“Beowulf;” an epic poem of 3,183 lines that dates back to the early Middle Ages.
Roger Avary; Oscar winning screenwriter and director whose credits include “Pulp Fiction,” “True Romance,” “Killing Zoe” and “The Rules Of Attraction.”
Neil Gaiman; the best-selling author of landmarks “The Sandman,” “Stardust,” and “American Gods.”
The three forces clash this November in the Robert Zemeckis helmed “Beowulf,” written by Avary & Gaiman, based on the poem, and starring Ray Winstone, Crispin Glover, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich. CBR news recently caught up with Roger Avary right before the first viewing of a completely rendered “Beowulf” to discuss the film he’s been working on since high school.
To go back to the roots of how Roger Avary became involved in “Beowulf,” we needed to return to the filmmaker’s own roots. “I had been working on this since, really, high school English when the book was first given to me, ” Roger Avary told CBR News. But how does one go from reading the epic poem in high school to collaborating with Neil Gaiman on a big budget film? “I had been working as a director on the ‘Sandman’ movie, on developing that project at Warner Brothers. Lorenzo di Bonaventura, when he was running the studio, was a huge fan of ‘Sandman’ and a huge fan of my first film and then somehow I found myself developing it.”
Avary ended up leaving the production over the direction the film was heading. He elaborated that it was “really over what ‘Sandman’ should be like, I just didn’t see him throwing punches.” From there, Avery found himself “sitting around thinking, what am I going to do now? I started looking at my notes on ‘Beowulf.'” That’s when it hit him. “This is what I’m going to do, I’m going to make this and so I started working on it” but that is when he came across a small problem.
“The epic is divided into these two kind of fractured segments: the first part is Beowulfs younger life and the second part is his older life.” That transition between the two parts of the poem became a stumbling block for Avary, and that’s where Neil Gaiman stepped in. “I think [Neil] was delighted that I sort of stood up for his source material and refused to bastardize it.
“I said I was working on ‘Beowulf.’ I started explaining what I was doing and the innovations I had come up with.” When Avary mentioned the problem he was having in the script, Neil replied with a solution. “It was like, ‘oh my god you’re right!’ If it was a snake it would have bit me, and so I said let’s write it.”
Avary and Gaiman rented a place in Mexico and began writing the script. “We wrote the script in the most un-Beowulf place. We had this guy brining us Margaritas. We would play a little pool underneath the palapa and swim in a pool and we’d write a little. It was really the opposite that you could imagine.”
Originally, Avary was slated to direct “Beowulf” as well but, “over a number of years the opportunity came up for Bob [Zemeckis] to direct it and so we sold it to Bob and the rest is history,” Avary said. When asked about how it was to have Robert Zemeckis direct the movie that he had originally intended to direct, Avary referred back to one of his first movies, “True Romance.” “You know when I was working with Quentin Tarrantino on ‘True Romance’ many, many years ago, tt was the best possible way that movie could be made without Quentin making it because it was so different and so big and it was like a Tony Scott film. It was like this crazy big movie, it was fantastic to see. In the case of [‘Beowulf’], I would have made a very different film than Robert Zemeckis made. It’s so exponentially different and sideways. It’s like dream fulfillment to have the movie made without any of the restrictions I would have had as an indie filmmaker; to really be able to say we’re going to write whatever we want.”
Another thing that had changed was that it was now to be animated using performance capture, similar as to what was used in Zemekis’ “Polar Express.” Working in the realm of digital allowed “Beowulf” to be “bigger and better and more then I had ever hoped it to be,” said Avary. But was there any particular part of the script that he couldn’t wait to see fully rendered? “The quiet moments, those are the most difficult when dealing in the digital realm. It’s not the lifting of the mountain and throwing it or whatever, you know the dragon breathing flame over everything. That’s not so much what I’m interested in because so much of the script is in the subtleties of the performance. I’ve seen one clip of Anthony Hopkins character talking with Beowulf and it was a quiet moment and it captured the subtlety of this one nuance that I’ve seen Anthony Hopkins do in other movies where he’s thinking back and drifts off momentarily. It’s such a subtle moment that I was so shocked at how beautiful that simple moment was that I’m more interested in seeing the quiet moments than I am than seeing the big thrill ride moments.”
Avary has worked with other writers before, and is in a unique position to compare Neil Gaiman to others like Quentin Tarrantino. “They’re both brilliant,” Avary said, “Neil is articulate in a very different way. They both, for example, deeply understand Shakespeare but they both take away different aspects of Shakespeare.” But when it came down to it, the contrast was simple “Neil has a lot less B.O. than Quentin, that’s the difference.”
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