Shakespeare Unlimited Episode 123
Director Casey Wilder Mott’s 2017 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream sets Shakespeare’s story in modern Los Angeles, where aspiring filmmakers, eccentric artists, studio execs, and surfers bounce off one another in a riot of color and music. We talk to Mott and Fran Kranz, who co-produced the film and played Bottom, about why LA is a perfect fit for their movie, other recent film adaptations of Shakespeare, and a notable ass. Mott and Kranz are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Read what Casey Wilder Mott thinks audiences should look for when they watch Midsummer on our Shakespeare & Beyond blog.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published June 11, 2019. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “A Very Good Piece of Work, I Assure You,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
MICHAEL WITMORE: At first you think: This is all just a gag.
[CLIP from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fran Kranz is Bottom, looking for Room 2B in an academic building.]
FILM STUDENT: Not 2-B. It’s next door.
WITMORE: But pretty quickly you realize, it’s not a gag at all.
[CLIP: Montage of audio from the trailer from A Midsummer Night’s Dream]
WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Casey Wilder Mott has tried something pretty ambitious. He’s been in Hollywood for a few years working in film acquisitions and at a talent agency. But like everyone else, he always wanted to direct. When he finally pulled together all the elements, he decided that for his directorial debut he would do Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in contemporary Los Angeles.
[CLIP from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Charity Wakefield is Quince.]
QUINCE: Pyramus, you begin. When you have spoken your speech, enter into that brake, and so everyone according to his cue. And focus! Ah, can you step back a little? One step.
It has the lovers’ confusion and the fairies. It has the Rude Mechanicals. But it also has Lysander as a fashion photographer. Helena’s a screenwriter. Bottom is turned into an ass—literally. As in… 21st-century literally. It’s all a swirl of color and scenery and language that’s looking to take its place, alongside Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, as a film that will redefine how we see Shakespeare in our own times.
We invited Casey Wilder Mott to come into our studio in Los Angeles. He’s joined by his long-time friend and co-producer on the film, Fran Kranz, who also plays Bottom. We call this podcast episode “A Very Good Piece of Work, I Assure You.” Casey and Fran are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Casey, I know that you've said that Midsummer is really a movie about the caste system in Hollywood.
CASEY WILDER MOTT: Yeah.
BOGAEV: Maybe you could explain that—keeping in mind that a lot of our listeners, they aren't in LA and they probably spend a lot more time thinking about Shakespeare's Globe Theater than Hollywood.
MOTT: I came to Hollywood as kind of an outsider, and, it is, in many ways, very much a company town and very much sort of an inherited business for many people and many families. As a consequence of that, as well as all the money that's involved and certainly the fame and kind of the ego and the attitude and everything that goes along with that, there's been this de facto caste system, which I would imagine exists in others. I bet, you know, Washington, DC is not very dissimilar from that. But in Hollywood, what was really fascinating to me was that it had both this vertical component, of sort of, like, fame and power and clout, but a horizontal component as well.
On the far end of one side of the horizontal component, you've got people who are really accountants and lawyers. My buddy and I used to always—because, you know, I'm sort of from this caste myself. You know, just like dirt workers, you know? And then on the...
BOGAEV: [LAUGHS] Yeah. The behind-the-scenes.
MOTT: And on the extreme other end are the sort of the artists. You know, you could be a sort of a very, very low-level talent person. You could be someone who has, like, maybe just booked one guest appearance on one cable show or whatever. But in a sense, there's a quality that you have that Jeff Katzenberg is never going to have, you know?
BOGAEV: And how does all this relate to Midsummer Night's Dream?
MOTT: Well, in Midsummer Night's Dream, there is a similar sort of horizontal and vertical stratification of the people within families. You know, between Theseus and Egeus, between the women, between the couples. You see these internal dynamics within groups, but then there's also this kind of friction and frisson between groups. The more I thought about that in the context of a Hollywood adaptation, a Hollywood reimagining, it really felt apt that, you know, the aristocrats are kind of like celebrities.
[CLIP from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Theseus, played by Ted Levine, talks to Egeus, played by Alan Blumenfeld, over speaker phone.]
Happy be Theseus, our renownèd duke!
Thanks, good Egeus. What’s the news with thee?
Full of vexation come I, with complaint
Against my child, my daughter Hermia.
MOTT: And the fairies are really sort of like artists.
[CLIP from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Reggae-tinged music. Mia Doi Todd is Titania.]
TITANIA: Come, now a roundel and a fairy song…
MOTT: And then the mechanicals are like, you know, the kids who have just shown up who are really eager and just want to make a film.
[CLIP from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fran Kranz is Bottom. Charity Wakefield is Quince.]
QUINCE: Is all our company here?
BOTTOM: You were best to call them generally, man by man, according to the scrip.
QUINCE: Here is the scroll of every man’s name—
BOTTOM: First, good Peter Quince, say what the play treats on, then read the names of the actors…
BOGAEV: So, it's this exploration of power.
BOGAEV: You have some other groups in there too. You have Puck as a surfer dude, So you have that counterculture element, and the fairies are these mystic free spirits, who kind of look fresh from Burning Man, you know, or Coachella.
FRAN KRANZ: [LAUGHS] Uh-huh.
MOTT: Yep. Yeah, that was definitely something we looked at.
BOGAEV: And you have Theseus as a Hollywood producer. And then Bottom, you, Fran.
BOGAEV: You have your whole theater troupe, and as you say, they’re...
BOGAEV: They're the new guys, AFI.
KRANZ: Oh yeah, Athens Film Institute. That's right, yeah.
BOGAEV: Right, which is a little in-joke in LA.
KRANZ: Well, that was one of my—
BOGAEV: It's the American Film Institute.
KRANZ: Yeah, yeah, right, right. But, what I love so much about the script, one of my first reactions, or just kind of my emotional response, was that, having grown up in Los Angeles—and this is, I call it home—it didn't just feel like a perfect fit as an adaptation, it also changed the way I look at the city I grew up in. You know?
BOGAEV: I'm glad you said that, because that was my question to you.
KRANZ: Oh, cool.
BOGAEV: Did this immediately resonate for you, and what your idea of Midsummer Night's Dream was?
KRANZ: Yeah. I mean, it's...
BOGAEV: Because, whoa, it wasn't the first thing I thought of.
KRANZ: It's funny, because it's... This all sounds kind of grandiose. I don't want to, you know, give him a big head or anything. But it's changed the way I kind of, I think...
MOTT: You guys are recording this, right? [LAUGHTER]
KRANZ: It changed the way I sort of look, think of the word and the idea of an adaptation, and that it doesn't just change the work that you're adapting, the setting in which you're putting it in, that that... there's a transformation there as well. In this instance, Los Angeles for me, I see it differently. You know, I'm able to see the caste system. I've always sort of implicitly understood that.
But, you know, speaking about the mechanicals in general, these aspiring film students, you know, they're all over Los Angeles. The aspiring actor, the aspiring whatever-they-want-to-be, cinematographer, whatever. I see them all in this kind of new, charming way, through the lens of this play.
BOGAEV: They all made sense to me, but then I got to Oberon and Titania.
BOGAEV: They were a little harder for me to place in this universe.
BOGAEV: You know, everyone else had that LA counterpart, a filmmaker, lawyer, and writer and...
MOTT: Yeah, well...
BOGAEV: But I did wonder what Oberon and Titania were. Then, I read this interview with you that suggested maybe they're characters from your childhood in Mendocino.
MOTT: Yeah, I don't know that they're... Maybe they are characters from my childhood. It was certainly informed by my childhood. I grew up in a very small, pretty remote, very, like, hippie-oriented village in northern California. And when I got to LA, you know, it was a big city and it was kind of incomprehensible. Then one day I went out to Topanga Canyon, and it really reminded me of the town I'd grown up in. I mean, frankly, Topanga Canyon is sort of like Paris compared to Point Arena [in Mendocino County, CA]. You know, in terms of like the size and the—
BOGAEV: That's the ultimate—
MOTT: In sophistication of it, you know? But it is definitely, like, way more off the grid than, you know, what you think of in the rest of LA.
BOGAEV: Well, let's talk about that, because this is a movie that really loves LA.
BOGAEV: I want to let people who don't live in LA in on it a little bit, because you do integrate this city into the movie, and it's almost like another character. You have all these locations that are very familiar to us.
BOGAEV: They're really like postcards from LA. Like, there's a location—a poetry reading takes place outside of Echo Park Lake. For everyone listening, that's the lake with the geyser fountain. It has swan boats and lily pads and hipsters sprawling on the grass, lake bank, and café.
MOTT: Yeah, yeah.
BOGAEV: And then you have the fairies at the end of the movie, and they're just grooving on that cliffside patio of some midcentury home up in, I imagine, the Hollywood Hills.
BOGAEV: And that's that classic image of LA too, from all those Julius Shulman photos. So what were you going for, and what did you want your locations to add to this production of Midsummer, which is also very soaked in a specific location.
BOGAEV: Maybe of our imagination.
MOTT: So, oh my God, I could go the rest of this podcast just answering that question. I'll try not to.
BOGAEV: [LAUGHS] Well, we've got a lot of material to cover.
MOTT: I guess, one really operative word there would be “fairy tale.” I wanted it on the one hand to be kind of winking and nodding to Shakespeare and to the Shakespearean canon, but also winking and nodding to the experience of living in Los Angeles.
One of the things that I'd noticed in previous adaptations of Midsummer Night's Dream that hadn't been done is the films had never chosen to go to the woods to shoot the woods. I thought that was really a huge oversight, you know, because nature, the transformative, restorative properties of nature are such a key, central theme to the play. And then you're liberated from the format of a stage and you can actually go out into the woods, the fact that no one had ever done that before I just thought was insane. And you can actually do that in LA. I mean, you look at a map of Los Angeles, and there are actually, like, huge veins of green that run right through the middle of it, you know?
BOGAEV: And that's really part of the character, the identity of LA, that you can get into real wilderness so quickly.
MOTT: Absolutely. Yeah.
BOGAEV: Right, you know, steps off of Sunset Boulevard.
MOTT: Yeah, and I wanted to remind people of that. It's just part and parcel of the larger, let's kind of look at LA through a more celebratory lens, you know? Going out into the woods to do that was a part of that.
BOGAEV: And there is a real resonance and mirroring there, absolutely, I see that. And Fran, this is not your first Shakespeare adaptation. You were in Joss Whedon's—
KRANZ: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.
BOGAEV: Much Ado About Nothing.
BOGAEV: Can you compare the two? I mean, what did you take away? Because you said that this has changed your idea about adaptation, that can really change...
KRANZ: Well, that's the thing, and this is... To take nothing away from what Joss did, I feel like he, and I don't want to put words in his mouth, but that film to me, I think it's beautiful and classy and elegant, and it's a really, really good movie, but I think he was... LA was necessity. You know, he had this sort of two-week vacation from the Avengers, between photography and post-production, where he kind of decided I want to make a movie. I think he probably would've shot that movie anywhere. It was just sort of like, “I'm gonna make this and I have”—
BOGAEV: And he did it in his house.
KRANZ: Yeah. He had a window in which he could do it, and that kind of informs the adaptation. I think he wanted to make a modern film, but I don't necessarily see it as having any commentary on Los Angeles or the location. Whereas what Casey did in this film is almost... it's completely in relationship with the location and the city and the environment, you know?
[CLIP from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lily Rabe is Helena, reading a poem to an audience at Echo Park Lake. Applause.]
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind;
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste.
Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste.
KRANZ: There's a real commentary on the city and the industry and all these other things that sort of speak to a kind of more... honestly, I think a more meaningful adaptation.
BOGAEV: Let's talk about that idea of adaptation, because I think there's some real challenges and pitfalls in it. One of the real pitfalls often, for me at least, are that the special effects or the visuals can detract or distract from the text. What I thought was really well done in your movie is that you manage to keep pretty true to the original verse—and we'll talk about how you depart from it a little later. But you add these visuals that not only don't detract, but they really help to clarify and illuminate the text for me.
MOTT: Thank you.
BOGAEV: You know, well, you're welcome, and thank you, because I have seen Midsummer Night's, now I've seen it hundreds of times.
BOGAEV: But I'd say the first, you know, 20 times, the first 10 times I saw it, there was always this point where I was like, “I just don't remember who's who.”
MOTT: Yeah. Right.
BOGAEV: I don't remember who's in love with who and who's spurning who.
MOTT: Yeah, I still feel that way.
KRANZ: And it sort of feels like it doesn't matter, which is kind of...
KRANZ: I don't think is a good thing, right?
KRANZ: I mean, I understand how that works. But it can be distracting, yeah. Yeah.
BOGAEV: It can distract you. You can just wander away. And then it's hard enough to keep track of language early on when you're watching Shakespeare or reading it.
MOTT: Sure, yeah.
BOGAEV: And what I notice with your visuals, that doesn't happen. And part of it is that everyone has an assigned profession.
MOTT: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
BOGAEV: It helps that, you know, “Oh, he's the agent.” You know, Helena's a screenwriter, that helps.
BOGAEV: But also, you do things, for instance, like you have Helena texting at some point. [Correction: in this scene, Hermia communicates via text, rather than Helena]
[CLIP from Midsummer Night’s Dream. The sound of a phone getting a text message notification. Hermia, played by Rachael Leigh Cook starts typing out a text in response.]
HERMIA: My… good Lysander…
BOGAEV: And the texts—and the visual of the text on the screen—actually clarifies the language—
BOGAEV: —And the language of Shakespeare. So...
MOTT: Well, texting and bitmoji icons, right? Like, stuff like that, yeah.
BOGAEV: Yes, the emoji, right, right. The bitmoji. They are excellent. I guess my question, is what criteria did you set up for yourself?
MOTT: Yeah. Great question. Yeah.
BOGAEV: For the visuals? And what snags did you run into?
MOTT: So off the top of my head, I'd say they were probably... This is another one that I could expound on at length, you know? But there's three that come to mind right away.
One is that I wanted to make the ornate and opaque Shakespearean language feel more accessible. So that was, you know, I very much cribbed that from, I think, one of the iconic moments in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet—and frankly, one of the moments that really, really makes the whole rest of the film work, is early on when there's a gun fight and there's kind of a freeze frame and then a snap zoom in to the barrel of the gun, and you see it says “Sword Series 9MM.” And then that's like two minutes into the film, you know? Just right away they're disposing of this, “Well, how are they gonna talk about swordfights this whole time when they're fighting with pistols?” You know?
I tried to basically do an exact cover of that with the Hollywood sign being “Athens.” Because you have to... I mean, you can't get around talking about Athens the whole play. I mean, it's constantly being discussed. But I knew I wanted to set it in LA, so I had to kind of get people to buy into that conceit and I wanted to use something that was visually iconic, instantly recognizable, like the Hollywood sign, you know?
BOGAEV: That's so funny, because I thought of it as a little joke, like a little Easter egg, a nod. But, really, you're saying it works on completely different level.
MOTT: Well, it's also-it is also a little—
BOGAEV: Literally, to people who have not watched the play, what the heck is Athens?
KRANZ: —It’s definitely both, yeah. Yeah.
MOTT: But so is the Sword Series 9 millimeter. It's just a clever little thing.
BOGAEV: Yeah. Yeah.
KRANZ: How informative it is, yeah.
MOTT: But when you think about it a little more deeply, you get that it's actually a real important kind of visual anchor. So that was one thing.
A second thing was just wanting to lean into the filmic medium. Film is inherently a more visual medium than theater. I mean, there's incredibly beautiful, you know, production design in theater and you can do all sorts of stuff. But the visual, the textural, visual nature of film is fundamentally different.
KRANZ: I love the—and it's not visual—but the Mendelssohn remix, the opening credits.
MOTT: Yeah. Yeah.
KRANZ: Right? It's Mendelssohn, right? “The Wedding March,” the Midsummer Night's Dream.
MOTT: It's, uh, no, it's Mozart, is the opening—
BOGAEV: No, it's Mozart.
KRANZ: Is that Mozart?
MOTT: Yeah, Mendelssohn is...
KRANZ: Well, then Mendelssohn does another Midsummer.
MOTT: It's at the wedding, yeah—
KRANZ: Oh, the wedding. Yeah.
MOTT:—the Mendelssohn thing.
BOGAEV: But what did you love about the visuals?
KRANZ: The remix, it's... Well, the music, the remix, the drum and bass that kind of kick into it, sort of telling you where we are, you know what I mean? Bring contemporary...
KRANZ: It's a contemporary sort of touch, obviously, that kind of sets the sort of mood and tone and also time of the movie, yeah.
[CLIP from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A remix of the first movement from Mozart’s Serenade in G Major: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.]
MOTT: And making it contemporary, that was the third thing. You know, so you talked about cell phones, you know, and I knew even before I'd written a single scene of the script, I knew that there needed to be, whether it was text message or cell phones or Googling or something, it's like this needs to feel contemporary. A lot of people have sort of, like, bristled at that and said, like, "How can you have this beautiful, you know, love poem between these two people go take place between a text message?" Well, that's just how a lot of people communicate today.
BOGAEV: Come on. Yeah. Break up that way too, yeah.
MOTT: You know, yeah. So it seemed completely organic.
BOGAEV: Well, Fran, one visual I really wish I could erase, actually, from my brain is... [LAUGHTER]. And maybe you do too, I don't know. As Bottom, you guys don't go with a donkey head. You just full out commit, and I have to respect that. You literally turn Bottom's head into...
KRANZ: Yeah. Yeah.
BOGAEV: Into a... It's not just a butt, you know? I mean, I've got to say, that is one of... that is really awful looking bum.
KRANZ: That's funny you say that. Well, you can imagine...
BOGAEV: I mean, it's like a flat, dad jean bottom. I mean...
KRANZ: It's better looking than my butt, which makes an appearance. [LAUGHS] No, but it's funny you say that, because, you know, film is a painstakingly long, tedious process, right? You can just imagine how much time was spent thinking about the butt, creating the butt, dealing with it on set. I mean...
BOGAEV: Yeah, tell me about that. First of all, was it a group decision?
KRANZ: Well, you know, my experience, just having read the script, reaching that point, the transformation, you know, it hadn't occurred to me that he's going to have to deal with that. I don't know, strangely—I just hadn't thought about, what's the donkey gonna be? And he established it's a contemporary adaptation, right? To go to a donkey would've been a very, like, strange kind of step backwards. That would've been an abnormality to the, you know, sort of world he had established.
BOGAEV: Was that what you were thinking, Casey? “We've got to bring this forward, move this forward?” Because I don't think...
KRANZ: Yeah, do you know what I mean? I feel like a donkey would've been very out of place. That would've been, like...
BOGAEV: Well, we don’t call donkeys an ass, anymore…
KRANZ: Anachronistic, yeah. That too.
MOTT: Well, the word “donkey” never appears anywhere in the play, you know?
KRANZ: Which is strange. I never...
MOTT: And I thought—I actually wrote an essay about this, a mini-essay, for the Folger. I'm sure it's somewhere buried on the website [Web editor’s note: it’s here]. But someone was asking, you know, what's something iconic about Midsummer Night's Dream? I said, well, the transformation of Bottom. Again, it's always played as this big, goofy thing. And it is, right? It should be. But if you get academic and dive into what's really happening there, it really is a lot about what's going on in the play, about man and nature and beasts and transformation and sexuality is all tied up in that, you know? I think being thoughtful about what you're going to do with the Bottom head—whether it's a donkey head or an ass-head or whatever—is actually something that every director who does this play, they shouldn't just be looking for the biggest, silliest, goofiest laughs. If you can do that while you're also making sort of a thoughtful commentary about the rest of the play, then all the better, you know?
There's a couple things, like the bower and the donkey that, like, people who have seen the play many, many times are always kind of like waiting for. You know, “How are they going do this?” “How are they going to do this?” “How are they going to do that?”
BOGAEV: Mm-hmm, yes. It's like we wait for “To be, or not to be.”
KRANZ: Right, yeah.
MOTT: Exactly, yeah.
MOTT: And so I wanted it to be kind of shocking when it happened, but then also— hopefully shocking, but then as Fran said, like, absolutely appropriate. Like, couldn't have done it any other way.
MOTT: And, to your question about visual effects, you know, we were…This was a low budget film, you know? And, you know, when I met with the costume—
BOGAEV: [LAUGHS] This is some papier-mache, Bottom.
MOTT: It was. Yeah, well, you know, it was a meeting between me and Fran and the line producer who runs the budget, and the costume guy. We looked at a bunch of different stuff and, you know, it was a budgetary consideration, it was a creative consideration. I thought, “If we're not gonna break the bank on this, we have to just kind of go with the sort of, like, the really low tech, like, goofy version of it.”
BOGAEV: Yes. Amateur theatrical, right, right.
KRANZ: Yeah, yeah.
MOTT: Yeah, exactly. And, like, hope that Fran—and I knew he could—could just pull it off through his performance. Sheri Linden and the Hollywood Reporter, I think she captured it perfectly. She said it was something like, “winningly low-tech animatronics.”
KRANZ: Right. [LAUGHS]
MOTT: And “Fran Kranz's game performance, you know, make this bold gambit work.” Something like that, you know?
KRANZ: Well, I'm confident—like, we all know Shakespeare can go lowbrow, so I'm very confident that he would approve of it, yeah.
MOTT: He would've loved the choice.
KRANZ: Yeah. I think that's what it was in its time, and I think this is sort of the fitting choice for this film. But it certainly, I mean, obviously there's definitely some people out there—you sent me some tweet or some Reddit post, some people just really have a problem...
MOTT: Hate it. Hate it.
KRANZ: Have a problem with it.
BOGAEV: [LAUGHS] I mean, I loved it, don't get me wrong. I just wish I could un-see it.
KRANZ: Yeah, and... Yeah.
KRANZ: No, I get it.
MOTT: Don't blame you.
KRANZ: And there was a lot of discussion about, like, how anatomically correct do we go? But I think it was right. I think it was the kind of low-tech—It feels of the mechanicals' world too.
MOTT: Totally. Yeah. —get away with it.
KRANZ: Do you know? It feels like something that was on that prop table, you know?
BOGAEV: — of a piece
KRANZ: Yeah, yeah.
MOTT: I've got to tell you though, also just the trickster part of me was like… I was so excited to, like, go and have a production meeting with, like, five people, where we were, like, sitting around and, like, looking at models of these butts and, like...
MOTT: “Well, should there be, like, hair on the butt?” Or, like, how much, you know, “What kind of…” you know? And it was, like, everyone, these are all professionals, who do this for a living, you know?
BOGAEV: How the magic is made. Yeah.
MOTT: And I remember that and just thinking, like, oh my God, like, this is... my dream has come true, you know? [LAUGH]
BOGAEV: [LAUGH] That's a real insight into you.
MOTT: Yeah, right.
BOGAEV: All right, let's talk about language, because contemporary language, it does pop up periodically in, or all throughout the movie.
[CLIPS from A Midsummer Night’s Dream]
BOTTOM: I will condole in some measure.
QUINCE: Oookay. Francis Flute?
BOTTOM: —Yet my chief humor is for a tyrant.
[A clip of Puck and Oberon. Avan Jogia is Puck. Saul Williams is Oberon.]
OBERON: Thou shalt know the man—
OBERON: By the Athenian garments he hath on.
PUCK: Yeah. Got it.
[Another clip of Bottom and Quince]
BOTTOM: Well, I will undertake it.
QUINCE: Okay. Wrap it up. Masters, here are your parts, and I am to entreat you…
BOGAEV: I imagine you must have made some decisions, or some rules for yourself, as well, about how to use contemporary language, how much, or how faithful you should stay to the original. How did you think about that, Casey?
MOTT: The play itself has been significantly adapted. A lot of the contemporary language use was really confined to the mechanicals. This idea that there is something more kind of spontaneous and casual about them, you know? So for the most part, working with people like Lily and Hamish and Finn, and certainly Fran for that matter, like, they're super comfortable with the language. They've done it a ton. As a comfort level thing, they don't need to, like, break into sort of modern dialect. And they really did a good job of keeping that as an aesthetic that the lovers had. You know, whereas the mechanicals, who are also all, like, really great, accomplished actors, who have also all done a lot of Shakespeare, but I wanted them to have a different quality, a different linguistic quality, you know?
So obviously they're all speaking in verse, but I told them, it's like, you know, don't be afraid to just say, "Flute, come back here now," or that kind of stuff, so that it had just a different texture than the way that the lovers spoke to each other.
[CLIP from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Justine Lupe is Flute.]
FLUTE as Thisbe: “I’ll meet thee, Pyramus, at Ninny’s tomb.”
FLUTE: Sorry. Sorry. Wait, am I supposed to go that way?
BOGAEV: So, when was it okay and when was it not okay?
MOTT: I left that up to the actors. Yeah, yeah.
BOGAEV: Oh, really? Fran, did you come up and go... So I have a couple of examples that we pulled.
BOGAEV: I keep on going back to Helena—but I really liked Helena—where she says, "I'm as ugly as a bear."
[CLIP from A Midsummer Night’s Dream]
HELENA: I am as ugly as a bear.
[Helena’s phone picks up her line and responds.]
PHONE: Okay, here’s what I found on the web for “grizzly bear…”
MOTT: Oh, Siri?
BOGAEV: Siri pops up.
MOTT: Yeah, Siri. Yeah.
[CLIP from A Midsummer Night’s Dream]
HELENA: Back to Athens.
PHONE: Sirrah not available.
BOGAEV: Was that a decision at all or were you fine with that in the same way that you're fine with texting and you're fine with—
MOTT: Well, so that, the whole bear thing, actually that was rewritten several times. We had it as a music cue at one point and then we couldn't afford to get the music that we wanted.
KRANZ: The band Grizzly Bear.
MOTT: Yeah, Grizzly Bear. Yeah, “Okay, playing music by Grizzly Bear,” you know?
MOTT: But this is, like, really kind of in the heart of the second act, when they're wandering out in the woods and they're lost and everything's kind of, like, falling to pieces, and I thought it was reflection of what's going on in Helena's mind at the time. That it just feels like everyone's out to get her. Even her phone has turned on her.
[CLIP from A Midsummer Night’s Dream]
How came her eyes so bright?
Not with salt tears.
If so, your eyes are oftener washed than hers.
BOGAEV: That leads me to my next question, which is about the audience, because that is always the question. Who's the audience for what you're doing with this adaptation? Is it just Shakespeare people? You know, how did you think about that? And again, I have to say, as a Shakespeare geek, I really enjoyed all of the Easter eggs you plop in—like Theseus yells at a dog named Spot to get off his chair.
MOTT: “Out, out damned Spot.”
KRANZ: [LAUGHS] Yeah, yeah.
MOTT: That one always got a good laugh.
BOGAEV: Yeah, of course. How could, you know...
KRANZ: How could I forget that one, yeah.
BOGAEV: Right. How can you resist that?
MOTT: Yeah. Well, I can tell you...
BOGAEV: So what were your thoughts on it?
MOTT: Now that the film is in release, apparently the audience for it is not very many people. [LAUGHS] But that's okay, you know? I mean, I knew that going into making a Shakespeare adaptation that—I mean, look, going to make any film, particularly an independent film, is going to be an uphill battle. Then when you say, okay, well, as a first time director, I want to do an adaptation of this beloved Shakespeare classic, it's like, I knew we were, like, fighting the winds on that. But in my mind, the audience was as big an audience as possible. You know, I wanted it to appeal, on the one hand, to people like yourself and me and Fran, hardcore Shakespeare nerds, as you described. But I also really wanted it to, you know, like, Julie Taymor's films, who I think are beautiful and wonderful and brilliant, but they clearly are, like, aiming at, like, a kind of erudite audience class. And...
BOGAEV: A Ph.D., yeah.
MOTT: Yeah. I mean, they're very heady, and I think they're great films, but I don't think they didn't end up crossing over to have big, big support and success the way that, like, Baz's Romeo and Juliet did, or—I mean, it's a much smaller film—but Joss Whedon's film, you know, you look at the numbers, kind of did the same thing. You know, it actually sort of, like, resonated with audiences.
BOGAEV: Interestingly, because it was Shakespeare language, right? Purely.
MOTT: It was, yeah, as was Baz's, you know?
MOTT: But what those two guys did was they took a very commercial approach to the filmmaking. Joss really clearly tried to make his film sort of an homage to '40s screwball comedies, you know what I mean? That's why it was black and white, that's why it was staged the way it was staged. And Baz's, I mean, everyone says it was Romeo and Juliet for the MTV generation. You know, it really bugs me when I talk to people and they're like, "Oh, that film hasn't aged well. It just looks like a '90s film." It's like, “Yeah, it's supposed to look like a '90s film. You know, it's like an iconic '90s film.”
BOGAEV: That's a compliment.
KRANZ: [LAUGHS] That's funny.
MOTT: Yeah, I agree, you know? If people say this about that, that about this film 10 years from now, that'd be fine with me, you know? But I wanted, you know—
BOGAEV: That it’s a 2000s film?
MOTT: Whether it was the contemporary soundtrack or the really, like, sexy cast that we got, or the very colorful visual palette that we working with, or a lot of the sort of more juvenile humor, like the butt and, you know, “Out, out damned Spot” and “2B or not 2B,” and kind of like knocking those famous, iconic lines. I wanted through all of those devices to bring a broader audience in as well.
KRANZ: Well, I thought—you were asking about audience—one of the experiences I had when we were trying to get distribution—I just always assumed, of course there's an audience for Shakespeare. It's been produced for over 400 years or whatever.
KRANZ: Then you'd listen to these sales agents and public, and they're like, "No one watches Shakespeare. Don't bring up Shakespeare."
MOTT: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
KRANZ: “There's no audience for Shakespeare.”
MOTT: Right. That was a rude awakening.
KRANZ: And I was, I don't understand. Why are we still watching? Why is Shakespeare being performed every day on the planet, and yet there's… no audience? I didn't understand that. Yeah, I still...
BOGAEV: But you sold the film pretty fast, didn't you? Yeah.
KRANZ: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
MOTT: We did. Yeah. I mean, I'm certainly proud of the film itself, you know, and I know Fran feels the same way and, you know, almost all of the core filmmakers and cast feel the same way. You know, and the way it was released, I think it's like a minor miracle that we got the film released at all. You know, and it ended up being a nationwide theatrical exclusive release. It was great. You know, I mean, that's as good an outcome as we could've ever possibly hoped for. At the same time, of course, you always want more.
BOGAEV: Well, Casey, this was your debut as a director.
MOTT: Correct, yeah.
BOGAEV: What did you learn?
MOTT: What did I learn? I mean, I learned that it's really hard to make a film. I learned that it's really important to work with people that you trust and that you like. You know, Fran's heard me say this a bunch of times by now. Like, you know, finding your early allies and your early champions, who have resources, that have skills that you don't have, and, like, getting them excited I think is, like, something that they don't teach you in film school. But I just realized, having made this film, that that first concentric circle of people that you're gonna rely on to be really your partners—you know, we started making this film five years ago, you know? And here we are five years later, still talking about it. So that's what I learned. You need to have those key people in place. And you want that up and down, the organization. You want to like and trust everyone. But it's more important for kind of the core team.
BOGAEV: Right, a repertory. Like a repertory company.
MOTT: Yeah, yeah.
BOGAEV: Fran, how was working on this film, really any Shakespeare adaptation, different from the other work you do? Because people might know you from really kind of bigger films like Cabin in the Woods, or...
KRANZ: Yeah, well, no, I get... You know, it's funny, because, yeah, certainly I'm most known for working with Joss Whedon, in Dollhouse and Cabin in the Woods. But strangely, he ended up making a Shakespeare adaptation, so he, you know, I kind of nicely got to... I got to make that transition sort of nicely.
But for me, this was a different experience, because Casey, he brought the script to me so early on. I got on board as a producer. So there was a different kind of—I was going to say emotional investment… I don't know what the correct word was. Just a different investment for me in this film, that I think also, I'm sure it didn't take as much out of me as it did Casey, but you really, you care about it in a different way. It becomes a different kind of work, you know?
Certainly when I was on set, I was an actor, and, for the most part, forgot about stuff like that. But seeing this movie, from at least when Casey first delivered the script to me, it's caring about it in a different way, as a kind of co-creator and co-producer has been a completely different experience. And that one I'm looking for again, because it's a—you have a different kind of ownership and you're aware of the complexities and how just comprehensive filmmaking is.
BOGAEV: Did it make you want to do Shakespeare on stage?
KRANZ: Oh, I'm dying to. I mean, I haven't... I don't think I've done a Shakespeare play since I was in college. I've never done a professional Shakespeare play, which is really sad. Yeah. I don't know how that happened [LAUGHS].
KRANZ: Maybe I'm forgetting something. No, I...
MOTT: You're just waiting 'til you're old enough to do King Lear.
KRANZ: Yeah, that's right. Exactly, yeah. No, like I said, I would do Shakespeare for the rest of my life, on stage, film, TV, whatever. I really, you know, I think it's the best.
MOTT: It is, it's bottomless, you know?
KRANZ: Yeah. Yeah.
MOTT: There are many people...
BOGAEV: All puns intended.
MOTT: Exactly, yeah.
BOGAEV: So, and did you guys get any hate online? You were talking about some comments on reddit, or something else.
KRANZ: There was some. Casey sent me something recently, I don't know what, where it was, what site it was on, if it was just a Twitter post or something. Oh, it was an Amazon review or something.
MOTT: Yeah. It was an Amazon user review.
KRANZ: Something like that. But it was specifically about the butt, and it was just how sacrilegious this was, and how... I forget what exactly they said, but it was...
MOTT: Well, there was one...
KRANZ: It was so bad it sort of turned into a compliment.
MOTT: It sort of felt good, yeah. Yeah.
KRANZ: There was one line that was something like, “I've been less worried about the decline of Western civilization in recent years… but then I saw this film” [LAUGHTER]. And I was like...
BOGAEV: [LAUGHS] I would go see that film.
KRANZ: I know, I was so stoked. I was like, wow. Any time you can inspire a sentiment that powerful in someone, you've done something right.
MOTT: [LAUGHS] That's right, that's right.
BOGAEV: Well, it has been so much fun talking to you guys, and I really enjoyed the movie. I hope it's on four billion screens at some point.
KRANZ: [LAUGHTER] Thank you.
MOTT: Thank you, Barbara. We enjoyed making it, and, you know, we made it for people like your listeners. We made it for people who care about Shakespeare and want to keep the legacy and the work alive, because it doesn't happen on its own, you know? It happens because of people like us.
WITMORE: Casey Wilder Mott and Fran Kranz are co-producers of a film version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring Rachael Leigh Cook, Paz de la Huerta, Lily Rabe, and Hamish Linklater. After playing in theaters nationwide last summer, and garnering a perfect Rotten Tomatoes score of 100% on its opening weekend, A Midsummer Night's Dream is now available on iTunes, Amazon Video, and a variety of other digital subscription services. Casey directed the film. Fran plays Bottom. They were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Our podcast, A Very Good Piece of Work, I Assure You, was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
We hope you’re enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited. And if you are, we hope you’ll consider rating and reviewing the podcasts on whatever platform you get this podcast from. That helps get the word out to people who haven’t heard it yet. We'd really appreciate your help in increasing people’s access to the work that we’re doing here. Thank you.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. And, if you find yourself visiting Washington, DC, we hope you’ll come see us at the Folger Shakespeare Library. We’re on Capitol Hill. Come and see a performance in our Elizabethan theater and come face to face with one of our First Folios—the first printed edition of Shakespeare's plays. We hope to see you here.
Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.