Did William Shakespeare really write all those iconic classics? Anonymous screenwriter John Orloff created an entire film that explores that notion. Orloff tells Movie Fanatic exclusively about how, after exhaustive research looking into the mystery, he firmly believes there is no way that William Shakespeare -- an actor and son of illiterates, and the father of children who were also illiterate -- could possibly have written what are considered the greatest works of the English language. And, that is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Orloff met Movie Fanatic at the Toronto Film Festival for an exclusive interview on Anonymous, a film that delves into the mystery that has been swirling for four centuries. The screenwriter also talks about how he hopes after audiences witness Anonymous, they will forever see disaster movie auteur Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012) in a completely new light.
Movie Fanatic: From where did this idea of Shakespeare being a fraud arise?
John Orloff: I first learned of the Shakespeare authorship question in my early twenties. I’d gone to UCLA Film School and I thought that would be a cool film. But I was only 24 years old and I didn’t know how to write something like that. So I didn’t. About five years later, I met my now wife who was an executive at HBO at the time, and she would bring home all these scripts. They tended to be historical, non-fiction based, which was what HBO was making at the time. I read these scripts and I thought, “Wow, these suck. You’re thinking of hiring this writer?” So, I pitched my wife this story. She basically said it would be a very cool script. If it sucks, let’s not show it to anybody. That started a storm of research -- how do you write this into a movie? I wrote it about 15 years ago.
Movie Fanatic: Oh wow.
John Orloff: But… then Shakespeare in Love came out and the script was dead. Nobody was going to make a second Shakespeare movie. One day I was sitting in Roland Emmerich’s office about nine or 10 years ago, we were talking about another project, and he asked me what else I had written. I started pitching him this movie, which was then called Soul of the Age. He said [in Orloff’s best German], “Yeah, yeah, I want to read this script.” I gave it to him and that was the genesis of it.
Movie Fanatic: You must have done so much research…
John Orloff: You have no idea. I didn’t just do research about the Shakespeare authorship question, [I researched] Shakespearean drama strategy, Shakespearean theater in general, biographies on Elizabeth, on the other characters -- steeping myself in Elizabethan history, culture, politics, warfare, everything I could. For me, research is another word for procrastination [laughs]. This was pre-internet too, so that provided another challenge.
Movie Fanatic: Oh, I can imagine.
John Orloff: I actually had to go to libraries and physically take books home and research. It was funny, when we started filming it and I had to do rewrites on the set, it was like, “Oh, cool! The internet! Boom! Answer!”
Movie Fanatic: There are a lot of Shakespeare purists out there, do you ever worry that there will be any kind of backlash to Anonymous?
John Orloff: There is going to be a backlash. I’m not worried about it. I’ve been to dinner parties where people have literally yelled at me and left. This was before the film was even made. People are really emotionally connected to Shakespeare. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as the movie has gotten people’s attention. I think it has to do with our education. Everybody reads Shakespeare. We don’t all read Catcher in the Rye. We don’t read Moby Dick or these great pieces of American literature. But, we do all read Romeo and Juliet. So, when we start to question Shakespeare and the identity of Shakespeare, the written biography as we’re told of Shakespeare, you are almost questioning someone’s entire foundation of their education. What else isn’t true? I don’t mind that people think Shakespeare wrote the plays. I happen to not think that. I know people are passionate about it. What upsets me is that they don’t know why I don’t think Shakespeare wrote them. They don’t believe that there is any reason to doubt that he wrote all those plays. When in fact, there’s very good reason to doubt Shakespeare wrote the plays. That’s what upsets me more than anything.
Movie Fanatic: But, that’s not a bad thing. Anytime you can open a discussion…
John Orloff: Exactly, at the end of the day, we’re talking about these plays. This film will make people re-read or re-watch the plays and discuss them. They might disagree with my thesis from my research, but at least they’ll be talking about it.
Movie Fanatic: You mentioned being in Roland Emmerich’s office discussing this film. Now that you’ve seen what he’s done with your work, what do you make of this blockbuster director of Independence Day fame and his take on Elizabethan England?
John Orloff: Roland is actually really amazing. I hope this movie makes people think of Roland in a slightly different way. People say, “He’s a B-movie maker. He makes B-movies.” No, he doesn’t. There’s a reason his disaster movies make $800 million and somebody else’s disaster makes $50 million. We collaborated quite a bit on the script because when Roland said he wanted to read my script, he bought it from me. Then, he went away to make another movie and came back with all this research that he had done. He had an idea about what to do with my script. And it was a good idea, which was a good sign to me that he got it. It’s not a crazy idea to give Roland my baby. He’s done his own research and come back with a great (expletive) idea. He’s on the same path I am. That started a multi-year collaboration of many drafts under Roland’s direction -- like 20 drafts. That was hard to do, and required a lot of work. Then, I was lucky enough to be invited to be on the set for the whole shoot. I got to see him direct. I’ve seen a lot of impressive directors direct, who I won’t name right now. And Roland is the best. I was just amazed by his technical and artistic knowledge, his enthusiasm, his good mood 24 hours a day. The crew loved him, the actors loved him. I really think people will think of him as a different filmmaker after this film.