A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard II, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost – for almost 400 years, the works of William Shakespeare have been regarded as the most important in the history of the English language with his ability to capture comedy, drama, tragedy and romance being celebrated the world over. Now, Roland Emmerich – the director most famous for films of alien invasion (Independence Day) and global destruction (The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) – has decided it’s high time Shakespeare was exposed as the fraud that a great deal of historians and commentators believe that he was.
Anonymous (in cinemas today) tells the story of Edward de Verve, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) and explores the idea that he is the true author of Shakespeare’s work – just don’t call the subject matter a consipracy. “Conspiracy is a word I don’t like to hear,” Emmerich says. “I couldn’t stop them putting it on the poster which is annoying. But there are very interesting documents you can read – Mark Rylance and Sir Derek Jacobi [both feature in Anonymous], wrote a Declaration Of Reasonable Doubt – which will help you find out what is really happening.”
With lavish sets, intricate costume and impressive performances from an all star cast (Ifans is joined by Jamie Campbell-Bower as a younger version of Oxford, whilst Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson share the role of Queen Elizabeth – who, it is suggested, may not have been as chaste as we think – while David Thewlis supports as dubious royal adviser William Cecil), Anonymous has enough death, comedy, drama and incest to make it a very Shakespearian affair. We speak to the director about this latest project, and find out how he came to be a director in the first place.

What is your earliest memory of film?
The first time I went to a movie theater was 2001 [A Space Odyssey, 1968], with my older brother and I had no idea what I was watching but I was fascinated. It was kind of what a true good film is – they take you to a place you haven’t been.

When did you decide you wanted to be a director?
It was relatively late. I decided I wanted to do production design for film and heard of the film school in Munich, but they only educated by teaching directing. So I lied and said I wanted to be a director to get in and when I was at film school I told everyone I wanted to be a production designer. I did lots of production for other students but you had to do your own movie there as it was a directing school. But when I did my first film, it was like a virus you can’t get rid of. I managed to wrangle my graduation film to be shown in the Berlin competition – and then I was a director and off I went!

Since then you’ve made a real name for yourself for making big disaster films, and Anonymous is completely direction to that – what was it that attracted you to the project?
It was the script. I couldn’t get it out of my head – it’s always like that with me. It was always about the story and this story really fascinates me – especially after I read a little bit about how much merit it has.

How did you research the period?
What you have to do is just read everything. And then don’t believe anything. That’s something I learnt really quickly. The history books say a lot of words but dance around the subject and the same happens with Shakespeare if you read his biography, it’s a joke! John [Orloff, who wrote the script] and I were trying to come up with solutions to find out what really happened. There was all this proof – the Privy Council at some time in the middle of her reign changed the Act of Succession so that the bastard children of Queen Elizabeth could become the next king if she said so. Why should they have done this if she did not have any children? So it was a precaution. And at that time there was no talk of the king of Scotland – that was a later invention. But whatever you do write or film about history is only guess work. [The Elizabethan Era] was a totalitarian, Stalin-esque state, there’s nearly nothing from the original records that you can believe, and so you kind of have to do your own guess.

You think the time period was like Stalin?
Yeah! It was a totalitarian monarchy. If anyone ever said anything negative about Queen Elizabeth they were immediately thrown in the Tower.

Luckily the laws have changed since then, otherwise you’d be in trouble! How accurate do you think your own interpretation is?
We didn’t want to make a documentary as that would be boring. Looking at other great films that I love – Amadeus, for example, is a story about Mozart and Antonio Salieri and they hardly met in truth. But is it that important? I think it is a great story because you see the difficult life Mozart had at his time – not as a glorified composer – only because someone else was not as talented and became eaten up by jealousy. And that’s how I think historical movies should be – to get the essence of the time or the essence of what happened to them.

Did you factor in what the British reaction might be to this film as you made it?
Well, I knew that I would upset a lot of people, but that goes without saying. And who doesn’t want to upset the English? All the people who yelled the loudest are the ones who have the most to loose – the Shakespeare industry, the Stratford industry – and those who truly love Shakespeare the writer. But to think that finally somebody would say differently, we open up the discussion and everyone can make up their own mind. There shouldn’t be a literary dictatorship here.

You have an incredible cast for this film – how did you go about casting?
I only wanedt an English cast so I went to England with my casting directors and sent the script out to every actor I like and met them and would chat with them and find out what they liked from the script and asked what part would they like to play. Rhys Ifans, who I kind of had in mind for William Shakespeare, came in and said “you probably have me sitting here for the role of William Shakespeare but for me the part I would love to play is Oxford. I feel an affinity to his character. I feel he is eccentric like me and I think I can do something really special here.” And from that moment it made more and more sense so he ended up playing the part. The only two actors I wanted to have from the beginning were Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely [Richardson]. Even in the writing period I was thinking “this is for these two women”. And I know Joely from The Patriot and we always talked about her mother and I was a little nervous when I met Vanessa because she is known for being very, very well read and I knew from her daughter that she always wanted to play Elizabeth – but she also said, “look, mum will only play if she agrees with how you portray Elizabeth” and so I was nervous because how we portrayed Elizabeth is totally different from other versions. But to my great relief, she totally agreed and actually said “we need to make this stronger! Let’s go all the way!” She went for it.

Shakespeare is an integral part to the whole training process for actors in the UK, so did any of the cast question the storyline?
Not at all. The people who knew about it all agreed. David Thewlis is a very well read actor and he said we were right on. And Vanessa believed in it too. And a lot of other people don’t care! They say “as long as somebody wrote it, I’m fine.” Naturally I cast Mark Rylance, who is very outspoken about it, just because he wanted to be in it.

With Anonymous suggesting Shakespeare faked his own success – when was the last time you faked something and got away with it?
[laughs] I do that all the time! If you look at my movies, it’s all fake. But I am of a thinking that whatever you do, you do it for a reason. I try to be as honest as possible in my endeavors but I know sometimes I can’t be too tied to the truth.

Anonymous is in cinemas now
Interview: Seamus Duff