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Michael Almereyda's 'Hamlet'

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It’s Halloween in East New York’s sprawling Cypress Hills graveyard. Leaves rot on the ground, stirred by cool wind. Three costumed children play tag, careening into headstones and collapsing onto one another, giggling. And Ethan Hawke, lying against a hill, picks up a scuffed human skull as cameras roll.

”Alas, poor Yorick,” he intones mournfully. ”I knew him, Horatio…”

It’s one of Shakespeare’s greatest monologues — a deft, haunting mix of self-conscious mortality and mounting lunacy. It’s passed the lips of some of the greatest actors ever — Olivier and Burton among them.

But, hey, some things just can’t make it in a movie.

”We had to make some cuts,” says director Michael Almereyda, not the least bit defensively, of his Hamlet. ”It doesn’t seem that radical to me.”

Well, that’s one opinion. Others would — quite fairly — term it one of the most experimental screen Hamlets ever. Almereyda’s 112-minute version (that’s more than two hours shorter than Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 full-text adaptation) excises major scenes, transplants the action to present-day New York City, and enlists an unlikely rep company whose members range from Shakespeare vets Liev Schreiber and Diane Venora to Steve Zahn and Kyle MacLachlan. Denmark? A corporation, not a country. Polonius? An oily Dick Morris type played by Bill Murray. Fortinbras? A rival CEO launching a hostile takeover. The play-within-a-play? An arty-film-within-an-arty-film.

”Everyone said this would be terrible and ruin my career. It so could have sucked,” says Hawke, 29, with a relieved-sounding laugh. ”But Michael had this idea that Hamlet could be relevant, and, frankly, I was sick of working on movies that didn’t mean that much.”

Enter the scruffy, soft-spoken Almereyda, 40, who until then had been best known for the stylish 1995 vampire flick Nadja. ”I wanted to do Shakespeare but was avoiding Hamlet,” says the director. ”As T.S. Eliot said, [the play] is like the Mona Lisa — you can barely stand to look at it anymore. But I started thinking about how a young actor would change its meaning.”

So he fired off a six-page memo to Hawke, whom he’d known since the early ’90s, outlining his vision for a Hamlet adaptation. Three of his most important choices: Hamlet would be young, the language would remain unchanged, and the setting would be shifted to modern-day New York to provide the audience with a relatively frictionless entry into the story. Eyebrow-raising alterations, like the decision to make Elsinore a luxury hotel, flowed naturally from the setting. ”And as much as we cut, the essentials are still there,” insists the director, ”just distilled.”

Hawke was sold. ”He saw Hamlet less like Olivier’s [prince] and more like Holden Caulfield,” the actor says. ”That did it.”

Calling in chits with friends and using Shakespeare as bait, Almereyda and Hawke filled out the primary cast — Sam Shepard as the Ghost was first, MacLachlan as Claudius last (”They wanted Nick Nolte,” laughs the Twin Peaks vet, who, at 41, is one of the youngest to ever play the traitorous king). It became apparent that scheduling problems would scuttle their original plan to shoot only on weekends. With funding from the Independent Film Channel, which helped balloon the budget to a still-meager $1.4 million, a 32-day shoot was scheduled for fall 1998.

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