459) Coriolanus (2011) Dir: Ralph Fiennes Date Released: December 2, 2011 Date Seen: November 1, 2011 Rating: 2.75/5
I conducted an interview with actor and now director Ralph "Inanimated Fucking Object" Fiennes for Vulture. And while I like what ran, there was a bunch of stuff that Fiennes and I talked about that I think is pretty interesting. The discussion basically circled around what I consider to be problematic about Fiennes's thoughtful but over-cautious approach to adapting Shakespeare's source play for film. Still, he's thinking about his creative decisions and he's a very good interview. So check out my entire interview here. And enjoy, youse mugs.
Apart from directing Coriolanus, you’ve recently played Voldemort in the last two Harry Potter films and played Caius Martius in Coriolanus, too. These are two intensely expressive and demanding roles. You must be exhausted! How have the junkets been going?
The junkets have been fine. People have been asking me great questions about doing Coriolanus. But they’re often questions that either need a very glib answer or something more (laughs) involved. So to try to be clear and articulate, sequentially—your brain gets a bit tired. Because you want to make sense and I hear myself rabbiting on. It’s a skill to be coherent, sometimes even about something you’ve made!
Understandable. This is your first directing credit and a Shakespeare play, too, one of his later ones, not one that’s widely performed today, either. What made you feel like you had to direct it?
I think it’s an extremely provocative political fable. People are saying this is especially true considering the demonstrations on Wall Street and the Arab Springs and blah blah blah but it’s always relevant, the crisis of leaderships, the crisis of authority. I think that’s with us all the time. I think it’s an exciting story and to set it on stage is actually quite difficult. In his later plays, Shakespeare gets quite ambitious in the type of worlds he’s asking his audience to imagine, the Roman senates, the marketplaces and streets. These are all things we think are a part of cinema, the scale and the context of the story. You can take a camera to the real place.
And also, film, narrative—it’s about people. And what film can do is get into the face of people, which you can’t on stage. The landscape of the face—what the face of a human being can say is so much. So I sort of think that you get this political fable that’s always relevant and this scale, this war zone and the city and upheaval, the maneuvering of politicians with the public.
But you’ve also got a group of highly-developed characters and an essential relationship with the protagonist with his mother, which is a pivotal relationship for all of us. We’ve all come out of somebody’s womb and that’s an essential entrance we all have to make. That’s what the play explores, this umbilical moment where you’re challenged by this person that gave birth to you. And eventually, the character breaks and has a moment of compassion in his pain. That’s always moved me very much. These are big themes, big ideas that, I think, lend themselves to film.
You mentioned that one of the things that distinguishes filming this adaptation was close-ups. This is striking because the depth of field of the cameras used in your films are usually pretty shallow. It’s very pointedly up close and there’s a lot of negative space around characters’ faces, especially during dialogue scenes. That’s a very forceful aesthetic, one that you use throughout the film. How did you visually block out your shots? Did you storyboard?
We storyboarded a lot of it, yeah. We storyboarded the battle sequences, the opening sequence of the riot at the grain depot…I storyboarded scenes at the end, especially the big death scene was storyboarded. Some stuff I didn’t storyboard but I did work very closely with [cinematographer] Barry Ackyroyd.What I wanted was a sense of immediacy. I didn’t have time for complicated camera set-ups. A lot of the time, I relied very much on Barry’s advice. Some stuff I was very clear about, other stuff I’d say, “Help me here.” The longer lens for close-ups seemed to be very powerful.
Part of the hook to John Logan’s script is that he didn’t update the language of Shakespeare’s play but rather transplanted it into a modern setting. Where you every hesitant about taking such inherently theatrical language and re-setting it into a new medium considering the differences in how your actors might perform?
It’s a hot discussion because what is theatrical language? Hamlet tells the actors in his play within the play to “hold a mirror up to nature.” Some of Shakespeare’s language is overtly heightened and so is incredibly low by standards of normal speech except the vocabulary in the sentence structure might not be how we speak today. But what is being said can be said over a cup of coffee, can be said while someone is making an omelet or brushing their teeth. I think that while acting styles change, particularly in terms of film actors’ sense of naturalism has over time, Shakespeare’s language could work still work.
Brian Cox’s scene with the two tribunes—that’s all played, to my ear, completely naturalistically. That doesn’t seem theatrical. And some of the best performances I’ve seen are by actors that are incredibly natural. Although I would qualify that by saying it’s thrilling when heightened language can take off into something usually based on a real emotion and really takes off.
We have all these labels about what’s “filmic” and what’s “theatrical” and sometimes it’s interesting to challenge that understanding. There are theater performances I’ve seen that are intensely detailed and naturalistic and not at all what we’d call “theatrical.” And there are films that are, unashamedly, what we’d call “theatrical.”
You’re saying, “What is the truth about this thing, Coriolanus—what is it about?” I wanted to be immediate, accessible, a modern world where the audience can say, “Oh, I get it, this is a marketplace, this is a TV audience, this is the marketplace, this is the security guy…I get it. I know where I am.” So everything about the visual world, the physical world you’re seeing is, I hope, nothing that you’re struggling with. On top of that, these are people speaking, so they should speak like we speak. There’s a certain skill factor where the actors have to have a sort of specificity of phrasing that the audience needs. It’s a skill that’s as simple as, “I have to hear every word.” I was very obsessed with clarity, which should be seemingly effortless (laughs).
I could see that in the scenes with Brian Cox, where the stress on consonants and clear intonation of words was in service of an acting style that’s not necessarily aritificial but not necessarily naturalistic either. It’s sort of a mix of acting styles. Was that your intention?
I don’t know. Where do you see that?
I’m thinking of the scene where Cox is entreating your character to reconsider sacking Rome. Before your character shoos him away, the dialogue that he has is very precise. It’s actually really interesting because it mixes both qualities of what people might normally call naturalistic performances and a theatrical performance.
Hm. I find the labels kind of misleading but I know what you mean. It’s a formal moment; it’s a moment of tension, a high-stakes moment. In those kinds of moments, I think one needs to be clear. It can’t be casual. Whether it’s naturalistic or theatrical—those labels are kind of in the way. I found that scene to be really truthful. Whatever Brian was doing felt very real to me. I forget the line (pauses)—“Martius, Martius, you’re preparing fire for us.” There’s an image there that I think is quite effective.
There’s a truth that I think the actor has to find. I also want you to hear what I’m saying. All I know is, “Will people believe it on the day of shooting?” Yes, absolutely.
Would you say your direction on-set was very intuitive?
Yes, completely. Completely intuitive.
It’s interesting to note that, apart from being the first film that you’ve directed, this is also your second credit as a producer. For such a varied career, it’s strange to think that this is only your second go-around as a producer. Have you ever considered producing before or taking a more active role in the creative process?
The other time I took a producing credit was for my sister’s film, Onegin, which I wasn’t very involved with creatively. So I got an executive-producing credit on that, I think? [Coriolanus] was something I initiated. The real nitty-gritty of producing, the smarts and balls you have to have—I find that very wearying. I was definitely involved in it but I had other people doing the heavy-lifting. I was sort of wheeled in when we did key meetings with financiers and distributors and things like that. I’d like to direct again, for sure. But sometimes the producing credit ends up in your lap because you’re involved. But the real producing is the negotiating and the money talk. That’s never going to be my strength (laughs).
Back to what we were talking about earlier, according to you, there doesn’t seem to be a fundamental difference between styles of performing between stage and film. In light of that, it’s striking that there’s a key plot device in Logan’s script of having a TV station called Fidelis. That’s interesting because you have a device that relays the news to characters both inside the film and to us outside the film. There’s never a question about the veracity of what we’re being told. It’s all assumed to be 100% unmediated truth. Which is kind of fascinating because everything in the play boils down to the shifting winds of the characters’ fortunes. Even within a single scene, people’s opinions of different characters change. But the Fidelis news station is a constant bastion of truth. How did imagine filming these scenes and what do you think is their role in the film?
The television scenes? (pauses) Well, John Logan’s excellent idea is that you have so many discussions about Coriolanus, including messengers reporting things that have happened in the play. They’re a fundamental mechanical device. People come in and say, “This has happened.” I wanted to follow the narrative engine of Shakespeare’s play so you need to have people come in and say, “Martius has done this.” What you need is people responding to news. You think, “Fuck, what’s happening?” But I need them to think, “Oh, we’re fucked.” So what is the best way that can happen?
To be honest, I didn’t ponder the whole nature of the television being the essential truth. That’s what I perceive every day. Something happens: Ghaddafi’s murdered. And we receive it. I think that’s the truth, if I see it on the screen.
By that token, it’s interesting to note that any characters that can be perceived as pundits or tastemakers, like the tribunes, who are voices of the people—there’s no barrier between them and the people. They incite people by being shoulder-to-shoulder with them, like in the scene with the mob.
That mob scene is especially striking. It’s filmed like a gauntlet. Your character meets one character, then meets another one, then another. And those are the individual voices that alternately support you—
How did you imagine filming something like that?
That’s great, that’s a key scene. That scene is fascinating and an exciting challenge. First of all, that scene was one of the things I was keen to revisit because my character has an overt contempt [for the mob], which has a comic effect [when performed] on the stage because it’s so extreme. He’s got to show off his wounds to win the crowd over and he doesn’t want to do it but he knows he’s got to. So one person is meant to challenge him and then another.
It’s interesting how you choose to interpret the people. One person is supposed to be a military veteran so my character sees him and there’s a moment where…I forget the line but Coriolanus goes, “Yes, I will show you my wounds privately, sir.”
Then I cast an older lady, Mona Hammond, a black actress, old lady. I wanted a grandmotherly figure that goes, “You deserve nobly of your country and you do not deserve nobly.” I wanted people with different reactions. It’s very much his POV coming up to her, an older woman’s face saying, “You deserve nobly.” I wanted that to be quite specific, her saying, “You’ve got a good side, you’ve got a bad side.” He then says, “You’re enigma.” He tries to engage her. “What is this question you’re asking me?” Which is brilliant because he’s saying that in just two words: “You’re enigma.” And has a kind of veneer and self-protection in it. Then a young bloke comes over and he tries to engage him. So I’m trying to show different responses to him.
Then he goes into the marketplace. You can’t get that on stage because, again, of our ability to get close-ups and capture the nuances of the face. So he says, “I did this for you, I did that.” So I could then show different people’s reactions. On stage, you can’t show that. You just have to have the people respond as a group. You can’t cut into that scene.
I was just thinking of asking about that—there’s a brief crane shot during that scene. Any other director would have made that crane shot longer. But it’s almost as if you’re reluctant to show the crowd en masse, you’re more interested in seeing them as individuals.
Well, to be honest, sometimes, I look at that shot and think, “It could be half a second longer.” I don’t know.
Were you very hands-on in the editing process?
I was going on a huge learning curve because I’ve never been through the editing process. So I learned to become strong in my opinion as I saw what it was that was [being assembled in post-production]. I had fantastic collaborators but it was basically as simple as, “Oh, that scene works, phew, it makes sense.” And then, having gotten over the relief that it wasn’t a pile of poo, I could then start saying, “Well, we’re missing this.” For example, only by seeing the scene by the grain depot a number of times did I sort of know that I had been effectively seduced by an audience member. I thought the first cut was good. But when I look at everything, I learnt to say to [editor] Nick [Gastor], “That’s a good face,” and “I want this.”
One of the things that I was always conscious of were faces in the crowd. Every face carries a story. So that’s the marketplace scene, where the tribunes are trying to rework the crowd. They’re completely real faces. They’re not actors, they’re people we used on the day. Some are actors and some are not. But their faces are absolutely crucial. And they are the faces of people thinking, “Or should we,” or, “Shouldn’t we,” or, “What should we do?” That not-knowing-ness in the face is really important. You can do that on film.
You said you were eager to pursue other projects as a director. Is there any in particular that you have your eye on?
There’s a few. I’m very interested in this work in progress. Charles Dickens had a relationship with a young actress. It’s actually written about in a book called The Invisible Woman. That, at that moment, is what’s preoccupying as a possible film.