“I can’t impress on you how low-budget this movie was,” writer-director Michael Almereyda said of his new filmization of “Hamlet” during a recent stopover in Dallas, where the picture screened earlier this month at the USA Film Festival. “It was shot in 16mm, and all the stars worked for scale.” Ethan Hawke appears as Shakespeare’s troubled hero in Almereyda’s version of the tale, which is set in contemporary New York and also stars Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, Diane Venora as Gertrude, Liev Schreiber as Laertes, Julia Stiles as Ophelia, Bill Murray as Polonius, Karl Geary as Horatio, Steve Zahn as Rosencranz, Dechen Thurman as Guildenstern, and Sam Shepard as the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
Almereyda, whose earlier features include the 1989 comedy “Twister” (not to be confused with the big-budget studio storm movie) , “Nadja” (1995) and “Trance” (1997), was drawn to the idea of adapting a Shakespearean play for the screen, but at first shied away from the Danish tragedy because, among other things, Kenneth Branagh’s text-complete version had only recently appeared. “I was really adamant for a few weeks in avoiding it,” Almereyda explained. “But it just started chasing me…. Within a week there were just too many signs pointing to ‘Hamlet’ for me to ignore.””My feeling had to do with connecting to the hero as someone who is truly young, and that had never been done in a movie [version] before,” Almereyda continued. “That was the key starting- point.”
And that was what led the director to contact Hawke, with whom he had discussed a previous, but unfulfilled, project. The young actor jumped at the chance to do Shakespeare, and was instrumental in connecting Sam Shepard up with the picture, too; both were attached to “Snow Falling on Cedars” at the time.
From the beginning Almereyda had a strong idea of how different he wanted this “Hamlet” to be. He envisaged a version that would escape “the British tradition” of Shakespearean performance, one with “an entirely American cast–except for a few Irish people for good luck.” And so he approached “actors whose work I liked and who I knew could handle it…. I wanted a style of acting in this movie that’s different from conventional Shakespeare in that it’s American, it’s inflected by American tradition in movie acting which is more interior and more internal and more quiet than Shakespeare is usually played. I didn’t want a lot of bluster, I didn’t want hysterics and scenery-chewing. I wanted a kind of intimacy.”
If his “Hamlet” would differ from most in setting and acting style, however, Almereyda cherished the text of the play. “The easiest part of making the movie was the adaptation, because it’s just really straight Shakespeare–it’s condensed and clipped in some ways, but it really just felt like a kind of ventriloquism in that it was easy to translate it into contemporary terms. It’s all very natural and didn’t feel forced.” And he wound up believing that “there was room in the universe for this new version.”
As befits the picture’s low budget, the shoot was short (only 5 weeks), and often very hectic and demanding; and looking at the finished product Almereyda sees a good deal that he might have done additional takes of if given the chance. But he’s resigned to the fact that every film is bound to have regrets attached. “A director is deluded to think that he can control it all,” he mused. “I don’t want to get too philosophical about it, but directing is pretty much that you just have to be invisible and let things happen and trust the material.”
“And in this case,” he added, “there is no better material.”