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On location in Belgrade

Total Film

May 2011

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It’s got more battles than any other Shakespeare play and its flawed hero’s been compared to Rambo – it might be the bard, but you won’t be bored.

For his directorial debut, Ralph Fiennes charts the path of destruction of a brilliant, fearless general undone by pride and arrogance. Updated to a contemporary timeframe, Fiennes is filming in authentic war-torn terrain when Buzz meets him on Coriolanus’ Serbian set. The bombed-out Hotel Yugoslavia in Belgrade is today playing host to a silent stalk through dark, ghostly corridors as Coriolanus and his troops seek out their sworn enemies’ ruthless leader Aufidius (Gerard Butler).

Fiennes and Gladiator scribe John Logan spin the Romans as an imperial superpower and their enemies, the Volscians, as ragtag paramilitaries (with their look modelled on Chechen guerrillas). But despite this adaptation’s modern twists, Fiennes is determined to keep the verse intact. “Pretty much every word is Shakespeare’s,” he tells Buzz in his trailer, his shaved head coated in fake blood. “But I didn’t want it to be too poetic. The best Shakespeare I can hear is when I believe it’s being spoken by real people.”

On set, Fiennes appears methodical, efficient, quietly orchestrating the scene with DoP Barry Ackroyd (no surprise the film has a heavy Hurt Locker vibe) before stepping into frame for a mano-a-mano duel with Butler after Aufidius and his men have emerged like spectres from the mist.

Both look brilliant: menacing, moody, dangerous. For Fiennes, performing in front of a camera instead of an audience gives space for a more dynamic portrait of Shakespeare’s military monster. Call it the power of the close-up. “I was so excited about getting into Coriolanus’ face,” he enthuses. “To do it with intimacy is going to make a huge difference…”

The well versed thesp on why Gerard Butler’s like a lion...

What inspired you to direct a film version of Coriolanus?
Playing Coriolanus on stage 10 years ago was the original spark. I loved it and came away with the strong instinct that the narrative drive of the play would lend itself to a film. As a story of power, politics and unbending wills, it has so many resonances to things that are happening now.

You’ve set the film in the present day. Did you find any modern-day examples of Coriolanus?
Someone who’s steeped in vigorous nationalism and authoritarian stance would be Putin. He’s the person I looked at. And the tougher Israeli leaders, like Ariel Sharon. They reflected aspects of Coriolanus – that intransigence and unbending nationalism.

Gerard Butler seems an odd fit. Why did you cast him?
Well, his star profile was great for us but actually it was his charisma and his energy. Aufidius needs to be dynamic, dangerous opposition – Coriolanus says, “He’s a lion that I am proud to hunt” – and Gerard has that leonine quality.

Why are you the first director to tackle a big-screen version?
It’s not a comforting play, it has no lyricism in it and Coriolanus is tough to like – that’s why I like him! [Laughs] I think you like having high-definition characters in movies that are not necessarily likeable but their outline demands that you follow them. Like the character Daniel Day-Lewis played in There Will Be Blood. He was hard to like but compelling. I like those complicated, challenging characters.

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