John Logan, the three-time Academy Award-nominated writer behind the testosterone-driven classics Gladiator and The Last Samurai, realizes a life-long dream by adapting Shakespeare’s macho drama Coriolanus.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
(January 20, 2012)
The new film adaptation of Shakespeare lesser-known play Coriolanus swings a bloody battle-ax right through the romantic, tights-wearing perception many mistakenly have of the Bard’s work. It is the bellicose, testosterone-soaked tale of a banished Roman war hero who allies with a foe to exact revenge on the city. The film sees Ralph Fiennes in his directorial debut and playing the title character from a script penned by playwright and screenwriter John Logan.
As an expert Shakespearean, Logan was uniquely positioned for the task. The highly successful scripter responsible for such visceral classics as Any Given Sunday, Gladiator and The Last Samurai, he is also a genuine “man of the theater” who spent a decade as a Chicago playwright before writing Sunday on spec. Nommed three times for Oscars (Gladiator in ‘00, The Aviator in ’04, and this year's Hugo), Logan is currently up for a Writers Guild Award for Hugo and won the Tony, Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle awards for his play RED in 2010.
Fiennes and Logan worked closely on the Coriolanus adaption, deciding from the outset that placing the action in a modern context while preserving Shakespeare’s original dialogue to the letter was the way to set this drama alight.
Logan spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about why this play in particular thrives cinematically because of the murky ambiguity of its protagonist and how his collaboration with Fiennes gave him a joy he didn’t get while working with Martin Scorsese.
This is hardly men in tights as Shakespeare goes.
This is absolutely the testosterone-dripped version of Shakespeare. From the very first discussion Ralph and I were like, “Tear off the hose, and strap on the M-16.”
But preserve the language?
Photo: © 2012 The Weinstein Company
Ralph Fiennes, Brian Cox, and John Kani in Coriolanus.
Absolutely. Every word is Shakespeare’s. The reason that we both did it is an absolute obsession with Shakespeare. The reason I’m a writer today, like I’m sure many WGA members, is because of Shakespeare. You’re introduced at the right age, and it just sort of shapes your life.
Ever since I started writing movies, I wanted to do a Shakespeare [adaptation] and Coriolanus was always the one I wanted to do.
Really, Coriolanus was always the one?
Yes, because to me there’s something both very modern and cinematic about the play, particularly the central character because he’s a very murky, complicated, thorny protagonist. One of the things that cinema does so well is to linger on the complexity of the human face.
He’s just one of those unknowable Shakespearean characters, and that to me is very modern.
So where it might actually even hurt it as a stage play, the way cinema captures the ambiguity…
Exactly right. To me, if I think of what the greatest moments in cinema are, it’s James Mason in Odd Man Out looking up at the end, it’s Peter O’Toole at the end of Lawrence of Arabia – that long close-up of those unknowable eyes…
The end of The Graduate…
The end of The Graduate, exactly. Coriolanus is that kind of character. He’s not easily definable, he’s very austere in his way. I always thought he would translate well to movies and thankfully there’s one other mad man in the world who agreed with me.
Was there ever any point during the process of adapting this that you had any doubt what would actually happen when you started shooting with totally modern stage and costume design?
No, not at all. Ralph and I are both men of the theater, and we’ve seen so many productions of Shakespeare. The productions of the classical texts that have always worked best are the ones with the boldest, most active engagement with the language and material.
Here’s the bottom line about Coriolanus – Shakespeare’s play has been around for 400 years, and it’s going to be around for another 400 years. There’s nothing I can do to fuck it up. That gave me a certain swagger going into the adaptation that I didn’t feel with Hugo or Sweeney Todd. I was much more careful [with those] but with Coriolanus I felt like we could batter around the engine a little bit.
To what extent, having read Shakespeare for years, do you still get your breath taken away or just knocked back by what a great writer he was?
He is the immortal poet of our language, and I am constantly astonished by his perception, his depth of characterization, his wit, and just the seemingly endless supply of invention.
I’d worked for years with Coriolanus, but there were still times when I would be dazzled by something different. Still to this day, the lines that stop my heart are Shakespeare’s. This is 400 years later, mind you. That’s what’s so awe-inspiring. That’s why I thought we were completely right to make the most contemporary, hot-media version of this play. Shakespeare always functions best when he’s our contemporary.
What was your basic approach to adapting this?
It was twofold. Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s second longest play, second only to Hamlet. It’s a murky, complicated, thorny piece. So first and foremost, it was streamlining it to bring it down to a manageable dimension for a modern movie.
The question then became how to make the choice about what to keep and what to eliminate and how to reshape the material. It’s a pretty wholesale reshaping of certain parts of the play. I came down with the same thing, like Bergman said, “Build your film on faces.” I just thought about the central character and his journey. So all those elements that are so riveting on stage but didn’t deal directly with Coriolanus’ journey, fell by the wayside. I tried to keep it tightly focused on what he was experiencing and those narrative events that refracted directly off him.
So it was largely a paring process?
That’s how it began, as a paring process, and then it became re-envisioning it. Thinking about what the modern parallels and metaphors we can employ for the tribune, the messengers, or for Shakespearean conventions like the soliloquy and for all the wonderful things that work so well on the stage, but that don’t work so well in the movies.
I felt free to collaborate with my friend Bill Shakespeare, to embrace the play and make it my own.
That’s gotta be fun… as if you have his consent.
Well, you know I have a bust of Shakespeare in my office, of course, and for the time I was working on Coriolanus, I tied a bandana around his eyes so he couldn’t see what I was doing.
You never saw any tears dripping down?
He never complained.
So the translations of these moments and conventions – these contextual translations, if you will – were a big part of the heavy lifting here?
Completely right. It was that and dealing with the verse. Iambic pentameter is a very particular sounding and feeling rhythm. When I made cuts, everything had to fit into the verse. Grappling with the text, to keep the verse intact, was always a challenge. It was like watching a dragon writhing on the floor and trying to catch onto it.
Endeavoring not to be overly clever with the adaptation, to not make everything have a modern parallel [was also difficult]. Yes, we have embedded and TV journalists, but not everything is a wink. It took muscular restraint.
How much did you work with Ralph Fiennes on the script?
A lot. We worked for months. It was the usual director/writer relationship… except, because he’d played Coriolanus and was so familiar with the text, we went through it line by line. So I would have the great joy of seeing Ralph Fiennes in my study here in Malibu, hopping up and performing huge chunks of Coriolanus. That was the unique pleasure of this project. I can tell you that Marty Scorsese never did that with Hugo.
What do you hate or dread most about screenwriting?
I hate the moment I have to transfer the majesty of what’s in my head to the inadequacy of the words I have for it.
There’s always some diminution?
There’s always some diminution between the idea and the execution.
And what’s to love about it?
Oh my God, you know, to me it’s the most thrilling job in the world to be a dramatist, which is what we are. It’s the best of two worlds. One world is a world of isolation and purity and the complete creation of something in your own private control. The other half of the job is getting into the boxing ring with other great boxers and really getting into it and collaborating. I can think of very few jobs that require both of those as equally.
If you’re a writer who wants to create in a perfect, hermetically sealed world, then you should be a novelist. On the other hand, if you can’t stand the isolation and the pure grunt work and loneliness of being writer, then you can’t be a screenwriter. You have to love both of those things.