Coriolanus: Interview with Director-Star Ralph Fiennes

Coriolanus: Interview with Director-Star Ralph Fiennes

Why this film and why now?

There were two catalysts. The first was playing Coriolanus in a stage production in 2000, and believing that this play of Shakespeare’s could become a contemporary, urgent political thriller, with a Greek tragedy at its center, involving the mother and the son. And there’s something in the spirit of Coriolanus, in the essence of his character, which spoke to me very strongly and wouldn’t leave me.

The other catalyst was Simon Channing Williams, who produced THE CONSTANT GARDENER. We became very close while we were making that movie, and he gleaned that I was interested in directing. In fact, he wanted to produce the first film that I would direct. Very sadly, Simon died. We had tried to get something off the ground, which didn’t work. But we had worked on it for two years, and I’d begun to put on the director’s hat of scouting locations and so on. That gave me confidence to pick up CORIOLANUS when the other project fell through. Still, I didn’t talk about CORIOLANUS to very many people because on the face of it, it seemed unlikely to fly: me as a first-time director, also acting in it, supposedly quote-unquote difficult Shakespeare. Then one day I pitched it, as it were, to my agent, who said, “You should do this.”

CORIOLANUS is dedicated to the memory of Simon Channing Williams, because I know that without his belief in me I might not have had the confidence to move it along.


What drew you to Coriolanus as a character?

I like characters that challenge an audience. With “Coriolanus,” Shakespeare takes a really hard-ass man who despises the people, and makes him the protagonist. Which I think is thrilling, dramatically. Coriolanus comes into the opening of the story and basically tells the people to go fuck themselves. I think we in the audience decide we don’t like this guy based on that simple fact. But then the audience experiences him as a soldier, an extremely brave, almost crazy kind of soldier. They come to see that he has a kind of integrity, which is manipulated and destroyed by the world around him, and by his own arrogance and pride. Coriolanus wants recognition and doesn’t want it at the same time. He is very riven. I think he’s happiest in the battlefield; that’s where he is at one with himself.


How did John Logan become involved in writing the screen adaptation?

My agency introduced me to John as the first candidate to write this screenplay. He’s a superb screenwriter and he has an instinctive understanding of Shakespeare’s potential on the big screen. I told him my ideas for contemporary CORIOLANUS, and showed him a series of images that corresponded to different stages in the story. He really seemed to understand what sort of film I had in mind and we started to share ideas that would develop it further. 8

long hours, not glamorous conditions at all – and I knew CORIOLANUS would also be demanding. Also, I loved Barry’s work on UNITED 93, as well as his work for Ken Loach.

Barry comes from a background of documentary, mainly for the BBC. Famously, he’s very good at grabbing stuff hand-held, which for battle scenes and crowd scenes was great. And I knew for a lot of these scenes I wanted actors to play the scene through and have Barry weave in and around them. And throughout the shoot, Barry was extraordinary: flexible and alert in the moment to possibilities that I wouldn’t have dreamed of. He absolutely got the spirit of what I imagined and took it even further

John Logan

Well, John and I wanted to a make a film that was accessible to a modern audience, and we recognized it needed a strong narrative drive. I’d always found the basic story of “Coriolanus” really thrilling. The play sets up a visceral dynamic of confrontation: between Coriolanus and the audience; between him and the citizens; it develops, as it were, an intimacy of opposites between him and Aufidius; and there is an extraordinary tension between Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia. There are violent battles, power plays, reversals and betrayals. As cinematic storytelling, we felt CORIOLANUS could be exciting and approachable.

Of course, we had to aggressively edit the text. I had already identified some key areas to cut and John then came up with more cuts and more ways of revising things. He brought great ideas to the table, and he had a fantastic sense of dramatic progression in integrating them into the adaptation.


Shakespearean play into a modern context?

No, not at all. I believe that Shakespeare is in so many respects extraordinarily modern. Taking aside the question of the language, what’s happening in Shakespeare’s stories is always relevant – they’re active as stories. Whether it’s a comedy about love; or it’s about a young student who can’t make up his mind about what he should do about the death of his father; or it’s a tragedy about a man who’s constantly killing to get his way to the top: everything Shakespeare describes is going on right now. “Coriolanus,” particularly, is always going to be pertinent because the power plays of politics will always be with us.

Side by side with preparing this film, I’d read the newspaper and constantly see variations of events that happen in the story that felt like they came from our film. That’s one reason it was important that the film look like today’s world, not some indeterminate time period. So, the suits, electronics, cars – they’re what we see in our everyday lives. But our “Rome” is not Rome, Italy. Just as the events that happen in CORIOLANUS could happen anywhere, our Rome could be just about city in the world.


Play in the present day with Shakespeare’s dialogue

We could have chosen to re-write all the dialogue, but John and I believed that the dialogue should be Shakespeare’s. Structurally and in terms of vocabulary, there is an expressiveness and athleticism in the original that, I would argue, you couldn’t achieve in modern speech. If you get on board the train, your ear is tantalized and stimulated by how he is framing ideas in conversation. A speech like, “You, common cry of curs whose breath I hate as reeks of the 9

rotten fens/Whose loves I prize like as the dead carcasses of unburied men that do corrupt my air” – the imagery is amazing. How could you possibly translate that into modern vernacular?

Of course, sometimes the language is quite plain and accessible. And when you have actors like Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox speaking the lines, it sounds completely natural.

I realize it’s a risk; people today are not used to that mode of expression. But I believe that audiences can be delighted and thrilled by what Shakespeare is doing with dialogue. I guess I’m of the belief that many people like to be challenged. I know I do.




I think all countries celebrate the courage of their heroes, though sometimes we get very uneasy when generals start to move into politics. Still, you can look at a character like Ariel Sharon: he had been an extremely tough soldier. But he was elected Israel’s prime minister, and whatever your view of him, he was a strong leader, very uncompromising. I think we all recognize that people who are so unwavering and potent in their determination can be very attractive to an electorate. They also can be extremely dangerous. Coriolanus sits right at the nerve centre of this ambivalence.

Another person I had in my image book was Vladimir Putin. Because he’s uncompromising and, from what I read, his language can be pretty blunt and insulting. He doesn’t mince his words. And of course, he’s admired and feared.


CORIOLANUS as a political thriller

I think Shakespeare is showing us the continual fickleness of politicians and the people who elect them. This isn’t the first time he’s dealt with themes of power, and people angling for power and position; it happens in “Richard II” and in “Julius Caesar,” for example. In “Julius Caesar,” as in “Coriolanus,” the spirit and opinions of the people are a crucial element and there, too, people turn on a sixpence. It’s arguable that Shakespeare felt that the public is easily manipulated by clever politicians with a gift for speaking, with a gift for turning them around. I think we see that happen in politics all the time. And people grade politicians on every speech that they make. Did he or she nail it or not, did their poll numbers go up or down?


Let’s talk about casting and the supporting characters. Coriolanus has been shaped by his mother, Volumnia, and she remains the single most influential person in his life. Why did you feel Vanessa Redgrave was the right person to play Volumnia?

Vanessa has a profound understanding of life, she brings this to any role she plays. Of course, she’s also known as a woman of strong political views and she’s uncompromising in speaking her truth. But also, she carries extraordinary gentleness. I thought the mix of iron determination and innate humanity would be incredibly potent.

For me the richness of her performance is actually in its incredible economy and simplicity. At the end, when Volumnia confronts Coriolanus about his plan to attack Rome, it’s often performed with the energy of argument. Whereas Vanessa varied it brilliantly, stripping away embellishment so the language and import of the scene became crystal clear. It was extraordinary to play opposite her on that day.


The events of the story are set in motion by a confrontation with the Volscian guerilla force, led by Coriolanus’s enemy, Aufidius. Later, Coriolanus will turn to Aufidius when he is banished from Rome.

They’re two men who are obsessed with each other. Coriolanus hates Aufidius, but he acknowledges the great warrior that he is. There is an attraction between them. It’s the attraction of opposites, and I think it amplifies the obsession and the animosity between them. There’s no question in my mind that Shakespeare wanted to touch on the homoeroticism of combatants, of warriors who are embraced in combat.


Gerard Butler

Interestingly, Gerard’s first job ever was in a production of “Coriolanus.” So he knew and loved the play and loved the script. He was very passionate to do it. He brings incredible presence and masculinity and charisma to the role.


Jessica Chastain as Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife.

She had just finished shooting TREE OF LIFE, and the film’s producer, Bill Pohlad, suggested I meet with her. I immediately thought she was right.

Virgilia’s an interesting part. It’s not a big part, yet it stands out. Coriolanus calls her “my gracious silence.” She’s the witness to the horror of what’s going on; I think she’s silenced by it. Virgilia is the one person in the story who is fully capable of love. Jessica has an extraordinary quality of openness – of goodness, basically – that was absolutely essential for the role.


Dual Jobs of Director and Star


Yes, of course. But I never wanted to let go of re-playing the part. I think some part of me felt I hadn’t quite fully achieved it onstage. It’s a difficult part to play in the theater, because his rage erupts many times and it’s challenging, vocally, to find the variation within the rage. But on film I believed the interior life of Coriolanus could be explored and what is not said can be as meaningful as a speech. This is not easily the case on stage.


Barry Ackroyd as Cinematographer


I met Barry on HURT LOCKER. I only had two days of filming on that movie, but Kathryn Bigelow was very, very full of admiration for him. I think HURT LOCKER was a tough shoot–long hours, not glamorous conditions at all – and I knew CORIOLANUS would also be demanding. Also, I loved Barry’s work on UNITED 93, as well as his work for Ken Loach.

Barry comes from a background of documentary, mainly for the BBC. Famously, he’s very good at grabbing stuff hand-held, which for battle scenes and crowd scenes was great. And I knew for a lot of these scenes I wanted actors to play the scene through and have Barry weave in and around them. And throughout the shoot, Barry was extraordinary: flexible and alert in the moment to possibilities that I wouldn’t have dreamed of. He absolutely got the spirit of what I imagined and took it even further.


Movies for Inspiration

The one movie we watched was Gillo Pontecorvo’s THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS. It’s shot in black and white and feels like a documentary, very gritty and immediate. The viewer gets the sense of what’s going in the street and beyond the street, the danger everywhere, the police presence. That was a definite touchstone for us, particularly with the crowd scenes and the battle of Corioles.


Filming in Belgrade, Serbia


I scouted different locations in Eastern Europe. I liked Belgrade because it had the weight of a capital city. It also had a senate chamber, which was a crucial location and which we were able to use in the film. I liked its mix of architecture. You’ll see buildings from the Communist era, and 19th century, Austro-Hungarian style buildings, and then there’s very modern glass buildings and office blocks. Belgrade reminded me of lots of cities I’ve been in – there are bits of London, bits of Brooklyn or Queens, even bits of Shanghai. Again, I wanted the film to feel like it could be set in any city in the world.


Filming Process

I have to say, I loved the process. I loved creating the world of the film. I loved finding the locations, and shooting on location. I was supported by an extraordinary team of people who I felt saved my ass a few times. Barry, the production designer Ricky Ayres, the costume designer Bojana Nikitović, the editor Nic Gaster, the exceptional producers, Gabrielle Tana, Julia Taylor-Stanley, Colin Vaines. And of course the actors – amazing to work with the likes of Vanessa, Gerard, Jessica, Brian Cox, James Nesbitt, John Kani, Paul Jesson, Lubna Azabal, Ashraf Barhom, Dragan Mićanović and the great actor Slavko Stimac (who plays Aufidius’ lieutenant). You bring people to the table, and they support you and want to help you realize onscreen what’s in your head. It was an amazing experience.


Audiences for CORIOLANUS

I hope people come away thinking about the world they’re in, and perhaps feeling moved. I didn’t want to make a film with a message, and I feel very strongly that Shakespeare’s play doesn’t give us a message. It presents us with a series of situations, which we are meant to think about. It observes that people want a strong leader when it suits them, but then the next day they’ll change their minds because it doesn’t suit them. In tragedy, the audience is asked to witness the arc of the hero – his rise and fall — and to reflect on it. Traditionally the tragic protagonist has a flaw which brings them down. In Coriolanus’s case, it’s his pride. A lonely anger, a monstrous integrity. And I think we see that situation in all the time.