Update on Eagan-Donovan film project

This article by Cheryl A. Eagan-Donovan appears in the September 2009 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.

What if Shakespeare was bisexual? What if Shakespeare was French? What if everything you knew about Shakespeare was wrong?

The true challenge in making a contemporary film about Shakespeare is in making Shakespeare sexy. To compete with the absurdist queercore satire of Bruno, the teen angst fantasy world of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, and the explosive testosterone of Michael Bay’s blockbuster Tranformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the filmmaker must totally reinvent Shakespeare.

Not that it hasn’t been done before. Shakespeare in Love started an Academy Award winning streak for the Weinstein brothers and Miramax that lasted close to a decade. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet transformed the classic love story into a psychedelic spectacular and outrageous musical. Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho paid homage to Orson Welles’ Shakespeare, with Falstaff and Prince Hal as archetypal class warriors and comrades. Most recently, Hamlet 2, the little indie that could, did, raking in a cool $10 million in box office, targeting YouTube viewers.

Everyone’s read Shakespeare. In China, the poet formerly known as the bard is a status symbol, as sought after as Gucci accessories. What they don’t know is that Shakespeare really is dead. After 400 years, what scholars around the world have discovered is that Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, is our ever-living poet. He is also undeniably sexy.

An A-list party boy on the continental circuit, a true alpha male, Edward de Vere was a man quite unlike any other. My documentary film project, Nothing is Truer than Truth, looks at the process of writing, where life experience, imitation of the masters, and relentless revision come together to create genius, as the key to discovering Edward de Vere as the true author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare. The film will reveal de Vere’s epic life story and introduce a brilliant, troubled, charming man.

Having secured the documentary rights to Mark Anderson’s seminal biography Shakespeare By Another Name, I began by interviewing the leading Oxfordian scholars, documenting the ongoing debate about the significance of authorship, the role of biography, and the meaning of genius. With over 60 hours of footage, I have produced two fundraising trailers, and have had the great privilege of meeting some truly extraordinary and exceedingly generous people. On screen, Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance regale us with their unique portraits of the earl, and British historian Charles Bird takes the viewer on a walking tour of Castle Hedingham, home of the De Vere family since the days of William the Conqueror. Without the support of the many Shakespeare Oxford Society members who have donated their time and financial resources to the film, I could not have made such progress.

Harvard Professor Steven Pinker has agreed to an interview. He is an acknowledged expert on language, neurobiology, and the definition of genius. In his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Pinker concludes,

Almost by definition, art has no practical function, and as philosopher Dennis Dutton points out in his list of universal signatures of art: art universally entails virtuosity — a sign of genetic quality, the free time to hone skills, or both — and criticism that sizes up the worth of the art and the artist.

In The Mating Mind, the psychologist Geoffrey Miller argues that the impulse to create art is a mating tactic: a way to impress prospective sexual and marriage partners with the quality of one’s brain and thus, indirectly, one’s genes. Artistic virtuosity, he notes, is unevenly distributed, neurally demanding, hard to fake, and widely prized. Artists, in other words, are sexy.

Nothing is Truer than Truth will focus on the eighteen month period when De Vere escaped the confines of life at the court of Elizabeth I, and traveled the Continent from his home base in Venice gathering material for the great canon that would become known as the works of Shakespeare. It is my immediate and pressing goal to raise enough funds to begin principle photography this year, shooting on location in Italy and France.

Mark Anderson, author of Shakespeare by Another Name, describes what Edward de Vere encountered on his visit:

The Venice of 1575 was the New York City of its day – a world financial center, fueling an ongoing explosion of learning, literature, theatre, music, and art. The city nicknamed La Serenissima had, with the economic and artistic decline of its rival Florence, become perhaps the premier cultural capital of late sixteenth century Italy. Reaching the shore of the Venetian lagoon sometime in mid-May 1575, the conte d’Oxfort had finally arrived.

By the 1570s, Venice had become perhaps the most vibrant theatrical community in all of Europe. One can readily envision how, as this aristocratico inglese settled into his new hometown, he also began attending plays that would be meting out ideas, plots, characters, and inspiration for the rest of his life. The theatrical mixture of high and low, refined and proletariat, comic and tragic, that graced Venetian stages at the time would present an aesthetic philosophy that would later be developed into the works of Shakes-speare.

I began my career as a writer, and I know a good story. Nothing is Truer than Truth unveils a multi-media portrait of one man whose life story is perhaps the greatest story ever written. The trick is to convince the funders and distributors.

With blatant disregard for the previously mentioned box office successes, they seem to think that if Shakespeare is dead — that no one will want to see a film about Edward de Vere. One strategy that has proved effective in today’s independent film marketplace is the collection of zip codes, and the construction of a database of cities and towns, throughout the country and around the world, where film audiences are guaranteed to turn out for a screening.

If you would be willing to help organize a screening in your neighborhood, please write to me at eagandonovan@verizon.net, and if you can make a donation to the project in any amount, please visit our website at http://www.controversyfilms.com.

As a writer, I am determined to tell this story. With your support, Nothing is Truer than Truth will prove that the universal appeal of Shakespeare’s work is due to the fact that the true author was a perfectionist, a world traveler, a temperamental, tempestuous trouble-maker, and most of all, a writer.

Cheryl Eagan-Donovan studied Shakespeare and wrote poetry as a literature major at Goddard College, and holds a business degree from Boston University. She served as publicist for the award-winning features All the Rage (Roland Tec 1996) and Could Be Worse! (Zack Stratis 2000). Her debut documentary All Kindsa Girls (2006) screened at film festivals and in theaters in London, Toronto, and throughout the US. She is President of Women in Film & Video/New England and serves on the Board of Directors of The Next Door Theater in Winchester, Massachusetts. Contact: Cheryl A. Eagan-Donovan, Controversy Films, 119 Braintree Street, Suite 509, Boston, MA 02134, 617-987-002, eagandonovan@verizon.net, Fiscal Sponsor: IFP New York, http://www.iofp.org.

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