By Tom Ue.
Casey Wilder Mott served as Director of Development for Flashlight Films, a boutique film finance company that focuses on early stage investing. At Flashlight, Casey oversaw the development of Clint Eastwood’s film Sully, which starred Tom Hanks. He also worked with Academy Award-winning filmmakers including Ed Zwick, Steve Gaghan, Bruce Cohen and others. Mott’s producing credits include the NASA-sponsored documentary The University and the feature Hot Summer Nights, which recently premiered at the SXSW Film Festival. His debut latest film, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was supported by a successful Kickstarter campaign, and it brings together an outstanding ensemble including Rachael Leigh Cook, Avan Jogia, Hamish Linklater, and Finn Wittrock. The film is an official selection of the Los Angeles Film Festival 2018. Mott transposes Shakespeare’s play from Athens to L.A., while opening it to new readings. In the following interview, Mott and I discuss his dynamic new reading of the play, his incorporation of elements from others, and his revisions of Midsummer to address some of its concerns.
Congratulations on this rather fantastic adaptation. What attracted you to this particular play?
Thank you! I’ve always loved “The Dream,” as I think of it. I grew up in a remote, wooded, hippie region of Northern California, so, I think part of my affinity for the play can be traced to that. I love its tone and themes—it’s ribald and silly, but with notes of melancholy, even violence, and it has a real statement about spiritual transformation at its core.
Tell us about the casting.
My old college buddy Fran Kranz was the first person I sent the script. I wrote the part of Nick Bottom with him in mind. Initially, all I hoped was that he’d like the project enough to attach himself. But luckily, Fran flipped for the screenplay. As a life-long Angeleno, and as someone who had been in “the industry” for a long time, he instantly recognized the layers of commentary that were embedded within the script. Fran came on board as a producer, and he was instrumental in bringing Lily Rabe, Finn Wittrock and Hamish Linklater to the project. Once we had four actors of that caliber on board, it became easier to attract everyone else.
This film refers to so many of Shakespeare’s other plays and poems. What is the effect of creating this texture of allusions?
Yes! Easter eggs they’re sometimes called. For me, the use of these allusions was two-fold. On the one hand, I wanted the movie to be really engaging for hard core Shakespeare nerds, people who know this play, as well as the broader canon, inside and out. Peppering the script with these little Easter eggs was one of the devices I used to achieve that. At the same time, however, I wanted to distance the film somewhat from the “high culture” association that Shakespeare often has. Hence, the numerous times that iconic lines, like “To be, or not to be,” and “Out, out, damned spot,” have been re-contextualized in a purely dopey, comedic way.
You have evocatively integrated act breaks, and alongside this, made references to how the film is made. How does this use of metafiction affect the play’s meaning? What is the commentary being made when you set Midsummer in the world of filmmaking?
Great question! Yes, I love the “meta” aspects of this film. I’ve long been interested in metafiction, framing devices, fourth wall, mise en abyme—whatever you want to call it. I think of it as nested storytelling, like those beautiful Russian Matryoshka dolls. And, not for nothing, but Shakespeare was fascinated by this concept too! He often explicitly talked about theater as a metaphor for life (“All the world’s a stage”) in his plays. I think if he were alive today, he’d see the same allegorical construct at work in films. Dream, like several of Shakespeare’s works, employs a “play within a play” device. I wanted to see if I could take that notion further and create “a movie, within a movie, within a movie.” Shakespeare’s plays were the blockbusters of his day, so it’s quite natural to re-imagine them in the medium of popular entertainment today.
It’s interesting how technology affects Shakespeare’s language. In one scene, Hermia deletes her text to Lysander and opts for a simple emoticon. How do you see Shakespeare’s language in relation to this modern landscape?
Obviously one of the most enduring things about Shakespeare is his mastery of the English language. But language, like all culture, is a living thing, and it organically changes over time. I think anyone who’s doing an adaptation of Shakespeare’s work which transports the story to another time, be it 2018 AD or 5000 BC, needs to think about communication modalities that are endemic to that era. With technologically mediated communication being such a big part of modern life, it felt inevitable that some of that was going to work its way into the film.
I have always wondered at the little changeling boy. He is often referred to but not shown in adaptations. Why cut this character and thus make Oberon’s and Titania’s jealousy the central reason for their discord?
Honestly—and, far be it from me to criticize the Bard—I’ve also always been a bit thrown by the changeling. Not only is he not really necessary to advancing the story (sexual jealously provides more than enough artillery for Oberon and Titania’s feud), but his subplot introduces a slew of thematic concerns that don’t really connect to the rest of the play. Many productions leave him out entirely, and, as I wanted to abridge the source material anyway, this was one of the first things to go.
There’s an important change in Helena when she finally gives up on Demetrius—is he worth it?—and plans her return to Athens. How important was this for her character?
Yes, it’s one of my favorite character beats! And I love the way Lily Rabe captured this moment in the film. I actually cut up and reordered the scene sequencing quite a bit in order to emphasize the moment when Helena decides to turn around. I think it makes her character a little stronger, a little more independent and relatable. It also makes her anguish later, when she’s convinced everyone is ganging up on her, all the more poignant.
It’s interesting that Demetrius was originally in love with Helena, but he was changed by Cupid’s arrow. Why this change?
Like the changeling boy, I’ve always thought the conclusion of the Demetrius-Helena plot was somehow lacking. I’ve even read that some scholars identify Dream as Shakespeare’s first “problem play,” rather than a classic high comedy, because of this and several other loose ends. So in a sense, and again at the risk of sounding sacrilege, I was looking for a way to “fix” this problem. But even if one doesn’t agree with the choice to do so, I think the way it’s handled is an statement about how Shakespeare put so much meaning beneath and between his words—i.e., the fact that entire backstories and subplots can be invented and incorporated into his plays, without changing the existing text, says a great deal about the “infinite variety” of his work.
What is next for you?
Something totally different, I hope. For personal reasons, I’ve been quite affected by the opioid crisis, and I think there has yet to be a great film that truly captures the scope and tragedy of that epidemic. Similarly, I’m interested in finding a way to retell The Wizard of Oz in the context of America’s current immigration morass, and I think there are a number of different ways into that concept. Dorothy is an all-American emblem, but she’s also fundamentally a stranger in a strange land, which is a way I think many Americans, both immigrants and native born, feel today.
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is Assistant Professor of English at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.