Sunday morning I brought the internet gem that is Two Gentlemen of Lebowski to your attention. Now I’ve got the man of the hour himself here to explain what possibly prompted him to combine Shakespeare and the Dude, why he thinks he’s qualified to do it, and how he went about putting together the greatest mash-up of all time. Or, at least, of 2010. So far.
Elena Nola: What’s your relationship with Shakespeare?
Adam Bertocci: I minored in English literature at Northwestern University and took three Shakespeare courses while I was there, but that’s the extent of my formal education on the matter (or, indeed, most matters). I’ve seen quite a few stage performances and movies, and I’ve made the pilgrimage to Stratford twice, and I’ve read a few books about him — but, in the end, it’s just an interest, not an expertise.
What about your relationship with Lebowski?
I love the movie and all, but the funny thing is, I never gave it much thought or time until this project began. It’s not in my top ten or even top twenty…I’d never been to a Lebowskifest (though maybe that will change now)…hadn’t watched the movie in at least a year.
What exactly led you to put them together? I know you said it was started as a Facebook post, but…something inspired that post. Did it have anything to do with the recent rash of mashing classic lit with modern sensibilities (a la Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Dracula: the Undead)?
I’d read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or at least attempted to. But mashup culture has always appealed to me, even before the term became popular. A lot of my work as a filmmaker is dedicated to exploring the connections between things. I’ve made movies crossing Star Wars with Lola rennt [Run, Lola, Run for those who only use English], romance with filmmaking, human relationships with the simple joys of cat ownership.
The best explanation I can offer is that Lebowski is extraordinarily quotable, and all the humor I found in “translating” it into Shakespeare’s English came from preserving the spirit of those recognizable quotes in the parlance of another time. It’s one of those movies like, I don’t know, Monty Python and the Holy Grail where it’s just one beloved line after another.
Lebowski is, indeed, a very quotable movie. How much was that in your mind as you were writing—basically, were the pieces of dialogue people tend to reference harder or easier to translate into the Shakespearean style than the not-so-memorable lines?
For the most part, the script proved pretty easily adaptable no matter where we were in the plot or on the recognizability scale, with one exception: profanity. For a film with this liberal a helping of the f-word, that’s just an issue a guy’s gotta deal with. Sometimes overcoming these challenges was a real blast; the early scene between the Dude and Bunny allowed me to work with one of Shakespeare’s favorite tropes, the sly sexual reference.
But sometimes this was difficult. The hardest thing by far was Walter’s “do you see what happens, Larry?” speech–I was fine with most of the lines after one or two passes, but I must have rewritten that outburst at least ten times, and I’m still not happy with it. In the end, I’ve just realized that “This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass” is so perfect a line that Shakespeare himself could not improve upon it.
Were there any other lines or scenes that were especially difficult to translate? What were some other favorites?
Anything involving a phone was kind of a pain. On the language side, well, there aren’t many promising rhymes for “Johnson.”
Things I like: as sad as this will sound, the more famous a line is, the more pleasure I got from sneaking it in. I nearly giggled myself to death when I realized I could shoehorn in “exit, pursued by a bear.”
I will take this opportunity to point out possibly my favorite little hidden gag, which I’ve never seen anyone comment on: Walter’s remark “not eight but l’ouef” is meant to hide a pun, “not hate but love.” Which doesn’t mean a damn thing, really, but….
One conceit I’ve noticed so far is that Sir Walter speaks in verse when he starts in on Walter’s blowhard speeches…where did that idea come from?
I think it was just determined by how long the character was speaking for. Little short lines like “I’m calmer’n you are” can’t really expand; part of the fun of it is that it’s such a short little line.
I will say this, though: I’m pretty sure Walter’s part got expanded, relative to most of the other characters. I gave the Dude/Knave a little soliloquy or two, mostly just to cover plot details and dream sequences, but Walter got speeches just because the movie character is so much fun. The “world of pain” speech, for instance.
It’s funny, but in general, I never struggled with the question of whether I should do a scene or moment as verse or as regular dialogue. The film just seemed to speak to me as to what should be what, and I can’t remember making any sweeping changes after-the-fact.
One weird thing I’m noticing in Internet comments is that people reach Act 1 Scene 1, find it’s not iambic pentameter, and balk. Except, Shakespeare’s plays weren’t 100% iambic pentameter either. Actually, I was really surprised at the ratio of prose to poetry he used. I guess his dialogue just has so much flow and grace that we remember it as poetry, even when it wasn’t.
What did you do to get yourself into Shakespearean style? like did you sit down and read a few scenes from a play before writing, or was it pretty free-flowing without having to set the language pattern in your mind?
What can I say, iambic pentameter is free-flowing all by itself, it’s supposed to come trippingly off the tongue. (Weirdly, I would find after I finished a writing session that I would start IMing or blogging in that “di-DAH di-DAH di-DAH…” rhythm!)
What are some of your favorite Shakespeare plays?
Much Ado About Nothing is my personal favorite of the plays; it’s just plain fun. The Tempest wins my vote as the best of the bunch, though; I just love some of the language there, and the whole plot he concocts about the wizard laying down his magic for his final play, well, it’s too good to resist.
What was your decision process as to which scenes you cut and simply had the Knave talk about? I was a bit sad there was no Sheriff of Malibu scene–he seemed a prime candidate for some of Shakespeare’s low humor…so where’d he go?
Some of it had to do with the practicalities of performance, not that I necessarily wrote the world’s easiest play to put on; keeping things moving, keeping the cast size workable. It’s kind of weird that most of the characters left on the cutting room floor have been cops, as Shakespeare did love his silly constables.
The Auto Circus scene in the film depends entirely on language mocking crime movies that the Elizabethans hadn’t quite gotten round to yet, and as for Malibu… it would have ended up just trying to work round the word “jerkoff” a lot, which I couldn’t figure out. And it’s probably my least favorite part of the movie, which didn’t help any.
A couple of other bits had to go because they depended too much on the cinematic medium. I actually left the dream sequences out of the first draft, only to realize the error of my ways pretty quickly. Then there’s things like the reveal of Bunny’s intact toe, and Aimee Mann’s missing toe, which work in a movie because of closeups, but I couldn’t see Shakespeare taking time to deal with.
At a guess, how many people (percentage-wise) do you think are reading the entire play vs. just the first few scenes/just their favorite scenes?
You know, when all the Twitter buzz was becoming unmanageable, I was saying to myself, they can’t actually all be reading it–they’re just thinking, oh, someone tweeted that, I should tweet it to so I’ll be cool. I’m guessing about 33% of people make it through–which is still a darn high number, mind you.
Your Facebook fan page has jumped by about 1000 every day since this hit the web. How does that feel? Any sign yet if this “publicity stunt” is going to work for you?
Numbers on a follower count or hits on a Web site have never mattered much to me in and of themselves. But I’m very pleased to have that built-in audience for past and future projects, and I’m hoping that some of these people will enjoy my work outside of pop culture mashups.
It’s definitely brought me a lot of opportunities I didn’t have before. Last week I was a dude at a computer. Now I have a five-act play being produced (NYC premiere in March courtesy of DMTheatrics!) and some interest in the world of publishing. That’s… that’s not too bad.
Adam, thanks again for dropping by to tell us about this project! I can’t say enough about how much you made me laugh, and I’m sad I won’t be in NY while it’s showing. Best of luck to you! And remember, you can read the full text at the play’s website, or go learn more about Adam and his work at his homepage.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.