Judging a book by its cover, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope is geek catnip. When my copy arrived I was pleased to discover the book is exactly what you think it is – a rewriting of the first Star Wars film, completely in iambic pentameter – and on top of that, the author Ian Doescher is from my hometown of Portland, Oregon, which in retrospect makes a lot of sense because, I mean, Portland.
When I also found out my parents’ pastor is basically besties with Doescher (who is an ordained Presbyterian pastor when he isn’t writing science fiction pastiches in blank verse), I used nepotism to finangle an interview with him. (Actually that’s a lie, I dropped him an email via his website and he was super nice about it.) I’ll be reviewing the book properly next week but in the meantime Doescher has a lot of interesting things to say about the book and Shakespeare, including his favourite (and least favourite) Shakespeare plays; going to see Branagh’s Much Ado with his mom; discussing motivation with Lucasfilm’s Darth Vader Characterisation Specialist (DVCS for short); and his dream cast for the Broadway production.
Planes, Trains and Plantagenets interview with Ian Doescher, author of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars
PTP: So you saw a production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) – excellent choice, by the way – and said, “Right, I’m going to write a Star Wars mashup.” Where did you start looking to get the hang of the language?
ID: It was close to that! It was actually a series of events last year – I watched the original Star Wars trilogy, then read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and then went to OSF. So I had Star Wars, Shakespeare and mashups swirling around in my subconscious, and that’s when the idea came to me. So, the language…I started studying Shakespeare in high school – each year we would do a play. I remember my freshman year teacher explaining iambic pentameter to us, and it just made sense: counting out the syllables, figuring out where syllabic stress should fall, it all came pretty naturally. And ever since then I’ve been writing the occasional sonnet (for fun), or renditions of “The Night Before Christmas,” and as I’ve done so I think I’ve gotten better at meter.
PTP: Do you remember which play you did every year?
ID: Of course! Freshman year Othello, sophomore year Julius Caesar, junior year Macbeth, senior year Hamlet. Those are burned into my brain. I spent the summer after my sophomore year of high school memorizing various soliloquys from Shakespeare. I still remember about three of them.
PTP: That is the nerdiest summer project ever.
ID: Yes. I never claimed not to be a nerd! That was the same summer I saw Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing in the movie theater about 10 times… with my mom.
PTP: I saw that with my mom quite a few times too.
ID: Yeah, but you weren’t a 15-year-old boy at the time.
PTP: Ha, true. So would you say the language was a big part of the appeal for the project? I was interested by how the book was totally in verse.
ID: When I had the idea, I knew that the iambic pentameter would sell it. Most Shakespeare spinoffs are in sort of Shakespearean language, but they’re not in verse, so I hoped it would help set the book apart. And, in fact, that was one of my soon-to-be editor’s first comments, that he couldn’t believe I’d done it in iambic pentameter. I had a remarkably easy time with this in terms of the publishing industry, but that’s another question, maybe.
PTP: Yeah, I was really curious about that actually! Because Lucasfilm is famously quite protective around their rights – did you write it without negotiating that part and hope for the best, or sort it out once you’d got going?
ID: Here’s the story there – I had the idea for the book just over a year ago, and then I looked up Quirk Books online, knowing that they had published Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I found the email address of Jason Rekulak, one of the editors at Quirk, and emailed him with the idea. He wrote back and said it was an interesting idea, and if I wrote anything he’d be happy to read it. That was enough to motivate me to write it, so I started working on the first act, which I wrote in about three weeks. Then I sent it to him and he wrote back pretty quickly saying he wanted to do it.
PTP: Wow – that basically never happens.
ID: Yeah, I don’t take for granted how lucky I have been in this whole process. For the story with Lucasfilm – after Jason said he wanted to do it, he said the next step was to get Lucasfilm involved for licensing. He had a contact there from another book Quirk had done, so he sent her what I had done. I had stayed very close to the original script in my first draft, because I think of Lucasfilm as being pretty careful about their product. But they were the ones who wrote back and said, “We like where this is going, but we’d like to see Ian do more with it, have a little fun.” That was a huge gift. From there, I started writing asides, soliloquys, making R2 speak, etc. etc. And when you think about it, most stuff they license does play around with Star Wars (Darth Vader & Son, the Lego Star Wars stuff, etc.)
PTP: So how much back and forth did you have with Lucasfilm about content and ideas?
ID: We had a conversation early on about what I should or shouldn’t do, which was instructive. Then I sent them my first draft, and they went through and picked out things – both small and large. For instance, you can’t make any reference to “earth.” And not even like the planet Earth – lines like “his feet touched the earth” would be a no-no. And there were also larger things – I had written a soliloquy for Darth Vader in which he talks about how he sort of wants to be good but can’t, and Lucasfilm came back and said, no: as of A New Hope Vader is totally evil. Which I think is kind of amazing – they really know their product.
PTP: Yeah! And, man, wouldn’t you love to have that job? Darth Vader characterisation specialist.
ID: Seriously. DVCS, for short.
PTP: And was there anything else that you sort of wanted to do, but couldn’t – because of space, or the restrictions of the medium, or any other reason?
ID: Not really… I almost didn’t get away with R2 speaking in English. That was one Lucasfilm wasn’t sure about, and now it turns out to be one of the things people enjoy most about the book. I was also worried early on about how I would handle action sequences since Shakespeare doesn’t use many stage directions, but once I remembered the Chorus from Henry V it worked out.
PTP: I have to admit I was secretly hoping for more bonkers how-the-heck-do-you-stage-that directions, a la “Exit, pursued by a bear”
ID: Yeah, I’d forgotten about that stage direction when I wrote the book. Maybe I’ll find another occasion to use it! Yeah, honestly, if there’s one scene in the book I’m not crazy about it’s that final battle scene. It was just hard to imagine how that would come across as something staged.
PTP: Yeah, I know what you mean – it’s difficult because the plot point is such a visual one, with the target of the exhaust pipe.
ID: Yes, and all those ships and pilots, with the scene switching back and forth from the battle to the Death Star to the rebel base.
PTP: I think the ‘split stage’ effect is quite good, though – Shakespeare does use that in Richard III after all, with the two camps.
ID: Here’s hoping. I don’t want the Shakespeare police after me.
PTP: Haha, the Shakespeare police are a pretty easygoing lot in my experience. So that was the hardest scene to translate – which was your favourite to write?
ID: My favorite to write was probably the “new” scene I wrote between the two stormtroopers standing guard outside the Millennium Falcon. So much of Star Wars – at least the first movie – is predicated on the idea that the people who work for the Empire are pretty dumb. So that dialogue was fun, because I got to sort of drive that point home in (hopefully) a fun way.
PTP: I think that was one of my favourite parts too, along with R2’s English asides. It felt very Shakespearean as well, getting a look in on the normal people of the universe.
ID: Thanks. Looking back, I wish I’d done a few more scenes that didn’t appear in the movie. Next time!
PTP: Do you have plans for a next time? You know, if you’re not busy enough with a book launch(!).
ID: I have hopes for a next time. It would be fun to see Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi happen, and if not one of those, another Shakespearean adaptation of some kind.
PTP: Of another film? Or whatever looks fun?
ID: Another film, probably. A friend suggested doing “William Shakespeare’s Lord of the Rings”, but I don’t think you could pull that off – you’ve already got a written product there, so why mess with it? Films make more sense, I think.
PTP: Plus, oh my god, that thing would be 150,000 words.
ID: Ha, yes. I also don’t know it nearly as well, which is a huge consideration.
PTP: Yeah. Empire seems like it would be quite well suited – the fight scenes are more Shakespeare-style, basically sword duels.
ID: Yes, and there’s richer dialogue there.
PTP: Final fun question – what’s your all-time favourite Shakespeare play? And which one do you just hate?
ID: Hamlet is my favorite. I hate to be stereotypical, but it is. It was the first one I ever spent time with (my eighth grade year, when my brother was studying it as a senior in high school), and I know it better than any other. I don’t know that there’s any play I truly hate, but I would trade King John, Henry VIII, Coriolaus, Timon of Athens, The Two Noble Kinsmen and the entire Henry VI trilogy for just one more Hamlet, or Othello, or The Tempest.
PTP: There is just something about your first one.
PTP: Although I do have to respectfully disagree about the Henry VIs, which are also in my top list – I think in a lot of ways they’re the Star Warsiest of any of them!
ID: Fair enough, fair enough! I can be dissuaded.
PTP: That said, there have been quite a few terrible productions of them.
ID: Yeah, and though Hamlet is my favorite, The Tempest is probably the one I’ve seen most. I saw a production staged at the Olympic-sized pool at Yale, performed in and around the pool. It was really cool. The opening scene was performed on top of the diving board, and when the ship crashed everyone jumped off into the water.
PTP: That sounds brilliant! Although those actors must have been absolutely exhausted by the end.
ID: Ha, yes! As I recall, Ariel did a lot of serious swimming.
PTP: What’s your favourite production you’ve ever seen? Not necessarily of one of your favourite plays, just the one that stuck with you?
ID: That version of Tempest is right up there. I also saw it on Broadway with Patrick Stewart as Prospero, which was great. He’s my Darth Vader when this goes to the stage.
PTP: Ooh, I know I said final question but that’s too good – dream cast?
ID: I’d love to see Patrick Stewart as Darth Vader, maybe Tobey Maguire as Luke, Emma Watson as Leia, Matt Damon as Han Solo (try not to think too hard about the age disparity between Watson and Damon), Kenneth Branagh as Ben Kenobi, and Kevin Kline would be my Chorus. (You can tell I’ve given this some thought.)
PTP: Kevin Kline is a great choice!
ID: Kevin Kline has been a longtime favorite of mine.
PTP: I loved his Bottom (er, you know what I mean).
ID: Ha, yes. I also saw him as King Lear in New York. (That’s another production that sticks in my mind!)
PTP: Ooh, that one didn’t make it to the UK! I heard wonderful things about it, though. And his Falstaff – it’s not very many people who can play both so well.
ID: Yeah, and I missed that one. I would have loved to have seen it.
PTP: Well, thanks very much for your time!
ID: You’re very welcome!
PTP: I hope everything continues to go well with the book – and looking forward to whatever you’re doing next.