If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off," Emily Dickinson once said, "I know that is poetry." I'll get back to this, in a minute.
We were in the lobby of a midtown bank at 3 a.m., filming that scene -- you know the one -- in which the ghost of Hamlet's father (Sam Shepard) appears on a surveillance monitor, prompting Hamlet's spooked pals to dash to the elevator to check it out. After the second take, one of the producers turned to me and said, "This reminds me of 'Scooby-Doo' " I didn't feel insulted. It wasn't the first or last time I had to face the implicit question: What are we doing here? Why "Hamlet" -- again -- here and now?
The answer leads back to Emily Dickinson by way of Orson Welles, who conjured up a version of "Macbeth" in 1948, shooting for 21 days on an RKO sound stage cluttered with fantastic, soggy-looking papier-mâché sets. Welles described his film as "a rough charcoal sketch" of the play, and this remark, alongside the finished picture, provoked in me a sharp suspicion that you don't need lavish production values to make a Shakespeare movie that's accessible and alive. Shakespeare's language, after all, is lavish enough. The meaning and emotion are all embedded there, line for line, word for word. In the last 400 years, who more than Shakespeare has been so directly responsible for transmitting the particular electrical charge that Emily Dickinson described -- the recognition of sudden and contrary meanings colliding in your brain, a certain top-of-your-head-being-taken-off feeling? Dickinson herself felt the ceiling lift when reading Shakespeare. After first taking in a volume of his plays, she was prompted to ask: "Why is any other book needed?"
At any rate, I was visited by an elemental desire to film Shakespeare. It was, as Emily would have it, practically a physical impulse -- like wanting to go swimming in the ocean, or running out into a storm at night. Then again, maybe it wasn't so purely hedonistic. I had some hope that my reflexes as a filmmaker would be tested, battered and bettered. That I'd be swept along into deeper Shakespearean currents.
I was hovering over various possibilities, relatively obscure plays -- and I was resisting "Hamlet." It seemed too familiar, too obvious, and it's been filmed at least 43 times. Better to leave it to high school productions, spoofs and skits and "The Lion King." As T. S. Eliot noted years back, "Hamlet" is like the Mona Lisa, something so overexposed you can hardly stand to look at it.
But masterpieces are definably masterpieces because they have a way of manifesting themselves in our everyday lives. The play, and the character, seemed to be chasing me around New York. I passed high school kids quoting "Hamlet" on the street. I was informed of the existence of a "Hamlet" porno film. And I found myself thinking back to my first impressions of the play, remembering its adolescence-primed impact and meaning for me -- the rampant parallels between the melancholy Dane and my many doomed and damaged heroes and imaginary friends: James Agee, Holden Caulfield, James Dean, Egon Schiele, Robert Johnson, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Jean Vigo.
I was struck by the fact that no film of "Hamlet" features a truly young man. In dozens of versions (including two silent films with women in the title role) none of the actors were under 30, and the most definitive, conspicuous modern incarnations -- Olivier, Richard Burton, Kevin Kline, Mel Gibson -- were all at least 40 when they tackled the part. ( Kenneth Branagh, at 35, seemed hardly any younger, despite his trim platinum haircut and the enthusiastic swashbuckling moves unleashed for the climactic duel.) Why not entrust the role to an actor in his 20's? The character takes on a different cast when seen more clearly as an abandoned son, a defiant brat, a narcissist, a poet/ filmmaker/perpetual grad student -- a radiantly promising young man who doesn't quite know who he is. (The play's famously simple first line is, "Who's there?")
And I was heartened by the Polish scholar Jan Kott's passionately lucid 1964 book, "Shakespeare Our Contemporary." "The genius of 'Hamlet,' " Mr. Kott wrote, "consists in the fact that the play can serve as a mirror. An ideal 'Hamlet' would be one most true to Shakespeare and most modern at the same time."
Given the story's familiarity, it seemed altogether natural to locate a new "Hamlet" in the immediate present, to translate the Danish kingdom into a multimedia corporation, and to watch the story unfold in penthouse hotel rooms, sky-level office corridors, a coffee shop, an airplane, the Guggenheim Museum. The chief thing was to balance respect for the play with respect for contemporary reality -- to see how thoroughly Shakespeare can speak to the present moment, how they can speak to each other.
Then I showed Ethan Hawke a six-page treatment and explained my intention -- to shoot fast and cheap in New York, to film in super 16 millimeter, to make everything as urgent and intimate as possible, to keep all spoken dialogue as written by Shakespeare but set within and energized by a contemporary context -- Ethan got it immediately. He trusted me, and he was ready, with a breathtaking absence of Hamlet-like equivocation, to leap in. "You know," he said during our first discussion, in a bar, over mid-afternoon glasses of beer, "we don't have to go to Yale to do this." Then again, given 400 years of tradition, we knew we could never prepare enough. Ethan worked with an actor who had previously played Hamlet on stage (a gifted man too modest and ambitious to want himself credited as a coach), and we met at least once a week, reading and talking through the play, most often in Ethan's study, where he tended to pace around the pool table that dominated the room.
Ethan's contributions were essential. Fortified by Harold Goddard's excellent critical study, "The Meaning of Shakespeare" (unfortunately out of print), he made a case for Hamlet as someone whose hesitation to kill Claudius is justified, contrary to the questionable imperatives of revenge or the bloodlust of an impatient audience. Hamlet doesn't need to kill Claudius, Ethan insisted, once he's made the man face his own guilt. "There's nothing in the body of Shakespeare's work that suggests he thinks murder is a good thing," he said. The level of vulnerability Ethan brought to the role, the quality of imploding self-doubt, is tempered by this conclusion, as is our entire treatment of the story.
Later on, Ethan passed me a video cued to a clip of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whose concept of "inter-being" felt like a perfect ramp leading up to Hamlet's most famous soliloquy. I tossed it into the mix -- the one modern pre-recorded voice, I'd like to think, that Shakespeare wouldn't consider an intrusion.
Through all this I was watching every version of "Hamlet" available in New York, scheduling systematic visits to the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Television and Radio and the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. (This is a curiously claustrophobic activity. You plug yourself into headphones and a monitor mounted within a tight Formica cubicle, surrounded almost exclusively by middle-aged men studying old Broadway musicals.)
Of course, I rummaged through books of critical theory but, more to the point, I never stopped reading the play, which carries the best advice for any director: "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action." This is so smart and simple it's almost stupefying.
The screenplay came together quickly and even easily -- a process of channeling and distillation. (Typing Shakespeare straight into your computer is a thrilling act of ventriloquism that I can recommend to any writer.) My main job, anticipating work behind the camera, was to imagine a parallel visual language that might hold a candle to Shakespeare's poetry. There was no wish to illustrate the text, but to focus it, building a visual structure to accommodate Shakespeare's imagery and ideas.
From what I can tell, global corporate power is as smoothly treacherous and absolute as anything going in a well-oiled feudal kingdom, and the notion of an omnipresent Denmark Corp. provided an easy vehicle for Claudius's smiling villainy. But this was a key opening a wider door. It's more meaningful to explore how Shakespeare's massive interlocking themes -- innocence and corruption, identity and fate, love and death, the division between action and thought -- might be heightened, even clarified, when colliding with the spectacle of contemporary media-saturated technology.
Shakespeare, after all, has Hamlet caught in the wheels of his own hyperactive mind, enthralled by "words words words." The film admits that images currently keep pace with words, or outstrip them, creating a kind of overwhelming alternate reality. So nearly every scene in the script features a photograph, a TV monitor, an electronic recording device of some kind. The play-within-the-play becomes Hamlet's homemade video projection. Polonius (Bill Murray) eavesdrops on his daughter (Julia Stiles) by taping a microphone to her shirt. (This was Ethan's inspiration, courtesy of Linda Tripp.) And while nature, in the dialogue, is continually invoked, the characters in the film are never exposed to a real landscape until they arrive, en masse, at Ophelia's funeral -- the graveyard being the only respite from the city's hard surfaces, mirrors, screens and signs.
In reviews published since the movie's premiere, in late January at the Sundance Film Festival, the only criticism that's rattled me are the strangely bitter complaints about "product placement" -- carping fueled by the cynical assumption that billboards and logos on display in the film were promotional throwaways by which the producers lined their pockets. The undignified, all but unbelievable truth is that we paid for the privilege of parading certain logos and insignias across the screen. There was, after all, an intended point. "Denmark is a prison," Hamlet declares early on, and if you consider this in terms of contemporary consumer culture, the bars of the cage are defined by advertising, by all the hectic distractions, brand names, announcements and ads that crowd our waking hours. And when, in this independent film, the ghost of Hamlet's father vanishes into a Pepsi machine, or Hamlet finds himself questioning the nature of existence in the "Action" aisles of a Blockbuster video store, or Shakespeare's lines are overwhelmed by the roar of a plane passing overhead -- it's meant as something more than casual irony. It's another way to touch the core of Hamlet's anguish, to recognize the frailty of spiritual values in a material world, and to get a whiff of something rotten in Denmark on the threshold of our self-congratulatory new century.
All the same, the film contains some dazzling contradictions. The fact that this "Hamlet," skidding into being on a perilously low budget, happens to feature a notably high-profile cast -- prominent actors all working for scale -- is further testament to Shakespeare's supernatural status as the great leveler, unifier of mighty opposites.
In most cases, the actors were my first choices for the roles. Sam Shepard, preparing the ghost's big speech, confided that he'd never worked so hard on a part, never felt so challenged. (I can report, in turn, that I never saw the ghost played with such an electrifying sense of reality.) Bill Murray, showing up for the script reading, disingenuously volunteered that nobody had ever asked him to play Shakespeare before. (He then confessed he'd taken workshops, years earlier, with the magical scholar and voice coach Kristin Linklater, and he handled the language with such eccentric agility that I'm hoping he tackles a heftier Shakespearean role down the road.) It also emerged that Mr. Murray, in the course of an action-packed career, had never taken on a film in which he was obliged to die. Whereas Ethan Hawke had always resisted roles requiring his character to kill someone. And here we all were -- all the actors in the film doing miraculous work, coerced by Shakespeare into facing an extended part of themselves, a new kind of reality.
It's a truism that every movie is made three times: in the writing, in the shooting, and in the editing, each process generating new contingencies and surprises. And so, many of our best and worst ideas fell by the wayside -- sacrificed for the sake of clarity and momentum and to dodge mistakes, making this latest "Hamlet" the most condensed straight film adaptation in English. Entire scenes were dropped, Shakespeare's text was further trimmed and torn, and the result is, inevitably, an attempt at "Hamlet" -- not so much a sketch but a collage, a patchwork of intuitions, images and ideas.
"Who's there?" The famous stark first line was finally cut, with great reluctance. But we never stopped asking ourselves the question. Shakespeare's most inexhaustible play -- an echo chamber, a bottomless well, a hall of mirrors, an untamable beast -- keeps throwing back infinite answers.
Michael Almereyda is the director of "Nadja" (1994) and "Another Girl Another Planet" (1992). His "Hamlet" opens Friday May 12, 2000.