NEW YORK — Measured by popularity, prestige, and prominence in the Academy Awards race, "Shakespeare in Love" is the success story of the season and a success story with a surprising twist, since nobody expected it to become both a runaway hit and an Oscar phenomenon with a whopping 13 nominations.
Among those caught off guard was John Madden - who ought to have known better, since he directed the movie, and helped shape the final version of its screenplay with writers Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.
"Of course I'm surprised by this!" said Madden in a lunchtime interview during a recent New York stopover. "I had a hunch that the film was accessible," he added, "but I put that down partly to the fact that it matched my own passions and concerns."
Since he knew moviegoers might be put off by a Shakespearean story, Madden realized he had to find a way "to disarm an audience's expectations and get past all the paraphernalia that's accumulated around that man. But what was perceived as a possible handicap - a title with the S-word in it - has turned into an asset. People go to the movie not quite knowing what to expect, even if they've read about it, and are so delighted by what they find that they turn into passionate advocates of it."
Madden speaks admiringly of his collaborators on the picture, but in the end he seems to feel Shakespeare himself deserves a lion's share of the credit. "The whole movie is constructed and conceived in Shakespearean terms," he says. "It hitches a ride on his work, and it opens that work up for a modern audience, reconnecting emotions to poetry and sexual attraction to romantic love. I guess those are things America wants to hear at the moment - and Spain, and France, and pretty much anywhere the film has opened so far."
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all for Madden is the fact that he's been able to express his love of history in two consecutive movies -his previous picture was the excellent "Mrs. Brown," about Queen Victoria and one of her servants - while also indulging his enthusiasm for the spoken and written word. "I'm attracted to films that take you into a different world," he says of his historical interest, "because they offer something inquisitive and speculative. I like the keyhole aspect of moviemaking, placing an audience in an environment they're not familiar with."
As for language, "it's a great passion of mine," he admits. "But that's something you have to say in hushed tones when you're around the movies, because they're supposed to be about pictures. They're not just about pictures, though. What we often remember about films is the language, the voices, the words."
When he says "Shakespeare in Love" is meant to be as Shakespearean as its title, Madden is referring not only to its period and characters but also its structure and themes, which reflect key concerns of Shakespearean comedy.
"Those plays often involve people with very romantic ideas of love," he explains, "looking for romantic infatuation or the pleasure of experiencing love. Then these [ideas] go through an unexpected reversal involving death or separation or loss. This causes the romantic love to be reevaluated and turned into real love with all its dangers and risks, leading to a redemptive conclusion with overtones of melancholy and isolation. All the mature comedies turn the notion of love around to see what its component parts are and what its significance is."
Madden's knowledge of Shakespeare dates from his early years as a stage director in his native England, before he moved to the BBC for television and radio work. He made his feature-film debut with the dramatic "Ethan Frome" in 1990. Other credits include projects for National Public Radio, the Broadway stage, and the Yale School of Drama, where he taught for several years.
Bringing together Madden's affinities for language and theatricality is the pleasure he takes in directing a first-rate script. "The writing always comes first for me," he says. "The common territory to [writing and directing] is imagination - the inhabiting of an imaginative world, and the way it interfaces with a more literal kind of reality. That's exactly the subject matter of this film, and I found it very easy to relate to."
The main characters of "Shakespeare in Love" relate to it as well. "What unites Will and Viola beyond a physical attraction," Madden muses, "is the ability they share to inhabit an imaginative world."
Madden's idea of an "imaginative world" is not a fantasy or metaphor, but a paradoxically real concept that occupies him in very real ways. "When you're directing a movie," he says, "you spend half your time in an imaginative reality. On the set, I'm constantly being asked if there's something wrong, because of my expression. But it's never that I'm depressed, it's that I'm lost in some imaginative guesswork about what's going through a character's mind at that moment in the scene I'm about to shoot."
If there's one line of dialogue in "Shakespeare in Love" that sums up Madden's personal affection for the movie, it's the repeated comment that some aspect of the story is "a mystery."
"There's something incredibly mysterious about the process of creation," the filmmaker says. "As a director, you're given the illusion of complete control over what you're doing: You can shoot a scene again, stop the camera, cast [the roles] any way you want, reedit until the cows come home. But in the end, you should surrender to the things you can't predict and don't understand. That's where the real creation happens."