Years before it won its Oscars, Shakespeare In Love was three weeks away from filming with a different director and cast – here’s what happened.

On March 21st 1999, Harrison Ford took to the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, at the end of another exhaustively long Academy Awards ceremony. His job was to hand out the final gong of the night, the Best Picture award.


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The favourite going into the ceremony was Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and when Spielberg was awarded the Best Director statuette minutes before Ford appeared, few were in any doubt which name he would be reading out.

It remains one of the more sizeable shocks in Oscar history that it was Shakespeare In Love that prevailed, its seventh award of the evening and the most prestigious of all. Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench had already won for their acting, Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s script had been rewarded too, as well as the score (from Stephen Warbeck), Sandy Powell’s costumes, and the movie’s art direction (Martin Childs and Jill Quertier taking home Oscar gold).

On top of the eventual $289.3m box office haul, it was a stunning turnaround for a project that had become infamous courtesy of its original collapse less than a decade before.

The project first came to life towards the end of the 1980s, when Marc Norman wrote the first draft of the script (based on an idea from his son). That screenplay in turn brought Julia Roberts to the film in the early 1990s, at the time when she was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. Also on board very quickly was Ed Zwick, who had directed Denzel Washington to his first Oscar with 1989’s Glory. Zwick brought in Tom Stoppard to beef up the screenplay, and Universal Pictures agreed to foot the bill for the $20m movie.

With Roberts on board, the film moved towards production. Studio space at Pinewood in the UK was booked, at a time when high profile prestige Hollywood projects shooting in Britain was something of a novelty (1989’s Batman still stands out, although even then Tim Burton elected to make its sequel, 1992’s Batman Returns, in Los Angeles).

Roberts at this stage had taken a year away from making films, but off the back of Pretty Woman and Sleeping With The Enemy was still the female lead that every Hollywood production was seeking. She arrived in the UK for her costume fittings, as set construction got underway at Pinewood. Edward Zwick was confirmed as director, and a start date for production was just weeks away.

The problem, though, was that Shakespeare In Love didn’t have a Shakespeare.

The production, and Roberts herself, had been set on luring Daniel Day Lewis to take on the role. He had been in the midst of shooting The Age Of Innocence (pictured) for Martin Scorsese, and also had come off the back of Michael Mann’s The Last Of The Mohicans.

Still, he took a look at the script for Shakespeare In Love, and was duly offered the co-starring role in the film.

But ultimately, Daniel Day Lewis never really got close to taking the project on. He turned down the role of Shakespeare, and with just a month or two left before filming was due to begin, the search was on for a replacement.

This isn’t entirely uncommon: there’s a long line of Hollywood movies that only filled key roles days before filming on a project began. But Roberts had partly been lured to the film with the idea that Day Lewis would be her co-star.

A series of possible replacements were mooted.

Sean Bean and Ralph Fiennes were amongst those reportedly suggested (Ralph’s brother, Joseph, would ultimately take on the part when the project came back to life).

Roberts, meanwhile, tried to persuade Day Lewis to star in the film, but without success. And when it became clear that it was a definite no, with no obvious replacement in sight, Julia Roberts then quit the movie. Empire reported in its December 1992 issue that Roberts hadn’t been entirely happy with the choice of director too, and it all led to her walking away.

The 15-week shoot was duly cancelled, and the Hollywood trade press went to work. This time, British tabloids joined in too, and when the narrative shifted to blaming Daniel Day Lewis for turning the role down as well as Julia Roberts for walking away, it extinguished any chance of either of them boarding the project. In the background of all of this, 140 members of the crew were left without work.

Roberts had still been interested in the film is the irony of the tabloid attacks on her, and the original message was that the film had originally been postponed. But its moment with Universal had gone, leaving Zwick to take the film around Hollywood to see if anybody else wanted to pick the movie up.

It would take several years for it to come back to life, after years as the story of the highest profile film project to collapse in Britain of the 1990s. Zwick ultimately took the idea and the screenplay to Miramax, where recently convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein agreed to fund the production, but also changed its director: this would no longer be Zwick’s film, with Mrs Brown’s John Madden chosen instead (Judi Dench, the star of that film, would take on a small role in Shakespeare In Love, one of the brief screen performances to ever snag an Oscar).

Filming would take place in the UK in 1998, albeit with Shepperton rather than Pinewood being its studio base. And the turnaround was complete that night on the Oscar stage, when the film that had pretty much collapsed with little hope of coming back to life staged its upset.

What’s more Zwick, as some solace for not directing in the end, would take home one of the Oscars too, as one of the movie’s producers.

Given that he was the person who kept the film’s flame flickering during its bleaker years in development hell, it’s had to argue he didn’t deserve it…

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