Even for a tale that began life as an old English heroic epic poem dating somewhere between the 8th and 11th century A.D., it still pretty safe to say you have never seen the Beowulf story this way: Utilizing an improved version of the motion capture technique used to create The Polar Express, director Robert Zemeckis was able to literally create a new world from scratch, and that is a rather important ability to have when the world involves dragons, monsters, trolls, lizards and more...
Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier sat down in Los Angeles, CA with Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich and Ray Winstone to talk about an ancient tale, a new kind of film-making and working with a legendary film director on Beowulf...
Emmanuel Itier: John, What was it like to work with Robert Zemeckis?
John Malkovich: For me, it was a great delight. Working with Robert, he’s very enthusiastic, precise, and clear. For me, it was a great joy.
Anthony Hopkins: Yes, and for me, ditto. It was confusing at first because we had to do these weird gestures – stand up, pull faces, and all that. I wasn’t quite sure what the purpose was because it was a room very much like this. There were no cuttings or scenery or such. I think I was a little late coming in, maybe a day after everyone else, but there was so much energy coming from Bob Zemeckis. It was such a positive energy, it made it so easy, and everyone had a great sense of fun with it. I was just very pleased.
I haven’t even seen the film yet. I hear it’s pretty good. I’m looking forward to seeing it on Monday with people. Yes, it was altogether a wonderful experience. I’m really proud to be part of this great movie. Thank you!
EI: Angelina, what was it like to play a demon?
Angelina Jolie: It was great! It was a great experience that we all had. I think that the nice thing about it was that we all do films these days. So much of it has become a business. So much of it is these projects where people want to rush through these things, or you feel like you make a movie and you’re not really sure. You have kind of lost touch with the artistic process and the fun of it. Bob is a real artist. He loves it so much, he’s so enthusiastic, so original, and you really feel that you remember you’re a creative person. You have fun with everybody else. I needed that, as an artist, so it was really great. I’m really grateful for the experience.
EI: And as Beowulf, we have Ray Winstone. Ray - Beowulf isn’t flawless: He’s not the typical hero that maybe we’ve seen before, but that makes him more interesting maybe?
Ray Winstone: Am I answering that first question? About Bob Zemeckis... I think every film that you watch of Bob’s, you win some. He’s one of these guys that he’s the reason we landed on the moon. This is where he takes film, in a way. Every film he seems to make, there is some new thing he’s invented. It was great for me, and I guess for everyone, to actually go and work and be in something that was going to be the first. And it’s going to get better, so that’s that.
EI: And about your character?
RW: Well, when I met Bob Zemeckis obviously I had to do a lot of training for the film. I had to watch my diet and do press-ups – a lot of press-ups! It was just… for me, people say it was very much like theatre, but I found it kind of like the ultimate cinema without the cuts. You were there and you played the scene out. You were allowed to go, I guess like theatre, where you carry a scene on and you become engrossed within the scene. I loved the speed of it. There was no time to sit around. You actually cracked on with a scene and your energy levels were kept up. There was no time to actually sit around and lose your concentration. For me, I actually really, really enjoyed this experience. I would love to do this again sometime, because I think it’s going to get better and better and better.
EI: What do you think of the changes in the story compared to the story now? What did you know about the story before?
RW: Well, I told Robert Zemeckis that I knew the story, but I didn’t. Where I went to school, we read Al Capone and things like that, so Beowulf was very, very new to me. All I knew about Vikings was Tony Curtis and Kurt Douglas.
In a way, that was a good thing because I read the script not knowing the story. It seemed to me, when I read it, I spoke to the boys about it when it came down, and it’s kind of a modern story as well. It is about ambition, about greed, hate, and then love at the end–finding what you really wanted was there all the time, right in front of you–your son.
It kind of reminded me of Hollywood, in a way–the ambition in people, and that’s exactly how I kind of approached it from the off, really. When I spoke with the two guys, that’s how I kind of pitched it. They went, “That’s exactly what we thought. You’ve been lying as well!” [Laughs].
AH: No, I hadn’t read the original because I’m very lazy. I tried to read it, but I think I’m a little dyslexic sometimes. Maybe ADD? I fall asleep very quickly. [Laughs] I tried to read it but I read the script and I liked it very much. I was called in to Bob Zemeckis’ office, maybe I was living out here. I just went in and we had a chat.
He said, “What sort of accent do you think you would use for Hrothgar?” I said, “Well, I’m Welsh. It’s a pretty old language. We were the Irish who couldn’t swim.” I said, “I’d like to play it Welsh.” He said, “Do you think you can?” and I said, “I’ve played Welsh before.” He asked, “Can you give me an example?” So I did a little bit from Hugh Griffith. He played that horse dealer in Ben Hur. “How dare you treat my horses like animals… ” I sort of stole from that a bit and Welshed it up a bit. It felt comfortable because it’s my own language. I can understand those fighting, drunk Welsh people because I was one myself. Can go outside and fight now when I’m in a temper. I felt comfortable playing this drunken, lecherous man, thank you very much...
EI: John, would you like to add anything to that?
JM: Where I went to high school, it was required reading, believe it or not, and we had to do recitations from it in Miss Berkhart’s English class. I’m sure they were splendid, but I don’t remember.
EI: Angelina, had you read it?
AJ: Yes, I had read it years and years ago. I hardly remembered. I think I read it half asleep as well. But ditto, it’s one of those great stories that you know the themes of it. The themes you take away and you never forget. But when I read the script, it wasn’t fresh enough in my mind to compare it and it wouldn’t be at this moment even, I doubt.
EI: It seems like it might have been a tough world for women, back in the 6th century – even for those that had reptilian appendages... Angelina, can you talk a little bit about getting into character in terms of the time period? And did this experience whet your appetite for this kind of animation?
AJ: I feel it is tough to ask me because my character seemed beyond, certainly not restricted by, time. She was quite powerful and capable, even though she was stuck in a cave. Quite a different character, certainly not a woman of the period, so that would be better handled by someone else. I would certainly love to do more. I wouldn’t call this animation, though, because we were physically doing all of these things. Every single gesture is ours, everything is acted out, even where our eyeballs move, because it’s such a new thing, is exactly where we look. They were mapped exactly. It is our performances and we had these scenes together. I do think that is important to state, because it’s exciting that it’s not and it’s different.
EI: John, you could jump in on how this performance capture technique might liberate the actor in many ways.
JM: Well, to me, it was remarkably reminiscent of doing plays. You go in the morning and you put on all your things. That doesn’t take very long really – no longer than sort of make-up takes, and then you act all day. A lot of the things that might have come into play in normal filmmaking don’t come into play there. You don’t wait for lights, you don’t wait for camera, and you don’t wait really for anything. Continuity doesn’t matter too much. You just act all day.
I think, it seems to me and speaking with the other performers I worked with, that everyone loved that part of it. You came in, that’s what you did all day, and then you left. It’s a very good story, very good text. I think that, for must of us, it’s quite liberating because, at times, the process of making a regular film has remained quite medieval in some ways, especially with the amount of time it can take.
AH: Yes, John said it. It is freeing; it paradoxically opens you up. I remember the first day I was working, it was an entrance and I had to be sitting in a throne. I was completely smashed out of my mind. You don’t have to have a beard or costume, because they have done all that in the computer, so what you see up there is what they photographed in a previous… a few days before. They take all the information of gesture, facial expressions, and you do feel a bit of an idiot, standing there with these bee helmets on looking like an idiot. Little bees, all of you.
I thought the only thing to do is just jump in the deep end, just jump in and do it. Sometimes, on film, I think the most mind boggling thing is when you have two weeks’ rehearsal before you start a film. To me, I would rather have my fingernails pulled out than to do that because it’s so boring. You can’t get it, but I really don’t like rehearsing. On this, you just have to be ready. What you throw out there is what you are going to put in the camera. You have to have a pretty good idea of what you are going to do. It’s quite similar to working John Malkovich style. You are on the set and you are actually confronting each other, you are actually there, and you are virtually naked.
You don’t have any of the stuff that a movie set is usually like, or costume. You have no references. In a way, having no references, you have no mask so you have to create this performance as you go through. It’s really quite electrifying. You think, “Oh, I’m free. I can do whatever I like. What are they going to do, put me in jail?” To find out that it’s going to take another two years before they get it up there on screen is really something else. I can’t even remember what we did much, it was such a long time ago, but I’m so excited to see it. I really am. Those overused words… excited, but I really am looking forward to seeing it.
RW: I think, going back to what Anthony was saying about feeling an idiot at first, playing it: First you stand there in this wet suit with this thing on, and you stand there and you do feel naked. You really do feel vulnerable. It’s a question of, okay, are we going to do this or not?
I remember the first take I had done was with Brendan Gleeson on this mechanical ship being thrown around, trying to hang on and do the lines. We came out kind of talking like good guys. We were in a storm. It was that fear of actually letting yourself go. You had to do a pose before every take and it felt really stupid. I’m a 50-year-old man, you know? And you got these geniuses all around you, looking at you, and smiling, “Okay, pose, lift your leg up and do a little dance.” That’s so the computer gets you, and then all of a sudden you go to work. You go, “Oh Jesus, I can’t do this.”
I think I’m like that on every film. I never know whether I’m going to be able to do it or not. You become a little bit scared and you have to find something deep down inside you. You go, “You know what? F*** it, I’m going to do it. Let’s have it,” you know? Once you get over that barrier, you do really start to enjoy it.
I really didn’t know what to expect when I saw the film. I saw it two days ago in 3-D and I just sat there with my mouth open for the whole film. It just blew me away. I think what I really loved about the film was that without the effects, without the 3-D, without all the gizmos and all that, it’s a great story. The story holds up. Very rarely do you see films or special effects movies that have a straight story that will kind of live forever. I think that is what I’m very proud of the film for, for me, and being part of that. It is the initial thing of the nakedness. You feel really kind of not having anything on. Everyone is looking at you. But it’s really freeing once you have done it. I would love to do it again.
EI: Crispin was playing an inhuman character, but everybody else had a representation of your very famous faces that were pretty close to life. How do you feel about how you looked on screen with this new technology?
AJ: [Laughs] I got a little shy. I really wasn’t expecting it to be as real. I didn’t expect ourselves to come out as much. Because of, especially the type of character I play, it was kind of funny at first. There were certain moments where I felt actually shy and called home. I explained the fun movie I had done that was this digital animation, and it was, in fact, a little different than they were expecting. I was really surprised that I felt that exposed.
EI: Did you like your body?
AJ: [Laughs] I love my tail.
EI: Ray, how did you feel when you saw yourself as a 6 foot 6″ Viking?
RW: Yeah, I loved it. Yeah, yeah, there is nothing really more to say about it. It’s really weird because, obviously he’s 6’6″ or something like that, with an eight-pack. My wife loves it, she thinks it’s great. It’s funny, you just look at a picture and you go, “I’m the only one who kind of don’t look like me,” until you see the film move, and then you do, you start to recognize yourself.
The big thing for me was movement. I’m 5’10″, I’m an older man now, and I’m playing a warrior who is 6’6″. The way you move and that kind of bulk on you, that was something I had to really think about before the film. Then get older without becoming too old. You still have to be a warrior and you’ve got to fight a dragon. It was that kind of thought. It was like making a film, really. My wife pulled out a picture of me when I was 18, when I was boxing. I didn’t have the eight-pack, but it looks like me.
They had no pictures of me beforehand. I don’t know how they brought that out. I’m probably lying about it. It doesn’t quite look like me. [Laughs] But it’s great, it opens so many doors. You can play someone who is five years of age, and you can play anything you want to play. You can anyway, I always think, but this opens a hell of a lot more doors, in a way.
EI: This is a really wonderful story about a mom and dad, but set in an ancient culture… Which kind of stories did you love when you were a child or a teen? In which way did you relate your fantasy life to this story?
RW: For me, growing up in the ’60s... I was born in ’57, so it wasn’t so much books for me. It was cinema at the time, like Jason and the Argonauts and films like A Man for all Seasons or The Lion in Winter. I love history. I really got history in that way, and stories, so my books were kind of cinema. Cinema, to me, was great. Films like Zulu… so I think one of the greatest films ever made was A Man for all Seasons. It’s not much action. It’s great scripts and great work. That’s when great films can be books for kids that don’t read that much. I wasn’t a great reader as a kid. My stories were through cinema, really.
EI: Angelina? Stories you enjoyed as a child?
AJ: Treasure Island. I’m sitting here trying to think of some brilliant answer like everybody else will have, but I really don’t have one. I loved Treasure Island. When it comes to films I love, Lawrence of Arabia. I love The Traveler, I loved reading Winston Churchill’s works, and I loved his stories of his early life and his adventures. I loved the history in that, so those are mine.
AH: Well, very early, when I was 12 years of age, it was Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, which was a great Victorian novel of the time. It was kind of legend and fable, just a beautifully written novel. When we were doing the movie, this one, I thought what a great power this technique of making a movie has for all levels – a visual of what’s going to come. For example, I mentioned some of the great Shakespeares. I know that makes me pretty old at times, but I know that people are scared stiff of Shakespeare. I’m not talking about the accent and the meaning or all of that, but it would be interesting to take some of those great plays like Lear, which were fables and epics of their own kind, Macbeth… You can do limitless things with those. I’ve got an idea that they could be very powerful in this kind of medium. I think there are all kinds of possibilities.
JM: I remember quite a few things that I read when I was very young, things like Peter Pan or Our Town, but for some reason I can’t remember that time so well, so I couldn’t say more.
EI: Angelina, your character lives in a cave. With the green screen technique, wearing the green suit your character wears, you were flying and swimming… what was most challenging activity to do?
AJ: Bob will make you do weird things. I think for swimming, we had to think of something I could be attached to, and my waist was attached. My waist was attached, I had a harness, and had something with wheels. It was day one, I had to suddenly swim, and we were trying to think of what that would be in this new way. I was swimming with my upper body, being rolled around Crispin, and trying to pretend I was swimming. With flying, we hooked me up with wires and flew around. I had something where I was hooked up and being moved.
EI: And as if that wasn't enough, all the time the two of you were also speaking in another language?
AJ: It’s Old English. We had more of it, it was actually great, but I think it went over a lot of people’s heads. It was fun to learn and it was beautiful.
EI: Crispin studied with a professor. Did you as well?
EI: Your character has been described as the mother of a monster. How did you approach that? This movie suggests that sometimes a myth is preferable to the truth, at least in Beowulf’s case. With your highly publicized life, do you think that is true?
AJ: I try not to think about my public life. I focus on my private life and that’s just the best way to live. But as for this character, I was excited I got a call that I was going to be working with Bob Zemeckis. I was pretty much saying yes to anything. Then I was told I was going to be a lizard. Then I was brought into a room with Bob, with a bunch of pictures and examples. He showed me this picture of a woman half painted gold, and then a lizard.
I have kids and I thought, “That’s great, it’s so bizarre, and I’m going to be this crazy reptilian person or creature.” I was very excited. I met with Crispin [Glover] and we had a great time, and just amazing scenes. Then I saw the poster and saw a few other things. [Laughs] I realized, “Oh, I’m not just a lizard.” But I’m very excited about it. It was just great. She’s one of those fun characters. She’s evil, she’s temptation, and she’s very fun to play. Again, we had a great time and I got to work with great actors.
EI: As a femme fatale?
AJ: I suppose. I suppose she is.
EI: Is one of the attractions of doing this the short work schedule, enabling you to spend more time with your family: How are you able to balance all of these different aspects of your life, public and personal?
AJ: I’m not the only one on this panel with children! [Laughs] I do, this was a two-and-a-half-day shoot for me and I was three months pregnant. [Laughs]
EI: You wouldn’t know.
AJ: Well, we did the mapping of my body before. But no, it was a pleasure. Yes, the fact that it was short made it that much easier to not have to work too much.
EI: And the balancing?
AJ: You just try to balance, try not to work too much, and take turns working. It’s not that hard.
EI: Turning away from Beowulf for a moment - How do you feel about A Mighty Heart, because some people are saying it’s a disappointment. Were you surprised?
AJ: Of course not. It’s not a disappointment at all, to me. It’s a film that I feel strongly about, Mariane [Pearl] feels strongly about, Daniel’s [Pears] parents feel strongly about, and the people that see it appreciate it. I don’t see why in any way, other than box office dollars, which should mean very little to art.
EI: You are already working on another film - when The Changeling wraps, what comes next?
AJ: I have one more month on The Changeling and then I’m not doing anything.
EI: Will you spend Christmas in America?
AJ: I don’t know. We are talking about maybe New Orleans. We both have some work to do there. We don’t know, we’re leaving it open still.
EI: The work in New Orleans? Charity?
AJ: Yes, always. Many different things. There is a lot of traveling I want to do, continue to work with this education program we started, refugees, and many things. Travel when I can.
EI: Are you planning a trip now?
AJ: I am, but I don’t want to say where at the moment because I’m trying to get my visa.
EI: Finally, and unrelatedly, can you comment on the W magazine cover with you and Jennifer [Aniston] this December? Same magazine, different covers...
AJ: Why would I comment on that?
EI: Because you are both on the same cover…
AJ: And that matters because…? [Smiles]
Paramount Pictures' Beowulf is in theaters nationwide this Friday, November 16. 2007.