“Romeo and Juliet,” William Shakespeare’s epic and enduring tale of star-crossed lovers, comes to exciting life on the big screen for a new generation. Beautifully directed by Carlo Carlei from a compelling screenplay adaptation penned by “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes, the ageless story from the world’s most renowned author is reimagined for the 21st Century. Opening October 11th, the romantic action adventure was filmed on location in Verona, Italy and unfolds in the lush traditional setting in which it was originally conceived. The film features an all-star cast that includes Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Paul Giamatti and Stellan Skarsgaard.
At the film’s recent press day, Steinfeld, Booth, Smit-McPhee, Carlei and Fellowes talked about how they reimagined the classic story, replacing the claustrophobia of a stage play with the visual expansiveness that could only be captured on film. They discussed how they adapted the characters for the screen, what appealed to the actors about their characters, their approach to playing them, what Giamatti’s masterful performance brought to the production, why people are so fascinated with the concept of tragedy in love, and why Shakespeare’s story remains timeless and as entertaining and relatable to an audience today as it was when it was first performed on stage in London in 1594.
Question: For Carlo and Julian, I’m mesmerized with this production and how you have raised the cinematic feel that this story has. What were some of your considerations in creating the script and then celebrating the visual expansiveness and removing that sense of claustrophobia from a stage?
Julian Fellowes: Well, I think it’s always a challenge to adapt something from one medium to another – a novel into a film or a play into a movie or whatever. So, you’re quite right. That is part of it, but we’re also dealing with a different entertainment experience. I mean, in Shakespeare’s day, the play would run for 3-1/2 hours, or in “Hamlet’s” case for 4-1/2. During the time, you wandered around, you talked, you got your food, you ate, you were silent for some of the good bits, and it was a different way of looking at a play. But we don’t have that now. We have this very reverential thing. We sit in the dark. We concentrate. And so, we need our stories to be told in a shorter period. Instead, a 3-1/2 hour play goes down to 100 minutes. Also, we were very keen to appeal to an audience beyond that of Shakespeare scholars. We didn’t want to present a story that you needed to be a student of Shakespeare in order to understand it. But, you’re quite right. We wanted to keep the feeling there, keep Shakespeare’s intention and keep his language. I mean, all this thing about adaptation, even though 80 per cent of the movie is Shakespeare, but what it is, is “Cut,” and this scene is amalgamated with this scene and all the rest of it. So we have this kind of double agenda which was to bring the story to be enjoyed by an audience who had not maybe been to a Shakespeare play every Friday night of the week, but at the same time, to be true to the play. The great advantage of a movie, when you’re trying to do that, is that you can stay with the visual narrative. You’re not having to go against Shakespeare. You’re following his definition. You’re in the Capulet’s palace. You’re in the Prince’s palace. You’re in the Market Square or whatever it is. He chooses his locations like a moviemaker. For him, you stick one tree on the back of the stage and you’re in the park. And you stick a throne in the back and you’re in the throne room. So it’s not like a modern play where you’re trying to get away from that sitting room with the sofa and two chairs that makes you want to cut your throat when the curtain goes up. So that’s an advantage that for me, Carlo really took with both hands and opened it up, staying with Shakespeare’s choice of location, but making them real.
Carlo Carlei: Well, you have said everything, but I will just add that when Ileen Maisel (producer) gave me the script, it took me an hour and a half to read. It was a very fast reading. I was in tears so many times. And by the end, I called her right away, and I said, “I want to do this,” because it was the most beautiful script I’d ever read in my life. And the trick that this gentleman used was that he uses very little description. He captured my attention and my heart only through his incredibly beautiful re-adaptation and re-creation of the dialogue. It was mesmerizing and it was relentless. Sometimes it takes a lot of description to describe an action scene and you lose focus. You get bored by the description. This was like an action movie, and you were absolutely blown away by it only by the dialogue. So I said, “Okay.” I suggested one thing to both Julian and Ileen [which was] to push back the story one hundred years and set it during the Renaissance instead of the edge of the Dark Ages like in the Zeffirelli movie to take advantage of the beautiful buildings and the color palette of the masters of the Renaissance. And that was something that they embraced enthusiastically and we embarked on this beautiful adventure.
Q: For Hailee, can you compare this to your breakout role in “True Grit” as far as dialogue goes? Which one was easier — this iambic pentameter in “Romeo & Juliet” or the dialogue you had in “True Grit”?
Hailee Steinfeld: Both really. They definitely added to the list of challenges with both of the roles. I think with “True Grit” the language is very specific as is Shakespeare and you couldn’t really improvise, nor did you ever have to. I never felt like I needed to. It was written so beautifully and it was all right there. With Shakespeare, it was definitely a process learning that text and going through it and translating each thing. My script is filled with little itty bitty writing of just like the translation of every line. But I’d say they were both equally difficult.
Q: Were you able to take something from your character in “True Grit” and apply it to “Romeo and Juliet”? And which role was easier for you to act?
Steinfeld: I would say the strength within both characters is very similar. With my character in “True Grit,” she would set these goals for herself that seemed nearly impossible, but to her they were nothing but possible, and she was never going to believe anything else other than that. I think that’s sort of the same with Juliet where she doesn’t necessarily set goals for herself, but she knows what she wants to do and she knows where she wants to end up, and she’s going to do whatever she can to get there and to be happy. So that’s the first similarity that comes to mind. And which was more difficult? I wouldn’t say one was more difficult than the other. They were both very challenging roles, but I had great people surrounding me to help me out.
Q: You’re really close to the age of Juliet and it’s interesting that in the Renaissance period she’d be so challenging to her parents. In what ways could you relate to her as a teenager and do you feel some similarities to her?
Steinfeld: Yeah, I do. What I loved so much about Juliet is how youthful and innocent she is. It was really interesting exploring her emotions myself at that age. I definitely explored a side of vulnerability and innocence that I had never really done before. So that was fun and interesting. But yeah, I think just her innocence and her vulnerability is really present.
Q: She’s very strong willed about doing what she wants to do.
Steinfeld: Yeah. That’s another thing. She is very strong and independent, and I think what is so beautiful about the story is that she doesn’t really know what she wants until she doesn’t have it, and that’s like most of us in some situations. You really see her fight for what she loves and she does whatever she can to get to what she wants to get to.
Fellowes: I think what’s important about that is to remember that although it feels very modern, that is all in the play. None of that was superimposed onto the play – the rebellious girl turning against her father and defying him. It was all there in the original, so it proves we didn’t invent being a teenager. It’s a condition of the mind that’s as old as we are.
Q: For Douglas, I don’t remember Romeo being such a sociopath — so in love and enamored with art but then kills three people.
Douglas Booth: Yeah. I know what you’re saying. Yes, he very much lives in the moment to the most extreme degrees. He falls very quickly in love. But I don’t think he really found true love until [Juliet]. I mean, he obviously didn’t find true love until he met Juliet. He thought he was in love with Rosaline and he was head over heels. He was busy carving a bust of her at the beginning of the movie and that is what he’s going to do. And then suddenly, he sees Juliet and totally drops Rosaline. And now he’s totally in love with her. But in the end, when he’s with Paris, he says, “Look, please, please don’t let me put another sin upon my head. Please don’t make me kill you.” Because he’s going to do anything he needs to do to be with his Juliet. Nothing will stop him. Nothing. And he’s in the way and he says, “I beg you, please.” And he doesn’t, and so, a fight ensues.
Q: How does that compare with playing Boy George in “Worried About the Boy”?
Booth: Each character you play has its own set of characteristics, for want of a better word. How does it compare? It’s the same. You approach each character in the same way. First, I have to go inside myself and establish something real, and I have to put that out on the table. And then I think, “How do I twist this to create?” The Boy George character, that’s me. And the Romeo character, that’s me. That’s just going within myself and changing. They look completely different. You won’t recognize them. It you put two pictures up in front of someone, people won’t know it’s the same person probably, but it’s all part of me, and it’s all coming from the human part inside me.
Q: For Kodi, you really brought Benvolio to life. Can you talk about how you approached that role?
Kodi Smit-McPhee: Thank you very much. It’s just kind of the same way. I do all my characters like I think you were saying almost the same. You just have to find there is something in yourself that is true that you can grab onto. And then, once again as Douglas was saying, you have to kind of arc it and change it and just create that character from scratch and from your heart so it’s true to you. And that’s what I did and I really enjoyed it.
Booth: Me and Kodi got along really well during filming as well so that helped.
Q: The sword fights looked pretty scary. Did you have to learn how to sword fight in that fashion and were there any accidents?
Booth: Yeah, we did. There were quite a lot of rehearsals. You have to get that right because those swords can really do some damage. It was great fun. What kind of young 21-year-old or a 17-year-old wouldn’t want to run around sword fighting on the weekends. Kodi, were there any accidents?
Smith-McPhee: No, we were actually amazing.
Booth: A few cut knuckles maybe. Did you just say we were amazing?
Booth: We were amazing.
Q: For Douglas and Hailee, when you’re approached for such iconic, classic roles, is your reaction one of doubt and fear about playing this or is it excitement and the thrill of being considered?
Booth: It’s a bit of both. You’re terrified but you’re excited, and I live for challenges. In my career, all I want to do is try to challenge myself and have a varied career, and this was something I hadn’t really done before. So, excited, and as you said, I took on Boy George, so I wasn’t scared of iconic characters. But no, I think it’s definitely more excitement than fear.
Steinfeld: I would say again maybe in the beginning it’s a little bit of everything, because of course you have a bunch of different people saying a bunch of different things. I think it comes down to loving the project and being passionate about it. I read this and I was so beyond honored to be even considered. I remember our table read. One of the first times it was most of the cast and all of us were together. We were in Italy and we all sat down, and before we started Julian had said to us something that has stuck with me ever since he said it, that this generation deserves their own “Romeo and Juliet.” I think that’s really true and I’m excited, and that’s what I’ve been thinking about ever since is the excitement of introducing it to this generation. I think everybody deserves to discover and rediscover this story.
Q: The two of you were very convincingly in love. You could feel it. Was it hard to hold that throughout the entire filming?
Steinfeld: It was so hard.
Booth: Very hard very near the end, which is if you’re not sick of me by that point. I don’t know. We filmed the balcony [scene] first. Obviously, you never shoot the scenes of a film in order or only very rarely. For us, we had a couple of weeks in Italy before we started shooting to get to know each other, and it was really a valuable time for us, so that when we got going, we could jump right into it.
Steinfeld: We were comfortable with each other at that point, and I think, as actors, we had great chemistry and that was something that was really important for us to have in order for this story to be impactful and believable.
Booth: And it takes work beforehand to make sure that you know your arc, you know your journey, so that wherever you’re jumping into it, you know exactly where you’re supposed to be. So yeah, you do have to make sure you know how to maintain that connection throughout the whole 3-month long period.
Q: How comfortable or uncomfortable were your outfits?
Steinfeld: The only reason I’d say they were uncomfortable is because they never really cooperated with the weather.
Booth: It was freezing cold. You could see the breath in the movie. It was really cold, and with Hailee’s dress, the chest is open, and it’s not going to keep you that warm. I had a bit more padding which makes it a lot harder to go to the toilet and all that kind of thing. It’s uncomfortable in a sense, but actually they’re designed to fit. They’re all custom-made. Every single costume in this movie was made for this movie and made for us. What do you think, Kodi? Were you comfortable?
Smit-McPhee: I would wear it every day.
Douglas: He’s a lot cooler than I am.
Steinfeld: They’re so beautiful, too. Even if they’re uncomfortable, whatever it is, the way that they’re structured has an impact on how you carry yourself which is so helpful in ways.
Q: For Julian, can you talk a little bit about your attraction to tragic love and why you think it is that people are so fascinated by watching tragedy in love?
Fellowes: Well, this whole business of love ending in death, I grew up on it. Do you remember those songs “Tell Laura I Love Her,” “Leader of the Pack,” and “Terry.” They were all ending up with the guy dying on the motorbike, or being smashed in the car race, or whatever. (starts singing) “Tommy and Laura were lovers…” That was really my adolescent culture, so in a way I got there before “Twilight.” What we have to remember is that the whole world got there before “Twilight” with Romeo. There is something about the ultimate sacrifice to preserve your love which is completely pure and takes over your life that we all find very appealing perhaps because it’s a sort of ideal that most of us don’t live up to. There is a moment in some incredibly unhappy pursuit where most of us think, “Oh, to hell with it” and then we just go home. But what we love about these lovers is they don’t think that. They go all the way, and in the end, they would rather die than be apart. It somehow chimes with the memory of first love and early love which we’ve all been through. Most of us didn’t marry our first love. Thank God. But, we all went through it. And we went through that moment of thinking, “If she doesn’t just turn ‘round one more time, I’ll die.” These stories, and Romeo more than any other, brings that back to us, and it takes us back into that emotion, and I suppose I respond to that as much as anyone else does. Odd as it may seem looking at this porky old fellow, bald and fat, once inside there was a lover. (laughter)
Q: For all of you, I’m curious what your first memory of “Romeo and Juliet” was, the form it took, and what stuck with you about it?
Smit-McPhee: I actually am not really proud of it because I was more of a cliché teen who just really wiped off Shakespeare. I definitely judged the book by its cover and when I got this opportunity to read the script and read the book and watch the movies, I really grew an appreciation for it all, and I think it’s something I’m going to hold very closely to me for the rest of my life.
Fellowes: That was rather a sad story
Carlei: To be honest with you, before being a film director, I was a big film buff. I’ve always been since I was 3 years old. So I would say that the Nino Rota theme of the Zeffirelli movie is what [drew me]. I always love to say that with “Romeo and Juliet.” And so, it was quite a challenge for us to go up against that. But our wonderful composer, Abel Korzeniowski, managed to come up with a score which is both classical and contemporary. It propels the scenes. It grabs you emotionally. And that’s exactly what I needed. In a certain sense, the score of the movie symbolizes what my goal was – to make a movie that yes, it’s period, but it’s also very contemporary in terms of pacing and visual language and action.
Fellowes: I’m a Zeffirelli guy, too. The first time I became really aware of Romeo other than just reading it as a school text was Zeffirelli and Olivia Hussey. She wasn’t actually as young as Hailee. Hailee is nearer Shakespeare’s own Juliet who was 12, and I reckon 12 in 1590 is about the same as 15 now because you’re only going to live to be 40. So, similarly, a very young girl she wasn’t, but she was lovely in the role. I loved that film. I thought it was absolutely marvelous. So, in a way, that was the moment I woke up to the movie potential of the play. I suppose that’s the point, that you could see this was a play that wanted to be a film. They don’t all. And this one did. So it was a rather nice completion of the circle in having been allowed to be part of this version of it. (to Hailee) Now you, Hailee.
Steinfeld: I actually read the book a little over a year ago around the same time we were filming the movie. I was reading it in school. So that was very convenient. But yeah, I would consider this whole experience my introduction to the story and to Shakespeare.
Booth: I think, for me, we grew up in England with Shakespeare. It’s a big part of our culture I think you could say. He’s one of our best playwrights. But not until I put all the work into this film did I truly fall in love with his text. And having now done this is just, as Kodi said, I really do love it. Since doing it, I’ve seen so many more of Shakespeare’s plays on stage and they’re so brilliant.
Smit-McPhee: That’s what I meant. (laughter)
Q: For Julian, I’ve never seen Friar Laurence played the way Paul Giamatti does in this film. Is that where you first met him and is that why he’s in “Downton Abbey” this year?
Fellowes: Well actually that fact that he’s been in “Romeo and Juliet” and “Downton Abbey” is quite coincidental. He was very much wanted for both parts by the committee. It wasn’t just me going in saying, “You must use Paul.” I loved what he did with the Friar and I think it put a kind of heart into the center of the story with this well-intentioned [character]. He’s sometimes played as sort of a fool and he’s sometimes played as manipulative and quite cold. And I thought Paul dispensed with all of that and we really believed that this man saw this marriage as a way of curing the town and saving the town they were all living in by ending the feud. And so, his motives were completely admirable. And so, he shared in the tragedy really, that he had wanted the best. Shakespeare is as I suppose any playwright, but it’s extraordinary the way you can take the same words on the same page and make a different man or woman out of them. I felt that he put a kind of gentleness and kindness into the heart of the story that improved it enormously. And that’s not me, that’s him. So I was very, very pleased after I’d seen what he had done with this, because I don’t know him. I mean, obviously, I know him a bit better now, but I didn’t before. I was really pleased when he came into “Downton” because again he comes in with a character, and it’s not quite who he is, and the others are misperceiving him, and they gradually in the show come to see who he is or we do. He does that sort of thing awfully well and brings a lovely color into “Downton.” So I think he’s a big plus.
Q: Can you talk about working with him?
Booth: Well, he’s one of my favorite actors. He’s so talented. I was fortunate enough to have a lot of scenes with him. And I think just the relationship between the Friar and Romeo is so important, and as Julian said, to see the way Paul played it was fantastic. I had never seen that or didn’t even imagine. And what he gave every day was gold. One of my favorite shots in the whole movie is towards the end where he rushes into the crypt and you see his face and he’s like that when he sees what he’s done. You’ll find few actors who can pierce you with their eyes quite like Paul Giamatti can. I remember also when we were filming the funeral, he started crying while watching us, and when we said, “Cut,” he just couldn’t stop. He had to go into part of the church, and someone had to go in and console him. He invests a lot into his roles and he’s just a genius.
Fellowes: He made this decision for Romeo to be his son because he had chosen a celibate life. I mean the character, not I’m quite sure Paul. (laughter) But he made this choice to have a celibate life, and so, he couldn’t stop himself emotionally connecting to Romeo as his child. And again, I thought that added so much to the end. You had this sense of the loving father witnessing his son’s death.
Carlei: I’d like to respond a little bit on the concept of that. Even if you get a beautiful script, the dialogue can be acted in completely different ways. One thing that I felt when I watched the Zeffirelli movie was that aside from Romeo and Juliet, all the other characters were a little bit caricature. If you think about a recent version of “Romeo and Juliet,” Benvolio is like a goon. Soulless. He holds a gun. He smiles. And this guy here (referring to Kodi Smit-McPhee) gave an incredible performance. He’s like the moral witness. He’s the go-between. He’s somebody whose life and existence will be affected forever by this tragedy. There is a director who said that 90 percent or 95 percent of the success of a movie depends already on the choice that you make when you cast the roles. I knew right away when I picked each one of them that not only would they deliver, but they would give me the opportunity for the first time to go deeper into each character’s soul and make them three-dimensional. Paul, of course, is a genius. But I told Damian Lewis that he had to be a full on father. And I told Lesley Manville that I didn’t want her to be a drunken nurse like in the Zeffirelli movie. I wanted her to be like a surrogate mother who suffers from the heart pain of her surrogate daughter. One of the things that we decided early on was to have each character, even the most secondary, even if in the movie there are no secondary roles, to participate to the story in such an emotional way that they would build an emotional conduit with the audience and the audience would really feel that this is a real story. The match word was real emotions. You’re a realist. And that’s what I think maybe helped to capture many people’s attention during the few screenings that we did.
Q: For Julian, why did you feel it was time for another film about Romeo and Juliet?
Fellowes: I think that’s the point actually. There are certain stories that won’t die and they just continually get reinvented. A lot of them are generic: “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella” which is invented in the folklore of Italy or France or Germany, or whatever. But this is a play written by a guy who sat down at a table to write a play for the company of actors he was leading nearly half a millennium ago. And he touched something in it that means every generation wants to reinvent it and re-see it. And sometimes it’s been turned into modern musicals about the back streets of New York, or it’s been made modern and set in a theater, in an ice rink, or it’s in an underground garage, or everyone is in Nazi uniform. But the point is we keep going back to it. And I think the reason we go back to it is that it touches something at our very core and that’s why it seemed right to give this generation their own “Romeo and Juliet” and not constantly get out a fuzzy VHS of Zeffirelli’s. But also, to make it for once the romantic story and not put everyone in jackboots or ballet pumps or whatever and give them the romantic, lyrical “Romeo and Juliet,” the three Kleenex version. That hadn’t been done for quite a while. For a long time, the break out productions were the ones that were in Nazi jackboots, but now it’s the ones that are in any sense traditional, that are out of the ordinary, because the established way of doing Shakespeare is to take it out of its original setting and turn it on its head, and we’re turning that on its head and we’re going back to the original heartbreak story. I must say, it seemed very exciting because there won’t be another of these for whatever, and I’m sure I’ll probably either be dead or certainly unable to hold a pen by the time it comes back. And so, it was very thrilling to be allowed to be part of this one.
Carlei: I just want to add one thing because I wanted to speak of the actors, and I didn’t mean to overlook my protagonist. I just wanted to say one thing, that for me it’s been an honor and a privilege to be able to create two immortal characters like this that hopefully will stay in the memory of so much for a long time with two actors that surprised me every day. Not only were they disciplined, they were incredibly smart and well prepared. It was almost like I was blessed by the fact that I had at my disposal two incredible talents that in my opinion could be the next Meryl Streep and could be the next Leo DiCaprio because they’re incredibly talented. You can have beautiful writing. You can have great direction. But you don’t create characters like that if you don’t have it inside, and those guys have it, as do Kodi and Ed Westwick, who in my opinion plays a great villain in this movie.
Q: For Hailee and Douglas, this is a piece about romantic overtures, what’s the most romantic thing someone has done for you?
Fellowes: Here it comes.
Booth: You don’t want to know.
Fellowes: Go on, Douglas. Share it.
Booth: Absolutely not. It’s pretty inappropriate.
Steinfeld: I don’t know. You haven’t done anything for me. (laughter)
Booth: It’s probably something quite small. The most romantic things are very small, kind gestures from people you love.