British writer-director Michael Radford made a surprising admission during a recent Dallas interview about his new film version of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” starring Al Pacino as the Jewish money-lender Shylock, Jeremy Irons as the merchant Antonio from whom he demands a pound of flesh as payment for a loan, and Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio, the impoverished nobleman for whom Antonio borrows the money to aid the younger man’s pursuit of the heiress Portia. “When the idea was proposed to me, I hadn’t read the play ever, actually, and I’d never really studied it,” Radford said. And he added: “I don’t care for Shakespeare on film much.”
But Radford, the first Englishman to make an Italian film—1995’s “Il Postino,” which went on to win Oscar nominations for best picture, director, actor and screenplay—soon came around.
“The more I thought about the play, the more I liked it for its complexity, for all the difficulties that it contains, including—in a way—its perceived anti-Semitism,” he said. “It seemed to me that if it were just an anti-Semitic play, then no Jewish actor would ever have taken the role of Shylock, and there are hundreds of them that have done that. And being Jewish myself, I was really kind of interested in that.”
Radford didn’t want, however, to make simply a filmed play—he intended a true adaptation that worked as a film. “I started looking at Shakespeare films and trying to analyze why I didn’t think that most of them worked, although I admired them very much,” he recalled. “I admired Orson Welles’ ‘Othello,’ but I thought, well, this is a film for Shakespeare buffs, because you don’t really care about Othello in the movie. If you were an ordinary Joe in the street, as people in Shakespeare’s time were, they didn’t speak in iambic pentameters, either. [So the question was] how do you get [people] to viscerally engage with this thing? What I felt was lacking from a lot of Shakespeare movies was what you need in a movie—backstory. If you’re going to get people engaged and make it alive and make it work, then you have to engage the audience with the characters.”
So Radford set about pruning the text and adding a text prologue to provide historical context, but more importantly he added visuals to replace the original’s expositional scenes with direct action. At the beginning, for instance, he shows Antonio publicly reviling Shylock, an episode to which the moneylender later refers in dialogue.
“That’s really how I approached it and began to feel that it was possible to do…. I tried to make it real,” he said. “I tried to transport people to a real situation.” That process, Radford noted, necessitated a careful balance of the play’s comic and tragic moments. “If you treat the whole thing as real and actually deny some of the comic moments—realize that there’s a tragedy in all these people, not just in Shylock…if you can get that, I think, if you can leaven the tragedy with comedy—with good humor, with great Jewish humor if you like—and if you leaven the comedy with melancholy, so that the end scene is not just a funny scene about rings, it’s actually about Portia gaining control…that’s the way I’ve tried to balance it out.” But he added: “I don’t need to jazz this up—it’s alive. I don’t treat this as a dead text.”
The effort affected the acting as well as the text, Radford explained. “In terms of performance, I asked the actors to say [the lines] more slowly. We cut a lot. We simplified some of the phraseology that’s fallen into disuse. But most of all, I got them to underplay it so that you just felt they were talking to each other. I like all my actors to underplay things—it’s a feature of what I do. I don’t like overblown acting; I like it to be reticent. I pulled Al back, and I pulled Jeremy back. Everybody, in fact,” he said. The more naturalistic style, he felt, was better suited to film than a more theatrical one. And, he added, “If you don’t understand the dialogue, it really doesn’t matter in this version—I hope. In fact, the response we’ve had to this is that people have said that after five minutes they forget it’s Shakespeare—they just start following the story. If you can do that, then you can come back a second time, if you want, and pick out the poetry. If you can [just] follow the dramatics of this story—which is actually a fantastic story—then that, to me, is fine.”
Lynn Collins, the young Houston native who plays Portia in the film and accompanied Radford on the tour, testified to the unusual character of the approach, which she contrasted to acting on the stage. “In theatre, you’re working with your body and your energy field; you expand as big as you can. On film…it’s much more specific,” she said. “You can be detail-conscious, whereas in theatre you’re only detail-conscious for your own awareness. Michael did have to continually say, ‘You’re getting Shakespearean.’ He’s very conscientious about ‘None of that.’ He wanted you…to get lost in the fact that the language is heightened because you’re so involved with these people and the decisions that they’re making.”
The setting was important to Radford’s vision, too. “When I was writing the screenplay, I went to Venice and it was the thing that really set me off,” he said. “And I started to research what Venice was in that period, and it was an amazing place—it was the center of the universe, the place to which all Jews went because it was the freest place. And it was decadent, corrupt and rich…and I could see these people moving around this city, and it was that that made it come alive. So I don’t think I would have conceived of doing it if we hadn’t been able to shoot in Venice.”
Still, the result was “a nightmare” logistically, Radford admitted. “It was the worst decision I ever made,” he said ironically. “It takes four times as long for anything to happen, because everything has to come in by boat. If you put up a light, you have to put it on a pontoon…. You’d say ‘Turn over’ [to the cinematographer], and by the time the camera’s actually turned over and the clapper board’s put on, everything has drifted fifteen yards down river. But it’s worth it because it’s so atmospheric—and a lot of it is still there.” The film wasn’t entirely filmed in Italy, however; much was shot on sets build in Luxembourg, and he had special praise for the extras in the latter location for their patience and dedication.
Transforming the play into an effective film required something else as well, Radford decided. “I said to the producers, if you want to do this, we can’t just make it for Shakespeare buffs. What we need is a movie star.”
And they found one in Al Pacino, who was anxious to play Shylock after reading Radford’s adaptation. “I went to see him,” Radford said, “and…he said he would really like to play Shylock.” And after Pacino took the part, the director continued, “he was just a rock, because we had a lot of trouble financing the picture, and he stayed with us. Just put everything else aside, which for Al—who can earn millions and millions of dollars jumping out of a trailer with a gun—was quite something.”
Collins was similarly enthusiastic about Pacino. “He was incredibly supportive,” the actress said. “Michael showed Al my audition tape, along with Michael. He was a real champion for me.” The support continued into the actual shoot. “When we were filming,” she recalled, “Al would actually come over and, like, touch my hand before every take, just to say it’s okay, you can strut your stuff. The man is so reverent to the craft—he brings a legitimacy to it that it’s hard to find today.” She was equally complimentary toward Irons, who was once an instructor in a master class she’d participated in at Oxford (“I was obsessed with Jeremy,” she admitted), and of Fiennes (“I cannot sing his praises enough… I really respect the man and want to work with him again,” she said).
Radford closed by discussing the play’s supposed racism.
“You can’t pin it down,” he said. “My mother is Jewish, and if I thought this was an anti-Semitic play, I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do ‘The Jew of Malta,’ for instance, which is Marlowe’s play. Historically Shakespeare wrote this because ‘The Jew of Malta’ was a big success. You could say that he was paying lip service to fashion, trying to get people into the house, by having a funny, grotesque character as a Jew. But he went much further than that. He created out of this play his first great tragic figure, Shylock. He gave him some of the greatest pleas for humanity that there have ever been. I think personally the way I’ve approached it is to say, ‘This is about humanity in all its flaws and all its weaknesses.’ It’s about human dignity. And when they try to take away Shylock’s dignity, he goes crazy. When Shylock tries to take away Antonio’s dignity, it’s too much. And I think that Shylock remains a dignified person right to the end. We all understand psychologically why he does what he does. If you take the Jewish-Christian thing out of the equation, what you have is a man who lives in a community who is subject to racist abuse. He lives with it, he bears it…. What people in those circumstances do, is they take strength from their own community. When the pillars of that community, when the things in those communities, break, as your only daughter goes to marry a Christian, you can’t bear it. He was devastated that her actions, his community, had been somehow or other weakened. What I love about the play is that your sympathies waver around. One minute you’re sympathetic to Antonio, then you hate him. Next minute you’re with Shylock, then you don’t like Shylock. It’s confusing, and confusing precisely because it’s human.”
Collins added, “I love the fact that there’s no good guy or bad guy. I think you can get that when you read the play, but specifically in this production you are made to feel sympathetic to every character and then made to feel a certain amount of anger against every character. And then it becomes less about Judaism and Christianity and more a portrait of how flawed and complex human beings are.”
“And in the end,” Radford concluded, “I think the sum total of it is a plea for tolerance.”