The Screenwriter for 'Anonymous' Defends His Controversial Movie

John Orloff's film has angered Shakespeare scholars, critics, and Judi Dench. Here, he responds.

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Columbia Pictures

The Shakespearean authorship question has been a 20-year obsession for screenwriter John Orloff. His two-decade quest of researching and writing about it comes to an end with today's theatrical release of Anonymous, a costume drama centered on that never-ending debate over who actually wrote Shakespeare's plays.

The film adopts the "Oxfordian" theory, crediting Edward de Vere—the 17th Earl of Oxford and most frequently promoted alternate candidate—as the true author of the masterworks. Written by Orloff and directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day), Anonymous folds the debate into a broader portrait of Elizabethan palace intrigue, as various interested parties jockey for favor with the aging Virgin Queen, while seeking to clear the way for a favorable successor.

Here, Orloff (A Mighty Heart) speaks about his interest in the subject, the controversy surrounding the film and one reason why disaster movie maestro Emmerich was the right man for the job.

What's spurred your obsession with the Shakespearean authorship question?

I was very tenuous at first and unconvinced, as many people are. And then I kept on reading and reading and reading, and the more I read, the more convinced I became, and the more interested I became in all Elizabethan culture, not just Shakespeare's plays.

I guess I sort of felt, I'll be honest with you, it was two pronged: On one hand [I felt] if Shakespeare didn't write the plays, what a tragedy it'd been that this other person wasn't recognized. But even more importantly, whether Shakespeare did write the plays or didn't write the plays, we're being taught a lot of bunk about William Shakespeare. I bristle when people teach me things and present them as facts when in fact they are not facts. That alone was enough to make me want to make this movie.

What sold you on the notion that Shakespeare wasn't the author?

For me, you have to start off with the fact that there's no evidence he wrote the plays. … There's no first-hand documentary evidence. You start there. Then you go to the ability to write these plays, which we all know are so amazing and beautiful and filled with so many metaphors about so many things, like falconry and lawn bowling and tennis. … One has to make the leap that this young man from Stratford-upon-Avon, brilliant though he may have been, would have had [to have had] one heck of an education to write these things. And yet there's no record of him having attended any school, anywhere, ever.

So, I follow Mark Twain, who wrote a book about this issue [Is Shakespeare Dead?] and said, he, Mark Twain could never have written about the Mississippi had he not been a Mississippi riverboat pilot. … I happen to believe that Shakespeare didn't have the life to draw from to write about court intrigue, to write about the things I was just mentioning, the images that are filled through these plays. It just was not the life of a commoner.

What about the argument that Shakespeare could have written about nobility without being a noble?

There's no Internet in 1600. He had no library. No books. There were no public libraries. You cannot write about 16th century law accurately because you're gifted. You can only do that because you understand 16th century law. I just don't believe the genius theory. It's different than music, where you only have to learn a certain amount of notes and then you go [and play or compose]. It's different with writing. That's why Walt Whitman, why Henry James, why James Joyce, why all of these writers in particular don't believe Shakespeare wrote the plays. They know what it is to write.

You've said elsewhere that the film was controversial when it was being cast, attracting ire from Judi Dench and others. What did you make of that?

I was fascinated by it, actually, that people take it so incredibly seriously. I'm sure those very same people loved the play Amadeus, which has absolutely no basis in fact whatsoever. Or maybe they love Shakespeare in Love. Clearly Judi Dench had no problem with the fantasy that is Shakespeare in Love. It's a lovely film but there's not one millisecond that has anything to do with historical accuracy.

I don't know why Judi Dench had no issue being in that film; I guess because it glorified Shakespeare rather than not glorifying him. I think Simon Callow also had a rather upset reaction when we approached him. People get very upset about this. It's a mystery to me why they get so passionate about it above and beyond all other things.

All the attention and controversy has to be a positive in terms of getting people to talk about and see the film, right?

Certainly [it helps get people] talking about the film. We'll see about getting them to see it. I hope it does. They're pretty upset, particularly over in Britain. The whole county of Warwickshire, Shakespeare's birthplace, is really up in arms. They're protesting the movie quite loudly.

In crafting your characters and the narrative, how were you able to find the right balance between historical fact, fiction, and speculation?

Ultimately, Shakespeare himself was our guide. The Shakespeare histories are not really histories. They're dramas. He compresses time. He adds characters that have been dead by the time the events are occurring. He'll invent characters out of whole cloth, like [Sir John] Falstaff in the history plays. First and foremost it's a drama, and just like Shakespeare we're creating drama.

We sort of intentionally had this moment of realization as we were working on the script that we were writing a Shakespeare play, or more accurately an Elizabethan play in the sense that we had a large cast of characters [and] we were dealing with Shakespeare's own themes: an unknown prince not getting his throne, betrayal, incest, power, who will be the next king. All of those things are in Shakespeare's plays, and they're in our film as well.

Roland Emmerich is not the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of Shakespeare. What's one reason he was right for the job?

I was as surprised as anybody when he read my script and responded to it 10 years ago. But that was because I didn't know him yet. Once I got to know him I understood that Roland the man is not necessarily what you think he might be based just on his films. He's incredibly intelligent, he's a voracious reader, [and] he's an art collector. He loves music. His partner is a musician. He's an artist. … I think that's what spoke to him in this project, the chance to stretch [artistic] muscles he has not used much of.

Going back to the controversy: In speaking with The Daily Beast, James S. Shapiro, a Columbia University professor of English and comparative literature, said of your film: "They're trying to convey the veneer of scholarship, to gain a legitimacy, so that this film becomes a project to get kids to believe that Shakespeare was an illiterate fraud and Queen Elizabeth was a 'ho.'" How do you respond to that?

Dr. Shapiro in particular of Shakespeare scholars is very angry about our film and I think one of the reasons why, quite frankly, is [that] when you start to question the Shakespeare authorship you then have to start going into Shakespearean scholarship. You have to start going, "Now wait a minute. I've been taught X, Y and Z." And when you start to research X, Y and Z you very quickly learn that what you've been taught is nothing more than fiction. I think that's very threatening to people who make their lives by telling the stories.

The truth of the matter is, if you are curious enough to read a biography of William Shakespeare, let's just say it's 400 pages long, one of those pages is fact and 399 are conjecture. We know nothing about this man. I mean nothing. … What we're saying is, "I don't need you to teach me about Shakespeare because you're not teaching me about Shakespeare. You're teaching me your opinions and your guesses about Shakespeare. You're not teaching me facts about Shakespeare." I think that's very threatening, not just to a profession but to a whole county of tourism in England. It's a very threatening piece of film in some ways. It's a challenge to authority and authority doesn't like to be challenged.