Cleopatra has shown up in plenty of movies, but the most famous is, of course, is 1963’s Elizabeth Taylor starring film. The movie, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, is considered the epitome of the Hollywood studio system’s opulence, and went so far over budget that it nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. It also defined what we think of when we think of Cleopatra in film, which is a tough hurdle to jump over.
That’s why Sony has so much trouble launching a new film about her. The studio has been trying for nearly a decade, but with Denis Villeneuve now signed on to direct it may be actually happening. Part of that success could be coming from a new approach to the film. Instead of spectacle we’ll be getting political thriller according to the film’s new screenwriter, David Scarpa.
“Everybody I think who had ever tried to do Cleopatra prior had done it as this prestige-y picture, which is like three hours long and people speaking in English accents and fans blowing and big sets and all that. Very glossy and important and dull, and my attitude was well let’s take that prestige picture and just blow it up. I really got into what that world was like at the time, which was dirty and grungy. I came in and said, ‘Let’s do this as Costa-Gavras’ Z. Let’s do it as a political thriller.’
So the idea is we’re not making the big bloated 3-hour movie, we’re making the tight, dirty, fast 2-hour movie, that was very sort of visceral. And also what was really interesting was there have been so many narratives of Cleopatra that have all been framed through the eyes of men. The entire history of that period is framed through the eyes of men, specifically Roman men. And the idea was we’re gonna approach it through her point of view. We’re going to assume that the narratives that have been created by the Roman writers of the time were slanted, and we’re going to unskew them.”
Sounds like we could be getting something interesting, especially considering the fact that we are often viewing Cleopatra through the male lens or gaze. Of course this is coming from a male writer and the film will be handled by a male director so not quite ditching the gaze, but… baby steps?