Michael Almereyda, Dakota Johnson, and
Penn Badgley during the filming of Cymbeline.
HitFix: Why did you decide to adapt “Cymbeline” and set it in this world of biker gangs and drug dealers and dirty cops?
Michael Almereyda: It’s a wonderful play. It’s magical. It has great scenes and characters. I was aware that there hadn’t been a movie made from “Cymbeline,” and it felt like an opportunity to start from scratch and to do something fresh. [A biker gang] seemed like a fair equivalent to the tribal pagan societies and alliances that Shakespeare used as a background for “Cymbeline.” And it really is a framework. The movie isn’t really about biker gangs so much as it’s about a family and broken trust. It’s a kind of a blighted love story, and almost every man in the story has some imbalanced relationship with a woman. And that intrigued me. It seemed, in some ways, a very modern set of relationships. While Ethan was doing the TV commentary with me he said it’s kind of like a Neil LaBute play. So there’s an element of – it’s not misogynistic but it’s exploring misogyny. It’s exploring the way men can mistrust women and try to control them. In the center of it, though, is a very strong woman character [Imogen] who’s not really a victim. She transcends her role and she’s just a kind of force within the story, and that drew me in too.
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“Cymbeline” is packed with a slew of tones and different types of stories. It’s difficult to classify – there’s both comedy and tragedy. Some of it feels like fantasy, and other parts are more real-world, political intrigue. How did you approach juggling all those tones and creating one cohesive film?
Almereyda: One trick was to unify the timeframes. In the play there are three different timeframes. I unified it and generalized it by setting it in America. It became a willfully American version with American characters and an American subtext. You know the play is about the forming of the British Empire. [At the time “Cymbeline” was written] King James had just risen to the throne, and Shakespeare in some ways was reflecting that even though he’s talking about the deep past. He was acknowledging the recent ascension of King James, and all of that didn’t seem relevant to me. It wasn’t my concern. So the script became more focused on the relationships between men and women and less about empire and about warfare. And so it’s a distilled version of “Cymbeline.” It’s more focused. The play is not a tragedy, and it’s not quite a comedy, but it has streaks of comedy, and it does have wild tone swings, which in some ways makes it modern to me. But it can be confusing to people. We try to acknowledge the variety of mood swings and the preposterousness, the fun of it, the playfulness and also the depth of it because a lot of the characters get unhinged and go in dark directions and get submerged into jealousy and bitter crazy feelings. I wanted to respect the urgency of those emotions and get actors who could handle them.For the Cymbeline trailer—and my analysis of it—click here.