BELGRADE (Reuters Life!) – Dressed in military fatigues and with their faces covered in blood, Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler are at each others’ necks, fighting on the ground atop broken glass and debris, trying to kill each other.
Still breathing heavily after an intense scene with one of Hollywood’s fastest rising stars, Fiennes makes his way to a monitor to check out the latest bit of his directorial debut of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known tragedies “Coriolanus.”
“We have botched beginnings all the way from my point of view,” an irritated Fiennes said after watching a replay of the scene. “This is the kind of thing, I beg you to call out or say something.”
“I think we need to do the explosion again,” he said, referring to a blast which billows smoke across a play set in modern-day times and filmed around Belgrade in a gritty hand-held camera style.
Twice nominated for Academy Awards — as a Nazi camp commander in “Schindler’s List” and for the title role in “The English Patient” — Fiennes is bringing the same intensity that characterizes his acting to the director’s chair.
“I am under a lot of pressure, so there isn’t time to be — particularly today as we are coming to the end — there isn’t time sometimes to be always perhaps as tactful as you would like to be,” Fiennes said during a later interview.
In the film Fiennes plays the leading role of Coriolanus, a general who eventually betrays his native Rome and joins forces with the city’s enemy, Aufidius, played by Butler, star of the film “300.”
Just days before wrapping up filming this week, Fiennes was directing a fierce knife fight with Butler in a scene taking place before their two characters later join forces.
After another take, an apprehensive Fiennes returns to the monitor, joined by Butler, who is out of breath and silent as he wipes his brow.
“Please tell me there is something in that,” Fiennes said.
His stern continence — all the more frightful under the bloody makeup and patches of broken glass on the face of an actor who has scared many as Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies — eases.
“The sun is perfect there,” Fiennes said, finally flashing a smile as he assesses the take. “It’s great.”
GRITTY MODERN REALISM
The bitter hand-to-hand battle leaves both characters badly wounded, waiting for allies to help them away from the scene.
After a few takes, Fiennes is still not satisfied with Butler’s reanimation at a massive Belgrade Communist-era hotel in reality still in disrepair after the 1999 Kosovo war bombing.
“I don’t know what to do,” Butler says. “I’ve got to be dead for a second and then come to?”
Fiennes tells him exactly how to reach for a nearby knife and then calls for more smoke to add modern-day realism in the abridged version of Shakespeare’s play.
“Every single second of this film, he knows what he wants,” said Serbian actor Dragan Micanovic, whose character helps drag Fiennes away at the end of the fighting. “Yeah, he shouts, but when everything is out of order.”
In his trailer later when the faux blood has been cleared off his face, Fiennes says the emotion of working as a director helps his performance in the lead role.
“I use my frustration and my adrenaline as a director, I channel it into Coriolanus. When I am getting frustrated and sometimes cross about the situation, I use that,” he said.
“As an actor I don’t sit around on the set always in the state of emotion the character is in. I wait until the camera is ready and then offer up whatever the character is meant to be doing.”
With a supporting cast of veteran actors including Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox, Fiennes is bluntly honest when asked whether he is making a great film.
“I have no clue. How could I possibly know at this point?” he said. “I have a whole massive range of (film) rushes, some of which I like, some of which I question, but I don’t know.”
“There are days when I think I have got something I am happy with and there are days when I feel I might have missed it and come away disappointed.”
Adds Gabrielle Tana, one of the film’s producers: “We have a benevolent ruler, but the focus is intense.”
“He’s his own toughest critic.”