Steve Bannon’s obsession with Shakespeare’s goriest play.
Here’s the pitch: Titus Andronicus in outer space.
You might have forced a smile, sitting through a meeting with Steve Bannon during his Hollywood years in the early nineties. Today, as Trump’s chief advisor, the world’s second-most-powerful man designate has other scenarios to sell. But before Bannon was merely taking over the free world, he was bent on conquering Tinseltown, and he had a serious obsession: he wanted to make a movie version of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s bloodiest revenge play, rife with murder, rape, and disembowelment.
Bannon succeeded, eventually. He optioned a well-reviewed but audience-challenged 1994 off-Broadway adaptation staged by Julie “Lion King” Taymor—putting Bannon, an investment banker, in the “Bard biz,” according to a story I reported in 1997, while on staff at Variety. But at the end of Bannon’s decade-long campaign to get his favorite play onscreen, victory was Pyrrhic. Titus, the twenty-five million dollar movie adaptation directed by Taymor, toplining Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, and released by Fox Searchlight in 1999, laid an egg at the box office, grossing just over two million dollars. For Bannon—the movie’s executive producer and chairman of the board of First Look, the production company that raised all the money—it was a learning experience.
“If they’d done it my way, it would have been a hit,” Bannon told Julia Jones, a screenwriter who worked with Bannon on an earlier adaptation. Jones toiled out of the Beverly Hills offices at Bannon & Co., turning his ideas into scripts for movies and TV shows, most never seeing the light of day. She was paid a retainer—“It wasn’t a lot,” she says, “but enough to live on.” Among the many projects she worked on with Bannon was Those Who Knew, a proposed TV series about “great thinkers,” including Plato and Marcus Aurelius. “He was always quoting Aurelius,” says Jones. Their working method was simple: Bannon dictated, Jones wrote. “We used to joke that my credit would be TYPED BY JULIA JONES,” she laughs.
Their sixteen-year collaboration was born out of a chance meeting in a restaurant in 1991, where the Hollywood question, “What do you do?” was met with the Hollywood answer, “I’m a screenwriter.” Bannon told Jones he had a project he wanted her to work on.
She had no produced credits. He was an ex-Goldman Sachs trader dabbling in the movie business. Bitten by the filmmaking bug after chalking up an executive producer credit on the 1991 Sean Penn vehicle The Indian Runner, Bannon found his way into the entertainment industry hustling rights to collections of intellectual property someone else created. One deal—selling actor/director/producer Rob Reiner’s company, Castle Rock, to Turner Broadcasting in 1993—netted Bannon a share in the profits of one of the assets in the mini-studio’s library: Seinfeld.
Jones and Bannon were both raised in the South and educated in the Ivy League. Jones hailed from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where her father was a basketball coach at UNC; she studied English literature at Harvard. Bannon, a working-class kid from Norfolk, Virginia, won an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. On the side, he nurtured a passion for the classics. “He loved Plato,” Jones said, and anything about the Peloponnesian Wars. “His computer password was Sparta.”
Their first project had a working title: Andronicus. Synopsis: Titus is the leader of the Andronicii, beings of pure light who live somewhere in the Pleiades. They’re on a mission to save Earth, but their tragedy occurs upon entering the earthly plane; the Andronicii must assume human form, and all of the painful involvements of material being, thus ensuring their downfall.
“It’s really dreadful, the dialogue and such,” Jones wrote in an e-mail, attaching the script on which she and Bannon labored for two years. “It was mostly his vision and he was in agreement, and enthusiastic, about what was written. He liked certain words. He liked the word Dharma.”
Andronicus opens with scene description that might strike today’s reader as uncomfortably premonitory:
Humanity in chaos. Alien ships sweep out of dark, sunless skies as people flee in panic.
In putting Andronicus in space, Bannon and Jones were hardly venturing on untrodden ground. Forbidden Planet, the 1956 sci-fi flick, was an extraterrestrial retooling of The Tempest. Shakespeare’s Plan 12 from Outer Space was a low-budget version of Twelfth Night, according to IMDB, “reimagined in a child’s vision of Hell,” starring nobody you’ve ever heard of. And of course there was West Side Story.
Departing from those relatively tasteful approaches, the Bannon/Jones adaptation offers some out-of-this world sex scenes:
He climbs onto her and their forms dissolve, blend and blur in an erotic scene of ectoplasmic sex.
The play’s notorious scenes of betrayal, violence, and revenge remain relatively intact in the script, if somewhat mixed up with interplanetary politics and cosmic philosophy:
We fought for you. We gave up everything for you—and you betrayed us!
He grabs Barnabus by the front of his cloak.
Do not resist. Earth is evolving and so are you: half-spirit, half-human, embrace your self and others too. Evil can exist only in the thin line that separates what should be whole.
And the drama is infused with a certain apocalyptic view:
They fly lower. Andronicus looks down, suddenly intent on the scene below. Now they can make out humans, deformed, mingling with aliens, like animals in the dust.
So this is Earth …
No war could have done what we did to ourselves—no enemy be so cruel … so unkind.
I was wrong. Earth is a world of feeling, not of form. Feelings are the linch-pin [sic] on which we rise. Or fall.
Emotion mediates between pure action and pure thought. But do not stay there. No. Move through it only. Be like the tide—
The script closes with the death of Titus and the surviving earthlings’ populist lament for their authoritarian leader:
Andronicus, Andronicus, Andronicus …
… beneath the half-wind music of space that rises and swells over scene.
It’s unsurprising that Andronicus found no takers. When the Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom said of the play, “It’s just a bloodbath. There’s not a memorable line in it,” he could also have been giving coverage of the Bannon/Jones script. Other negative factors: the visual effects budget would have been huge, and casting a difficulty given the unpleasant nature of the title role. Overall, the concept, as executed on the page, hews closely to Camille Paglia’s view that Shakespeare’s play is “hilariously, intentionally funny … Titus Andronicus should be played by romping drag queens, so that its outrageous mannerisms clearly emerge.” Indeed, a savvy studio exec might have followed Bloom’s advice that “the best director to tackle the play would be Mel Brooks.”
One may speculate what a fixation on Titus Andronicus reveals about the man advising our next Leader of the Free World, and what it may portend: the nation—and the globe—anxiously await what “thousand dreadful things” may be in store. Certainly, the reports of Bannon’s violent personality dovetail with his fixation on Andronicus and its gory mayhem, to say nothing of its vengeful streak. Perhaps Bannon aspires to wreak Titus-style vengeance on the government agencies and financial institutions that depleted his telephone-lineman father’s retirement account. Or maybe it means nothing: after all, the Shakespeare-in-the-weird pitch is a perennial favorite in Hollywood. It allows the one pitching to show off his erudition (the Classics!), while evidencing his pop-culture savvy (“It’s Star Trek crossed with … ”)—a well-worn posture in a town of insecure intellects, many bred from modest origins who attended elite schools with a chip on their shoulder.
“Yep, that’s him,” said Jones, agreeing with this characterization of her former cowriter, from her home in Boston where she has begun production on a movie about Giordano Bruno, the sixteenth-century cosmologist and heretic monk burned at the stake. One can see Bannon affecting the same heretical stance. Not long after 9/11, Jones says, Bannon began taking meetings with emissaries from the GOP’s most conservative wing, seeking their own Michael Moore-ish documentarian to propagandize to America. At the same time, Bannon joined a handful of show runners and studio execs, a thin strata of the talent ranks, and a smattering of film financiers with politically conservative leanings—whose complaints of feeling ostracized in the company town have roots in the dark days when some named names and some didn’t.
Bannon apparently frequented right-wing meetings such as David Horowitz’s Wednesday Morning Club, at the Beverly Hills Hotel; or semi-clandestine gatherings of the Friends of Abe, which has counted Clint Eastwood, Gary Sinise, Jon Voight, and Kelsey Grammer among its members. Bannon’s only award was Best Documentary—not from the Academy, mind you, but from the now-defunct Liberty Film Festival—for In the Face of Evil, his cinematic paean to Ronald Reagan, an attempt to be the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party. It was also the last project Jones worked on with Bannon, she says, having become uneasy with his politics.
In Bannon’s case, it is unsettling to reference the old truism that success in show business is measured only by your last hit, knowing that he had no hits, and that the stakes in the real West Wing are infinitely higher than any ratings or weekend box-office tally. But if Bannon flops in Washington, maybe Hollywood would take him back and finally produce another screenplay he and Jones completed together. The pitch: Shakespeare’s Coriolanus as a rap musical, set in South Central Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots.
Rex Weiner is a contributing reporter for Capital and Main and his screen credits include the TV series Miami Vice, as well as the 20th Century Fox feature film The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.