When Shekhar Kapur made Elizabeth in 1998 and began his journey charting the life of the virgin queen, he picked up an Oscar nod for Best Picture and helped his crew, and lead actress Cate Blanchett, secure their own nominations. Nine years later and the story continues in The Golden Age, exploring the events leading up to the Spanish Armada and Elizabeth I’s relationship with Sir Walter Raleigh. Rotten Tomatoes met with the director to learn more.
It was surprising to learn in the press notes that you’ve been very open in terms of liberties you’ve had to take with regards historical accuracy. How do you define the line between being historically accurate and telling a good story?
Shekhar Kapur: One of the things that I believe is that history is interpretation. One of the things I realised making the last film is that people called herthe Virgin Queen and the moment you say she’s the Virgin Queen, you’re already consigning her to myth. And myth isn’t historically accurate. Did Walter Raleigh really put the cape down or is that mythology? You just don’t know. There are certain basic facts, like the fact that the Armada existed, but according to the textbooks you’ll read the Armada was won by Drake, and yet when you interpret the facts you could conclude that the Armada was won by big freak storms, so it was won by the Gods. Which interpretation to do take?
Also if I made a film about Cleopatra today no-one would expect me to make it historically accurate because they agree that Cleopatra has been consigned to mythology. The moment you create an icon you’ve consigned to mythology anyway. Look at Diana, people are saying did she die? Did someone kill her? You’ve already consigned her to mythology. Things get very mixed up and so you interpret those things that have become more famous in the mythology of history.
The speech at Tilbury for example; I’ve always wondered if she’s addressing 10,000 men, how many of them heard it? Did the people at the front pass it on? Yet, every book you read says the 10,000 people roared with approval! It has to be myth! Did she just speak to her commanders who then interpreted it down to their soldiers? And what had changed by the time the last soldier had heard it? And did she write the speech? Did she speak it instinctively? All rulers have speech writers. Was it history or was it mythology? And who can tell?
At the same time it’s potentially quite brave of a filmmaker to make your own interpretation and on occasion challenge the scholars and the writers of textbooks.
SK: It’s the only thing a filmmaker can do – history doesn’t follow a three-act structure unfortunately! And there’s a difference between people who write the textbooks and scholars. Scholars say they’re interpreting. Scholarly work on history is always an interpretation and it’s very honest. They say up-front, “I’ve looked at this and looked at this and looked at this and therefore I coalesce these one-hundred different facts and come up with this interpretation. And it’s exactly the same in film because we have to tell our story in two hours. You do the Armada in three minutes… It was a six month long battle.
You’ve mentioned this is the second act in a planned trilogy; where do you pick up the story for part three?
SK: It has become a trilogy as I go on! This film ends with her becoming truly divine. Philip [of Spain] was divine and as you can see I’m heading towards that divine battle and the elements get involved and ultimately that’s the big myth that we’re heading to in the current-day world.
What’s interesting about Elizabeth is that all the great myths that we remember as people were killed. Ghandi was killed, he was divine, Diana was killed, she was divine, John F. Kennedy was killed, he was divine. Elizabeth is the only one who stayed divine, worshipped and died a natural death. How do you deal with people saying, you’re divine, you’re the Virgin Mary, while you’re alive? How do you come to terms with that? So it’ll be an interpretation of her own divinity and her own mortality, when she suddenly become ordinary and doesn’t live forever. Because of course you can’t sleep like Michael Jackson in an oxygen chamber.
Will we be waiting another nine years?
SK: I hope not, I hope that Cate will agree to do it earlier. People have said that Elizabeth was very old at that time and asked whether I’d be waiting for Cate to get that old and I’m saying no, cinematic age is an emotional age, it’s an interpreted age. If you see Cate now it’s amazing to see her in the film sitting down with drawn features. I’m convincing myself that she’s much, much older than she is. As soon as I say cut, she looks right at me and says, “What did you think of that?” And it’s ten years younger, her face. An actor will convince you of an age, and great actors are ageless as great icons are ageless. That’s cinema.