The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Shakespeare in Love

The Bard talked like Yoda, but did he think like George Lucas?

Inspiration for films and the inspirations that cause a desire to work in film can be a tangled web. These things can be stepping stones to other films as well. It might seem like a long road connecting this film to Star Wars, but for this column, we’ll be talking about the Academy Award winner, Shakespeare in Love. The film itself is about the inspiration of an artist, in this case the world’s greatest playwright, William Shakespeare, played by Joseph Fiennes. He’s in the throes of writing a play called Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate’s Daughter, when he meets and falls in love with a woman he cannot be with, Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow). They are separated by class and by her intended marriage to a man she doesn’t love, Lord Wessex (Colin Firth). As the two go about their star-crossed affair, Shakespeare is slowly writing what would eventually become the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet — doomed like the relationship he’s found himself in. But the situation has light at the end of the tunnel, as he’s able to write a fantasy to sooth his wounded heart with Twelfth Night.

This is a film that gets to the heart of inspiration and homage — where ideas come from in the life of a writer. It’s funny, charming, beautiful, and one of the best that’s ever come from cinema, let alone in a year as good as 1998. But what does any of that have to do with Star Wars? On the surface, not much beyond the way in which a writer takes the things around them and fashions it into something bigger and even more inspirational. For us, that’s been at the very heart of these columns, looking at the things that inspired Lucas to create something as wonderful and moving as the Star Wars saga. If you look deeper, though, Shakespeare in Love has more connections to Star Wars than you might guess.

George Lucas

The most obvious connection on the surface is the Star Wars fan film George Lucas in Love, directed by USC graduate Joe Nussbaum. The film would eventually win an official “Star Wars Fan Film Award” in 2004. It echoed the story of Shakespeare in Love, but in place of Shakespeare was a college-age George Lucas (Martin Hynes) struggling to write the original draft of Star Wars. If you love Star Wars, the art of cinema, and Shakespeare in Love, it’s probably the best fan film ever made (and easily one of my favorites). Though witty and full of heart, it doesn’t delve into the actual cinematic influences that Lucas used in Star Wars.

It was similar to the saga in other ways, and not just that I watched it a dozen times while I was waiting in line to see The Phantom Menace. The Best Picture winner was directed by none other than English film director John Madden, who got an early start into the world of cinema by directing National Public Radio’s adaptations of the original Star Wars films.

Star Wars NPR radio drama

At the time, Madden was a theatre director and dabbling in radio dramas when no one else was doing it. He quickly became the natural choice for the job and received access to Ben Burtt’s library of sound, the scores of John Williams, and talent from the original films. Setting out with expanded scripts from Brian Daley, Madden directed all three installments of the radio dramas in 1981, 1983, and 1996. This would make Star Wars incredibly influential to Madden as an artist and a director. Coincidentally, his first job as a theatrical film director was the 1993 version of Ethan Frome starring Qui-Gon Jinn himself, Liam Neeson.

Shakespeare in Love might be the best film Madden has produced. It’s a wonderful story, bittersweet by the end, but the bitter and the sweet go down as the perfect cinematic medicine. I’d put it on a list of must-see movies for just about everyone interested in storytelling, inspiration, and just flat-out good movies. It’s rated R in America for sexuality, but it’s only rated 15 in the UK and 14 in Canada. As a film nerd, I’d have no qualms showing it to my new teenager with adult supervision. Only after he’d received a primer in Shakespeare, though. I’d also insist that you seek out a copy of George Lucas in Love afterward. It’s available on YouTube, but you can also buy DVD copies from online retailers and purchase streaming versions of the 15th anniversary edition from Apple for less the average cost of a streaming rental. And if you haven’t listened to the NPR audio dramas of Star Wars, you need to run — don’t walk — to wherever they are sold. They’re available on Amazon and through their distributor, HighBridge Audio.

Availability: Shakespeare in Love is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray and is currently streaming for free with a membership on Netflix and Amazon.

Bryan Young is an authorfilmmakerjournalist, and the editor-in-chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith. You can also follow him on Twitter @swankmotron.

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