Farrah Kazemi Interviews Director and Actors of Ophelia at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival
Ophelia, directed by Claire McCarthy, reimagines the story of Hamlet through the eyes of Hamlet’s lover Ophelia—the beautiful yet tragic maiden who goes mad in Shakespeare’s classic play. In Semi Chellas’s (Mad Men) new screenplay, based on the YA novel by Lisa Klein, this madness is reinterpreted: it seems that Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) may have been the only one who had any sense at all.
The film’s all-star cast includes Daisy Ridley as Ophelia, George MacKay as Hamlet, Naomi Watts as both Queen Gertrude and Mechtilde, Tom Felton as Ophelia’s brother Laertes, and Clive Owen as the evil Claudius. I sat down with Mackay and Felton after the premiere of Ophelia at Sundance to discuss the exciting film, how each prepared for their roles, and about their processes for choosing the independent films they want to take on. Later, I met with Director Claire McCarthy to talk about her vision for the film, her difficulties navigating through a male dominated industry, and about her upcoming work.
What attracted to you to the project? Were you approached for the film?
GM: I went for it; it wasn’t an offer sort or anything. I met with Claire and we really got on. I was really inspired by her vision for it, what she wanted to explore and the way she wanted to work. I mean, Claire left no stone unturned on set. We would do scenes and explore them in as many ways as we could to give options in the edit. That was really enjoyable as a process; that really excited me to be a part of this re-telling and this new way of looking at this sort of age old story.
TF: Well, I heard George was doing it (laughing). It was mostly Claire to be honest with you. We read the script, fell in love with it. I was obviously very familiar with the story. Loved the idea of, as you said earlier, telling it in a completely fresh perspective. As you said as well, one that should’ve been done decades ago. That—and I had a brief meeting with Claire and fell in love with her energy. In general, I am more attracted to people than I am pages, if you will. The script was great and she was not only passionate, but knowledgeable. That really helped me—when you’re dealing with someone who knows every aspect of the story. That really got me on board fairly quickly, to be frank. And when I found out George was going to be on it, I was like oh my lord!
In terms of prep, how did you approach your characters? What inspired you?
GM: Well, first and foremost, I was inspired by the script itself, and of course, the play Hamlet. There’s a gold mine of inspiration in the play, and I was excited about the opportunity to re-educate myself on a great text. Hamlet has amazing soliloquies where he talks about how he is feeling, which Shakespeare then ties back to bigger ideas like the circle of life. There is so much research, writing, and interpretation from Hamlet to draw from. I delved back into it and sorted out what was applicable and what wasn’t in order to do something fresh.
TF: Yeah, I did a little bit of browsing. I went back and watched Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. To be honest with you, I sort of stuck mostly with the pages that we had with Claire and with Daisy. You know the nature of the beast these days with film is that we don’t often have a lot of time to mess around. Did we get a week?
GM: Yeah that’s one thing. We personally had a week, and then we had a week of rehearsals. In rehearsal, all the costumes, horse riding, sword fighting, and various other period elements really helped bring the characters to life.
There was actually quite a bit of sword fighting throughout the film. Was that tough to learn in a week?
GM: (Laughing) Yeah, we had an amazing stunts man.
TF: (Laughing) We had a great time.
GM: Yeah, Pavel Cajzl and Roman Spacil. They choreographed a routine.
TF: They choreographed a half an hour fight sequence.
GM: We would just work at it, and then change a couple of moments if they didn’t feel right. So we had a great time. Once we had our routine, we just drilled away at that.
TF: We were actually joking yesterday that if you gave us two swords now, we would be able to do it all over again. I can’t remember a single line I said, but I can remember the bloody sword fighting. It’s another great fun part about the job, really. You get to not only work with cool people but do some fun things like that as well.
(Laughing) Did you sustain any injuries?
TF: Well, Hamlet wouldn’t actually say this in the film, but I basically kicked his ass several times. This is the first time we’ve been in a room together since!
GM: It’s been that heated!
TF: But generally speaking, we were unscathed.
The sets are stunning, the costumes, the makeup, everything is amazing. Did those elements help you get into the character as well?
TF: Absolutely! I don’t know about you but it took a bloody half an hour to get the thing on in the morning because there were about twelve different layers. It’s really rather warm when you’re in there. But really, like you said, it helped us engage, get into character very quickly.
Where was Ophelia filmed?
TF: We were in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Lots of surrounding countryside; it was just stunning.
It really was, the film felt so ethereal.
TF: Credit to Denson Baker, our director of photography. It all looked incredibly beautiful, didn’t it?
GM: Yeah, Denson and Claire and David had designed it—Dave Warren as well as the rest of the costume and makeup team. They came with these amazing pieces. They made all of our costumes. Massimo Cantini, who designed the costumes, he’d come in and even about our undershirts, he’d say, “This material is from India, these buttons are from Italy. This tunic, is an old Czech kind of design.” It was incredible!
TF: Yeah, they’re not mucking about.
GM: They loved it! And Alessandro (Bertolazzi), the makeup as well. He’s very creative in terms of developing a look and using makeup as an aid to tell the story.
TF: When you have all of these incredibly talented specialists coming together, it makes the whole thing just…
Do you guys have any projects in the works?
TF: This bloke has a few films coming out, don’t you?
GM: Yeah, there’s a few films coming out. I did a film called Marrowbone, which is by Sergio Sánchez. He wrote The Orphanage, the first feature that he’s directing. That was at festivals last year, and it’s going to be coming out this year. And I’m doing a film with a director that we’ve both worked with named Amma Asante; it’s called Where Hands Touch and is about a biracial German girl at the end of the war, trying to navigate that environment, falling in love, etc. I’m also working on a musical film called Been so Long; it’s set in Camden which is north London.
TF: I’m excited for the Amma one especially! I’m about to head off to do a TV series but I haven’t quite signed on the dotted line yet. So I probably shouldn’t say anything.
For stars such as yourselves, what really draws you to work on an independent project?
TF: Actually, each one is different. Each one has its pros or cons whether that’s budget, location, actors, or script. You hope to find something that has the best of all these aspects. I’m not sure; it’s hard to have a sweeping answer for that one really because the reasons for taking on any given project really vary.
GM: I think with independent cinema in particular, it’s just the stories that you’re drawn to, the stories that you connect to and want to tell. What is kind of wonderful about independent cinema is that the people who are telling these stories have a very strong vision because the film is theirs, and they’ve got the autonomy to do it the way they want to, which I think is so important. So, not only is it about finding the story that you want to be a part of, but it’s about working with the filmmakers that inspire.
Hi Claire! Thanks for sitting down with me. I want to ask, how did you first come across Ophelia’s story? Were you a fan of Klein’s novel or Shakespeare’s play?
CM: It was originally the play that drew me to the character. When the producers of this film approached me, Semi Chellas had already written the screenplay. So I went back and read the novel. The version that we’ve done in Ophelia is based on a sliver of the novel, not the whole work. The novel is a much more expansive piece. Having been familiar with Hamlet, I was really interested in the ways that both Klein and Chellas brought new understandings to Ophelia’s experiences. She’s not a huge part of the Shakespearean play. She doesn’t have a lot of agency in her life; she’s been typically interpreted as a tragic figure. I think it’s just really interesting to see her story re-worked and re-imagined in a way that is empowering.
I was really blown away by the film. The sets, the costumes—it was visually stunning. I understand you shot the film in Prague.
CM: Yes we did; there’s a fabulous team there. We cherry picked some heads of departments from the UK. Denson Baker, our cinematographer from New Zealand, who’s my life partner as well as my partner in crime, we’ve worked together on a lot of features. Our composer is from the UK. It sort of felt a little bit like we were an international production. And the Prague contingent were just wonderful, but you’re right, it really needed to have a sense of scale and an epic feel to it—that hopefully, we believe that we’re in this castle, in this world of Ophelia’s. We needed to “be with her” in the citadel of a hyper masculine world.
The tricky thing was trying to give Ophelia some active role—even if only as an observer. The fact that she’s privy to things matters, and also the way that she reacts and responds. The film is a much more nuanced and subtle depiction of her journey. It’s not your stereotypical, standard, masculine, kind of classic journey, if you what I mean. The beats aren’t necessarily dictated by the actions of the male characters.
Can you say something about what is “contemporary” about this film?
CM:By virtue of who Ophelia is in her culture, and the fact that she is a young woman of lower status, informs the way she moves through the narrative. We had to figure out new ways to sort of tell her story. We couldn’t make it too contemporary, so that she appears truly in control of things. Part of the fact of this character is that she comes from a time and place in which she has little autonomy; hence she has to figure ways of being heard. The way that she sees things, especially her part in events, ultimately shapes her choices.
So I think that’s what is contemporary about it. I think a lot of women who are educated, and willing to be actively involved in the world and in the society that they come are often times stymied by gender constructs. That is what makes Ophelia so fresh and contemporary because it’s what’s happening right now. It’s not that women are deficient or do not wish to participate, but it is that we’re not invited into the conversation.
As a female director, have you had personal experiences with sexism that disappointed you or made you want to quit?
CM: I definitely think the rules of engagement in this industry are very different for women than they are for men. I think the fact is that women have to be stronger, sharper; there’s no room for error. You have to know exactly what you’re doing because people scrutinize you on all sorts of levels that are not applied in the same ways to men. That’s because it is a male dominated industry, in the sense that most of the power players are men. You have to figure out a way of getting in there and winning trust.
This is the thing I found hilarious about Shakespeare’s play. I think his presumption is that women are frail or weak and that you’re working within an understanding of that’s what women are. And that’s so not who or what we are. You often go into rooms—as a woman—and there are expectations that you’re going to go spend the credit card, you’re going to max out, or that you’re not capable of multitasking, or that you can’t take on big logistics. Where do these ideas come from? Women shouldered the burden of so many things. We’re multi-taskers, we’re nurturers, we’re lovers; we bring this stuff together. Like I don’t know where this comes from? We can do this shit! Give us a chance, and the other thing too…I think there are two things at play. First, this idea that women, perhaps, aren’t invited into the industry, or aren’t educated. But, the thing is that this simply isn’t true. Women are highly educated, have a body of work, are extremely good at what they do, and are great artists in their own right, but are just not invited in to be in the workplace for one reason or another, or aren’t given the breaks.
The goal posts do constantly shift for what the expectations for women are. I’ll be in situations where I’ll be told “oh you’ll need 100 hours of television to be able to do an episode on our TV series.” Well, my male counterparts have got less credits than I do, have done less work than I have, so then why do they get hired? Why suddenly is there this requirement for me?
On one hand there’s like this anger. You sort of want to go, “Let’s get in there!” The other side of it is figuring out a way to be graceful about this process and inviting conversation, inviting an opportunity for this to be uplifting and a really constructive debate. I think there’s this time at the moment where there’s a sort of witch hunt almost and all this emotion that’s going on and just being able to take pause to sort of take the next step and actually see things in practical terms. I think that’s the intersection we’re at now. I really hope that real change around gender equity occurs, rather than just a whole bunch of talk. Take the nominations for the Academy Awards—I’m like “Go Greta!” You know, it’s yet to be seen.
There absolutely seems to be a lot of paradigm shifting that needs to happen. It would be amazing to finally see an integration of “she” and “he” working together on equal footing within the industry.
CM: Exactly, I think that’s what we wanted for the film too. I’m a little dubious about positioning the film as a feminist film. I feel like just because it takes the point of view of the feminine doesn’t mean we are trying to oust the masculine. I think it’s really looking at the ideas and the archetypes of what men have been forced to be within themselves. To be strong, you’re sort of alpha. You’re not allowed to analyze your emotions or be nurturing, and I think that all humans need that. Regardless of your gender; I don’t think it’s about shutting anyone out of the discussion, it’s about integration.
Was there anything that you wanted to stay true to from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”?
CM: Yeah, lots of things. A lot of what we were talking about before. Those original ideas that women are weak or frail—if you’re a strong woman in a Shakespearean play, you’re often mad or if you’re weak then you’re tragic. So it’s like how do you take those notions which are entrenched within the work and make them powerful in new ways? There is a definition of “woman” from that time that translates to how many woman still feel they are cast today. Women should be allowed to be frail; they should be allowed to be strong. They should be allowed to be many things. We are human with many expressions. Queen Gertrude is a complex woman, and we wanted to show complexity and not say that representations of women are only one dimensional or that they’re superheroes or saints. I want to see women doing stuff, making mistakes, and being very complex.
Often times, it’s hard for independent filmmakers to realize their vision and get the financial funding to make large scale films. What tips do you have for filmmakers who are looking to get financial support for their projects?
CM: You’re right; there are a lot of women facing this challenge. It’s difficult for women to get to do films of ambition and scale. It’s really tricky to get into that higher-end film financed. I think with any project, any artistic endeavor, it is about really articulating your vision, figuring out ways to influence people who will have to spend a lot of money in order to bring the project to fruition. This work comes with a price tag, regardless of it being a big scale film or small scale film. I think it’s about how you communicate to those people who want to feel safe giving you a bunch of cash to go do this creative thing, which in and of itself, is not a necessity. It is really a practical matter: How can I package my vision? Can I put together a sizzle reel, or can I put together some music?
Something that gives a clear indication, that brings the idea to life. I think that helps a lot. And then also, really encouraging each other. Having debates, finding ways to build a team, reaching out to family. It is important that we just help one another to really scrutinize our work. Getting feedback before going into the marketplace is crucial. You only have one shot at it. So just being really well prepared and knowing what you want to say. Making sure it’s at the top level, the best that you can do. Get advice because people in the industry are willing to help and are willing to make things better. I think it’s not an entitlement. It’s more of a journey and oftentimes it’s about rewriting or re-working or re-presenting so that you can get closer and closer to the thing that you’re trying to say.
Do you have any other projects coming up?
CM: I’ve got a project that I’m doing with Viola Davis, which we’re shooting in Canada. It’s a passion project that she and I have been developing for some years and which is her starring. Weirdly she’s won an Academy Award, has been nominated for Academies, has won Emmys, and has never starred in her own movie. And I think that’s just ridiculous because she’s one of the most incredible living actresses alive. It’s a psychological thriller set in the badlands in Dakota during the Homestead Act period, during post Reconstruction America. That’s the next project we’re shooting in April. And there’s a couple other things percolating; I’ve got a project set in Madagascar—it’s a mother and daughter story. So I guess most of the things that I’m working on aren’t cookie-cutter stories but from the point of view of the women in the story. I’m hoping to have enough of a scale and ambition and a sense of an audience. I really want to do work that’s going to reach an audience and have something to say.