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Filmmaker Interview with Robin Phillips (aka Christina di Marlo)

Filmmaker Interview by: Jason Knight

Picture of Christina di Marlo (aka Robin Phillips).
Christina di Marlo (aka Robin Phillips)

1) For those who have not seen it yet, what is Behind the Name SHAKESPEARE: Power, Lust, Scorn & Scandal about?

In this film I wanted to answer two questions, “Who created the greatest works of iambic thunder in the English language? And who lived the life described in the works?” Wearing period costumes, I hoped, would help transport the viewers back in time so they could experience this important axiom: “The past is like a foreign country: they do things differently there.” (The Go Between.) This is so often a hindrance to people understanding the nuances surrounding this subject. More than anything, I wanted the film to reveal, and to show visually, the fascinating and eye-opening historical details and surprises that I had discovered in my research. I wanted to encourage viewers to leave the theater wanting to make their own explorations, and also to look at the works of Shakespeare with new interest and even greater affection.

Poster for Behind the Name SHAKESPEARE: Power, Lust, Scorn & Scandal showing filmmaker.
Poster for Behind the Name SHAKESPEARE: Power, Lust, Scorn & Scandal

2) What motivated you to do this documentary?

In 2016, Roland Emmerich’s film, “Anonymous” captivated my interest in the way it challenged the traditional Shakespeare authorship belief. Stunned by this possibility, I had to find out for myself what was true. What I found in my research was jaw-dropping and I felt compelled to tell this story. Since my background is writing and producing two-person musical stage shows --which several (astute!) reviewers have called “marvelously engaging” -- I decided to put what I had learned about the two authorship candidates into a one-woman stage show with props, costumes and visuals. In my writing/performing career, melding solid research with lively theater has been my specialty. “I didn’t know that!” was always accompanied by “What fun!” Anything but a dull lecture. After two performances in a 65-seat theatre outside Washington, DC, someone from the audience called it, "Scholarship brushed with humor.” Others said, “Sassy and fun” – exactly what I was shooting for. It was so successful I was asked to take it to a Shakespeare conference in Chicago. That would have been a logistical nightmare, so I filmed it! That was the first leg on the road to becoming a real film.

Film Award for Behind the Name SHAKESPEARE: Power, Lust, Scorn & Scandal.
Latitude Film Award presented to Robin Phillips

3) What did you find most challenging about the experience?

In my basement I filmed the stage show, threw it on a thumb drive, edited it, and presented it in Chicago later that year, and in Oakland, California, the next. The audience loved it, but it wasn’t a real film yet. You see, I had also worked as a print journalist/graphic artist, so this film looked more like a magazine layout on a big screen, interspersed with my narrations. The graphics from Alamy were hauntingly beautiful but static. Years earlier I had had a brief stint as a TV reporter. I knew about “b-roll.” I smacked myself on the forehead. I needed moving images – b-roll! That’s what’s missing! I contacted various online providers and over the next two years, my co-editor and I began layering in moving images and the music. By far the most pleasurable part of transforming the film was adding the music. My co-editor would tease me, “I think you’ve got something going on with that Pond5 guy.” He was referring to my online music, sound-effects, b-roll provider. Each new bit of music we slid into a scene was almost mystical in the way it fit the moving images on the screen. My years as singer/musician, actor/playwright and graphic artist were like gifts now, perfect for this project. I was able to direct every nuance, every bit of timing, every gesture, every image—then sync these with music in each scene. It felt almost magical. As I continued researching, I would make exciting new discoveries that I had to include. I restructured the film at least five times, filming, editing, ten-hour days, week after week, and just two of us transformed that little stage-show into my first award-winning feature film. My vision was to create a definitive telling of the story of the two authorship candidates, by showing the stunning contrasts between their lives. Clever, contrasting “ages boxes” float through the documentary, giving the viewer a new, common sense understanding of the two candidates’ relationship to the events of the day, and to the Queen --in a way they may never have imagined before.

Drawing by Robin Phillips showing a knight on a horse.
Drawing by Robin Phillips

4) What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?

Never give up. Use all of your experiences and talents. Writers always use their experiences in their work. Think of Agatha Christie – when her archeologist husband moved to Baghdad and Luxor, her stories moved from Devon and St. Mary’s Mead to the deserts of the Mid-East. When I wrote a two-act, two-hour musical play about Agatha Christie, I used the conflicts in her life that reflected my own struggles – a competitive sister, a controlling, remote husband, an indifferent child. I focused on these and my own experiences resonated on stage as I spoke my lines. Every writer does it. Every filmmaker. When Gaugin moved to the South Pacific, and Van Gogh moved to the South of France, they painted what they saw, what was in their lives. When their surroundings changed, their paintings exploded into something more wonderful than before. On film, use what you know, use what you love. As a filmmaker, remember that every failure you’ve ever had is really a goldmine – because you can put what you learned in the screen. Actress Liv Ullman, used to say that as she was going through agonizing life’s experiences, there was the actor’s voice in her head saying, “I can use this in the film.” Use it. Use every life’s experience that has made you who you are. Good and bad. Now a filmmaker, you are an observer of life. And if you put that on the screen, it will be authentic and wonderful.

Film Award presented to Behind the Name SHAKESPEARE: Power, Lust, Scorn & Scandal.
Film Festival Award for Best Historical Film

5) What are your plans for the future?

I want to continue to create meticulously-researched but engaging documentaries. Films that are welcoming, that bring a lively perspective to subjects formerly considered deadly dull. Right now, we’re working on putting the mountain of outtakes we have into something coherent, perhaps creating a series of short films. I may be immersed in the Shakespeare authorship question for a while. We have so much material. After that, I would want to continue to explore more of the Elizabethan era and with English history.

6) Is there anyone you would particularly like to work with?

We have been working in a vacuum for so long, I haven’t thought of it. After working together for four years, my co-editor Art Harman and I have developed a language that doesn’t require words. Well-versed in the language of film, he is a technical wizard who can do anything and everything on screen that I request or require. He has a math gene; I do not. His technical skills mesh well with my artistic ones, along with my experience as a musician, actor, playwright, writer. The two of us have worked together so efficiently, every week, for the last four years -- it’s been a wonderful, deeply satisfying experience. Any work of art is a collaboration. Any film, too. I would love to collaborate with anyone who appears on my doorstep, but with the pandemic limiting our lives at every turn these days, that may not happen for a while.



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