ROMEO AND JULIET
About the Production
He is impetuous and emotional, ruled by his heart. She is a thoughtful ingenue, new to romance. And they are madly in love. Their parents and kinsmen would disapprove -- if they knew. But they cannot -- their families are bitter, ancient enemies, and would separate them forever if they had any inkling of the budding passion.
His name is Romeo and hers is Juliet. The lengths they go to for love will require schemes and secrecy, will turn friend against friend, cousin against cousin. It will lead to violence and death -- and, ultimately, to reconciliation.
Sometime between 1591 and 1595, William Shakespeare wrote what would become one of his most celebrated and beloved plays: "Romeo and Juliet." This tragic tale of "a pair of star-crossed lovers" has captured the hearts and imaginations of audiences ever since. While the iconic teens' ill-fated love affair has played out on stage, television and movies, it has been over 40 years since a feature film returned the story to its original setting in Verona, Italy. Academy Award-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes, director Carlo Carlei and Swarovski Entertainment and Amber Entertainment aim to rectify that with this latest screen adaptation of the play, filmed on location, starring Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth as the title characters, and featuring an international, all-star cast of actors as their friends and relatives, members of opposing houses of Montague and Capulet.
The latest version of "Romeo and Juliet" began with producer Ileen Maisel, who felt that the current generation had not been exposed to a more traditional, romantic vision of the play and might enjoy sumptuous locations, costumes and production design, along with the timeless tale of young love, deception, intrigue, death and redemption. While Renaissance-era English and iambic pentameter can be daunting, Maisel believed the story has contemporary resonance -- the opposing young Montague and Capulet boys are akin to rival gangs, for instance; and Romeo and Juliet carry on an illicit relationship, in direct defiance of their parents, something every teenager can understand. Maisel wanted someone who could update Shakespeare's language and story while staying true to its poetic cadence and compelling plot lines. She turned to Julian Fellowes, who, with the acclaimed feature "Gosford Park" and his recent television series "Downton Abbey," has experience adapting dense, multi-character, period dramas for modern sensibilities.
"Ileen thought that modern audiences hadn't seen a classic presentation of the play on film in a long time," Fellowes says. "Medieval Italy, velvet, silk and damask costumes, climbing roses, the beautiful, Italian architecture, that sort of thing. She thought the story was timely but also that the play needed to be accessible for the new generation in a simpler, more straight-forward way. Also, the play is three hours long and we needed to work in the timescale of modern films, so the narrative had to be more concise. There have been good film versions - notably Baz Luhrmann's, which I thought was marvelous - but that was set against a contemporary background. There hasn't been a more traditional 'Romeo and Juliet' since Franco Zefirelli's in 1968," Fellowes says.
Fellowes notes that the play itself is very cinematic, and adapting it was more a matter of highlighting certain elements that meshed with the medium. "Of course the basis of the script already existed in dramatic form in Shakespeare's original text -- it had the arcs of its story, principal characters and so on. What I did in a way was to bring forward elements that I felt were relevant to now, that might be interesting to a contemporary audience. The goal was also to examine the visual aspects of the play. For instance, beneath the love story, how Tybalt kills Mercutio and Romeo kills Tybalt, and the two families remain involved in a permanent violence that holds the city in its thrall. In the theater, you can sort of talk about that. But in cinema, you can show that in a much bigger and graphic way. And the locations -- Shakespeare's plays often have a variety of settings but we can realize them in a much bigger way on screen. So the big emphasis was to highlight the love story, to make it strong and clear and powerful and to make the piece full of action -- in addition to the words," Fellowes says.
Maisel and Fellowes found a likeminded partner in Swarovski Entertainment, the film division of the venerated luxury brand. Swarovski Entertainment has a long history with motion pictures, as evinced most recently by the glittering backdrop that appeared on the annual Oscar broadcast, featuring 6500 of the company's famed crystals. With a history spanning 75 years on the silver screen, having worked with countless costume, jewelry and set designers on some of Hollywood and Broadway's most renowned productions (most recently the production design of the new production of "Evita" and the award-winning "Dreamgirls"), it seemed a natural evolution for the company to move into film production. Nadja Swarovski, a friend of Fellowes, agreed that the revered story along with the elaborate sets and luxurious costumes Maisel had in mind for "Romeo and Juliet" seemed tailor-made for Swarovski, and she came aboard as executive producer.
The filmmakers turned to Italian filmmaker Carlo Carlei to direct. "I love Carlo," enthuses Fellowes. "Ileen and I wanted Carlo to make this movie literally from the first moment we thought of it because he's a sort of painter with film. So he did seem to us to be the ideal director. And of course he is Italian and had an innate enjoyment of the visual richness of Italy and a vision of how to capture it on celluloid, so we were absolutely thrilled when he wanted to do it."
The final piece of the puzzle of getting Romeo and Juliet to the screen came when Maisel and her partners were introduced to Doug Mankoff and Andy Spaulding at Echo Lake Entertainment. Mankoff and Spaulding agreed to come aboard as producers and to bring part of the financing for the film through the Blue Lake Media Fund, the fund they manage with Toronto's Blue Ice Capital Group. Having financed and produced numerous films, Echo Lake is a 14 year old production, management and financing company. Blue Lake, it's partnership with Blue Ice, is one of the most prominent financiers in the independent arena, having financed many highly acclaimed films including Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" and the two most recent films from Pedro Almodovar, With Echo Lake and Blue Lake on board, Romeo and Juliet could be greenlit, and the team began to cast and prepare for the shoot.
Of course, casting such iconic roles would be a key challenge for the producers, beginning with the title characters themselves. Landing the part of the lovers were American Hailee Steinfeld (an Oscar nominee for her film debut in the Coen Brothers' "True Grit") and Brit Douglas Booth (from the acclaimed miniseries "Pillars of the Earth" and "Great Expectations"). A host of admired actors from both sides of the pond soon followed - talents on the rise as well as established artists, including Ed Westwick as Tybalt, Kodi-Smit McPhee as Benvolio, Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence, Lesley Manville as The Nurse, Damian Lewis and Natascha McElhone as Lord and Lady Capulet, and Stellan Skarsgard as Prince of Verona, among others.
"We were incredibly lucky to get this cast, starting with the young lovers," says Julian Fellowes. "It was key to get the right Romeo and Juliet. Young love is very special; the first time one falls in love is something that few of us forget -- that feeling that no one else in the world knows what you're going through, that no one has had this feeling before and it's perfect and amazing. To make that believable, we needed two actors who are gifted, but young. In our case, we were able to find two young but really experienced and talented actors. We have Hailee, who is an Oscar nominee, for goodness sakes, but she's only 15. And literally for her, she is still at that stage in her life where anything is possible. Douglas is a couple of years older but still a young man. You have that extraordinary energy and optimism in them that is unfaked."
The pair held their own opposite a troupe of skilled veterans, as Fellowes points out. "We have an extraordinary cast for the rest of the characters who elevated the whole movie. It's the job of the director and the young actors at the center to raise their own game to that level. But I feel they've done that. We were very lucky to attain to attract the people that we did and the movie is better for it," he says.
While most audiences know Douglas Booth for his portrayal of Pip in the BBC's 2011 production of Dickens' classic "Great Expectations," Julian Fellowes spotted the actor before that, having offered him his first feature film role. He kept an eye on Booth and found that in the subsequent years, the young man had matured, physically, emotionally and artistically.
Fellowes remembers: "I suppose I can claim to have 'discovered' Douglas, when I gave him his first film role in 'From Time to Time,' a movie starring Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville and Dominic West which I made in 2009. I needed a young man who was handsome and arrogant and proud. Douglas ticked all these boxes and did a good job. But in the time since we worked together, he's found something more, a kind of tenderness, a sympathy and a strength that informed his Romeo and made him, quite simply, heartbreaking."
Of course this is not the first time Booth has essayed an iconic British literary character, and naturally he was familiar with the play -- but the opportunity to approach the classic through Julian Fellowes's script also appealed to Booth.
"Especially growing up in England with William Shakespeare being one of our greatest playwrights, we see and read lot of Shakespeare. But to be honest, I never fell in love with it the way I did when I read Julian's script. The way he adapted it made it very accessible and took me on a cinematic journey that was brilliant and intrigued me," Booth explains.
The chance to play Romeo to Hailee Steinfeld's Juliet also interested Booth, who was and is a fan. "Hailee is wonderful and it was an absolute pleasure to work with her. She is so outstandingly talented, especially for her age. She was 15 when we shot the movie and her performance is mindblowing. She brought something interesting and fresh to Juliet -- this naive young girl who also has a longing to be a woman. Hailee herself is so young but so mature and worldly at the same time -- I thought her take on the character was fascinating and multi-layered and something we haven't seen before," Booth notes.
Steinfeld certainly proved she could handle mouthfuls of complicated dialogue, as evinced by her Oscar-nominated performance in "True Grit." Fortuitously, she received Fellowes's script at the same time she was reading the play for a school assignment. "I kind of combined the script and the play into research for the movie and really got to learn a lot about the text and Shakespeare," Steinfeld recalls. She first met Booth, at the Met Ball in New York and the two had an affinity even before cameras rolled.
"That's the crazy part of the casting process. A couple of weeks later, we read together in London and it was really great that we had spent some time together before that, we already had a chemistry, a rapport. When we started filming, we jumped right in and really went for it," Steinfeld says.
Both Booth and Steinfeld especially want young people to relate to their Romeo and Juliet. "Juliet is independent, a free spirit, full of untapped love and passion. I think a lot of girls can relate to her and want to find their Romeo. And it's very relevant, in terms of kids defying their parents -- Juliet does NOT want to marry the young man her parents have in mind for her. The rivalry between the Montague and the Capulet kids seems very modern to me. Julian said this generation deserves their own Romeo and Juliet. We have the honor of being able to portray this story and hopefully kids -- really people -- all over the world will be able to identify with it," Steinfeld says.
Indeed, to underscore the contemporary themes in the 16th Century play, Booth found an article with tragic parallels to the young lovers' tale. "We always wanted to base this in reality and when we did the camera test, I brought a newspaper clipping in to show Hailee. There was this young guy who lived in the English countryside who was cleaning his shotgun. His girlfriend was there, they were both 15 -- the gun went off and it killed her. He was so of full of grief that he instantly turned the gun on himself and killed himself. So I just showed Hailee and I said, 'I want this movie to be about two young people who are completely capable of killing taking their own lives for love.' And you know, arranged marriage is still happening today ... young people should be able to relate to all these things, to find them in the real world. This isn't just some sort of fictional, stuffy 'well, that wouldn't really happen.' It does happen, young people do go through these things, feel this deeply. Our story is taken to the extreme, but I think that every young person experiences their own mini version of Romeo and Juliet at some point."
And not just the tragic portions -- there is, for instance, that classic balcony scene. "I loved filming that scene -- standing on the balcony, saying those famous lines was one of the most amazing experiences. To say those words out loud -- it's what a girl would practice in her bedroom. And then when Romeo bursts in after he's overheard everything Juliet says about him? It was one of my favorite moments in the movie," Steinfeld says.
Both Steinfeld and Booth found a kindred spirit in their director, Carlo Carlei. "Carlo is a really incredibly visual director," Steinfeld says, "and has the most mesmerizing way of conveying the image he wants. You can see it in his eyes, how passionate he is, how much it means to him and that excitement was just infectious. He was also really fun and I learned a lot from him." Booth concurs, adding "Carlo had such a wonderful and beautiful vision for the film and was so committed to the material. From the first conversation I had with him, I had a sense of how the movie would look and feel."
Of course, as any fan of the play knows, the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is fostered by the longstanding feud between their two families and a series of tragic misunderstandings by those closest to them. Part of the enduring brilliance of the story, in fact, is the way in which the supporting characters -- many of whom only have the best of intentions and the greatest love for the heroes -- inadvertently contribute to the inevitable downfall. That makes the roles of Juliet's Nurse and Friar Laurence, in particular, essential for dramatic (as well as occasionally comic) purposes, requiring actors of great skill and depth. For the Nurse, the filmmakers cast stage and screen veteran Lesley Manville, best known to audiences from the groundbreaking films of Mike Leigh (including her turn opposite Jim Broadbent in Leigh's acclaimed "Another Year.") "When Carlo offered me the part of the Nurse, he made it very clear that he wanted it to be, not just a sort of comic turn," says Manville. "When you scrutinize the part, when you look at it properly, it is actually more tragic and emotional than funny - there are more scenes that the Nurse is involved in that are harrowing than are witty and funny. She is, intrinsically, somebody that sees the funny side of things and the glass is half full and she's a positive kind of person. But of course, her relationship with Juliet is quite deep and special. Juliet's relationship with her mother is much more formal and quite distant. But the Nurse has fed her as a baby, and she's been her wet-nurse. That bond is very, very close and Juliet talks to the Nurse in a far more intimate way than she talks to her own mother. She shares everything with her - the Nurse along with the Friar, is the only one that know she's married Romeo. The overall approach has been to bring up the reality of it and within that there is humor and there is tragedy and all of those things but the basis that we're starting from is to try and make it as believable as possible."
Manville, like her peers, is also quite impressed with the work of Hailee Steinfeld. "She is quite an extraordinary 15-year-old," claims Manville. "I don't think I've ever met anybody who's quite so committed and savvy and incredibly focused. There's nothing about her that is wayward or not quite in the moment. She's an incredibly hard worker, and she really does want to get it right."
Emmy-winning actor Paul Giamatti ("John Adams," "Sideways") was tapped to play Romeo's older confidant, Friar Laurence. "I know the play very well and I always thought Friar Laurence was a sort of great part," says Giamatti, who admits to once playing an unlikely Romeo in an acting school exercise in his early twenties. "I always really liked the part and figured; probably someday I would play it. And then they came to me with this and I thought, that's wonderful! Anytime they're doing Shakespeare on film, I like that Americans don't get much of a chance to do Shakespeare on film, at all." As to what he finds compelling about the character, Giamatti adds, "Friar Laurence sees this romance as an opportunity to make peace between two families. I think he also has a bit of a romantic nature and he likes the fact that these two lovely people are in love like this. He wants to make peace, but he goes about it the wrong way. I think it's complicated in the play and for him because God is the one who should be ordering it and taking care of it but he, because he's a bit of a scientist, I think he thinks he can control it a little bit so he gets into strange moral territory."
With talented actors -- both veteran stars like Damian Lewis ("Homeland"), Natascha McElhone ("Californication," "The Truman Show") and Stellan Skarsgard ("Mamma Mia!," "The Avengers") and up-and-comers like Christian Cooke ("Doctor Who," "Magic City"), Ed Westwick ("Gossip Girl," "J. Edgar") and Kodi-Smit McPhee ("Let Me In," "Paranorman") -- taking on the other supporting roles, "Romeo & Juliet" promises to speak to a new generation of lovers -- star-crossed and otherwise.
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