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Michael Radford—The Merchant of Venice—12/11/04

Before giving William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice a whirl, Michael Radford developed his reputation as a distinguished filmmaker with films like 1984 (starring Richard Burton), Il Postino, and Dancing at the Blue Iguana. I spoke with Mr. Radford at the Prescott Hotel in San Francisco on December 11, 2004.

Groucho: Well, I think I'd like to begin at the beginning of the film. I got into a debate with another critic about the moment where we see Jeremy Irons spit on Al Pacino, or Antonio on Shylock. He thought that was an authorial flourish on your part, that it wasn't justified and I said, "Well, it's in the play. He says more than once, that he does that." Can you talk about the evolution of that moment for you, how you came to that?

Michael Radford: Well, I came to it because I started looking at a lot of Shakespeare's plays on film to see—y'know, just to get an idea of how it's been done. And I found myself actually—although I could admire a lot of them for, y'know, bravura, y'know, such as, let's say, Orson Welles's Othello for it's bravura poetry and its technique and everything—I very rarely engaged with the characters, and I began to ask myself, "Why was this?" Because in Othello, you don't care about Othello. You really don't. In Polanski's Macbeth, you can think, "Oh, this is nicely filmed," but you don't care about Macbeth, or why he's done anything. And it's very rarely the case that you do. And I began to realize that it was because Shakespeare constructs his plays by coming into the middle of the action, and then, y'know, people come in and give you the back-story by report. Well, you can't do that in the movies; you've got to understand who the characters are before they start to act. And effectively what it does is it—y'know, when you get to the pound of flesh scene, it has a dramatic effect because that scene is expositional in Shakespeare's play. It starts off, "Signor Antonio, many a time and oft on the Rialto, you have reviled me for my moneys and my usances, and I have borne it with a patient shrug, which is the badge of all my—sufferance is the badge of all my tribe." [Ed.: "Signior Antonio, many a time and oft/In the Rialto you have rated me /About my moneys and my usances/Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,/For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe" (I.iii.88-92)] And then he goes on to say, that he spat, [he] kicked him as a stranger dog and spat upon his Jewish gabardine. [Ed.: "And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,—You, that did void your rheum upon my beard, /And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur/Over your threshold" (I.iii.94-101).] Well, that's exposition. If you see it happen, which it clearly does and did, historically anyway, then when this man comes to borrow money from him, the relationship is infinitely complex about that. It's informed. You're on your way. You're thinking, "What's he going to do?" (Laughs.) And when he does it, when he says those lines, they have a completely different meaning. It's "I'm weighing this up. Okay, this happens to me a lot. I bear it. But you've insulted me." And then he becomes a man of dignity and power, as well as somebody who's spat on. So I think it's absolutely necessary, dramatically.

G: Can you tell us how the project came into being, with you in the director's seat, and with Al Pacino as Shylock?

MR: Well, somebody asked me at a dinner party in Hollywood whether I'd be interested in doing a Shakespeare play, The Merchant of Venice. I never read it. It wasn't one of the ones that I—I'd sort of avoided it, anyway. And so I read it, and I thought, "This is interesting. This is complex. This is more than it appears at first sight." And that's what intrigued me. So I read a screenplay, and then I contacted Al, who I knew was—loved Shakespeare and would be intrigued by this. And it so happened that we had—that he producer of this was working on Angels [in] America at the time, and I went to see him in New York. And he responded very strongly to the script, and he had the same vision that I did, which was: we both wanted to bring Shakespeare alive. Not treat it like a dead text, not recite it, not do it in costume for the sake of it, but for a sake of a reality, and to try and make the language cinematic and get it across to a lot of people. And so he said, "Yeah," he would like to do it, and then stuck with it while we tried to raise the money, which was not easy, it really wasn't. It was very difficult.

G: I was going to ask you about that. Is it just that it's hard to get a green light for a Shakespeare film, or is it hard specifically to get a green light for Merchant of Venice.

MR: No, it's not hard. I mean, it—there were a couple of moments where people said, "Well, y'know, I don't think we should deal with this." But they were certainly not Jewish organizations. I think that there's a lot of interest in The Merchant of Venice from Jewish society, if you like. And, y'know, I'm invited to the Jerusalem Film Festival and things like that. It's—that's not the real problem, the real problem was actually: it's Shakespeare. Y'know, people's perception that, if it's Shakespeare, they're not going to like it. But on the other hand, there's a perception that there's an audience out there for Shakespeare, so they'll give you some money, but not enough. And my favorite response to this is people who come out of it saying, "I completely forgot it was Shakespeare after five minutes." Because that's what I want—not because I don't want them to know that it's Shakespeare, but I don't want them to be bedeviled by it. And I don't think they are. I think the people honestly come and see this and get just swept up in it.

G: In some way, Venice itself taught you how to adapt the play for film: is that right?

MR: That's absolutely right. It was only when I went there to write the screenplay that I began to see how to adapt it for the cinema. I began to see the people moving in the city. It's such a strange place. And then when I started to research the life at the time, I mean it was—I mean, I didn't know a huge amount. I knew something about 16th century Venice, but I didn't know how decadent it was, how extraordinary it was. And the desire to kind of bring that in a kind of down-and-dirty reality to the screen is part of the whole effect of the piece, because if you treat it in a very realistic way—they're not in costume because I wanted to do a costume version of Shakespeare; they're in costume because I wanted it to be set in Venice of this period. Because then you get the subtext of it. You say, "Okay, this may be about Jews and Christians in the 16th century, but it's actually about all of us today."

G: About that, you said that you want the film to speak clearly to modern concerns. What were some of the conflicts of contemporary readings versus historicity, and how did you resolve those?

MR: How do you mean, exactly?

G: Well, did you ever find that the historical reality of 16th century Venice got in the way of what you wanted to dramatically communicate with the play?

MR: No, actually quite the reverse. Because, I mean—only in one sense, that I slightly condensed history. The riots and the fulminating of Franciscan Friars against the Jews really stopped around 1540; it didn't happen in 1596. By that time, everybody was actually getting along famously. I guess if you were Jewish and you weren't allowed to own property, y'know, it wasn't so great. But the Inquisition was banned from Venice. Venetians considered themselves to be very independent, and they were powerful, and they liked the commerce. They themselves were getting into banking, and the Jews were leading the way. And so the place was actually slightly more liberal than I portrayed it at that specific moment in history. The reason I said, "At that specific moment," was 'cause the Rialto Bridge was made of stone—was only completed, the stone Rialto Bridge, in 1590. (Laughs.) It's bang in the middle of both; it's difficult to get rid of it. (Laughs.) But no, I like sub-text. I'm not making a political movie. I'm making a movie which is psychological and human. It's a humanist view. And then I want people to take from it whatever they can. They can say—what I love them to say is "My God, it's 400 years ago, but we haven't changed." That's really what this is about.

G: Can you talk about, in adapting the play, what dictated your omissions from the text in streamlining the play?

MR: Well, two things I did really. First was quite simple. Any words that had fallen into disuse—"And bid the main [flood] bate, abate its usual height." [Ed.: (IV.i.76)] Y'know, you trip over that. You're thinking, what does the word "bate" mean. And, you know, we've moved on. You know, it's five minutes of dialogue, and you've lost. So if you put in "lower," its—you immediately understand it and you don't have that problem, so we did a lot of that. Did a lot of—although there are "thous" and thees" in it, sometimes if you put in "you," it just makes it easier, and why not? And it was changing around that time anyway. But what we really did was—and this is really where I can only talk about dramatic instinct—as I started to dramatize it, I started to cut where I felt that the narrative drive was being stopped in its tracks. So, y'know, where actors—where the camera—you see, you have the camera, as well. You don't just have the stage; you have the camera. At the same time, you can't cut Shakespeare's text completely because this is what it's about; it's about the beauty of those words. But they were written for the theatre, so you have to streamline them. You have to—there are times when the characters stand there—well, for instance, in the first scene, Antonio says, "I know not why I feel so sad: it wearies me; I know it wearies you." [Ed.: "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:/It wearies me; you say it wearies you" (I.i.1-2).] Then it goes on for a couple of pages of metaphors about sadness and, y'know, speculation about this and about that. And it's all very well in the theatre when you can pause for a moment or two and you can appreciate the acting, but in the cinema, you want to get on with it. And you also—you can see Antonio's face. You're close in on it. You can see what's going on. You can see that he's in love with this man. Y'know, get rid of it. Move on. (Laughs.)

G: (Laughs.) Do you relate the intolerance against the Jewish faith in the play to the Christian fundamentalism of today?

MR: Well, to a certain extent, absolutely, yes. Although I regard it as being about all racial intolerance. I mean, while I was—y'know, what happens to minorities in majority societies is they tend to take refuge in their own community, particularly if they're abused for their color. Or their faith or whatever it is. While we were shooting this, an Afghani man in Yorkshire in England was jailed for life for murdering his daughter because she wanted to marry a Christian boy. And he was just—y'know, everything—he could take everything but that. Because that's the breakdown of his traditions and community, for him. What does he do if his children are Christians? He has no community left. So that's in a sense, what that is for me, and indeed, somebody stood up in London at a preview recently and said, "I am a Muslim, and I totally identify with Shylock in this picture." That's kind of extraordinary: "I'm a Muslim, and I identify with a Jew in this picture." It's kind of [an] extraordinary statement, but it was true, it's true. So the only thing I think of is—about Christian fundamentalism—is that the whole thing is a rail against fundamentalism. And I'll tell you why: because what this play is about is about human complexity. And fundamentalism doesn't allow for human complexity. It says the world is sortable-outable in five sentences, and, y'know, here is the guru who will tell you what those five sentences mean. (Laughs.) But meanwhile, you guys can take—can alleviate the responsibility of saying life is painful: what do I do with it? And this is about the fact that these people are flawed, but they're very human, all of them, all of them. And that's a—plea for tolerance as far as I'm concerned.

G: Can you talk about how you and Pacino developed Shylock's backstory, which isn't in the script, and give any insight to his personal evolution in his understanding of the role?

MR: Well, Al thought—I mean, this is the actor's job—is to create a backstory for the character. The director's job really is to see, is to—if you like—organize dramatically how that character which he's created operates within the dramatic structure of the piece. His view was that Shylock was effectively a man of great dignity, a respected member of his community, but a man who was living in sadness. He was sad. He was not—a bit humorless, because his wife had died, his wife whom he adored had died. And he was living alone with his daughter, not treating her particularly well, treating her like a servant really. Although he loved her, but he couldn't express it. And I think that those sort of psychological clues are very important. Y'know, he loves this girl, but he can't express it, to her. I mean, how common is that? Y'know, how uncommon is that between parents and children? So all that Al had developed, and I'd agreed with, but he developed his in his characterization. But then we started to talk about how he would react when his dignity is affronted. Y'know, how we would do the scenes where he says, "Hath not a Jew eyes." [Ed. Act III, Scene I.] We both agreed that at this moment, from the moment that Jessica goes, the man is in a rage. He's in a rage of affronted dignity. His world has collapsed. He's suffering from road rage. Then when he gets to the court, he's become colder and more implacable. And when finally Portia says, "Tarry" [Ed: Act IV, Scene 1], he wakes up. And actually, you'll see it. I forget what he says. There's a man waking up from his rage and realizing that he's gone too far. He's not listening to what they're saying in the court. He's just stunned by himself.

G: Do you, as the author of the screenplay, did you identify any single character as the protagonist?

MR: Without a shadow of a doubt, if you think in film structure—without a question, Bassanio is the main character. It's a very interesting play because Bassanio is the main character. It's he who drives the story. It's his demands, it's his desires that drive the story. And it indeed finishes with him. He wants Portia. Does he actually get her in the end or not? Does he get somebody else? (Laughs.) It's an interesting one because I would say Antonio is the merchant, Bassanio is the hero, Portia is the biggest part, and Shylock is the most interesting character. (Laughs.) For that, it's a strange play.

G: You mentioned earlier the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio and how there is a homoerotic element...

MR: Yes.

G: At least. Was that something that immediately leapt out at you from the play?

MR: Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely. Not only is it there in the text: "I think he only loves the world for you," says Gratiano. [Ed. Salanio says, "I think he only loves the world for him" (II.viii.53).] Actually, I didn't use that line, but he says, "Great God, Bassanio, come to see me die and then I care not." [Ed.: "Pray God, Bassanio come/To see me pay his debt, and then I care not! (III.iii.40-41).] You know, it's—when he's actually been tied to the chair, he says, he says, "Commend me to your honorable wife and tell her that you had once a love." C'mon. (Laughs.) [Ed. "Commend me to your honourable wife:—/Say how I lov'd you, speak me fair in death; /And, when the tale is told, bid her be judge/Whether Bassanio had not once a love." (IV.i.273-277).]

G: (Laughs.)

MR: And who is it who persuades him to give away the ring? What is this gentleman's request against your wife's commandment? [Ed.: Antonio says, "My Lord Bassanio, let him have the ring:/Let his deservings and my love withal/Be valu'd 'gainst your wife's commandment" (IV.i.454-456).] And if you don't put it there, the rest of the play doesn't make sense. It's just sort of—kind of just feeble comedy, if you like. But when Portia's got something to fight for, it makes it much more interesting. Particularly the last scene.

G: I wanted to ask about the emphasis that you placed on Jessica's ring at the end. Obviously Shakespeare is a lover of contrast.

MR: Hm.

G: What drew you to that choice?

MR: Well, look, in the cinema you have things called—erm, what are they called? Image, symbol, image symbols, whatever they—very powerful things. And in this particular piece, the ring is a symbol of loyalty. Now it just so happens that during the scene between Tubal and Shylock, he says, "He gave away," uh, Tubal says, "I hear, in Genoa, she gave away her ring for a monkey." And Shylock says, um, "'Twas my turquoise that Leah gave me," erm—"Leah, her mother gave me when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it away for a wilderness of monkeys." [Ed: Tubal: "One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey—" Shylock: "It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys" (III.i.42-43).] Now we don't know [if] what they're speaking about—[is] true. We don't know if it's true or not because in those days, you know, communications were so bad that everything was hearsay. People always got—were getting things wrong all the time. In fact, in the end of the play, although not in my film, you know, it's discovered that it was all—it was all hearsay that Antonio's ships had gone down; they hadn't gone down at all. Well, you know, that's—it was absolutely normal in those days. We don't know that it was that ring. If, even she did give away a ring for a monkey, we didn't know that it was that ring. She didn't appear to have a monkey about her person. (Both laugh). Erm, I thought that—as a ring is a symbol of loyalty and of—she—falls more and more silent through the piece and feels like a fish out of water. And at the end when they're—you know, she goes to the lagoon to look out from this place in which she's trapped, which is not her culture and thinks about what she's done to her father, and not only that, but her own culture, really, suddenly becomes very important to her. And there's her ring which is the symbol of that culture.

G: The illusion of sixteenth century Venice is complete. I was wholly transported by that. And in hindsight, I began to wonder—preparing for the interview—what was just outside the frame of the camera. Can you describe what the set was like?

MR: Well, I mean, a lot of it was shot in Luxembourg. And for instance, the ghetto and all that kind of stuff, apart from the synagogue itself, was a set which we built in Luxembourg. Partially on the set of Venice which has been used in several movies, with a few canals and bits of water on it. The courtroom, again, was a set. But obviously the Rialto Bridge and the main parts of Venice were not a set, but what was on the other side of it? Well, I'll tell you: when we were shooting the Rialto Bridge, we could only afford half of the Rialto Bridge—they would only give us half of the Rialto Bridge. Because it is the main thoroughfare in Venice. So on one side of it, we had the sixteenth century. On the other side of it, just out of the frame, there was the Venice winter regatta was going on with men in blue lycra tights poling very fast. Every so often, they would shoot into the sixteenth century, but they were being stopped by the police at the bottom of the bridge. (Both laugh.)

MR: I mean the Doge's Palace, the scene where he says, you know, "I shall have my bond," you know—those all—I mean, the Doge's Palace probably—I think probably, you know, 15,000 people visit it a day, so we're in a part actually, funnily enough, which very very few people go, but it's very beautiful. It's right, sort of overlooks the thing. But, you know, down there we had baying journalists shouting for Al Pacino all the time.

G: (Laughs.)

MR: And what's the other side? (Laughs.) We had 15,000 tourists. It was like that the whole time.

G: And I understand that time was also stalking you very much on this project.

MR: (Exhales.) Ohh. I don't think I'll do it again. I mean, we shot it in seven weeks, or seven-and-a-half weeks. And it was really not enough to shoot a picture like this. Not enough to do it comfortably. I mean, you can do it, but it is so painful to do it that—you know, it takes so much out of you that you actually think, "My goodness me, for the sake of"—you know, "for the sake of a few million dollars," but you know, in film terms, for the sake of a little bit more money we could have just had a bit more time. And Venice is very difficult to shoot in: it's all on water. That just makes life four times as difficult because everything has to be transported on boats.

G: I read that your favorite Shakespeare film in your research was Taming of the Shrew. I thought that was interesting given that the play is all—probably the—

Both: Second most controversial. (Both laugh.)

G: Yeah, they're difficult to—yeah, problematic.

MR: Well, I think because it's so modern, in a way. But also I love it because—I love it 'cause it made me laugh. I actually—it—you know, Richard Burton in that film is probably—it's one of his greatest performances, because he's—I've worked with Richard Burton, and he's a very theatrical actor. So to get—to do a piece of theater like that—he's just wonderful in that movie. And it's so alive and funny, and it's absolutely intelligible from one end to the other. You follow the story. You know what's going on. It is one of the simpler plays, funnily enough, you know. It's not—it doesn't have a lot of, you know, strange, you know, soliloquies and things in it. But I'm not a great fan of Zeffirelli as a film director, actually. I think he's much more of a theater man. I don't think he's a great film director, by any means, but I love that film. And that's why. I wouldn't mind taking on The Taming of the Shrew, actually. It's something I'd love to do 'cause it is so funny.

G: Yeah.

MR: But I don't know if I'd better—if I could better Richard Burton's performance. The thing is I saw it once in the—I saw the version in the Park with Raul Julia and Meryl Streep, and that was actually the—one of the best interpretations. If I were to do it, I'd pinch that interpretation because it is actually—you realize that it's not about, you know, women—men being superior to women. It's about two very forceful people coming together.

G: Is it true that a gypsy once told you that all your fortune would be in Italy?

MR: It is. It is true. I don't—I didn't remember it for years, until actually it started to happen. And then I thought, "My God, I remember this woman came up to me in a pub in Oxford when I was a student." It's absolutely true. She read my palm.

G: Huh. I think, to wrap up, the film has received plaudits and also criticism, like Ron Rosenbaum in The New York Observer

MR: Mm.

G: Claiming that the film whitewashes the play. Do you think making your incarnation of the play a plea for religious and racial tolerance in any way subverts the original thrust of the play, and if so, does it matter if the interpretation's valid?

MR: Well, I've been quoted in The Jewish Chronicle as saying I don't care about anti-Semitism, because what I actually said was "It doesn't matter."

G: Hm.

MR: No, it doesn't matter because Shakespeare is greater than that. You know, we can speculate for all sorts of reasons what it set out to be. All I can say is that it's a curious curate's egg of stuff [Ed.: "curate's egg" is the British equivalent of the American idiom "mixed bag"]. There are moments where you think, "Whoa, this goes too far. There are other moments where he gives Shylock such beautiful, beautiful cries and pleas for humanity that, you know, that your heart goes out to him. What I think is this: that it's purely acade—you know, the theory that Ron Rosenbaum and Harold Bloom and all these other people have is the more grotesque you make Shylock, the more honest you're being, you know, and the less anti-Semitic it is, therefore. That's just academic nonsense. You know, this is a play about a human being, and the moment you do a film, you know, you—these guys have never actually done it. You know, if I'd—I guarantee you, if I—I couldn't in my heart make Shylock a grotesque. I have too much sympathy for him. You know, the play has a lot of history. It's been hijacked by all sorts of people, but in the end, it's about human dignity. I think Shylock and Antonio are very similar. Antonio knows nothing about Shylock's community. When he asks him to be a Christian, he thinks he's actually saving him?! You know, he knows nothing about his world. But it's about the complexity of human nature. That's not whitewashing things; that's actually confronting them. You know, if you go—if you have the knee-jerk reaction "Ohhuh, it's an anti-Semitic—" it doesn't confront anything. It just—all it does is you just bring your own prejudices along. You know, we're talking about humanity here, and humanity is a complex, difficult, flawed thing. And what makes Shakespeare great is that he was able to, somehow or another, encompass that in his plays.

G: Yeah. All right. Thank you very much for speaking to me.

MR: Thank you.

[For Groucho's review of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, click here, and for his interview with Lynn Collins, click here.]

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