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"Alien: Ore" (2019) Q & A, Kailey and Sam: On Shakespeare

As part of my ongoing Q & A series on "Alien: Ore" (2019), this interview is with the directors, Kailey and Sam Spear. I wanted to explore their interest in Shakespeare (and to a lesser extent, see how it affected their making of "Alien: Ore").

"Alien: Ore" Interview, Kailey and Sam: Shakespeare

Nick: With me again are Kailey and Sam Spear, the directors of "Alien: Ore." Their father introduced them to Shakespeare as children. After graduating college, they directed a stage version of Shakespeare's Hamlet (1609) and plan to eventually bring Hamlet  to the silver screen.

(to Kailey and Sam): I love that your father introduced you to Shakespeare at such a young age (for my brothers and I, our mother read us C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Coleridge); also, that both of you enjoy Shakespeare so much!

K & S: We are huge C.S. Lewis and Tolkien fans too! Our Dad started reading us [the Chronicles of Narnia] books when we were five.

Twin Shakespeareans, Kailey and Sam direct their crew inside Britannia Mines (courtesy of Suzanne Friesen).

Nick: In our "Meet the Directors" interview, you mentioned being read A Midsummer Night's Dream (1605) as children, and later, developing a fondness for Hamlet.  If you could pick a favorite line/scene from either play, what would it be?

K & S: That is tricky! If we have to pick, from Midsummer Night’s Dream it has to be Puck’s line at the end of the play: "If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended, that you have but slumber'd here while these visions did appear" (5.1.413-17).

From Hamlet—now this one is really hard, [as] there are so many stunning moments in that play—one line that always sticks for us [is when Laertes] learns of his sister’s madness after the death of their father: "Nature is fine in love, and where 'tis fine, / It sends some precious instance of itself after the thing it loves" (4.5.142-144). We think that's a feeling that many people can relate to: [when] someone you love dies, a part of you leaves to follow them.

We also love the line of advice spoken by Polonius [to Laertes]:

This above all: to thine ownself be true, 
and it must follow, as the night the day, 
thou canst not then be false to any [one] (1.3.78-80).

Gosh, we could honestly keep listing lines forever! Hamlet  has so many such beautifully-worded moments—moments that capture feelings that people still feel today. That is really what makes [Hamlet] so magical to us; this play was written around four hundred years ago, but the words are still relatable [even today]. It is a beautiful thing to see how connected we humans are even [across] time.

"Hamlet and His Father's Ghost," by Henry Fuseli (1780-1785).

Nick: In general, do you two ever disagree about, or disapprove of, the motivations of certain Shakespearean characters and their ambiguous behaviors: i.e., Hamlet's behavior, in general?

K & S: By that do you mean do the two of us have different ideas of why the characters act in particular ways?

Nick: Correct.

K & S: When it comes to Hamlet [the character’s] ambiguous behaviours, we have come to [a mutual] understanding [...] of why exactly every [move of theirs is] made. In order to direct [our own version of the] play and write the screenplay [for our planned movie version,] it was necessary that we understood [together] where all of Hamlet’s words and actions were coming from.

Do we personally agree with all of Hamlet’s behaviours and motivations? No. Absolutely not. Hamlet acts atrociously in many cases. We understand why Hamlet does what he/she does, but that doesn’t mean we agree with it. That is the case with many [Shakespearean] characters. There are many things, that are done that we disapprove of to the extreme—we’re lookin’ at you, Claudio (Much Ado About Nothing)!


Nick: You mentioned wanting to make Hamlet into a feature-length movie. Is Hamlet your favorite play by Shakespeare?

K & S: Yes!

Nick: Does the challenge of adapting its notoriously difficult storytelling merely appeal to you, as movie directors?

K & S: This is a huge dream of ours. We have been wanting to do this film for years. We put it up on stage a few years ago because we knew that if we were going to direct the film we would have to get a feel of the story as a whole, to feel out its rhythms as it ran in its entirety—

Generally, cinematic Shakespearean adaptations are abridged. Branagh's Hamlet (1996) is recognized as the first-ever unabridged, cinematic adaptation of the play and is over four hours long.]

—Though the film will be different than the play (the mediums are quite different), the play [still] gave us the opportunity to test out some of our ideas (for the world we would set it in [movie-wise] and the new angles on the characters).

Our dream to [adapt] Hamlet  [to] film comes from the love of the story, the characters, and the words. It is indeed our favourite of Shakespeare’s plays [and] one of our favorite pieces of literature, flat out. The [lines in] Hamlet have worked their way so far into the English language that even [those unversed with] Hamlet [will] have heard words and phrases from it. We want to give a modern audience an opportunity to rediscover those iconic words in a new way, and to understand them in a modern context.

[editor's note: In historical-linguistic terms, Shakespeare is considered "early modern." However, a few decades are all it really takes for language to start sounding dated (slang and idioms, for example). That's one reason Shakespeare is continually re-adapted, but also why his plays are arguably so effective; despite centuries of adaptation and translation, their words continue to resonate with audiences the world over.]

Nick: Do you have a favorite cinematic performance of Hamlet? Maybe Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh... or Mel Gibson?

K & S: Branagh’s Hamlet  has a very special place in our hearts. That was the first film version of Hamlet that we saw. We saw it when we were around thirteen or so—right in that zone of deciding that we wanted to go into film (we were actually acting in the play at the time). [After college, the stage version of Hamlet that we directed] had a female [actress] playing Hamlet, as a male [character]—

[editor's note: Elizabethan times forbid women from acting, period—even in female-specific roles! This means that when Hamlet was originally performed, Ophelia (and other female characters) would have been played by exclusively by men! However, to add to the illusion, I believe prepubescent boys—child actors—would have been used instead of adult men, for these roles.]

—It was at that time that we fell in love with the play. Seeing a female play Hamlet got us to thinking, "why can’t Hamlet be played as a female [character, instead]?" The combination—of falling in love with the play, seeing a film version (Branagh’s) and wanting to make films of our own—started sparking those first ideas we had for our film version. [For that] we have to give special credit to dear Kenneth.

From Kailey and Sam's stage production: Libby Osler as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. [editor's note: Having never married, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was sometimes referred to as the Virgin Queen. She was also called the Prince: "...I never was any greedy, scraping grasper, nor a strait fast-holding Prince" (the Golden Speech).]

Nick: Apart from the Bard, is there a playwright you like more, from the same era, like Christopher Marlowe; or a different era, like Sophocles, or John Webster?

K & S: That we like more than Shakespeare? Well, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, so dear Will [wins] top spot for us. Other playwrights that we love, though, [include] J. M. Barrie (Peter Pan [1904] is one of our all time favourites!), Oscar Wilde, Edward Albee, Ellen Byron, Tom Stoppard, Noel Coward, and Jane Wagner.


Nick: Were there any moments from Shakespeare (or other playwrights) you had in mind, while writing your scenes for "Alien: Ore"?

K & S: There was a time where we were actually trying to sneak a version of Hamlet’s line: "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (1.5.187-188) into ["Alien: Ore"] around the time when they found the eggs. We ended up not having time for it.

Fun fact: When killed, the Working Joes from Alien: Isolation  (2014) sometimes say "To sleep perchance to dream..." For more information about Shakespeare in that game, read Stranger Shape's interview with Dion Lay and Will Porter.

Nick: When thinking of "Alien: Ore," Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (c. 1592) also leaps to mind. Tara Pratt's android wasn't modeled after Mephistopheles, was she?

[editor's note: In Marlowe's version, Mephistopheles was written as male, a demonic servant of the devil. I, myself, recall seeing a stage version of the play where roles of gender and ethnicity were experimented with. Doctor Faustus, for example, was black instead of white; and Mephistopheles, while still demonic, was not only played by a woman; she was female in appearance.]

K & S: We hadn’t thought of Hanks in relation to Mephistopheles while we were writing, but that is a very interesting thought. We can absolutely see the connection! [Weyland-Yutani] definitely is the big, bad evil in this situation, and Hanks is indeed acting on their behalf. Very much a demon-working-for-the-devil kind of character. [So long as] Lorraine and the miners serve the interests of the company, Hanks will serve [Lorraine and the miners]. Unlike Doctor Faustus, however, Lorraine ultimately refuses to give up her soul, her family and her principals, to the company.


Nick: For your stage rendition of Hamlet, you mentioned casting a young, female Hamlet, while keeping the classic dialogue.

K & S: Yes. In our [stage] version, Hamlet is [played by] a young female. A large part of our understanding of the [character] Hamlet is that [said] character is young—university age. We feel it is that [particular] age that informs many of [Hamlet's] choices and impulses:

Libby Osler, as Hamlet at uni.

Nick: By casting Hamlet as a woman, did the genders of any of the other characters get changed?

K & S: Some of the other characters' genders got changed as well. Laertes is female in our version, as is Rosencrantz and Marcellus (Marcella):

Kailey and Sam's Laertes (Annette Reilly) and Claudius (Greg Delmage).

Kailey and Sam's Rosencrantz (Kaylin Metchie) and Guildenstern (Tosh Sutherland).

Nick: Did you find yourself having to extensively change some of the other characters' lines/roles?

K & S: There were some lines that got cut, or words altered to make the changes work, but the majority [of changes] made the transition very [seamless]. [According to us, the thing that] makes Hamlet  stand the test of time is how universal the characters are, specifically the character of Hamlet, [Prince of Denmark]. [Being] male [isn't the] key ingredient to [Hamlet's] experiences, [nor are] the thoughts that come through his mind; being human [is].

[editor's note: As famous as Hamlet is, not everyone interprets the play's actions the way Westerners might, for example.]

Nick: One gender-swap that really leaps to mind is Ophelia. Did Ophelia become Ophelio?

K & S: In our version of Hamlet, Ophelia is [female] and is in a romantic relationship with Hamlet.

Kailey and Sam's Hamlet, with and Ophelia (Starlise Waschuck).

Nick: If the gender of Ophelia stayed the same, how was her relationship altered by Hamlet's new gender? Did it remain romantic, or become platonic?

K & S: The choice to keep Ophelia [female] really didn’t even feel like a choice for us. It just made sense. The story of a young couple who love each other and are trying desperately to navigate intensely complicated circumstances—[it still] holds up when both partners are female. [We discovered that, with lines that stayed the same,] the intention behind why [or] how they were said was [still] changed.


Nick: Did Hamlet tell her "Get thee to a monastery" instead of "nunnery?"

K & S: In some places, we gave new context in which to understand the words. In our play the "get thee to a nunnery" scene actually took place in a crowded club. The line was said by Hamlet after she whisks Ophelia away from a fellow who is getting too handsy.

From the Editor: Closing Comments 

Nick: I personally think Kailey and Sam's ability—to play around with gender in Shakespeare (which Shakespeare often did, in his own plays)—has translated well to "Alien: Ore." For example, the role of the evil android has been exclusively played by men in the Alien  franchise (at least in the movies, it has). Yet Hanks, played by Tara Pratt, makes an equally formidable villain when compared to male androids like Ash and David (stay tuned for my interview with Tara Pratt, which examines this idea further).

Likewise, "Ore's" short amount of screen-time is put to its greatest possible use, in that every character has enough lines for dramatic impact prior to being killed. I think this effect owes itself largely to Kailey and Sam's experience in the theater (and love for Shakespeare). I loved Alien: Covenant (2017) for its use of classical allusions, including Milton and the Shelleys, and am keen on seeing Shakespeare's poetry incorporated into the Alien universe, as well:

There is none but he
Whose being I do fear, and under him
My genius is rebuked (Macbeth, 3.1.59-61).

Given an opportunity to follow-up on "Alien: Ore" with a sequel, no doubt Kailey and Sam's Shakespearean leanings would continue to follow through. 

The Bowen's Landing miners, Kailey and Sam's "rude mechanicals."

***

This concludes the interview. Many thanks to Fox for allowing it, and to Kailey and Sam for being so friendly and helpful

If you liked this interview, check out all of my interviews on "Alien: Ore." For even more details on "Alien: Ore," watch my lengthy analysis.

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