A Prince in Front of and Behind the Camera
Paris Match, January 1997
**Note: my French is pretty crappy at this point (actually, it's
always been pretty crappy), and I translated this thing--so beware!!
Q: How would you explain the
subject matter of _Hamlet_ to a child?
KB: I'd start by asking him very
simple questions: "How do you feel about your parents? Why
do you love them? What would you do if they were no longer there?"
Then I'd ask him if he believed in heaven, in hell, in ghosts.
If his parents came back from the dead to visit him, would he
believe it? Then I'd talk about the play itself. I'd explain
that these questions are some of the few that Hamlet faces: he's
lost his father but is visited by him in the form of a ghost
who tells Hamlet: "You have to kill my murderer." And
then for him to better understand the enormity of the situation,
I'd add: also, his father's murderer is his uncle, who married
his mother only a short month after the funeral! And then to
top it all off, the uncle is now the king!
Q: Every director who adapts
Shakespeare for the cinema emphasizes his modernity. How do you
explain that the general public hasn't also been convinced of
KB: Like everybody else, I discovered
Shakespeare at school--where I didn't understand a thing. And
the more my teacher went on about how marvellous he was, the
more I would yawn with boredom. Until one day I saw one of his
plays live. I finally began to understand the rhythm, the beat
that regulates his plays. The problem always encountered when
doing Shakespeare is that of taking on too solemn a manner of
presentation. He deals with common subjects like marriage, divorce,
war, poverty, hubris, corruption of the powerful...none of these
themes are difficult to understand, but it's the manner in which
the story is told that is the problem. The obstacle of the language
must also be mentioned--it's 400 years old. There are, moreover,
common traps that one must avoid falling into. With Shakespeare,
the actors have a tendency to do too much, to recite in a very
grandiose manner that often puts the audience off. Personally,
I think that Shakespeare needs to be "revisited" by
each generation. This is even more true for today's generation.
Things have changed in the last 30 years! Certain revered, classic
Shakespeare films aren't able to move today's youth.
Q: You're thinking specifically
of those of Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles?
KB: Yes, but this isn't a criticism.
These movies were inspired by the theatrical and cinematic tradition
of their time. It's possible that Welles or Olivier might have
done things differently today. My goal isn't to claim: "Shakespeare
is marvellous!" My objective is to present these plays in
the most attractive manner possible and then let the audience
judge for themselves. I don't particularly want to become a sort
of "Dr. Shakespeare" who administers "Hamlet"
and "Henry V" like a cultural medicine to be swallowed
in order bring out the best part of a person's intellect. As
a matter of fact, I refuse to believe that filmed adaptations
of Shakespeare's work are guarded under the pretext of "culture".
Q: In 1991, after you had
already played the role a number of times on stage, you admitted
to not knowing how to play Hamlet. Are you still in a state of
KB: I hesitate to pass a definitive
judgment on his character. This is a very complex human being:
cowardly, brave, cruel, gentle, passionate, abrupt...however,
I do have some certainties about his purpose. I don't believe
that he was mad, for example. Ophelia, his lover, yes: her words
are destructured and abstract. Not those of Hamlet. Likewise,
I don't think there's anything in the play that seems to suggest
that Hamlet wants to sleep with his mother, even if it's a generally
widespread idea. That's reductionist. I no longer see him as
a melancholy man. He is sad when you first meet him, but he's
just lost his father. As the play progresses we learn that this
is an ordinary man of enthusiasm and passion, who's interested
in fencing, in politics and in the arts in general.
Q: Your vision of the character
is opposite that of Laurence Olivier's, who saw him mainly as
an indecisive young man.
KB: In fact, I don't agree with
Olivier on this point. Hamlet is a man of action. Everything
indicates this about his personality. Before he leaves, he's
determined to kill his uncle Claudius, but, when he has the opportunity,
he hesitates. Why? Because he's a man of great conscience and
morality, in my opinion. He doesn't believe in the politics of
"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." This isn't
indecision. Simply, he desperately has a sense of good and bad.
In fact, it's a trait of someone very complex and that's why
he's fascinated so many for so long. But to tell you the truth,
I didn't particularly prepare for the cinematic interpretation
of this role. Like the "To be or not to be" soliloquy.
It's a scene that I would have had minutely fine-tuned before
actually doing it; on this occasion, I tried more interpretations
(we did eight takes). Because I come from the theater, you'd
imagine that I have a very strict acting method; that's false.
That's actually the contrary. An actor must prepare for a role,
down to the most minutest of details--but when the real moment
comes, he needs to let all of that go. Spencer Tracy, one of
my favorite actors, never went about it otherwise. In his films,
he had a completely natural air because he prepared for his roles
like a dog. But when the time came, I'm rather confident that
he wasn't too "controlled". James Cagney was also like
this. I would have believed that DeNiro would have the exact
opposite, because he lives his roles from morning to night, but,
in his role of Frankenstein, he did the same thing.
Q: When you prepared for the
role of "Henry V". you met with Prince Charles to speak
with him about solitude and power. Now, he's become your friend.
Did you consult with him again to play Prince Hamlet?
KB: I don't pretend to be his
friend; moreover, it's very difficult to be friends with someone
of his ranking. Our meetings were always enjoyable. His opinions
interest me because he is candid about the arts. This is a prince,
in a position of isolation from others. Like Hamlet. He's seen
all of the roles that I've played and the only reproach that
he's ever given me is that of not to be a "prince":
to not pay enough attention to that which is one of the fundamental
aspects of his life: the performance. That's why I paid specific
attention to the appearance (setting, costumes, down to my haircut).
When Hamlet goes mad, it isn't rare to see the actors interpreting
the role to become unkempt and not shave. Charles remarked to
me that protocol is so strict that it isn't necessary to pay
so much attention to the appearance of disorder. I was also inspired
by the Prince's charisma. When he enters a theater for a play,
I notice how assured he is in his presence; his magnetism is
such that, after you meet him, you believe that you've just been
in the presence of the most important man in the world.
Q: You've moved the play from
the 15th century to the 19th century. Why not set it in our time?
This is what Baz Luhrmann actually did with his version of "Romeo
KB: I've seen the film and thought
he came up with very good ways to deal with the anachronisms,
but I didn't think I'd be capable of resolving these problems
in "Hamlet". I didn't see how one could speak of a
swordfight while using a gun! I simply find it difficult to place
Shakespeare in a time of telephones and fax machines. Certain
intriguing developments in the plays occur precisely in the absence
of these methods of communication. And today a type like Hamlet
would be seen as one badly in need of a therapist, who should
enter a sect or, better yet, be on intense medication; and it
wouldn't be so surprising that he sees ghosts.
Q: In "Hamlet" you
chose to use American stars like Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon
and Robin Williams over British theater actors. Is there a difference
in the acting between British and American comedians?
KB: Americans are more free in
front of the camera. The English have a tendency to be obedient
and audacious. Maybe because they do a fewer number of movies.
Ordinarily, American actors often change the script or dialogue,
while the English are slaves of the text down to the last turnip.
Consequently, it's difficult to ask them to improvise.
Q: You've said that you're
not as sure of yourself on stage as you are as the director.
However, your actors always say the contrary. How do explain
KB: I pretend that, but in fact,
I'm not sure myself. If I pretend, it's because I know very well
how much an actor--like comedians-- needs reassurance. On "Hamlet",
I was totally terrified by the magnitude of this project, but
who would I have complained to? I've chosen to direct and to
play "Hamlet" in a four-hour version with a star-studded
cast. If I had any migraines, I wouldn't have had anybody else
to blame but myself.
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