Ovid in Detroit
An Interview with “Ovid and the Art of Love” Director Esme von Hoffman
On May 19, 2020, Ovid and the Art of Love, the new feature film about the Roman poet, will be released nationally on streaming services (such as iTunes). A toga-and-sneakers biopic set in the modern world, the film combines the Ovidian flair and charisma of Corbin Bleu (High School Musical) with the ruins and vitality of modern Detroit. The film has been called “novel,” “entertaining,” and “enlightening,” and earned its director the Best Director trophy at the 2019 Festival of Cinema NYC. We spoke with director Esme von Hoffman by phone to discuss ancient inspiration in the modern world, Ovid in the #MeToo era, and the effect COVID-19 is having on film production.
In Medias Res. Here at In Medias Res we have a special love for the Classics, and also a special interest in how and why people care about the Classics. Do you have a story of what first made you really interested in the classical world?
Esme von Hoffman. Yes, I think something that really attracted me to the classical world is that I’m very interested in beginnings. I don’t know if Greece or Rome are the actual beginning, but there’s a lot of things that start in the ancient world, like democracy. So I think that first attracted me to ancient Greece. I was interested in the birth of theater, too, and from ancient Greece, I became interested in ancient Rome. I also discovered the classical world in high school, and I went to a high school where I had quite a diverse Latin class with people from different cultures and backgrounds. And Latin was something we could connect on. So these sort of stories that cut through culture and time, there’s sort of a very basic element to them. All those aspects really intrigued me about the classics. Plus I think you get love and danger and all these sort of very fundamental story elements that I think is one of the things that makes Roman history so fascinating and exciting today.
IMR. What high school was this? Because obviously taking Latin in high school is not something that everyone does, and a lot of times high school Latin programs are not very diverse.
EVH. So I went to a school called the Commonwealth School and it was in the city of Boston. It’s technically a private school, but they gave out an intense amount of financial aid. You also picked your language — you could pick between French, Latin, and Spanish. And so I was already coming in with a diverse class, and a lot of my classmates — I shouldn’t totally speak for them — but I know some of the things they told me about why they chose Latin. Some of them came from different countries, and they liked the idea of grammar. And in certain ways there was something a little more universal about Latin than Spanish and French, which clearly are great languages too, but more specific to certain places. I think Latin was a little more fundamental to them.
IMR. Do you think that this affected your directing for this particular movie? Because obviously there is a lot of diversity in the cast.
EVH. Yes, absolutely. I feel like in some ways, the movie sort of is seen through the world of students studying Ovid in school — which was me and my friends. So it’s as we imagine it: that’s the world that transpires. Clearly the real characters didn’t actually wear togas and sneakers. But it’s expressionistic: how a student trying to imagine Rome who hasn’t lived there would sort of mix both the modern and the classical elements in their mind. And to speak to the part about diversity, I think there’s something that people forget a lot, and it has to do with previous or more recent interpretations or other shows about Rome, they tend to not to have diverse casts. They’re often made in Britain. Rome was actually an empire — as I’m sure you know! — that included the southern Mediterranean, the Middle East and northern Africa. So it’s a lot more diverse than we’ve tended to think about it.
IMR. [Laughing] You mean it wasn’t just the British ruling class that populated all the ancient world?
EVH. [Laughing] And it’s funny; when I was doing the casting, people would come to me and they’d say, “Do you want a British accent?”
IMR. Oh God.
EVH. And I was like “No!” I mean, with all due respect to British productions, which are great, but Britain, at the time this movie is set, was only partially conquered by the Romans, and it was basically an outpost. So, I thought if there was any accent we should be doing it would perhaps be a modern Italian accent, but that wasn’t quite appropriate for the film given it was set in Detroit. But I actually believe that our conception of the Roman Empire has been distorted. So hopefully this movie is bringing us back a little bit more to what Rome actually was.
IMR. This is something which a number of scholars have been working on, doing precisely what you’re talking about, which is changing that kind of cultural preconception, which I think does, in fact, come a lot from movies. And so to have movies that are speaking a different language and showing a different picture is really great. And on that note, there are all these sword-and-sandal epics and there’s a lot of people interest in things like the violence in the Colosseum, but you decided to use Ovid as your way in. So why Ovid in particular? And then typically, when people will approach Ovid, it is through his myth-telling — and there’s some of that in the movie. But still, your approach is mainly biographical. What was it about Ovid as a character that appealed to you?
EVH. Well, on the one hand, he’s fun and he’s funny. I feel like his writing skills, even though he wrote 2000 years ago, seem very fresh to me, and his writings felt very fresh to me and my classmates at the time. I remember laughing out loud when we were doing some of our translations, which is rare. And on the one hand, I think he felt very relatable. It’s a coming of age story, and you can almost feel in his work the change in him through time, which the movie follows as he grows up. So that’s relatable.
And then I also felt very compelled by the story of “Everyman,” for a lack of a better word. Ovid wasn’t part of the ruling class, certainly not the lowest in society either. He self-described as a frivolous poet, not state-sponsored by the Emperor Augustus. And yet, two thousand years later, when you’re studying Augustus, Ovid is the person who is most able to stand up to the emperor and poke holes in what Augustus was doing and his hypocrisy. So I think that idea of sort of an Everyman who stood up to a brutal dictator was both admirable and interesting and cut across time and culture.
I found it an exciting story, too. And then, of course, Ovid has a lot to teach us about romance, although I think the movie as it unfolds we learn that the art of love is not just romantic love, but love of city, love of friendship, deepening our sense of what love is.
IMR. One of the standout features of the movie is Corbin Bleu’s performance as Ovid, which I really enjoyed, and I’ll have to say he just radiates intelligence, empathy, social success, and charm, in a way which I found very distinctly Ovidian. So what was it like working with him, and what do you think he brings to our understanding of Ovid?
EVH. It was really fantastic working with Corbin, and we were so lucky to have him play Ovid. It’s certainly a challenging role. Essentially we have to see Ovid grow up, so he starts carefree, and then he becomes much sadder… the weight of the world is on him a lot more by the end, which is a transition that Ovid himself went through, but yet maintaining that fun, charming Ovidness. So I think I think Corbin has all those qualities and embodied all those qualities. He’s a very, very intelligent actor, very hard working, and he was very excited about the character of Ovid and really threw himself into that. And also, he really embraced the world of Detroit and really got into the poetry slams and working with real poetry slam artists in Detroit. So I think all of that he really brings to the table, and that’s why his performance is so powerful.
IMR. The element that I found most convincing about the movie is the way that Ovid performs his poetry. It all takes place during these poetry slams. And as you point out, that actually is from the ancient world where poetry was performed aloud. What got you to make that connection, and what do you think about that kind of connection between ancient and modern?
EVH. Throughout the course of writing the movie and then later with the whole team, we were always trying to figure out the critical line between ancient and modern and where these worlds intersected, because we wanted it to be accessible to a modern audience. And so the poetry slam — I can’t tell you what my Eureka moment was — but I will say I did go to Rome to try to find all the places that Ovid had been so I could feel it more viscerally. And I do remember at the Colosseum there was an exhibit at the time about about reading and books in the ancient world that discussed how poetry wasn’t read to oneself. And so that was very fascinating to me. Not that there aren’t poetry readings today, but you think about sitting and reading a poem to yourself. But poetry slams are very vibrant forms of speaking poetry aloud. If we had to modernize it, this is as close as we get where it’s a communal form of poetry where we can all enjoy it. It was really fun to be able to mix those. We used Ovid’s real text in the movie. And then we also have real spoken word artists from Detroit. So it was really cool to literally see those two worlds blend in the film. Those scenes were very exciting to shoot. There was an energy to those scenes on set that was really exciting for everyone involved.
IMR. You can tell — it really comes off very well. Another major onscreen player in the movie is the city of Detroit itself. You’ve mentioned a couple of times the film was set completely in the modern city of Detroit. I recognized several of the locales in the film from my connections to a group of artists who do photoshots of abandoned buildings, for instance of the Packard plant, which are in the movie. At first I’ll say I found this juxtaposition very strange — I always think of Rome as being crowded and bustling and full of life, while many of the shots in the film are empty. But as the movie went on I found it more and more compelling, especially the way the emptiness is associated with the Emperor Augustus and the political elite of Rome. Can you talk a bit about how you came to make this decision to stage these Roman characters in a kind of empty, ruinous setting? There’s a sort of Piranesi quality to it.
EVH. I think the film is an expressionistic film, so it’s getting the feel of stuff. Again, the characters didn’t actually have togas and sneakers, because there’s certain liberties in the modernizing. I guess I wanted a world that you could see through almost. Something that influenced me was actually a production of Our Town that was very successful — it originated in Chicago and then ran in New York — but in the play, in the production, they never turn the lights down. And at first it’s very disconcerting. I remember thinking, like, how am I ever going to concentrate, you know, seeing the audience? And there yet it was so naturally done that by the end, the fact that you could see the audience made you realize how close it was to you. So I think we were trying to let people see through to the modern world to keep being reminded of the connection.
And then also, I think the Pax Augusta as they call it, is an interesting term because it certainly is more stable than the years that are before it, where they’re literally at civil war. But there’s still a lot of trouble, if you read Cassius Dio. There’s still famines and war on the outskirts of Rome. There’s a lot of strife. And so I think I think in some ways it’s a visual representation of some of the hypocrisy of Augustus’s rule in which he’s saying, oh it’s such a time of peace and, you know, everything’s better now. That’s certainly true for some people in the Roman Empire. But it isn’t true for everybody. And so we had a sort of a visual embodiment of it.
I think also to a certain extent — it’s his own isolation. He’s in these big palaces by himself. And, you know, once you go to the poetry slam in other parts of Ovid’s world, we’re getting into the more populated world as well. But then that’s sort of how Detroit works. There are very abandoned places, and very lively places. So, again, there was that overlap with the Roman world and the contemporary one.
IMR. Yes, and then the Augustan restoration was coming after a period of real devastation. We tend to think of the Roman Empire as being opulent — again, that’s the Hollywood image we have of the restoration but at the time there were real problems, economic and otherwise.
EVH. Yes, absolutely. It’s a time where they’re rebuilding, just as Detroit is rebuilding at the moment. They didn’t start with everything being fancy — even if you go to the Forum, you see that Augustus’s houses just aren’t as big as later palaces, because they’re in the process of rebuilding or building up, essentially.
IMR. This is an example of the kind of connections that Latin teachers are looking for. They’re looking for ways to help their students lives with the ancient world to make it more relevant. Do you think this film can help them?
EVH. Yes, absolutely. I think it’s a coming of age story, which I think is very relatable. It’s a film about first love, and then subsequent love. So in the beginning there is even Ovid dealing with his parents because both historically and in the film he has conflicts with his parents. They want him to do one thing. He wants to do another. There are a lot of things that I think are very relatable for young people in it, which was both natural to Ovid’s story and what we put into the film. And the idea of striking out on your own for the first time, exploring a big city, and then there’s also the very beautiful and moving poetry. And we also did it in a way that we hope is accessible, with poetry slams and great contemporary music from hip hop to electronica. And again, togas and sneakers. These characters do feel very contemporary. So hopefully that makes it quite, quite relatable to an audience of people learning Latin.
IMR. Ovid’s poems famously contain a lot of rape scenes. The Ars Amatoria is controversial too. It contains much advice about how to treat women, which has been labeled — not without cause — misogynistic. In particular in the #MeToo era, there’s real question as to how we should read these poems. And you bring this to the viewers’ attention in the actual film, when Chloe, the character played by Lailani Ledesma, is congratulating Ovid after a successful poetry performance, and saying that he was “heretical, offensive, a complete chauvinist. And I loved every moment of it.” Is this a problem? How do you reconcile loving something with also finding it offensive?
EVH. I mean, we clearly don’t get into the rape scenes in Ovid’s poetry. I think that’s in the Metamorphoses. But there’s a lot of scholarship around that, which says he might have actually related to and had pathos for those characters who suffered, but that’s a different discussion.
I do think what we do delve into discussing, and what’s a part of the movie, is his advice to men about picking up women. And so we use the fact that we’ve modernized it to have those discussions. There are a lot of strong female characters — and strong female characters that existed in Roman times — to hold him to account. I mean, actually, you see in Ars Amatoria, the third book is actually devoted to women. So I think by contemporizing it we were able to have sort of these back and forth discussions about feminism in the movie. There is a character named Tacita who pipes up at some point and says “Well, what about the ladies?” So I think that was a way that we could sort of use the film to have a dialogue about Ovid’s work. And another thing about making it part modern, part ancient is that I think over half the characters are women. So we were able to have women judges and women lawyers and things we see in modern times and keep up that discussion.
I also think in the movie, as I believe you can see through his works, you see Ovid grow up. And become more mature about things. And certainly this movie is not saying he’s the greatest person ever, but he’s a fascinating figure, and he’s worth learning about. There are a lot of things in Rome that are unsavory for us today. But it’s still, I think, worth learning about what was past, in part to know what we don’t want to do going forward. You can learn from things even if you don’t embrace them.
IMR. I think that’s one of difficulties that we all have with our relationship to the past in general. It’s fascinating. But if you’re fascinated by it, that doesn’t mean you approve of it.
EVH. Yes. That was another point I wanted to make, that I feel like #MeToo is not, as I understand it, saying we can’t discuss bad things like rape that happened. It’s saying that rape is a terrible thing. And in fact, we should bring these things to light. And I think there’s a very good scholarly argument that that’s what Ovid believes. In some ways, in these transformations, we see how how deeply the victims are affected. And Ovid shows the struggle with going through terrible things, as they are seen through myths. In one of the lines in the movie, Ovid says that he was being put to trial just because he adapted myths. They’re not even his creation, they’re his retelling of them. So they’re not even his to begin with. And there are certainly some some pretty brutal things in Roman mythology, even the founding of Rome involves the rape of the Sabine women, which is not something that Ovid, I believe, discusses in any of his works. But he says that he writes about a woman turning into a tree, that’s part of the myth. He says in the movie, “Surely you don’t therefore think that I believe in turning all women into hardwood.” Sometimes people — again, to get back to your point — people will write things because they are meant for discussion, not because people condone the behavior.
IMR. Here at In Medias Res we’d love to see other more modern art works that engage with the classics the way Ovid and the Art of Love does. Are there any other examples of that genre of the ancient world in modern guise that you admire?
EVH. So something that I really loved was Mary Zimmerman did a production of Metamorphoses on Broadway, a little while back, which was really beautiful, I think.
IMR. Can you talk a little bit more about that, just to introduce our readers to it?
EVH. Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a lot more actually that’s been done about the Metamorphoses, which is one of the collections of poems about myths, essentially. And so I guess maybe that was one of the reasons, even though they tangentially come up in the movie, this is not a movie about his myths. But Mary Zimmerman did a theatrical production that was very beautiful that was just about the myths. These are myths about transformation. And they used this rectangular swimming pool to give a sort of modernized retelling of these sometimes sad, sometimes funny, but always poignant myths. I thought it was very powerful.
IMR. Really an incredible production.
EVH. Absolutely. That’s the sort of thing that pops most to mind. But there’s certainly a way looser interpretation, O Brother, Where Art Thou, which is based on the Odyssey. It’s kind of fun, although probably more of a departure from the Odyssey, but still still fun nonetheless.
IMR. I love the joining of the ancient world and film in particular. Do you ever dream about “Wouldn’t it be great to tell Story X?” It could be a mega budget film or it could be a small budget film, but are there other classically inspired film projects that you wish existed in the world?
EVH. I really love ancient Greece as well so I think it could be really fun to do something with that.
IMR. Which is much less commonly done, it seems.
EVH. I think there’s so much that’s great there. Both The Iliad and The Odyssey. I guess we did mention a movie that was vaguely, loosely based on the Odyssey. But I think there are many more interpretations that could be done of that. The Iliad is certainly really wonderful. And it imagine it would be interesting just to bring the world of Athens back to life. I think the first democracy is really fascinating, how that came to be, and also how theater came to be. I think there’s a lot there that could be explored.
IMR. I just think about the Peloponnesian War, and the plague — people would watch that movie, if that were recreated nowadays. So I wanted to ask a bit about that; so with COVID-19, we can’t go to the movie theater. The production of films has stopped — it seems (you can tell me) it’s very hard to put all those people together onscreen if they’re all wearing masks. How has that affected your business? What’s everyone’s emotional reaction to the situation?
EVH. Yeah, it’s definitely really tough on the business as it is for everyone. Particularly people that just do production jobs. It’s been really devastating for them because they don’t have employment. For instance, I have a cousin who is a makeup artist in L.A. and she’s from Canada originally, and she went home for the time being. A lot of this work has just dried up. So I think a lot of people are just trying to make it through. That being said, my understanding is people are beginning to slowly develop new projects and try to figure out creatively how you can bring back film in a way. I’ve heard various things. Maybe we won’t see a crowd scene unless it’s CGI for maybe a year and a half. But there are other ways that we can continue telling stories. Because I think people do still want entertainment. I think a documentary might use more found footage… Certainly animation is a big thing that can still be done.
And then I guess there are films like this, which can’t have a theatrical screening, but people do need content while they’re home, so streaming is the way that people can see it. It’s a movie that has a message about resilience and resilience of people during hard times. And hopefully that can bring a hopeful message and a reminder of that resilience in the past. Because right now is a deeply sad and hard, hard time.
IMR. I just recently wrote about how I do gain some kind of solace from the study of history, because, not every generation has to deal with a pandemic, obviously, and that was true in the ancient world too, but there have been many in the past. Ultimately things are bad for a while, and then they get better. You can see it all throughout history. Life goes on eventually. What about for you? Any new projects you’re working on now or things you want to share with us?
EVH. I’m working on a couple of TV pilots and I have another couple of feature films that I’m developing.
EVH. So hopefully, when things are up and running again, you’ll see more of them!
IMR. Great. Good luck to you. And thank you for joining us on In Medias Res for this interview!
Reading Ovid at his Bimillennial
In Medias Res explores the work of the Most Roman of Rome’s Ancient Poets.