Wednesday, July 11, 2007

HBO Lets You Have It "As You Like It"

Speaking of theater...

HBO Films presents director Kenneth Branagh's imaginative adaptation of Shakespeare's classic AS YOU LIKE IT, celebrating the enduring power of love in all its many disguises. Witty, playful and utterly magical, the story is a compelling romantic adventure in which Rosalind and Orlando's celebrated courtship is played out against a backdrop of political rivalry, banishment and exile in the Forest of Arden - set in 19th-century Japan.

Marking Branagh's fifth Shakespearean screen adaptation, AS YOU LIKE IT features a cast that includes (in alphabetical order): Brian Blessed ("I, Claudius"), Romola Garai ("Vanity Fair"), Bryce Dallas Howard ("Spider-Man 3"), Kevin Kline (Oscar(r)-winner for "A Fish Called Wanda"), Adrian Lester ("Hustle"), Janet McTeer (HBO Films' upcoming "Five Days"), Alfred Molina ("The Da Vinci Code") and David Oyelowo (HBO Films' upcoming "Five Days"). The film debuts TUESDAY, AUG. 21 (9:00-11:15 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.

Other HBO playdates: Aug. 25 (4:00 p.m.) and 29 (10:30 a.m., midnight), and Sept. 2 (10:45 a.m.), 6 (4:00 p.m.) and 11 (2:00 p.m.).

HBO2 playdates: Aug. 27 (9:30 a.m.) and 31 (8:00 p.m.).

HBO presents in association with BBC Films, A Shakespeare Film Company Production, AS YOU LIKE IT by William Shakespeare. Adapted for the screen and directed by Kenneth Branagh; produced by Kenneth Branagh, Judy Hofflund and Simon Moseley; director of photography, Roger Lanser, ACS; production designer, Tim Harvey; editor, Neil Farrell; music composed by Patrick Doyle; costume designer, Susannah Buxton; makeup and hair designer, Jenny Shircore; casting by Sarah Bird. HBO Films vice president Jenni Sherwood is the executive in charge of the production.

Thanks to its timeless wit, romance and playfulness, "As You Like It" is one of Shakespeare's most popular plays. For Kenneth Branagh, the idea of making a film version came to him while playing Touchstone, the court fool, in repertoire in the mid-'80s.


1 comment:

  1. "'As You Like It' is a classic feelgood romantic comedy, and I've seen it have a delirious effect on audiences," Branagh explains. "The combination of light and shade means that Shakespeare's comedies are often as beautiful and moving as the tragedies."

    Perhaps the most compelling strand of "As You Like It" is the love story. Says Branagh, "The way it presents a romantic relationship is contemporary, funny, touching and realistic. It's very accurate about the game-playing and posturing that go on. Above all, though, it's a great tale. You'll recognize all the people in it, and their stories will make you laugh and will move you, whether you are 15 or 75."

    Branagh first had the idea of setting "As You Like It" in Japan while on a trip to the Far East in 1990. "I sat in a rock garden at a temple in Kyoto for two hours and was surprised at the extraordinary meditative calm that descended on me and the other visitors. It seems to me that one of the central themes in this play is the idea of the transformative effect that nature can have upon us. By relocating the Forest of Arden to Japan, it would be possible to get audiences to experience the story in a new, different and exotic way.

    "I felt the sublime landscape and fascinating culture could be an inspiring setting for this quintessential romantic comedy. With sumo, martial arts and cherry blossom, I hope that the drama and the joy can combine to produce a wonderfully enjoyable film."

    Branagh was also keen to move away from too traditional a setting for the story. "People tend to feel that because the Forest of Arden is named in the play, it must be the place in Warwickshire," he says. "But Warwickshire isn't mentioned, any more than the Ardenne in France [another suggested location]. In fact, no place names are mentioned. So you could argue that the Forest of Arden is a mythical place, or, if you like, a state of mind."

    In the middle of the second half of the 19th century, Japan was trying to become an industrial nation. As a result, it opened itself up to the West for about 50 years. Branagh explains, "In Europe, the idea of Empire was still in full flow and European adventurers were all over the world, often setting up their own little fiefdoms. In Japan, they often lived in little enclaves around what they called 'treaty ports,' basically the areas around docks where much of the trading of silk, rice, etc., was going on."

    This historical phenomenon gave Branagh the idea of setting the play among a group of Europeans who form a hybrid, commercial version of court life, where they are influenced by local culture but retain their European nature. "It had some kind of historical precedent and meant we could introduce both Europeans and Japanese characters," he explains.

    In short, setting the action in Japan offered the filmmakers a great opportunity to borrow from Japanese culture and to celebrate it in terms of landscape, gardens, costumes, dance and martial life.

    Over the years, Branagh revisited Japan three times while promoting other film projects and then took himself back to Japan for an "As You Like It" research trip, watching sumo tournaments, meeting calligraphers and bonsai tree-makers, and generally soaking up the culture. Branagh returned to England buzzing with ideas.

    "When you start working on an adaptation like this, I think you have to find the nuts and bolts of the story and then meet the difference between a 400-year-old text and a contemporary medium," he continues. "So, what do you leave out? How do you tell the story with pictures? And how do you strike the balance between presenting the story and finding a visual language that lets the words that remain sing out? It's also about being bold enough - if you think there is a cinema narrative that is crying out to be followed - to sometimes abandon the structure of the play."

    One of the major changes was to stage the palace coup at the beginning of the film. "In the play, the overthrow of Duke Senior by Duke Frederick happens offstage and is reported rather confusingly," explains Branagh. "In one scene, it seems as though the banishment occurred a couple of months ago; in another, it appears to have happened very, very recently, so we made a decision about that."

    Aside from transplanting the action to a Japanese trading post, Branagh also wanted to bring out the layer of darkness in the play. " 'As You Like It' is not exclusively a bucolic, lyrical comedy. The play begins with the bitter dispute between Orlando and Oliver, and I wanted to ensure that our story was not too soft and easy. There has to be a possibility of disaster in order to heighten the dramatic stakes."

    To remind audiences of this threat, Branagh wanted to bring the disputes between Duke Frederick and Duke Senior, and between Oliver and Orlando, into sharper focus. "In a story that can so often seem like a romp, where everything may appear to happen in a parallel universe of undisturbed kindness, we wanted to keep that danger alive and keep a kind of disturbing energy underneath the comedy and the romance," he notes. As a result, Branagh needed both to take seriously the psychological development of characters involved in the major theme of fraternal dispute, and to keep the palace coup in focus throughout the film.

    Branagh made other structural adjustments for the screen. Shakespeare's theatrical style often involves repetition. He explains, "At the beginning of each act someone will come on and say, 'Aha, so here we are in the Forest of Arden' and reset where they are for all the people who've come late. We didn't need to do that.

    "You try to follow your own instinct about telling the story through the text," concludes the director. "Then, as you gather people around you - the production designer, all the other collaborators, the cast - and see how they respond to it, you all try to make the goals truthful and organic."

    As an actor himself, Branagh is very interested in performance. He believes the ultimate goal is to make the acting feel completely realistic and believable. Another imperative is that the audience be able to recognize and identify with the characters.

    At the start of the casting process, Branagh pulled together collaborators from past films, all of whom he knew could bring Shakespeare to life. These included Brian Blessed as Dukes Frederick and Senior, Richard Briers as Old Adam, Adrian Lester as Oliver and Jimmy Yuill as Corin.

    "Brian Blessed I've worked with many times," says the director, "and he was a key part early on. This is a great opportunity for him to show something new: to be both quiet and terrifying and quiet and beatific. I decided to use one actor for both roles, because it helped to sharpen the response to what brothers can do to each other and the strange complexity of such relationships."

    Kevin Kline was also someone Branagh thought about early on. They met when voicing the animated film "The Road to El Dorado" and then again on the madcap western "Wild, Wild West." Says Branagh, "He has huge experience in Shakespeare and I knew he was very interested in the part. Kevin has a gift for conveying intellectual capacity: he's a smart man and he gives the impression of a thinking man. He can be melancholic in a very touching way, and also very funny and very silly. So he brought a complete range of qualities to the role."

    Says Kline, "In every production I had seen, I'd always found the character of Jaques difficult to understand or care about. Ken and I discussed the fact that, because he's referred to as 'the melancholy Jaques,' that quality tends to override most of what he does. We wanted to avoid just sounding the same note. So, as we investigated the text, we realized he was of course impossible to define in one short little thumbnail sketch. He is very complex, very human. By setting it in the late 19th century, we could access the Byronic, nihilistic melancholics of the Romantic period, which opened it up a little bit in my mind."

    With these people on board, Branagh then went through a regular casting process to fill the other roles, noting, "I tried to find people who would have the naturalism I was after, the intelligence that's required, the swiftness of thought, and dexterity of articulation and elocution."

    Branagh is unequivocal in his praise for Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays Rosalind, saying, "Bryce is a proper committed artist. She cares deeply about what she does, she's gifted in terms of the skills that she has, she's a beautiful woman and a witty, charming individual. But what Rosalind needed above all was a great big intelligent heart.

    "Bryce could see, feel, touch, and embody Rosalind without being actorish. She has a luminescent quality; there is tremendous sort of vital, sexy, non-boring goodness."

    Says Howard, "Rosalind is quick and bright. In some ways she begins the play a woman and then finds her inner child when she falls in love, before growing up again. I think that's kind of normal: We fancy ourselves as grown-ups and then become giddy and ridiculous in love. What Kenneth Branagh has really shown me is Rosalind's sense of fun, her goofiness and her silliness. When she falls in love she is a mess; in her seduction she is the anti-seducer. She does ridiculously silly things and becomes incredibly emotional, needy and open, all the things we are taught to not do when we are trying to tempt someone! But ultimately that's what's beautiful about her."

    As soon as Howard was cast, Branagh knew that Romola Garai would be the perfect Celia to her Rosalind, noting, "I had seen her both on film and on stage and I knew not only that she was very talented and very beautiful, but that she would bring a lot of 'character' to the part. She would be able to undercut the romance, when it gets too serious, with physical comedy, which we introduced at several points."

    Branagh turned to one of his previous collaborators, Adrian Lester, for Oliver, and to David Oyelowo for the youthful and romantic Orlando. "It was wonderful to get these two actors," he says. "They are exceptionally adroit with the Shakespearean language, but also very vigorous. I already knew of Adrian's brilliance, having worked with him on 'Love's Labours Lost,' and David is a very exciting new talent. He has such intelligence and a rare combination of masculinity and sensitivity."

    Says Oyelowo, "I think Ken has done an incredible adaptation. I think he's cut away any fat that can take you away from the core narrative. So you believe both the love at first sight between Rosalind-Orlando and the sibling rivalry. He's kept away from the fluffier parts that can sometimes make the whole play lack focus. And he has raised the stakes. I really think people might view the play differently after seeing this."

    In addition to shooting at London's Shepperton Studios and briefly at Virginia Water, the Surrey village, the crew moved for four weeks to Wakehurst Place. The park, which dates from the 13th century and is managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, is in an area of outstanding natural beauty in West Sussex. Benefiting from several different styles of garden and a dramatic ravine stuffed with Asian woodland plants, it was the perfect location for the Forest of Arden. Incredibly, it has never been seen before on film.

    The production needed a location for the Forest of Arden that was able to give a sense of vastness and wilderness. Says Branagh, "The impact of the forest on our film and the characters inside it was hugely important. I discovered that there was a wild part that we could shoot in, and there were formal parts and a sort of scale to it that was most unusual and felt very un-English. You could completely believe that the AS YOU LIKE IT characters would be able to get lost in it, and all these various stories could be running parallel in it."

    The chief challenge for production designer Tim Harvey and his team was convincing an audience that the action takes place in Japan. Harvey, who met Branagh in 1987 on the acclaimed television series "Fortunes of War," explains, "With many Shakespeare adaptations the director has a strong concept, but even by those standards, this was pretty radical!"

    From a design point of view, the film breaks down into being either the Duke's court or the Forest of Arden. "We hit gold with Wakehurst because it is so varied," says Harvey. "The court is basically one major room that we have revamped as different spaces. It doubles as both the central hall where the film opens and the sumo wrestling ring."

    The design team had to create 500 banners, each handwritten in Japanese characters, pinned around the forest by a lovelorn Orlando. Harvey and team rose to the occasion with gusto, and sore arms, he says, noting, "Our office was a factory of banner-writing for weeks; the four of us won't forget how to write Rosalind in Japanese in a hurry!"

    Faced with the task of dressing a large cast with sumptuous costumes that would evoke 19th-century Japan, designer Susannah Buxton decided to make a lot of the clothes, rather than rent them. "We needed more than one of each costume so that we could break them down to show the effect of forest living," she explains. "Plus, we had made the decision that for members of the court we wanted Western shapes in period kimono fabric."

    Buxton's research included trips to kimono collectors in Leeds and Brighton, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and wading through piles of books. "When you are researching you see a lot of kimonos from the '20s onwards which are much brighter and more garish than those from the 19th century," she says. "It's difficult for us to spot the difference, but to Japanese eyes it's totally obvious!"

    Japan, the 1880s: Duke Senior [Brian Blessed] has founded a small commercial court on the edges of the Forest of Arden. With his daughter Rosalind [Bryce Dallas Howard], his niece Celia [Romola Garai] and his courtiers, he is enjoying a traditional kabuki play when the palace is surrounded and overrun by an army of samurai warriors, under the leadership of his brother Frederick [also played by Brian Blessed]. Senior and his men, including the visiting loner and philosopher Jaques [Kevin Kline], escape to the wild and vast Forest of Arden.

    Meanwhile, the sons of the late Sir Rowland de Boys, a one-time friend of Senior's, are also at odds. The eldest son, Oliver [Adrian Lester], has been left in charge of the estate and of the education of the youngest, Orlando [David Oyelowo], who is livid that his brother has not given him his inheritance. Oliver, for his part, is murderously jealous of Orlando and plots to kill him. However, Oliver's plan to have Orlando dispatched by the court's champion sumo wrestler, Charles, backfires when Orlando wins the fight and falls in love with Rosalind, one of the spectators. His love is immediately reciprocated and she gives him a chain from her neck. Orlando is so smitten he can barely thank her.

    There's more, but you'll have to tune in to find out!


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