"They were all so different, and several of them had a lot of things I admired. I'd been trying to work out what was the thread that held them all together. And of course the thread is Shakespeare. With his words, it's like watching a movie in another language, a heightened language.'
Urdang and Hoffman were initially puzzled that "A Midsummer Night's Dream," one of Shakespeare's most enchanting and accessible plays, is adapted for film so infrequently. There has only been one major attempt to film the play: the 1935 Hollywood version, directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle, which starred James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck. In addition there were two British films based on Royal Shakespeare Company productions. The first, from 1968, was directed by Peter Hall, and featured Diana Rigg and David Warner; the other had a limited release in Britain early last year.
"We asked ourselves why almost no one tried it," Urdang recalled. "It's a comedy, it has love stories, everyone played Puck in high school or knows someone who did. There's different generations of people among the characters, something for everyone. Then we tried it. And it's hard.
"With the fairy world, it's tough re-creating something that's such an individual choice, part of people's individual imaginations, because we have to decide what this world looks like. Then there was the question of special effects. We didn't want to do the Tinkerbell thing."
Hoffman decided to set the story at the end of the 19th century, in the late Victorian era. For him, it was a fashion choice, not a historical one. In this era, women's bustles and corsets were giving way to less restrictive clothing; men's collars were loosening up and becoming less stiff.
"I wanted to use the line of the clothing as a metaphor for the repressiveness surrounding the young lovers," he explained. "And when the lovers escape to the woods, some of the clothing comes off anyway."
To tie in with the period, Hoffman has many of his characters move around by bicycle, not the usual mode of transportation for Shakespeare. "It just happened," Hoffman confesses. "We didn't have any money for visual effects, and I didn't know what I was going to do about Puck's speech: 'I go, I go, look how I go,' when he vanishes. And for some reason I had this image of Puck on a bicycle. So how would he have one? What if he'd never seen one? It developed from that."
With Flockhart's Helena, who doggedly pursues the apparently uninterested Demetrius, Hoffman employed a bicycle as a psychological indicator. "Bicycles are quite clumsy on set and Helena's is part of her baggage, her belief about herself," he said. "It's this annoying thing that's always bumping against her shins, an encumbrance of which she finally divests herself. But she battles and fights it all the way through the movie."
"Helena's incredibly obsessed," says Flockhart in a break between scenes. 'She's after him, she chases him, she finally gets her man. I don't think you could just say she's in love. She takes abuse and keeps going."
The next scene is one to delight all TV viewers deeply irritated by the character of Ally McBeal; in it, Flockhart gets a soaking. She stands in an alcove at the foot of the steps, and bemoans her thwarted plans with the words: "O spite! O hell!" At this point a sprinkler system below her feet starts up, leaving her thoroughly wet and cold.
Hoffman wants to do it in one take, but the crew member charged with operating the sprinklers mistimes the moment, and the jets of water arrive too late. A small army of helpers surrounds Flockhart, using hair dryers to remove the moisture from her long skirt. Resuming her mark, she observes everyone staring at her with dopey grins, awaiting her dousing.
"I don't see what's so funny," says Flockhart, affecting indignation.
The following day is a big complex scene--a triple wedding celebration. A huge table in the form of
a semicircle has been set beneath a canopy on the terrace of the palazzo, with most of the leading players seated at it. Extras in formal dress sit below them at tables with silver cutlery. Other extras playing butlers and serving maids attend them. An Italian quintet featuring an accordion plays lilting music; an enormous green wedding cake covered in fruit is wheeled on set.
At the top table, the lead actors in black morning suits and the women in long dresses wait patiently, incongruously wearing sunglasses to protect against the day's glare. Beneath her long skirts, it is clear Marceau is wearing sneakers.
Even more out-of-time, Friel reads a script sent to her by her agents. Strathairn, who as the Duke has begun proceedings by declaiming from the palazzo's magnificent balcony, now joins the others, and smooths his hair by holding up a silver plate in front of him and gazing at his reflection.