Private Romeo: A Conversation with Alan Brown
Writer and director Alan Brown’s most recent feature – his fourth – Private Romeo, won a Grand Jury Prize at 2011 Outfest Film Festival in Los Angeles, and was a Critic’s Pick of The New York Times, which wrote that, “Shakespeare himself would spring for a ticket to Brown’s restaging of Romeo and Juliet…performed to perfection.” Brown is the author of the acclaimed novel, Audrey Hepburn’s Neck, which won the Pacific Rim Book Prize, and has been translated into eight languages. He is the recipient of many writing and directing awards, including National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, and New York State Council for the Arts Fellowships, and numerous residency fellowships, including those to the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the Edward Albee and Ucross Foundations. He spent eight years living in Japan, first as a Fulbright Journalist, and then as a creator of radio programs for the BBC, and a writer for numerous publications. His journalism assignments have taken him from the Antarctic to the Himalayas. He lives in New York City. He has just completed production on his fifth film, Five Dances. In the following interview, completed by email on 3 May 2012, Brown discusses Private Romeo, his modern-day adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. The film features an all-male cast and it takes place in McKinley Military Academy. This interview gives an account of some of the decisions behind his adaptation, and his views about Shakespeare and his relevance today.
Tom Ue: Congratulations on Private Romeo and its success! Having directed a number of shorts and feature-length films, what moved you to make Shakespeare’s most famous play?
Alan Brown: Thanks, Tom. I’m fairly political, and all of my films have been a response or an actual event or a social issue – beginning with O Beautiful, my first film, which was my reaction to the murder of Matthew Shepard. Private Romeo is my rumination on homophobia, and more specifically “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” which at the time we made the film, was not yet overturned. And also, an opportunity for me to immerse myself in Shakespeare.
The film was originally titled McKinley. What led you to retitle it Private Romeo, and place emphasis on one of the two leads and his position?
Titles are always difficult, and frequently change. We were trying to communicate to audiences that the film is a Shakespeare adaptation, and also that the context is military – not an easy thing to do. I thought the title did that as well as is possible. And I liked the multiple meanings of “Private.” In truth, I do think that Juliet is the more fascinating character in Romeo and Juliet, because she takes the biggest risks.
One of the first things that we notice about Private Romeo is the absence of Shakespeare’s Prologue, which gives us a fairly succinct account of what will happen in the play. Instead, we get some amazing establishing shots of McKinley. Why did you open the film in this way, and leave ambiguous how closely the film will follow the play?
Actually, I wrote, and we shot, many more contemporary scenes, with our cadets at the military academy – scenes that established their cadet characters and lives. It was in the editing room that I felt the urge to get to Shakespeare’s play more quickly. He’s a far better dramatist than I am. And our actors are so compelling in iambic pentameter.
The entire film was set in a single campus. Tell us about your choice of location.
We were very fortunate in our locations. The bulk of the film was shot at the SUNY Maritime Academy in the Bronx. Our location manager found it, and it worked budget-wise (always a major consideration). And it was summer, so the campus was almost deserted. So I could create a feeling of extreme isolation. What you don’t see in the film is that it’s actually surrounded by water, and cut in half by the Throgs Neck Bridge, which literally runs right through the middle of campus. We had to avoid all those views when we were shooting.
Did contemporary military issues affect your thinking about Private Romeo?
Completely. As I said earlier, it was my interest in “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” that sparked my interest in doing the film. My prior film, Superheroes, was about a vet from the Iraq War with posttraumatic stress disorder, so for two or three years, I was really absorbed in issues involving soldiers and the military as an institution.
Did this, in turn, affect your thinking about Shakespeare?
Yes. Very much so. It made me look anew at Romeo and Juliet, to examine it from a contemporary political perspective, and think about the issues of personal sexual and romantic desire versus institutional authority. I hope that my film will do that for audiences as well.
The characters belong to an age group wherein they are neither children nor soldiers. What, in your view, is particularly attractive about it?
Well, of course, they’re at a physically attractive age, to state the obvious. But also, they’re teetering on the edge in all ways – on the brink of adult sexuality and responsibility. But still fighting those raging hormones and the confusions and insecurities of their teenage years.
Private Romeo includes many close-ups and point-of-view shots, an option unavailable to Shakespeare and to performances of his work onstage. Do you see this as an advantage to the film as a medium for performing Shakespeare?
I don’t know if it’s an advantage. I’m a huge theatre fan. Live theatre can be very, very powerful. And there’s nothing like seeing actors on stage in command of Shakespeare’s language. It’s stunning. I find film and theatre to be such different media for actors and acting. Close-ups are nothing if the actor has no presence or talent. I was very fortunate to have actors with both. So the close-ups were very compelling.
The Queen Mab speech, for one, is delivered in the dark in a staircase. You frequently used a still camera, and you must have spent a lot of time with colour correction. Tell us about the film’s colour concept and editing.
Actually, we did much less colour correction than you’d imagine. Our cinematographer, Derek McKane, and I had already worked together on my film, Superheroes (and we just completed my new film, Five Dances). We had a very clear visual concept, and a colour palette that differentiated the military academy from our Shakespeare world. And this was something we actually did in the camera when shooting, not in post-production.
Are there any scenes or sequences that you wanted to but did not or could not include?
I left a lot out of the final edit. Scenes were left out for a variety reasons, but mostly because they simply didn’t fit into the final vision of the film. There were some moments or shots that I loved and miss. But I’ve learned to let go.
My original script had a far larger cast, including adults in the “adult” roles. There were teachers and commanders at the military academy. And enough cadets to make the campus feel full, and to play all the roles. But our final budget simply didn’t allow for that. So I reimagined the film, and was actually rewriting as we went into production.
Josh merges the roles of Mercutio and Capulet; and Gus, Benvolio and Lady Capulet. Tell us about your decisions with the film’s character doubling.
I always approached the story from the cadets’ characters motivations and actions. So that what they do and say makes sense in the context of the contemporary story. When Josh, with Gus’ reluctant help, tries to force Glenn to marry Paris, that’s not Capulet and Lady Capulet speaking to Juliet. It’s really Josh threatening Glenn. It’s Josh and Gus trying desperately to preserve their world as they know it, to “straighten out” Glenn, and bring Sam back into the fold.
What happened to Paris?
I thought of Paris as more of a concept than an actual character in our version. He is the idea of heterosexuality. He is the threat. I didn’t think I needed him in the flesh.
All of the casted actors had theatrical but not extensive film experience. Tell us about the casting process, particularly of Seth Numrich’s (Romeo or, here, Sam Singleton) and Matt Doyle’s (Juliet or Glenn Mangan).
We had a wonderful casting director, Stephanie Holbrook. She and I have done three films together. And together we saw well over a hundred actors. I did insist on New York theatre actors with Shakespeare training. I wouldn’t see any TV or film actors who’d never done Shakespeare. Once we narrowed our choices down to about a dozen or so, we organized our call back auditions more as workshops, where each actor read more than one role, and we mixed and matched actors. Some of them were there for hours. I think Matt Doyle spent almost six hours there. (We fed them of course!)
Strikingly, you retained the play’s gender pronouns. Why?
I was very emphatic about retaining the gender pronouns. And the actors agreed. I knew that if I changed them, and changed, for example, “Here comes the lady,” to “Here comes the gentleman,” I would be messing with the music and beauty of Shakespeare’s language. And also, to state the obvious, in Shakespeare’s time, the women’s roles were all played by men, without changing the pronouns. It’s one thing to cut lines, but I wasn’t about to start rewriting Shakespeare.
The film plays down the notion of feuding families, the driving conflict of Shakespeare’s play. What moved you to make this choice?
My film’s adaptation emphasizes the other driving conflict in Romeo and Juliet – the more interesting one to me, and the more socially and politically relevant one today – that of individual desire versus authority and institutions.
Given the play’s and the film’s different contexts, what happens when Shakespeare’s text does not fit?
The actors and I always worked from the foundation of their “cadet” characters. In fact, in rehearsals and during production, we never referred to them by their Shakespearean names. So the concept, which everyone embraced, was that of teenage boys using Shakespeare’s language to express what couldn’t be expressed in their own everyday language. And as always happens, when one tries to talk about love and passion, about friendship and jealousies, the word comes out wrong. We worked from that idea. Also, we embraced the notion that for teenagers, everything is a “life or death” crisis emotionally. So, even though their “Tybalt” (Carlos) isn’t “slaughtered,” in their minds, he might as well be.
Sam and Glenn are in the same class, and they meet in the basketball court before the more famous meeting scene (in Shakespeare’s play, Capulet’s feast). Sam ought to know Glenn at least by sight. Tell us about your staging of the first meeting into a series of meetings.
Of course they would know each other, even if they weren’t friends. They’re in classes together. But this meeting, the one on the basketball court, takes place in a different, and very unique context – the military academy campus is deserted, except for them, and six other cadets. All the other cadets and officers are gone on military exercises. So they’re seeing each other, in a sense, for the first time. Context is all.
I really liked the two YouTube videos that you integrated into the film. Tell us about your thinking here.
Thanks. I’m very fond of them as well. As I’m sure you’re aware, making and posting these lip-synched music videos is hugely popular all across the globe. And I wanted to keep reminding our audience that these cadets, these characters, are youngsters. If Romeo and Juliet were alive today, I’m sure they’d be making YouTube videos about their tragic romance. By the way, these videos are also enormously popular with soldiers. They make them and post them from Iraq and Afghanistan, and from military bases everywhere.
One of the aspects of the film that is not entirely explained is why the other cadets attack Glenn in the middle of the night and leave him plastic-wrapped to a chair, and with his mouth covered in duct tape. Why, in your view, did they do this?
I did a lot of research into military academies, and into military life, and college dorm life in general online. And there are endless YouTube videos of hazing and pranks. It’s pretty standard behaviour across the board. The plastic wrapping is something I saw online, more than once actually. So within the context of academy dorm life, it’s not considered violent, or extreme. At one time or another, everyone is the victim. We – the actors and I – approached this scene from that perspective. It was the natural response of his fellow cadets to his “transgression.” It was his turn.
One of the favourite aspects of the film is seeing Friar Laurence, arguably the play’s most resourceful character, as the school druggie, and his cell, a science laboratory! You bring to the forefront Glenn’s doubts about this character. Tell us about your thinking behind Laurence’s character.
I’ve always found Friar Laurence to be a morally suspect, a meddlesome, unsavoury character. He’d probably be arrested today. So it seemed natural that he be the school druggie. There is actually a lovely little scene of him smoking pot with Omar (“The Nurse”), that I ended up cutting in the edit. I miss it. He’s the guy you go to when you need anything illegal. Every school has one.
Josh’s and Carlo Moreno’s (Tybalt) characters live, as do Sam and Glenn. What moved you to change the ending of Romeo and Juliet and to move away from Shakespeare’s tragedy?
I didn’t see the point in doing the adaptation unless I had something to say. And I refused to do a film in which the gay lover are punished or killed. Brokeback Mountain may be a beautiful, and beautifully acted film, but the characters live lives of loneliness and desperation, and one of them is brutally murdered. Enough of those films. The world needs to see gay love stories on film that end well. Film is a powerful medium. I believe in complete artistic freedom, but I also believe that we have to be responsible about the images and messages we put out there – particularly at a time when the struggle for gay civil rights is still being waged. And when violence against gay teenagers is such an issue.
The film ends with Matt Doyle, who plays Glenn, giving an excellent performance of James V. Monaco’s and Joseph McCarthy’s “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It).” Tell us about the choice of song, and about having Matt sing.
It wasn’t in the script originally. But then, after I cast Matt, I saw a video online of him singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” at Joe’s Pub, a popular cabaret in New York City. And I was so blown away by his singing, that I immediately called him up and asked him if he’d sing in the film. I’d planned on ending the film with another YouTube music video performance by the entire cast. So I changed it. Matt and I picked the song together. We were limited to songs in the public domain, as there was no money in the budget to pay for a song. And we both loved this one. It seemed right for the story. And of course it’s a song with a history.
What are you working on now?
I’m actually in the editing room right now, cutting my new feature film, Five Dances, which is a very exciting film project for me. It takes me into the New York modern dance world in the same way that Private Romeo took me into Shakespeare’s world. I shot almost the entire film inside of a dance studio in Soho, with a cast of five professional dancers, none of who had ever acted on film before. In fact, only one had real acting experience. I worked with a wonderful choreographer, Jonah Bokaer. It’s the story of a very young, mind-bogglingly talented dancer (played by Ryan Steele, who actually is mind-bogglingly talented – and very young!) who comes to New York, fleeing a troubled family in the Midwest, and falls in love with another male dancer in the dance troupe he’s working with. It’s a love story with a clear narrative. But much of the film is comprised of pure dance. It’s very special.
Would you turn to Shakespeare again?
Shakespeare is hard to resist. I felt privileged to have the opportunity once. I would never pass up another one.
Thank-you so much for your time and for this film; and I look forward to seeing many more from you!
Thank you, Tom. It was a pleasure!
Tom Ue is Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellow and Canadian Centennial Scholar in the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London, where he teaches and where he researches Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of Henry James, George Gissing, and Oscar Wilde.
Alan Brown is currently looking for funding to complete post-production of his latest film, Five Dances, shot this past winter in downtown Manhattan. Visit the project’s Kickstarter page to learn more about the film.