'Cleopatra' Writer Says The Movie Won't Be A Prestige Picture, Will Instead Be A Visceral Political Thriller

A couple of months ago, we learned that Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve was in talks to direct Sony Pictures' long-brewing Cleopatra movie about the famed Egyptian queen. Hollywood has been attempting to make a movie about her for the better part of the last decade, with directors like David Fincher and Ang Lee attached, and while Sony was once looking to turn this into the type of big-screen epic that might have rivaled the classic film version of the story from 1963, a new interview with this film's writer has us rethinking our expectations about this movie.

When I think of Cleopatra, I immediately think of the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton movie. If you haven't seen it, it's a tremendous piece of old-school filmmaking that exemplifies the type of opulent excesses that pervaded the Old Hollywood era, back when studios were desperate to make huge spectacles to coax audiences out of their homes and away from their new-fangled televisions (sound familiar?). The movie's production famously careened out of control, and it ended up going so far over budget that it nearly bankrupted its studio, 20th Century Fox. But although a previous version of this new Cleopatra's film script was hailed as a "brilliant script deserving of epic treatment," a new writer has since come on and retooled the entire concept.

Writer David Scarpa explains his take on the story in an interview with Collider:

"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-GavrasZ. 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."

That's an astute observation about the way Cleopatra's story has been told thus far, and I'm curious to see how he goes about "unskewing" centuries of mythologizing and stripping that away to reveal the essence of a clever and conniving ruler who manipulated those around her in order to shape the ancient world. The film is based on Stacy Schiff's 2010 biography of the shrewd Egyptian queen, so at least there's a good starting point from which to work.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Scarpa echoed some of those earlier thoughts about how he wanted to handle this version of Cleopatra:

"Dirty, bloody, lots of people swearing and having sex and all of that other stuff and just treat it as a two-hour, lean, mean political thriller, full of assassinations, etc. Just going the opposite direction from the way we think that movie is going to go."

Scarpa rewrote the screenplay after writers like Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland took a crack at it, though even Scarpa admits that he hasn't spoken with Villeneuve about the project yet and that the director could have his own vision for the material. Still, I hope Villeneuve sees the potential in Scarpa's take, because it sounds like that would give us a version of Cleopatra's life we haven't seen before. Either way, he still has his adaptation of Dune to make before this project goes before cameras, so they have plenty of time to sort it all out.