My part was just a slice of the pie, and it felt great to have that collaboration with everybody--from the focus puller to the extras to the DP to the director. We were all in there swinging at the same beast and fighting for what was right. It was very intense, down and dirty, swinging and clawing the whole way. I'm very proud of the film.
-- Johnny Depp on making The Libertine
"You will not like me."
The Libertine (Johnny Depp) is John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), a favorite of and foe to England's King Charles II (John Malkovich). Director Laurence Dunmore explores Wilmot's gritty world torn between his domestic country life with his wife (Rosamund Pike) and precarious existence in London as outspoken writer, promiscuous drunk, and popular wit. Loved and hated by the king, who had high hopes for his prodigy, Wilmot lived his short life to the fullest, said and did what he wanted, and usually got away with it. He died at age 33, probably of syphilis. Before that happens, you'll catch a glimpse of his fast-paced life and the guts it took for him to speak his mind. An avid fan of theatre, the Earl also falls in love with upcoming actress Elizabeth Barrie (Samantha Morton), who breaks his heart. Yeah, this is a cheery one, alright.
It was a long, bumpy road.
This movie was at least 10 years in the making. Talk of it would appear, disappear, and reappear while Johnny made other movies. It all started with John Malkovich, who starred as the Earl in The Libertine, the play, in Chicago in 1995. He got the playwright, Stephen Jeffreys, to adapt it to the screen. And, after working with Laurence Dunmore on a commercial, he hired him to direct the movie. He met Johnny for dinner and asked him to play the starring role. "Why don't you play the part?" Johnny asked, since John Malkovich had already received critical acclaim for the role in the play. "Because I want you to do it," he responded. Good choice!
The Libertine was plagued with financial, scheduling, and whatever other problems for years. I saw it as a labor of love among the small group of people involved from the very beginning, even though I knew nothing about the story or this guy it was all about. I wasn't sure if it would ever come to life.
By the time it did, I was excited to see it just because it had taken so long. Even during production, the British government cracked down on filmmakers shooting in Great Britain, closing a loophole for filming incentives and ultimately taking away more than 30% of production funding. Some films shooting there had to shut down completely and were lost, but The Libertine survived! "I think everyone across the board who was involved in this production put their hands into their own pockets," Director Laurence Dunmore says.
Before this film was released, the MPAA threatened to slap it with an NC-17 rating, unleashing the imaginations of Johnny Fans everywhere. I didn't know what all the fuss was about when I saw the film in the theater. It was only after the fact that I realized what I saw was rated R.
It was a muddy, mucky, chaotic world.
Reviews for The Libertine were mixed. I remember a couple of bad ones saying how dark, muddy, and unpleasant everything is. To me, that's a success because I figured it looked that way for a reason. "I wanted this film to be swamped with mud and smoke and mists and rain!" the director confirms. "You've got to literally smell the film." Johnny concurs, "It was really down in the dirt. You got in there, and it beat you up." It works! Practically everything is lit by natural light and candles, mud and mist are everywhere, and most of the filming is done by hand-held camera so you feel as though you're in it.
This movie is grimy in look and feel. And, being completely unfamiliar with John Wilmot, I even found his life story sometimes confusing to follow, but I guess it's because you can only fit so much into 2 hours. "Normally when you're faced with writing a dramatized biography, you invent a lot of stuff to make it more interesting," Writer Stephen Jeffreys says. "With Rochester, it was the other way around. I had to leave all this stuff out because it's so much." If you're really interested, the DVD's director's commentary is helpful in understanding all the background and course of events in Wilmot's life.
Even though I don't crave to watch this movie very often, every time I do watch it, I marvel at it all--the cinematography, direction, design, costumes, acting. This film has its own distinctive look, energy, and personality. Even if you didn't know all the trouble they went through to make it, you could feel the passion everyone involved felt for it. Every performance is fantastic. Though Rosamund Pike plays Wilmot's tormented wife in only a few scenes, she won a well-deserved British Independent Film Award for her amazing work.
While watching through the lens of a hand-held camera usually has me craving stillness after just a few minutes, it works so well in The Libertine that I don't even think about it. You feel as though you are there with them in that world. All these ingredients make for an extremely intimate film-going experience.
"I am up for it, all the time."
Some of the things that John Wilmot pulled off are so outrageous, it's hard to believe that this guy was a real person--living in the 15th century as a member of the king's court, no less! He was continually banished to the country, most notably for creating a scandalous satire about the king's obsession with sex. Even if you don't like what he has to say, you have to admire a guy who has no fear of speaking out the way he did.
As always, Johnny thoroughly researched his role. He travelled to all the places where Wilmot lived and where he died. He read his letters, available in the British Library, took notes on them, and incorporated Wilmot's own words into the script. He had dreams that he was Wilmot! "I felt this very strong responsibility to play him right--so much so that I became obsessed," he says. "Without wanting to sound all kind of New Agey, I do believe he paid me at least a few visits."
All his research revealed myriad layers of the man. "He was written off as a satirist, rogue, hedonistic lunatic, complete drunk, pornographer, and all those things, and he was all those things," Johnny says. "But he was also a beautiful poet. He was a loving father, a confused and tormented husband. He was a very tortured man. He was obsessed with honesty. He couldn't allow for a lie. He had no tolerance for it from anyone, not even from King Charles, which got him in a lot of trouble. I salute that!"
But even the king couldn't deny Wilmot's talent, which at times was the only thing that held their strained relationship together. "He was a guy who was, I think, probably two or three hundred years ahead of his time," Johnny says of the Earl. Stephen Jeffreys agrees, "Nobody writes like Rochester. Nobody wrote before him like that. Nobody really writes in the same vain about sexuality until the 20th century." But I think Samantha Morton sums up the man most efficiently: "He was a poet, an artist, and revolutionary of his day. And if he were alive today, he'd be certainly very rock and roll!"
Johnny rocks it!
Johnny is Amaze-balls! in this movie--capital A, exclamation point! He is in nearly every scene of The Libertine, a grueling 45-day shoot, and you can tell he's in it for love!
"From an actor's standpoint, when you read that opening monologue and then the ride commences, you know when you're reading that beautiful dialogue and these incredible scenes--one after the next--that you'll never ever see the likes of it again," he says. Since the movie is based on a play, it very much feels like one because of the heavy dialogue and long scenes. Wouldn't it be fantastic if Johnny were ever in a play? Well, this is as close as you're going to get for now.
Of course, Johnny's dedication goes deeper than saying some gorgeous prose. He got to know the person behind the story and how he really lived. "Why? How do you arrive there? How do you arrive at that need for such excess and the need for self-medication because I don't think it was about fun for him," he says of Wilmot. "My angle was ultimately an attempt to understand the guy, and then trying my best to please him. It's ultimately a kind of love letter to him. Hopefully it comes off that way."
Long before shooting began, Johnny and Laurence Dunmore worked collaboratively on his character and how Wilmot impacted everything, from the cast and story to the movie as a whole. "Our process was one of continual discussion. It was a constant collaboration and a constant evolution that I certainly found immensely rewarding," the director says. "Johnny was very engaged and absorbed in Rochester as a man, as a historical figure, and as a writer. I think we were both informed and yet we were also empowered to interpret Rochester and how he comes across on screen."
Johnny admits that had they made the film when originally planned a decade before, it wouldn't have been the same. "It might have been okay, but I don't know that I was ready or that I could've understood so much of Rochester," he says. But, of course, everyone had great faith in their star: "Johnny Depp possesses an incredible ability to engage both on an individual level and an audience as a whole," Laurence Dunmore says. "His power in this piece, I think, is a testament to his ability as an actor to both transform and also to bring an audience into a world that he exists in." And, Writer Stephen Jeffreys points out what I'm always thinking: "You could look at his face for a minute and it's never doing the same thing twice in all that time. He just has that ability to convey deep feeling and what's going on in his head through his eyes and his mouth and these tiny moves of the face, and I think that's an incredible skill." It's true!
And, it's not always pretty. He is dying of syphilis through about half the movie, and he's quite wretched by the end. Johnny admits it wasn't an easy road: "It was a long, long way from sitting with John Malkovich in Chicago, and sitting in a restaurant saying, 'Yeah, I'd love to do it,' to suddenly, you're standing there almost 10 years later, and you realized what you've gotten yourself into: You've made a serious commitment, and you now have a very serious responsibility to this guy. You've got to dig down deep. You've got to get a little squirrly here and there and go places you don't necessary enjoy going to. I think, as an actor, you have to constantly test yourself, or push yourself, to go places that maybe you're scared to go to or places you haven't wanted to go to. I think you have to put yourself in a situation where you go, 'I could fail miserably.' I felt myself there. But I've felt myself there in a lot of things I've done. And I think it's a good thing." The Libertine brought out some of Johnny's best acting ever. Ever!
Who knew Gordon could get there too?
I was afraid of getting to this movie for Johnny Kitties. Was I bound to draw some Kitty-inappropriate scene? It turned out to be an easy choice.
I love that, in this movie, nearly everything indoors is lit by candles! It's beautiful! In one of my favorite scenes, John Wilmot visits his latest muse, Elizabeth Barrie (Mini), at the theatre to help her with her acting. Gigantic chandeliers hang low above the stage at mid-day, as everyone is preparing for that evening's performance. It's as if the room is on fire as Johnny and Samantha Morton play this intense 11-minute scene.
You can tell by the movement of the camera that Laurence Dunmore is following them around with the equipment on his shoulder getting in their faces. (At one point, lost in the moment, he actually did catch fire and the actors rushed to put him out.) Despite such distractions, these actors are deep in it! The director says that each time they shot those 8 pages of dialogue was a single take. I mean, come on! Where are the acting Oscars for this one?
Johnny gets a little lighter...and frothier...as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The Libertine images © The Weinstein Company; Illustration © Melissa Connolly