When John Orloff was a kid, there was essentially one topic being discussed in his house.
"Growing up, if you wanted to be part of the conversation, you had to be talking movies," he said, with a smile, during a visit to Ann Arbor last month. Orloff was on a promotional tour for "Anonymous," which he wrote and executive-produced; his previous screenplays include the Angelina Jolie drama "A Mighty Heart," two episodes of HBO’s "Band of Brothers" and the animated film, "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole."
The 45-year-old Orloff calls himself "fourth-generation Hollywood." His brother, Greg, won an Oscar for sound mixing on Jamie Foxx’s "Ray." His father directed commercials. His grandmother, Peggy Knudsen, was an actress in the 1940s and appeared alongside Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in "The Big Sleep" and with Joan Crawford and John Garfield in "Humoresque." His grandparents, Jim and Marian Jordan, became radio legends in the 1930s
as Fibber McGee and Molly, and eventually wound up in films, too.
"I was really fortunate in that I always wanted to make movies," Orloff said.
One movie he particularly wanted to make was "The Soul of an Age," based on a screenplay he started in the late 1990s. More than 10 years — and 20 drafts — later, his dream project has become "Anonymous," a historical drama that boldly theorizes that William Shakespeare’s immortal plays and sonnets were actually written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford; Orloff poses the idea that Shakespeare, seen in the film as a ne’er-do-well actor at the Globe
Theatre, was paid by the nobleman to take credit for the writing, since moonlighting as an author would have been verboten in the earl’s social circles.
Orloff’s interest in the topic dates back to his days as a graduate student at University of California at Los Angeles when he saw an episode of PBS’ "Frontline" about the controversy over whether Shakespeare, who had a modest education and little opportunity for travel, could have written such sophisticated, wide-ranging works as "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," "Coriolanus" and "The Tempest."
"I had no idea there was an authorship question," Orloff said, "and the more I read the more fascinated I became. I thought, ’I want to be a filmmaker, but I don’t quite have the gumption to write something like this.’ It seemed large, intimidating and controversial."
So Orloff spent time focusing on studying directing and production instead, until his wife (who was then his girlfriend) got a job at Home Box Office.
"She kept bringing home scripts, and many of them were awful," he recalled. "But these writers had agents and they had careers. I started to wonder if maybe I should write
So he went back to work on "Soul." Unfortunately, his timing was terrible.
"I finished it two months before ’Shakespeare in Love’ came out," he said.
While the Oscar-winning "Shakespeare" may have stolen his thunder, Orloff still managed to impress some readers with his tale: "It got me an agent, which got me into Tom Hanks’ office, which got me ’Band of Brothers.’"
Orloff wrote two episodes of the acclaimed World War II drama series Hanks produced for HBO, which led to him adapting Mariane Pearl’s memoir "A Mighty Heart" into a well-reviewed 2007 film.
Yet Shakespeare was always lurking in the background. "I never let go of anything," Orloff said. "Any time I was in a meeting, I would talk about (’Soul’)."
That included a meeting he had with director Roland Emmerich, who was trying to find a screenwriter for "The Day After Tomorrow." "I couldn’t deliver that; it’s not my skill set," Orloff said of the 2004 apocalyptic epic. "But I started to pitch him the Shakespeare idea and the story fascinated him immediately. That started this nine- or 10-year odyssey that’s finally coming to
Orloff’s original screenplay was "more contained," he said. "It was about the Earl of Oxford and (playwright) Ben Jonson and Shakespeare and how each one wants what the other one has. When Roland did his own research he discovered the Oxford/Tudor theme (including the connection between William de Vere and Queen Elizabeth I) and asked, ’What do you think of putting this into your script?’ Suddenly, it opened up this intimate little script into a much
more interesting tableau."
"Anonymous" is now a multi-level story, incorporating royal secrets, covered-up scandals and power plays that have deadly consequences. "There are a lot of moving parts in this movie, a lot of characters and a lot of plotlines that you’re waiting to see how they will intersect in the third act," Orloff said.
He acknowledged "Anonymous" takes a few historical liberties along the way, altering the date of writer Christopher Marlowe’s death and changing the premieres of "Richard II" and "Richard III" for the purposes of the plot.
"There are dramatic choices one makes whenever one makes a historical drama. But at the end of the day, there is hopefully some sort of emotional truth rather than physical truth." (As any theater scholar could tell you, Shakespeare was never a stickler for accuracy himself.)
"Art is supposed to challenge you and make you think, and hopefully this film does that," Orloff said. "Even if you think Shakespeare did write the plays, that’s OK. It’s not as much about the
authorship question as it is about the intersection of art and politics. Can words change the world? Is the pen really mightier than the sword? That’s a theme that’s always relevant."
Opens Friday at NCG Eastwood Theatres
2500 Showtime Dr.
Eastwood Towne Center, Lansing