John Orloff is an acclaimed screenwriter who is quickly proving how adept he is at creating worlds that audiences can lose themselves in. He has the Zack Snyder-directed 3D animated feature Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole in theaters on September 24th, and then Anonymous, a period drama centered on the Shakespeare authorship question, directed by Roland Emmerich, out in the fall of 2011.
Although I spoke to him in an exclusive phone interview for Collider to promote the release of Legend of the Guardians, Orloff also talked in-depth about Anonymous and the approach in making it, as he is also an executive producer on that film. Because there was so much detail on what sounds like a very intricate, multi-layered story, I decided to split the interview in two, starting with what he had to say about Anonymous. Check out what he had to say about that film after the jump, and then check back later this week to read about how he got involved with Legend of the Guardians.
Where did the idea for Anonymous come from and what is that film about?
JOHN ORLOFF: That script was actually the first script that I wrote, about 15 years ago. I became interested in the Shakespeare authorship issue in college, in regard to who wrote the plays. I had no idea there was a Shakespeare authorship issue at all, and the more that I became totally fascinated by it and the more research I did, the more I went, “Wow, this is an amazingly complicated world in Elizabethan England.” It’s never really been shown, how dark it was. It was really a totalitarian state. And, when you combine that with this incredible person, whoever he may have been, that’s a really interesting idea for a movie.
So, I just did tons and tons of research and eventually wrote a script. Unfortunately, my script was completed about two months before Shakespeare in Love came out, but it was my calling card. People would take meetings with me because they had read the script. I would have the meeting and they would go, “Oh, we love the script, but we’re never going to make this movie because there was just Shakespeare in Love.” So, I just put it in my desk and anytime I’d go to a meeting, I’d bring it up and I’d usually have the same response of, “Nobody’s going to make that movie.” And then, one day, about eight years ago, I was in Roland Emmerich’s office talking about a different movie and he asked me about other things that I was passionate about and what I had written, and I started to tell him the story of this movie. He was quite fascinated and he read the script, and he also became enamored and interested in the subject matter and did his own research. We did a lot of revisions on the script, and we finally made it a couple months ago.
ORLOFF: The movie is unbelievably historically accurate, with the exception of whether Shakespeare wrote the plays or not. What I mean by that is that I, like Henry James, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Derek Jacobi and John Gielgud, don’t think Shakespeare wrote the plays, but obviously a lot more people do think Shakespeare wrote the plays. Obviously, in my movie, he didn’t, so a lot of people will say that’s not historically accurate and they are totally welcome to that opinion. But, the world within the movie that that story takes place in is incredibly accurate, like the Essex Rebellion and the ages of the characters. For example, the movie Elizabeth is really quite inaccurate. It’s an incredibly inaccurate movie, historically, and we chose a different path to be incredibly accurate. It’s stunningly accurate.
Is it very definitive in saying that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays, without being open for interpretation at all?
ORLOFF: No, the movie takes it as a given that he did not write the plays.
Also being an executive producer on this, were you on set during filming?
ORLOFF: Yeah, I was on the set the whole time. It was an incredibly moving thing. I first learned about the issue 20 years ago, so to see this thing that I started to think about 20 years ago, take shape with an incredible group of actors and technical crew and Roland [Emmerich], it was really quite moving for me to see it come together. We had this amazing cast, and I’m really excited about it.
What was it like to work so closely with Roland Emmerich?
ORLOFF: Roland, like Zack [Snyder], is incredibly collaborative with writers and really enjoys working with writers, and not all directors do. On that particular script, it was a lot more complicated than Legend of the Guardians. It’s a very complicated script, in a good way, hopefully. It’s a very multi-layered piece of writing. It’s a very intricate piece and it required a lot of drafts. So, Roland and I actually worked for years on it. We’d go off and do other things, and then come back to it. I probably did 20 drafts for Roland, so it was an incredibly close experience. Roland ended up knowing as much about Elizabethan England as anybody I know, and he definitely knows more than I do, by this point.
With his love for the use of effects, how did this film having a smaller budget than his other work factor into how you approached the writing process for this?
ORLOFF: It very rarely affected the writing process. We tried to get this movie made about four or five years ago and it didn’t happen, for whatever reason that these things don’t happen. Both Roland and I realized, when we started shooting it in March, that we were thrilled that it didn’t happen then because technology has changed so much in filmmaking. At one point, when we were originally going to make the movie, he had talked about building a scale model of London, about the size of half a football field. That’s what we would have done five years ago. But instead, his effects crew went out and took 30,000 pictures in England, of every Tudor building they could find, and then they scanned them all into the computer and built real London in 1600, in the computer, with all of these pieces from different pictures, and then created a virtual London that we then literally figured out where the camera should go, totally digitally. Then, we put actors in front of a green screen and, suddenly, they were walking in 1600 London and you can’t tell that it’s not real. It’s unbelievable. It’s seamless, and we couldn’t have done that five years ago.
ORLOFF: All of it is seamless and unnoticed. There’s a lot of exteriors in the movie, and only one set was built for exterior. Everything else was green screen. We built a floor and that’s it. It was almost like how Zack [Snyder] made 300 with green screen and actors. We were concerned about how the actors would work on the green screen, but they all said it was like working in the theater. They have to use their imagination a lot more in the theater than they do in film because they’re on a set, but if it’s green screen, they have to use their imagination. The interior sets were mostly built, though, like the palace interiors, the hallways, the taverns. The interiors were built, but none of the exteriors.
How was that for the actors to work with?
ORLOFF: I think it was less difficult for them because they were using their imagination. There’s one shot in Anonymous where we couldn’t get the schedule right for two of the actors to be there on the same day. They weren’t major actors in the movie. They both had minor parts, but they were both amazing. So, the producer said, “There’s no way I can get these two people in the room at the same time. You’ve got to just change one of them and cast somebody else.” And, Roland said, “No. They are both perfect. I will make it work.” We shot one of them very early on in the process, and then we shot the other one almost on one of the last days of shooting, and they were on a green screen. Literally everybody, including the producer, was like, “What is he doing? We don’t even understand what he’s trying to do in this shot.” There’s a trick in the shot, of a time change. It’s a device. Literally nobody on the set, including me, had any idea how it was going to work or if it would work or even really what he was trying to do in the shot, except for Roland Emmerich, until the day we saw it in the movie and we went, “Oh my fucking god!” It is seamless. You cannot tell. When you see the movie in a year, you will not believe that that’s how it was done. And, that’s all Roland. Even the producer and the D.P. couldn’t figure out the shot. It was amazing.
Is the change in release date from March 2011 to September 2011 because of the amount of effects work? Is it just going to take longer to finish the film, or were there other factors?
ORLOFF: Yeah, it’s a lot of factors. It’s going to take a little longer. It just felt that we would be a little rushed to get it done by March. It’s been a labor of love for a lot of people, and not just me or Roland, so we all just took a deep breath and said, “You know what? We’ve done everything right. We’re not in a rush. Let’s make this movie right.” And, I think everybody is really happy we did.
What do those kind of effects add to the film?
ORLOFF: It looks amazing. What I’m excited about is that nobody has ever made a historical movie, in the way that Roland has made this movie, in the sense that, when you see a movie like Elizabeth, which is a lovely film, it’s all inside and it’s all interiors because you couldn’t build London. But, we don’t do that. We literally have helicopter shots, in 1600 London. We have crane shots. You just can’t believe it. Nobody has made a period movie like this, ever before.
What are the costumes like?
ORLOFF: The costumes are amazing. Vanessa Redgrave plays Queen Elizabeth and her daughter, Joely Richardson, also plays Queen Elizabeth, in an earlier time, and the costumes are spectacular. Elizabeth is a very important character in the film, and Vanessa has studied Elizabeth in incredible detail. She had wanted to play Elizabeth her whole life, so she knew more about Queen Elizabeth than anybody else did, on the set.
Do you already know what you’re going to be working on next, now that Anonymous has finished filming?
ORLOFF: Yeah. I’m doing another animated film and I’m about to start writing another movie for Roland, neither of which I can really talk about. I’m sorry.