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Director Series-Shekhar Kapur-Elizabeth: The Golden Age

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By Jack Egan
In Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Indian director Shakhar Kapur returns to the endlessly riveting tale of England’s storied Virgin Queen ten years after he made Elizabeth, which told the story of the intrigues that surrounded the young queen’s ascent to the throne. The earlier film garnered seven Oscar nominations in 1998.
Cate Blanchett, one of the nominees, again depicts Elizabeth I, this time in middle age as she faces down the threat to herself and England from Phillip II of Spain, who launches the powerful Armada that the English fleet defeats in a providential storm at sea. Her heart, meanwhile, is under assault from adventurer Walter Raleigh, played by Clive Owen, who betrays her by falling in love with the queen’s lady-in-waiting.
Geoffrey Rush repeats his role as her senior adviser. Most of the production keys that worked on the first film are also teamed on The Golden Age. They include director of photography Remi Adefarasin, costume designer Alexandra Byrne and editor Jill Bilcock. A new addition is production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, who did Superman Returns and is presently working on the latest Indiana Jones installment for Steven Spielberg.
Kapur, one of the only directors to have worked in both Bollywood and Hollywood, ups the visual ante in The Golden Age, with lavish cinematography, sets and costumes that serve as a narrative subtext to Elizabeth’s commanding presence — in real and symbolic terms — which she uses to consolidate her power. During a recent trip to Los Angeles, Kapur discussed what went into making Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

Below the Line: Workng on Elizabeth The Golden Age must have felt like a family reunion with two of your stars and most of your production keys reprising their roles from the first film.
Shakhar Kapur: It was like a reunion. One of the benefits was that we didn’t have to spend a lot of time getting acquainted. We all knew each other’s assets and liabilities, so everybody was able to fall in from the beginning and start creating, whether it was the actors or the crew. It got to the point that those who were not on the earlier shoot had a bit of a problem edging their way in. It’s a great compliment to my production designer Guy Dyas, who was not on the prior film, to note how quickly he adapted.
BTL: This film is much more striking visually than the original Elizabeth. Is that what you intended?
Kapur: It is indeed more elaborate because the new film functions on an operatic, almost mythic, level, whereas the first one was more realistic. The story I was trying to tell in The Golden Age wasn’t so much about Elizabeth’s victory over Spain and the Spanish Armada as about Elizabeth herself becoming divine at this stage of her life, as she rallies and leads the English people. It’s also about the conflict between tolerance and fundamentalism — the divine as both light and dark. For me, Philip II was darkly divine in that he represented a person who has given up everything but the worship of God. But his purity of worship was also the seed of his intolerance.
She was a very practical person in both films To defuse the bitter tensions between the Protestants and Catholics, she tried to replace the Virgin Mary — whose worship was key in the dispute — with her own image as the Virgin Queen. She denied her own sexuality and in effect became a secular Virgin Mary. But it was not about religion, it was about power.
BTL: Could you discuss the visual differences between the films?
Kapur: The difference between the two movies was significant. It was reflected in the lighting and the set design and the operatic nature of the storytelling. The first film was about coming to power; this one is about her embodiment of absolute power. The first film was more about Elizabeth surrounded by darkness in her environment amidst the conspiracies that preceded her ascent to the throne.
At the time, I was carrying around lots of prints by Rembrandt, which I shared with Remi Adefarasin, my DP on both films. Rembrandt’s paintings focus on light coming out of the darkness. This time the story was different. In The Golden Age, Elizabeth had consolidated power and radiated light, which was generated throughout her environment. So we a used lot of bright lighting around her. The darkness in the film is external — it comes from the outside, from Philip, the Spanish emperor who threatens Elizabeth and England.
BTL: Talk about your work with Remi in conceptualizing the look of the film.
Kapur: Remi and I worked very closely on both the lighting of the film’s sequences and the overall look. This time when I met him during prep we looked at a lot of paintings by William Turner, who worked in the early 19th century and, through his use of light, inspired the French impressionists. While every visual effects company aspires to photorealism, I was aspiring to the qualities of painting. So we talked constantly about how to light the film as if it were a painting.
BTL: What format did you use?
Kapur: I shot in 35mm. I thought at one point about using anamorphic, but to me height was very important. To get the architectural spaces in you would have to shoot from very far back, and away from the characters. The film is about aspiring, so if you cut the top off there’s no aspiration.
BTL: You shot on location at a number of England’s most historic sites including Westminster Cathedral, Hatfield House — one of the grand stately homes — St. John’s College in Cambridge, St. Bartholomew Church in London and at Winchester and Ely cathedrals. How did you get access?
Kapur: We promised to be very careful. Actually, as a result of the first Elizabeth film, these cathedrals have turned up on the travel maps as must-see attractions. There’s even an Elizabeth tour now. They made some money out of it, plus the positive publicity, so they were quite keen on us using them again as settings for the new film.
BTL: The cathedrals contain enormous spaces and must have been difficult to dress as well as light.
Kapur: Because my shots were so wide, it’s very expensive to dress the whole set. But, for example, we dressed one setting to look like St. Paul’s when it was under construction. It’s interesting that her life was under construction when St. Paul’s was under construction. We were limited in how much we could light. I concentrated on specific areas and I showed that light during certain times of day to tell the story. But the big party scene involved a huge dressing job. What might have been a traditional banqueting scene was enhanced by details, such as a selection of period dishes prepared from original recipes and illustrations.
BTL: The design of the sets you built is somewhat unconventional.
Kapur: I find it very difficult when characters are sitting against walls, because they become too static. Designing Elizabeth’s private chamber without including walls was one of Guy’s biggest challenges. He came up with an array of arches and columns through which Remi could move the camera around and shoot without physical restrictions.
BTL: A lot of the shots were done through carved screens, scrims and other fabrics in a kind of peek-a-boo. In one, the camera panned across what seemed like an enormous flag, and then you realized it was a close-up of the flag on one of the Spanish ships.
BTL: It was partly a matter of minimizing costs. But there’s an advantage to not using visual effects too much, because the audience realizes it’s an effect and, after a while, it doesn’t buy into it. So you find an alternative way of doing it. It also adds a sense of intrigue. When Philip II is walking past the flag, the cross on it is more important than what he is saying. It’s all about religion. I’m very interested when I shoot to create an idea in the mind of the audience as to what the real issue is — the subtext of what you are seeing visually.
BTL: This film, however, has m
uch more in the way of visual effects than your previous films, primarily in the dramatic sea battle where the armada is defeated.
Kapur: We used a lot of previsualization. And there were numerous visual effects as enhancements. But much was also done in-camera. One of Guy’s most novel contributions was the creation of a full-sized ship on the biggest soundstage at Shepperton Studios. On one side it was an English fighting ship, the Tyger, and on the other side it was a Spanish galleon. We put the ship on a gimbal so it could be rocked to simulate movement.
BTL: Alexandra Byrne’s costumes were heightened and stylized beyond pure period realism. They functioned almost as an extension of Guy’s production design.
Kapar: That’s why I like a long preproduction period. So the sets and costumes are of a piece. Alex is so brilliant. The costumes in the film are an extension of the narrative. Consistently, she is telling the story. It was also partly a matter of the budget. I could concentrate closely on Alex’s costumes to dominate the screen.
BTL: There’s one magical moment toward the end of the film where Elizabeth is dressed all in white. And she is ascending into the air, while spiraling around. How did you pull that off?
Kapur: I had two separate tracks — one for the camera and one for the lighting. And they were moving in different directions. The white costume and the white makeup also served as an extension of Elizabeth’s character and symbolic power as the Virgin Queen.
BTL: How do you approach the editing process?
Kapur: My shooting is an interpretation, the acting is an interpretation, and finally the editing is another interpretation. I let my editor, Jill Bilcock, do the first assembly while we’re still shooting. I look at the edits only if my editor wants me to. I give Jill complete authority. Because we have a good relationship, she’ll tell me whether my intentions are coming across. If there’s anything she wants me to see, I’ll look at it.
We’ve gotten to the stage where film rushes get seen less and less. I watch every rehearsal through the camera. I don’t shoot myself. I look at the constant interrelationships between the acting and the image. These days we increasingly see the rushes on tape, which doesn’t interest me. So I trust my DP. I want to get on with the next day’s shoot. I don’t want to dwell on the past. If there are technical problems my DP will tell me, and I’ll go back and address them.
BTL: You also filmed for five weeks on sets at Shepperton Studios outside of London in addition to your location work. How long was the overall shoot?
Kapur: Just over 70 days. But we had a long preparation period. I always believe in a lot of prep. You are dealing with actors of such high caliber that the last thing you want to do is tie them down to preconceived ideas. Ironically, the more prep you have, the more free you are when you actually shoot. One of things I do not let the actors do in prep is to emote. I think you should be able to capture their first emotional responses on camera. When you do that it allows the actors to be much more spontaneous.
BTL: What was your budget on this film compared to the earlier Elizabeth.
Kapur: It was around $55 million. The first one was $24 million. But do remember we had a much, much bigger above-the-line costs this time. When we made the first film many of the actors were relative unknowns, even Cate Blanchett. Today everyone is a big star. When we compare budget costs, there’s also been inflation over the past decade. An even more important factor has been the fall in the dollar relative to the British pound by about 25 percent. Because we were shooting in England, that added almost a quarter to our costs measured in dollars.
BTL: The music in this film was less of the period sound than in the first Elizabeth. You also used two composers, Ara Rahman, who is from India, and Scotsman Craig Armstrong. How did that work out?
Kapur: The first day I put them together they were very respectful but they didn’t talk too much. So I went away, locked them in a room and let them sort it out. By the time I came back they loved each other. It was a very interesting thing to do. The two composers would interpret each other.
The score becomes more driving as we got to the end of the film. For me the music became the dialogue at many points. There are many scenes that have no dialogue, just visual effects and music. At Mary Queen of Scots’ execution you don’t even hear what she says; instead the music takes over. Even when Elizabeth in armor gives her famous speech to the troops, the music is equally prominent.
BTL: What is your next project?
Kapur: I’ve been reading a lot of scripts. But first I intend to do a film in India, Panni. It’s about a city of 20 million people in 2025 that runs out of water.
BTL: I heard you might want to do another Elizabeth film.
Kapur: I’ve always thought of it as a trilogy. The final film would be about Elizabeth in her last years, as she senses her mortality. A lot of things would have to come together, and I’m not sure whether it will ever get done.

Written by Jack Egan

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