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Brushing up on Shakespeare with Campbell Scott

A feature story by Rachel Gordon - Copyright © 2001 filmcritic.com


An avid fan of Shakespeare since age 12, I jumped on the opportunity to see the latest version of Hamlet, co-directed by Campbell Scott and Eric Simonson. Having watched Mr. Scott during eclectic performances from Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle to Longtime Companion to The Spanish Prisoner, I imagined an intelligent adaptation of the classic play, and wasn't disappointed. Talking to Scott, who also stars as the troubled Prince, proved even more enjoyable.

filmcritic.com: What made you decide to work behind the camera?

Campbell Scott: Sitting on a lot of sets. When you're acting, you just sit around and do your thing. After a while you think it would be nice to be engaged the whole day. As you get older, I think everyone feels that, no matter what the job: to try a hand at running the business as opposed to simply being an employee.

Has being an actor effected how you direct?

They affect each other. Certainly after I directed, it effected my acting too because you can't help but remember how difficult it was. I suddenly got nice to directors. (whisper) Yes, just do what they say, they have a million things on the brain. I think of making movies as an actor. It's all about how does each scene work in the story, and telling the story cleanly.

Have any of the directors you've worked with influenced you?

All of them. You always see things you like and don't like. You develop a sense of how to work with actors, how to work on set, how to deal with the crew, all from what you've seen. I certainly admire people like Alan Rudolph (who I did Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle with) and Robert Altman. They love their actors and encourage them to do things. Those movies are more flexible and relaxed. There are other sets you're on, where you just hit your mark and say your line.

Being a robot.

Be a robot while we change the lights around for 5 hours. Ultimately, I try to get away from that. You have a huge crew and it's interesting to be in the middle of all of that. You try to encourage everyone who is working on a movie, develop an appreciation for what they do. I couldn't do movie after movie. It would make me run screaming into the night because there are so many people around. But having said that I loved it, and I love it when I do it.

Like when we did Hamlet. It's twice now I did it with a co-director and it worked out great. It's nice sharing the burden with someone. On Final [an upcoming psychological thriller], the first time I solo directed, it was digital film, so it was containable and it had a smaller crew.

You went from Big Night to Shakespeare to Final, why the change in genre?

I don't want to continue in one thing, same as being an actor. I don't want to get caught in being "the romantic guy," and that's easy in this business. I love to jump back and forth and Final couldn't be more different from Hamlet. Hamlet is necessarily large, with a big cast. Final is about two people talking in a room. It goes back to solving the little problems that I've always solved, just as an actor. What are the rhythms of it? How do you make it not dull? Where's the peak?

Then of course there's editing. I have an editor, Andy Keir, who did both Hamlet and Final. You need someone great because you're stuck in that room with them for at least three months. The time in the editing room is fascinating. The amount that we removed, from both Final and Hamlet -- a lot of it was great. You don't want to take it out, but then suddenly you remove it and it's better. So the whole time you're learning how to be economical, and I love that. It helps you the next time you're preparing a movie. You think, do I need all this stuff? Maybe I'll get rid of some of it before we start. It's an asset to have someone with you who will argue constructively, but at the same time do what you say. That's why I love Andy. He has great taste.

Why did you decide to direct also, since Mr. Simonson directed you in the play?

I was generating it. I had done it before. Then Eric came along. I told Eric I was dying to do this play, but I didn't if he wanted to start from scratch. Then I was becoming a film director at the time. I wanted to make a movie of this. When I was pushing it and getting the money I thought, I can't do it alone. What am I, crazy? He was the most intelligent choice because we had just done the play together. So he said, "If you get it together, I'm there."

He has just started his directing career too. I think it might have been an opportunity for him like Big Night was for me. Big Night was very much Stanley and Joe, who wrote it. It was their project and their sensibility and it was an ideal opportunity for me to learn about directing without having all the pressure on me. It worked out beautifully. So in the same way, I think Eric was there to remind us what we were doing.

It's not a vanity piece, unlike other previous productions, in my opinion.

I'm glad to hear you say that. I don't think I could do that, because it ruins the play. One of our big things when Eric and I were talking about it is that often, yes, you see someone is either directed to be, or at the center of the production. It's "I'm the famous titular character". It throws everything off balance because, really, he has no power. All he has to work with is his rather warped intellect and silly sense of humor. Then circumstances continue to pop up, especially this revenge mission he's pushed towards. To me, very simply, this is about a young person who becomes a man.

What were rehearsals like, as you only had three weeks? Did you use improvisation or go straight to the script?

Hectic. We went straight to the script. Having to do it again, I would try to not rehearse during the time we were prepping the movie too because it was distracting. To prep a movie and rehearse your actors is incredibly exhausting. Everybody in that cast are smart people, 99% of whom I already knew and trusted and that was helpful with a short hand already. They were amazingly generous in that they would just jump on. Eric and I would say, "We don't really have time, but this is what we want and see if you can get there." They all managed to do that and make the parts their own, quite a tribute.

So you chose to make it more of an ensemble?

If you let everyone be good, your movie is better. You can't, no matter what anyone says, build a movie around someone. Breakfast at Tiffany's isn't a great movie because Audrey Hepburn is brilliant and everyone else isn't. It's a great movie because everybody is fascinating, and she is at the center of it being amazing. As an actor you also learn that if other people are shining and you make them shine, then you are better yourself.

It changed the way people normally see some of the characters. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are normally portrayed as bumbling idiots. Here they are innocents; it's more compelling.

You've struck on an important issue to Eric and me, which is that nobody can be fools because if they are, Hamlet could just run over them. Why would he have a problem with them? Hamlet has nothing but problems. Rosencrantz (Michael Imperioli), Guildenstern (Marcus Giamatti), and Polonius (Roscoe Lee Browne) are often played like fools or clowns, and they're not. They wouldn't exist in that world if they were. They wouldn't be in Claudius's court. They wouldn't be foils for Hamlet and they have to be, otherwise why have the scenes? Polonius has been there through three or four kings. There's a reason he's there. When he gets killed, you feel something as opposed to Oh, the old guy got killed. I knew that was coming. Thank god he shut up. Yes he goes on and on, and he's creepy, but he's also smart and a worthy adversary for Hamlet.

Why such a simple production design? And why is it so important for it to look and sound American?

Eric and I strongly believed in Americans doing it, and trying to make it accessible for American audiences. It's because we're American, if for no other reason. We love to see good American productions; there aren't enough of them. Hamlet sounds great with American voices. I respond to it. Shakespeare is rich and beautiful and it can be an amazing experience to read and to watch and to work on. But a lot of people think differently. I felt that way in high school, that it's the most boring thing in the world. Then you get a taste of something, and think that's the kind of performance and expression you want to cultivate. That's why it becomes important. Everything else follows. Put it in America. Make it look both exotic, which is always fun, but also more accessible. You have to use different actors from your acting pool, including black actors…

I was just going to ask about that.

It's a texture we all recognize. There are, and I can't speak for them obviously but those I've spoken to, Hispanic, Asian, and African-American actors out there who love it, who want to do it, and who want to see more people like them doing it.

It also adds another layer as to why Hamlet and Ophelia can't end up together.

That was a nice side, though not something we thought of. The reason why Polonius and his family are African-American is because I spoke to Lisa Gay Hamilton (Ophelia) about it for years. It's very American. They are a family in that court that is never quite going to be royal, but they are up there. It's hard because people think there's an alternative agenda. And the fact is, there is none.

Any challenge adapting play to screen?

That happened pretty easily. A lot of ideas came from stage productions. Absolutely, blatantly stolen. When I sat down to type it up I plugged in images, a lot of them we didn't film because we didn't have the time or the money. You adapt something, then you end up discerning what you dream about versus what is practical. You make the best of it as you go. But I had 10 years to think about it so I had specific ideas. Most of our feelings about the scenes were based on remaining clear, to not impose too much on it. Let the characters be as fascinating as possible. Let's face it, it's Hamlet, the story works. There's nothing we can do better than he did. And the poetry works, so why touch it? So you use that as specifically as possible to the people who are doing it. Lisa Gay's mad scene, play it clean and let her go. She's been this willful woman so far, and when she's mad you feel a loss. You try to approach it that way with every single person… and then you put a lot of music in.

(laughs) …and then you put a lot of music in.

Well, it is three hours long.

It didn't feel like three hours though.

It's under three hours. I like to say that to people: It's a fast moving 178 minutes.

It actually is.

It moves along. The beginning is slow but that's exposition time.

But it's not slow. For instance, the first scene with the Ghost before introducing Hamlet to it. Usually that scene is skipped. But it builds a stronger foundation to talk to Hamlet about it, and a better relationship between Hamlet's comrades.

That scene is one of my favorites and often it's smoothed over. To me, Horatio (John Benjamin Hickey) and Hamlet is a truly important relationship, and part of this larger idea that Eric and I expressed to people and to the cast. Basically, one of the wonderful heartbreaking dilemmas of Hamlet is that the only people he loves who can offer him comfort have no power. Horatio and the Players and Ophelia, to an extent until he thinks she's betrayed him. He reaches out to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He hates Polonius. He can't talk to his mother because she is going another route. Claudius is out. Everyone else is a politico. So when the Players come up the driveway he thinks, "oh god, somebody I can talk to." And they help him but they have no power. It always gets flashed back to him. He has to do something.

People ask "why do you think this play lasts?" It's a young play. Everyone identifies with being in a situation where they are at the end of their 20's and uncertain about rising to adulthood. It's a tough place to be. To the point where we even consider what it would be like not being on earth, to be or not to be. It is accessible and contemporary in its sensibility.

You moved "to be or not to be"? How come?

That's how I did it with Jack O'Brien in the first production at the Old Globe. He and his dramaturge had decided to put it there because there is a version where it actually exists like that. I convinced Eric to do it in the second production and he was all for it once he saw how it played. Frankly, it always worked for me as an actor so we kept it there. I feel we haven't disturbed the text too much because it does exist somewhere, someone did it like that a long time ago. I don't know if it was Shakespeare or one of his men, but it was thought about.

I never liked having it interrupt before the nunnery scene because I like the buildup to it without Hamlet stopping in the middle of it, thinking. I think it works better because the Ghost blows his mind a little. It also makes practical sense. He has the Ghost scene and then there are several scenes where everyone is saying, "Have you seen Hamlet? He's mad." So you get this buildup. The first thing is for him to be alone and say, "Should I live or shouldn't I live?" and it's effective.

You add some fantasy details, that he's hearing the Ghost, such as when he slices his arms. That's not in the original…

(chuckles) No, there is no self-mutilation in the original text.

So how did that come about?

Seemed like a good idea. Sometimes you are looking for ways into things. It's something I always did. We didn't do it in any of the stage productions because you can't with all that blood. "To be or not to be" is obviously one of the most famous parts of the play. I'd noticed that once you said that line, people miss the next five lines because they are busy turning to the person next to them saying, "It's to be or not to be." That drove me crazy. Your mission is to make this fit so that people listen and stay in it. It's a way to get keep people engaged with something they would normally be distracted by. To remember what it is about. It is probably the simplest soliloquy that he has. It's complicated in some of its grammar but you want people to pay attention to the one true line of it. As I said, often they're not because it's "to be or not to be." And to get away from that, we did a couple of things to lead into it so that we're still thinking about the previous scenes. Some people came up to me and said, "You know I was listening to that for once," and I was glad to hear that.

Especially when you're doing Hamlet. Everyone wants to do Hamlet.

It's going to be loaded. It never goes out of fashion. My friend, Jared Harris, is doing one now. He's a superior actor and I can't wait to see his.

Was it a worry, when you were going into production, knowing there were so many others?

No. More than anything, I make the analogy that it's like an enormous place of natural beauty. You go there, other people go there, and sometimes you love it so much you bring other people back with you. But it will always be there, there's nothing you can do about that. You can't climb Mount Everest and then say you own the mountain. You come back and say, "Yeah, I was there. Maybe we'll go back. Maybe we'll watch somebody else go."

You co-directed Big Night and then Shakespeare. Do you find yourself repeating patterns, in your style of directing?

Style always makes me nervous because I don't think I have one. If I do, it's actor based. Work out the rhythm of the scenes. That's how I approach anything. If a visual style becomes prevalent, it's usually because the D.P. has good ideas as you go along. They can translate what you say to them in their own language. Big Night had a specific sensibility and that was Stanley [Tucci] and Joe's [Joseph Tropiano's]. That script was meticulous and beautifully written and not much was changed. As far as between the two, let's face it, it's such a blur. If you have any time at all it's when you're about to go into the editing room, when you're looking at all the material. Then it's another puzzle to piece together. The actual filming is going for a million ideas, hoping you get half of them, and spending half the time worrying about the catering truck being in the shot.

You directed Final by yourself; how was that different versus co-directing?

It was no different. I actually had co-directors on Final, too. Bruce MacIntosh, the writer, was around. Dan Gillham, who was the D.P. on Final and Hamlet, was there. My feeling is that, no one directs a movie alone, I don't care what they say. Some people run the set more tyrannically, more self-centeredly, more focused, or simply more relaxed than others. But you don't make movies alone. Everyone is working towards something. Hopefully you're a good enough communicator that everyone is working towards the same thing. To me the toughest part of being a director is the psychology part. Trying to deal with everyone's personalities. Not that everyone is difficult, but it's hard to encourage that many people and still get what you want.

Did you have more rehearsal time with Final?

Oh god no. We had four days of rehearsal, but we rehearsed constantly on set. Half the movie is two people talking in one room.

What's it about?

I'm not telling ya.

Ya won't tell me?

(chuckle) It's about a guy who wakes up in a mental institution, that's Denis [Leary]. He's great in this movie. People are freaked out that he's such a good actor. It's about the relationship he begins to develop with the doctor who is trying to bring him down to earth.

So, is Hamlet finished with you now, or is he going to haunt you still?

I was telling my wife last night, it's over and it feels great. Eleven years is enough. Plus I'm too old, I'll be playing Claudius soon.

I have to ask this or my editor will kill me, can you tell me anything about Delivering Milo?

Delivering Milo is a sweet, family film. I got a tape the other day and my son, who is three and a half, loved it. That's new for me, to be in something he can sit through. I tried to be the goofy guy in it, which is fun. I rarely do these sweet things but I thought, why not?

Try anything once?

Absolutely. In my old age, I've become loose about that stuff.