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Stoppard Finds the Right Man to Direct His Film

February 20, 1991|PETER BRUNETTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TORONTO — Tom Stoppard breezes into the hotel room that is crammed with telephones and fax machines. His Canadian publicist is urging the world-renowned British playwright to try to squeeze in "just one more interview." Stoppard falls theatrically into a heap at a visitor's feet. "Oh, God, no, not at all," he shouts sarcastically, grabbing the visitor's legs.

The long campaign to launch the film adaptation of his play "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead" began for Stoppard at last year's Venice Film Festival, where he won the top prize, and was still going on last week when he wrapped up a round of interviews in New York and headed west for a blitz of interviews in Los Angeles.

The intercontinental commuting is obviously getting to him, but since he has a lot invested in "Rosencrantz," which marks his debut as a film director, he is more forthcoming than he might otherwise be.

The film is, strictly speaking, more a massive revision of the postmodernist play first performed in 1967 than it is an adaptation. Taking two minor characters from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and thrusting them onto center stage, the play structured itself around some 250 lines liberally borrowed from the Bard. Clearly influenced by Samuel Beckett's earlier "Waiting for Godot" and other self-conscious absurdist drama popular at the time, its irreverent rewriting of a sacrosanct classic made it an instant hit in London and New York, where it won many awards.

Filmed in Yugoslavia, the movie preserves the play's emphasis on language, jokes, and double-talking but, having rewritten Shakespeare, Stoppard has not been shy about rewriting his own play, adding a lot of new and even zanier stage business.

"I didn't feel protective toward the play at all," says Stoppard. "I mean, the play's still there anyway. And there were one or two things that I was quite glad to lose. Also, I've been engaged with the play intermittently in various productions throughout that time. Mainly, it was just an old friend that I could abuse a little bit."

Stoppard, 53, came to direct the film somewhat by chance. After writing the adaptation, he joined producers Michael Brandman and Emanuel Azenberg in interviewing about 20 director candidates.

"I couldn't see why any of them shouldn't do it," he says. "I knew half of them, and some of them were my friends. And somehow, almost in conversation, it began to become clear that it might be a good idea if I did it myself--at least the director wouldn't have to keep wondering what the author meant. It just seemed that I'd be the only person who could treat the play with the necessary disrespect."

Stoppard says surrounding himself with experienced people kept him from feeling too insecure. "The one thing I had sense enough to know was not to try to bluff my way through anything. I wasn't the least bit concerned about my credibility as a director because I had none to lose . . . . It was a small film with big film people working on it. I was in a 'Hamlet' really."

Still, Stoppard found himself relaxing a little too much at times.

"About three weeks into the filming, someone said to me, 'The camera doesn't move a lot in this movie, does it?' And I said, 'Oh my God, that's right, it doesn't!' and I started moving the camera all the time from then on to make up. But then in post-production I realized that when it wasn't supposed to move, it didn't, and when it was supposed to, it sort of did. Once or twice it could have been done differently, but that's true of all films."

In the transposition to the screen, Stoppard has eliminated a lot of dialogue that he felt had lost its zip over the years. In fact, he says that about half the original play is not in the film.

"I think that I was much stricter (this time) about trying to produce things that were engaged with narrative, rather than showing that I could write, which young writers tend to do, bless their little hearts," he says. "And, like any other writer, there are things written 25 years ago that I now find embarrassing."

Interestingly, there's a great deal more Shakespeare in the film than in the original play. "I needed it to provide more continuity to the story. And I perhaps I was braver this time. Perhaps I was more nervous back in 1967 about the conjunction of these two very different languages, I'm not sure. If I had thought about using Shakespeare the way I did (in 1967), I probably would never have written the play. It seems extraordinarily pushy now."

As the original author, he also felt at liberty to add a great deal of material to fit the new medium.

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