‘Ophelia’ director Claire McCarthy talks contemporary take on Hamlet

Director Claire McCarthy who earlier this month was named as one of 10 “directors to watch” in Variety Magazine, sat down to talk with me at the Sundance Film Festival just days before the world premiere of her film Ophelia.  

Shakespeare is nothing new to McCarthy having had an immediate connection to the renowned author from her early high school days.  “There was something about the words of Shakespeare that are sublime and the themes that really kind of struck me…I did study Hamlet quite intimately…so I knew it from the perspective of its faithful original text.  Our version is taking the original text and turning it on its head.”

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a frequently performed play told from Hamlet’s story.  McCarthy explained, “We’re looking at what [Ophelia’s] point of view would have been and rewriting that story from a much stronger, more powerful view…In our version it was taking everything off the original premise and shifting things. I think that people who know the original play will hopefully delight in the sleight of hand.”  

In taking this centuries’ old tale and engaging contemporary viewers, McCarthy is hopeful that viewers will “…not just [see] it as being an old school, dusty, musty period drama.”  In fact, McCarthy identified that there are still many women today who “…don’t have empowered choices.  What does it mean to be the one who’s not in the power position?”  McCarthy’s Ophelia, as she delves deeply into the muddied waters of who this woman could have been, is one who truly loved Hamlet and was not opportunistic.  “She’s not gold digging.  She’s actually interested in who [Hamlet] is as a man and wants to find something more in the life she has…”  This perspective, McCarthy hopes, will bring a fresh and contemporary feel to the story, allowing the message to resonate with “…women’s empowerment without feeling like it’s lecturing people…that hopefully it’s an entertaining story that…makes people want to discover or rediscover Shakespeare and to also think about their own lives.”

Filmed by cinematographer Denson Baker, McCarthy’s “partner in crime and in life,” in just over 40 days, McCarthy sees Ophelia as having a much more epic scale and scope to it than a typical independent film.  Admitting to taking poetic license in using Prague as the backdrop, McCarthy said, “Shakespeare never went to Verona, never went to Denmark, so I’m going to reinvent this idea of what this historical world would look like.”  The film has, she said, “…a very distinct color palette…rich and burnished gold [to make it] feel like a mellow, gritty, dark sort of old world…”  She continued, “I wanted it to feel epic with big mountains…to feel like a citadel and to sit like a fortress on the hill.”  The gothic architecture of Prague certainly provided exactly what she was looking for.

While the story takes place and was written in the linguistically eloquent era of the 14th century, it was important to change the dialogue in a way that would allow it to be faithful yet accessible and not so watered down that it felt “…like it’s bubblegum.”  McCarthy took a middle road with the dialogue, stripping back the words yet maintaining a sense of rhythm or “bounce to it,” as she said.  It’s all in the syntax, but very tricky.  She gave the recognizable example, “Get thee to a nunnery” became “To the nunnery, go.”  “It would be just the way the words would be framed or simplified, trying to keep it faithful…we still wanted it to feel bold and clear…”

Finding the right leads for this film was imperative to bring that strength and clarity to the story.  She found the perfect version of Ophelia in Daisy Ridley as she described her as having “…such a strength about her…She’s not using her sexuality…She’s sort of a tough girl.  She’s vulnerable.  She’s feminine.  She’s also a sort of new expression of woman in terms of what we see on screen.”  McCarthy added, “But what we wanted to show is that there’s an integrity and strength of character that comes through that I think Daisy really has.  She’s just got this fortitude [that] was really great for Ophelia…”  

McCarthy’s all-star cast includes Naomi Watts in a dual role, (Gertrude/Mechtild) reminiscent of how Shakespeare cast his plays, Tom Felton (Laertes), George MacKay (Hamlet) and Clive Owen (Claudius) to name a few, adding to the credibility of this talented filmmaker and director.  Her admiration for her cast and their willingness to expose their heart and soul on screen was humbling as she realized the trust these actors had in her.  

Being a female filmmaker, as McCarthy relayed, hasn’t been an easy road.  “Being a woman doing that, you come up against so many roadblocks…it’s a long, long road.”  She did not want to be discouraging to up-and-coming women in the film industry, and felt that “…we do have stories that need to be told just as much as anyone.  And it shouldn’t be an issue, but it is.”  

McCarthy and I discussed the statistics of risk versus investment, and the high return rate on films lead by women. McCarthy noted most female filmmakers were in a group or “…cottage industry where they’re making small scale films. It’s very difficult for women to make films of ambition, of scale, to be entrusted with large amounts of money and I want to see that happen.”  Her conclusion was that there is an “entrenched belief”  that women don’t have the organization or reliability to create bigger movies. While the stats prove great safety in the risk investment with women at the helm, McCarthy said, “You’re absolutely right. You end up being very, very lean and economical and efficient because you’ve had to work so hard for it.”  McCarthy was keenly aware of women working for nothing or using all their fees for childcare.  

My final question elicited a laugh-out-loud sound effect from McCarthy that made me laugh as well! I had asked her what part of her personality can be found in her film.  “I think probably the best and the worst of me. Passion and intensity, and the search for truth, but also vulnerability.”  She continued, “The creative process is pretty intense, but I really love that.”  And I could see that she did as the smile on her face was enormous as she exuded strength, confidence, intelligence and integrity.  With her long wavy auburn locks, perhaps there’s a bit of Ophelia in McCarthy.

© Pamela Powell (1/26/18) FF2 Media

Photos: Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts in Ophelia & Pam Powell with director Claire McCarthy at Sundance

Photo Credit: Sundance Film Festival

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New York native film critic and film critic Pamela Powell now resides near Chicago, interviewing screenwriters and directors of big blockbusters and independent gems as an Associate for FF2 Media. With a graduate degree from Northwestern in Speech-Language Pathology, she has tailored her writing, observational, and evaluative skills to encompass all aspects of film. With a focus on women in film, Pamela also gravitates toward films that are eye-opening, educational, and entertaining with the hopes of making this world a better place. 
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