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 this?

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 doubt?

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 and Juliet".

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 this paradox?

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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