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Q & A

Putting Genius in Its Place : Tom Stoppard and writer Marc Norman took the Bard off his pedestal so they could put him back on top of it.

December 12, 1998|PATRICK PACHECO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — With long hair curling, Oscar Wilde-like, over his collar, playwright Tom Stoppard enters the sleek dining room of a midtown hotel, an otherworldly presence in the midst of Manhattan bustle.

The contrast is drawn even more starkly when, 40 minutes into an interview, the acclaimed playwright is joined by Marc Norman, the writer and producer who co-wrote with Stoppard the screenplay for "Shakespeare in Love," the Miramax film that opened Friday to rave reviews. Norman, a freelance screenwriter born and raised in Hollywood and steeped in filmmaking ("Cutthroat Island," "'Waterworld"), is as tanned and voluble as Stoppard, who lives in London, is pale and reserved and of the theater.

The two worlds are reflected in their irreverent look at the iconic William Shakespeare as "a feisty young man who's a genius but isn't treated like a genius," according to Stoppard. Played by Joseph Fiennes, Will is just another ink-stained wretch trying to make a buck in the wild and woolly early days of Elizabethan drama, when theaters are sprouting up along with rivalries between actors (Richard Burbage versus Ned Alleyn) and playwrights (Christopher Marlowe versus Shakespeare).

Trying to write his new comedy, "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter," the budding Bard is hopelessly blocked until he meets his muse in the person of Lady Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) and embarks on a tragic love affair through which his "Romeo and Ethel" morphs into "Romeo and Juliet."

Norman came up with the concept and first drafts; the Stoppardian touch, evident in the witty verbal and philosophical pyrotechnics, was added largely after Miramax took over the project from Universal, and director John Madden ("Mrs. Brown") was attached to the film. "Tom got interested in the project, and how do you turn down the foremost playwright in England?" says Norman.

Indeed, since his first hit "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" in 1968, the prolific Stoppard has turned out a dazzling array of works, from the dense philosophical and political arguments in "Travesties" to the erotic despair in "The Real Thing" to the tricks of history and architecture in "Arcadia."

Stoppard talked about taking on Shakespeare, the difference between theater and film, and how the movie's themes related to his own career. Norman joined the conversation midway through the interview.

Question: Were you daunted at all by taking on such an iconic figure as Shakespeare?

Answer: Marc had broken the ice. He'd invented this very charming story, so it was much easier to just ignore what posterity had made of him and just deal with him as a young man. What would be daunting would be to attempt to write him as he existed in the popular imagination. You wouldn't be able to lay a glove on him, he'd be so special, you wouldn't know how to begin.

At the same time, the thing that makes life easier for someone writing fiction about Shakespeare is that there are very few signposts, very few agreed upon facts and lots of spaces to invent. Some of the film is pure mischief. But then again, you're riding on the back of the most famous love story ever written, so there are lots of strands to work with.

Q: Still Shakespeare, just as a word, resonates so much that you figure one would have to deal with audience preconceptions, particularly in a movie with a title like "Shakespeare in Love."

A: Well, it sounds as though it has to be an intensely poetical experience for everybody. In fact, it's a nonconventional romantic comedy. You're writing about an historical figure already, you're in a situation where the love story can't end in a conventional hearts and flowers way. It's not 'Sleepless in Stratford.'

"There's a limit to what you can invent. At the beginning, there were moments when the challenge became, How does Shakespeare speak when he's just speaking to a friend?: Does he sound like Shakespeare? Does he sound as though he's going to be Shakespeare, or does he sound like anybody else?

Q: How did you resolve that?

A: Well, in the opening scene, I gave him a line of verse as his first line of dialogue, a quotation from "Hamlet," I think, "Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the earth doth move. . . . " To which Henslowe [the producer] says, "We haven't got time for that, talk in prose." I felt that got us through the gate.

Q: It seemed at times that you were sending up all those Hollywood movies showing the genius at work--Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in "Lust for Life," or Charlton Heston as Michelangelo in "The Agony and the Ecstasy."

A: Well, yes, that makes it look very self-conscious, that way at looking at genius. "Shakespeare in Love" takes a very skeptical view of the genius at home. . . . Those movies reinforce the cliches, the agony and ecstasy of it. The thing I like about our movie is that it's also the agony and the ecstasy but without the quote marks. It's a comedy.

Q: You yourself have been described in the media as "a genius." How does that feel?

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