Filmmaker Interview: Director Norry Niven on his flim CHASING SHAKESPEARE featuring Danny Glover and Graham Greene

By: Gordon K. Smith


From L- R: Gordon K. Smith, Director Norry Niven

CHASING SHAKESPEARE is a romantic drama with more than the usual quota of twists, even for a Romeo & Juliet tale – it concerns an African-American father (Danny Glover ) and a Shakespeare-obsessed Native American mother (Tantoo Cardinal) at the end of their time together, and flashes back to the early ’70s  to show how they met, in a vision quest that took them from rural Arkansas to off-Broadway New York City.  Add to this some tribal mysticism, magical realism and a  “Lightning Clan” motif that ties it all together.  It’s the feature debut for director, a veteran of commercials and music videos who returned to his native Dallas  to make the film.  Also the film’s producer and cinematographer, he discussed its making in a March roundtable for its upcoming premiere at the 2013 Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF).

“It’s about reincarnation, and faith in something you can’t see.  Very spiritual.  I was under contract to make a feature with a very talented young Native American screenwriter, James Bird.  He gave me the screenplay as a gift.  I still get emotional, it’s so powerful…my mom taught Shakespeare, so I’ve always had an interest in it.  James, it just flows through him… I went to Valerie McCaffrey, L.A. Casting director, and she asked me, ‘who do you see in the lead?’  I said, ‘Only one person, Danny Glover.’  She laughed, saying no first time director gets the star they want.  So I said, ‘Let’s send it to him and see’.   Danny read it and loved it; we put it together pretty fast and shot it in 2011.  He had done PLACES IN THE HEART here in 1984, and his mother passed away when he showed up in Texas to start on it.  He couldn’t be at the funeral, because he had to live out her dream for him of being a film actor.  He’d go back to his hotel and cry himself to sleep…well, the house we put him in for our film is the same one (from PLACES…).  When he got out of the car and saw it, he looked at me, said ‘Here we go,’ and channeled that loss into his character and the film…he delivered so many unbelievable scenes for us.”

One of his biggest challenges was find the right actors to play the younger versions of Venus (Cardinal) and William (Glover).   “We went through a lot of people, big names, and we wound up with Chelsea Ricketts.  She nailed it and she’s also Native American – for this part, I think she had to be…she’s powerful, witty, incredibly intelligent,  and obviously beautiful…Mike (Wade, the young William) had never been on a horse before, and I was really worried about our horse-riding scenes.  But we got very lucky with body doubles.  They were stunt riders out of Fort Worth, and they looked just like our actors.”

The opening storm and pervasive lightning imagery is a character in itself in the movie.  “I hadn’t seen a film (about lightning), except maybe POLTERGIEST – it’s a Spielbergian rule that forces of heaven and nature are much stronger than we are…we pulled every photo and clip of storm clouds and came up with a solution.  It’s a marriage of CGI and real photography.  It needs to make you feel that something’s about to happen, and it does.”

Niven spoke about the differences between shooting commercials and a two hour feature.  ‘I’m blessed to have a vast commercial background.  I have three other films in fast progression, and I plan to do them all here and keep on the radar.  Commercial agencies would say, ‘Two hour movie, that’s easy—what’s hard is to tell a story in 30 seconds.’ Not true – it’s 240 times more difficult to tell a story on film.  In commercials, you have three to thirty clients critiquing everything.  So that (part) was liberating.  I only had to satisfy me.”

One scene in CHASING SHAKESPEARE that will be many viewers’ favorite is a dreamlike conversation between Glover and Graham Greene (as the guardian-angelish Mr. Mountain), atop the house’s precarious slanted roof.  ‘The subtlety they brought to that scene was stunning, it was so magical…Graham is actually fantastic at ad-libbing, but they both stuck pretty close to the script…you don’t see it because they’re painted out (in post), but there’s key grips, support mechanisms, everything in the world to protect those two actors…When Danny’s nailing down the lightning rods, that was shot before a green screen on a stage.

Modern CGI technology also allowed Niven to substitute Dallas for New York, for a climactic moment when Mark and Chelsea stage an impromptu bit of the Bard on top of the marquee of Big D’s  legendary Majestic Theater.  “The city was so helpful, we shot on a weekend and rerouted traffic, which is why the cars are going in the wrong direction.  We shot over two nights, painted out the neon (Renaissance) Tower, and painted back in some of New York City.  We shot two days in New York to get the backplates we needed…it’s a challenge to do anything without a big budget.  Everyone helped us out.  For the actors, it was a SAG shoot, but  it was a non-union local crew…we were ready to shoot 35mm film up to the last minute.  But because of the paint work and the visual effects we were doing, the decision was made to have a 4K (digital) resolution image, it was superior.  Now here’s a neat trick:  all the flashbacks were shot with these old, heavy anamorphic lenses no one uses anymore.  Bestows that (’70s movie) feel to a viewer.  The modern scenes are full screen, shot on modern Panavision lenses.  We wanted it to be subtle, but it does drive the projectionists crazy.  We did it fairly quick – 23 shooting days with the cast…the opening credits alone took a year, and just won the Audience Award for Titles at South By Southwest (against the opening credits of SKYFALL and THE AVENGERS)!”

The screening of CHASING SHAKESPEARE during the DIFF is expected to be a sellout.  “We can’t wait to fill the theater on both screenings…the only way to keep filmmaking here is to create quality content, and that will force people to pay attention to the city and the state, and what we’re doing here…I am humbled and honored to be part of it.”

CHASING SHAKESPEARE plays Thursday, April 11 @ 7pm, and Friday, April 12, at 7:15pm during the Dallas International Film Festival.  It stars Danny Glover, Chelsea Ricketts, Ashley Bell, Mike Wade, Graham Greene, Clarence Gilyard Jr. and Tantoo Cardinal (and this writer, in a bit part–don’t blink.) For more info:

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