On August 14, 2015, Mick Garris hosted an exclusive Q&A interview at the Aero Theatre with film director (and pianist!) Bernard Rose. Rose’s 1994 film Immortal Beloved is an intriguing biopic of Beethoven that spans the full spectrum of human emotion and, quite like Beethoven's music, leaves the audience wanting more. The film concerns a quest to find Beethoven's mysterious heir to his belongings and riches, and is also an intimate account of Beethoven’s love life, his role as a caregiver, his place in history, and an invitation into the aristocratic society of his time.
Rose opened by saying the film is based on his interpretation of Beethoven's life. He explained that at the time of the film’s release, certain Beethoven scholars took issue with some of his choices. “They attack the film on historical inaccuracies,” said Rose. “But that's inaccurate in itself because everything about Beethoven is disputed, starting with his date of birth. His father lied and said he was two years younger than he was to try and sell him as a child prodigy. Beethoven was so famous and difficult as a man that there were so many conflicting attempts to try and sabotage his reputation because he was this giant in music. It was very difficult to try and move through the different accounts, documents, and things so I went to Vienna and did original research. I did not base the film on any established biography. To me, his music was the single most important aspect of the research. He never wrote his music to play in a concert; he wrote his music for people to learn and play themselves. It was an active direct communication with the listener. He was communicating with the person playing the piano. There is a kind of message that is transmitted through the music.”
Rose mentioned that he started his career in the early 1980's making music videos for a number of well-known acts at the time. He stated that “The relationship between music and images is very important to me. Immortal Beloved was to be kind of like a large-scale music video.”
Rose set the facts straight when an audience member asked “What were some of the controversies in regards to film or the questions of historical inaccuracies? What disputed areas were you free to imagine into?”
“Let's be clear from the start the letter is undisputed,” he began. “It exists in the Beethoven museum in Bonn. The letter is a historical fact. It was written by Beethoven himself and it was discovered just as shown in film in his house with his work. The mystery that you can't prove is who the letter was written to two hundred years ago. The letter of course did end up back in his possession. It's quite possible he never sent it or that it was returned to him. A lot of my research was into the postal system during that period. They had five deliveries a day within Vienna or Bonn because it was the only way of communicating. The postal service was a lot more efficient in the 1820's than it is today. They had relay mail coaches and the idea was that the letter would go ahead of them. The idea that his letter gets to the mysterious woman before he does is completely accurate because he's writing from a coach stop because he's delayed. Since Beethoven was so famous, if you wanted to send a letter to him, you would write ‘Beethoven, Vienna’ and he would have gotten it. The two areas to consider is first the speed of the postal system and the second is the depiction of court case involving his nephew. None of that is historical doubt. Beethoven sued his brother’s wife after he had died for custody of the couple’s child. She took him into higher and higher courts. What upsets Beethoven scholars is that my assertion that the boy is Beethoven's son. I feel with the circumstantial evidence that it is his son. Why would this man who could barely care for himself fight this seven year custody battle? Especially when the mom was looking after him perfectly well. He must have believed he was his son. We will never know though even with DNA testing we wouldn't be able to conclude the results because the possible fathers were Beethoven or his brother. If you look at the letters between Beethoven and Carl, you will see that Carl addresses them to his father and Beethoven addresses them to his son. There are hundreds of letters between Beethoven and Carl. In addition Beethoven did sign back his custody to the boy’s mother at his death bed.”
After the success of Rose’s horror film Candyman, there was pressure on him to do more horror. He had been kicking around the idea of a Beethoven film, given his enthusiasm and passion for the subject (and classical music in general), but was met with skepticism about its viability – until he forged a key alliance. “My lawyer at the time told me to go meet with Bruce Davey, who was a highly successful independent producer [and co-founder of Icon Entertainment with Mel Gibson]. We met for breakfast and I pitched him the story. He told me it was amazing. I was then called up and told to go have lunch immediately with Mel Gibson at Warner Bros. Mel said, ‘Let’s just do it.’ and asked me what I needed. I said I want to go to Vienna and do some research. They bought me a ticket to go in a couple of weeks. They were fabulous. It doesn't usually happen like that.”
Gary Oldman was not the first choice to play the lead role. “Originally, I wanted Anthony Hopkins to do it; he had just won an Oscar,” recalled Rose. “We sent the script and he said yes. I went and met with him and he was going to do it for a while. Later, he said he had changed his mind. We were then short on time and I thought we should go to Gary.” Oldman was not really interested, however, and passed several times. “Eventually Gary came around again and agreed to meet. When I came around it was kind of weird. He had already learned a lot of piano pieces for the script. I said, ‘I thought you didn't want to do this, Gary?’ he had the whole thing down so then we went on and did the film.”
Responding to an audience question about a lack of Beethoven’s famous contemporaries in the film, Rose maintained that “it's not an all-inclusive bio. If you have too many famous figures in a movie, it can get very funny."
Addressing some audience discontent that Oldman’s performance did not result in an Oscar nomination, Rose noted that the competition was stiff that year and included The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, and Forrest Gump.
One audience member inquired about the inspiration for scene where Beethoven runs down to the water as a child. “ It's one of things like - what are you going to do with Ode to Joy?” replied Rose. “It doesn't need you. You really have to treat pieces like that with caution because it can drown. It's completely powerful. I didn't want to do a montage like many commercials. It had to be something very simple, very unforced. People think he wrote that song. It's actually a drinking song. It is like a scene when he was young where he was getting beaten by his father. I wanted it to be like a childhood memory. It kind of was like an almost violent forgiveness. It is childhood flashback. It was a march unedited because if you just edit it it's kind of not earned. You got to have the beginning, the whole march leading up to it, and him running to the forest. If you don't have that, there is no release or conclusion.”
Answering a question about screenplay mechanics, Rose said “I always wanted to have this detective structure. I didn't want to just go through his life and up to his death. What would be the point? The repartee and sequences were around the pieces of music and moved around it. I wanted to keep the integrity of those pieces first. I also used playbacks on set to get the timings right.”
The Q&A ended with a lead-in into Rose’s next film on the bill, Mr. Nice. Garris described it as “greatly different in style, text, and tone. It’s about a guy who was born in the late 1940's and comes of age in the 1960's. It is the drug world, but it also has Oxford. It's got all this counterculture pulse.”
Added Rose: “It is based on the autobiography of Howard Marks, a man who invented the marijuana business. He was an intellectual from Oxford. He got stoned and decided the world should be stoned. He proceeded to actually put that into effect in the 1960's. Lots of people who are portrayed in the movie are still alive. This film is set over twenty years and is shot in thirty different countries. London no longer looks like it did in film. They raped London a long time ago. The 60's and 70's postwar London is gone. I really wanted to evoke that. So I did it with the actual texture. We shot the film to make it look like a period piece.”
Despite the varied subject matter, Rose’s films are consistently rich and finely wrought. His film Frankenstein, a modern update of the classic tale, will be released later this year.