebody was prepared to make a film like this because I found every single moment of it just hilarious and exquisite and brilliantly absurd and rich.

Finding the perfect Shakespeare was daunting until Joseph Fiennes came along, and then Viola was a role that Gwyneth Paltrow made her own, coming from a strong relationship with Miramax and Harvey Weinstein beforehand. Talk about bringing those two together and finding the chemistry between them.

Well, Gwyneth's an easy story because I knew Gwyneth. I'd auditioned her for the second movie I ever made, which nobody's ever seen, called 'Golden Gate,' and wanted to cast her but was not allowed to by the studio that was making it. They didn't agree with my choice. And I had always remembered her, and that was the very first thing I said to Harvey when he said, 'Do you want to do it?' I said, 'Well, I think Gwyneth should play Viola.’ And he said, 'She doesn't want to do it.' Supposedly because she was offered it right after she'd made 'Emma,’ and she didn't, I think, want to go straight back into costume drama or something. So I was scouring the land on both sides of the Atlantic to find somebody to play her, as well as Shakespeare, and somewhere down that process she became aware of the script again, or aware that I was directing it, and suddenly decided that she was interested in it after all. And I had just not succeeded in finding Shakespeare. I mean, Harvey had all kinds of ideas about actors who he thought should be playing it – very prominent American actors, all of whom, I have to say, were smart enough to know that that was probably a poisoned chalice for an American actor. I knew Joe Fiennes as an actor but his first audition just didn't make a big impact on us. And then when we were just wracking our brains I kept saying, 'I think Joe's just got to be the guy. He felt right. He had a certain kind of quality that others didn't have where he just seemed utterly believable as that character.' So I decided to do another audition with him, and he begged to have the material to work on. I wouldn’t let him have it. I said, 'I don't want you to prepare it. I just want you to come in and work on it with me.' And it was a brilliant audition. And what was completely extraordinary about him, because he didn't play a funny scene before, was his sense of humor. Incredibly adept with the comedy without sacrificing the believability or the romantic kind of core of the character. And that was a trick absolutely nobody could pull off with it. But then, because I had the task of persuading Harvey, and so I thought the way to do that was to bring him and Gwyneth together. And that just clicked immediately. They just matched each other physically so well, and she trusted him immediately. And so that endorsement from her, I think, made a huge difference.

And almost an embarrassment of riches in the rest of the cast. How easily or how difficult was it to get in that lineup? Did everybody just sort of fall into place?

Some actors were very nervous of the material, and others weren't. Judi Dench fit immediately without reading the script – not that that's unusual, because she very seldom does read the script. Geoffrey Rush could not believe his luck when the script arrived in his hands. It took his breath away – he found it so funny and so delicious. Ben Affleck was very keen to have a bash at it and put himself on tape for me, and that was a very counterintuitive piece of casting. But in a lot of ways a perfect piece of casting, because he's just exactly the sort of size and dimension that that part needed. I auditioned more people for that piece, and particularly for Will and Viola, than any other film I've ever auditioned for.

What was the key to keeping it from being, as you said, this extended in-joke, and really finding the magic that was there to make it work onscreen?

[Screenwriter] Tom Stoppard quite openly confesses that when the project came to him, he imagined he was making, as he told me, a Zucker Brothers farce. And I suppose it's true to say that the direction the script moved in was more towards the tone of a Shakespearean comedy, I suppose, and the classic kind of jewels – in that the 'Twelfth Nights,’ the 'As You Like Its, the 'Much Ados' and all of these plays mix a very profound and complex emotional core and a romantic one with some outrageous comedy to please the masses. And that's exactly what Shakespeare was doing – he knew you wouldn't have a hit, the play wouldn't run or float unless the groundlings were kept happy. But the brilliance of what he did was to elevate and penetrate beyond the expectations of both halves of his audience. And so I think the trick was really simply to take Shakespeare seriously, and as irreverent as the piece is, and it's completely irreverent, it also takes his genius seriously, and takes the world that he creates seriously. And I think that open-handedness is what allows the piece its universality, really. You enjoy going from one extreme to the other, but it was exactly that quality that made people nervous about it. I think the key was just letting it be real in the midst of all of that mayhem that was going on.

The film had legs all the way to Oscar night. What was your most vivid memory of that whole experience on the road to the Academy Awards?

Very quickly it seemed that the film had achieved kind of a pretty rare thing of near critical unanimity, and so I think at that point that was pretty memorable. That was a rather sort of startling moment. And the last one, obviously, was the eons-long pause [at the Academy Awards ceremony] before Harrison Ford said 'Shakespeare In Love,' because I think he was perceivably registering his own astonishment that it wasn't 'Saving Private Ryan' – which everybody assumed it would be since Spielberg had just won the Best Director Oscar, and that split between Best Director and Best Film was relatively uncommon then.


"Shakespeare in Love" is available on Blu-ray for the first time now.

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