A Quiet Word With: Shakespeare’s Star Wars writer Ian Doescher

Last week we interviewed Nice Peter from Epic Rap Battles of History and, continuing the trend of talking to lovely Americans who are doing interesting things with history, this week we are talking to Ian Doescher, the man behind ‘Shakespeare’s Star Wars’. Just so you can revel in that a little bit more, let me hit you with some play titles; ‘Verily, a New Hope’; ‘The Empire Striketh Back’; ‘The Jedi Doth Return’. Seriously, this is awesome, and if I need to tell you that, you definitely need to read this blog more.

Shakespeare's Star Wars writer Ian Doescher
Shakespeare’s Star Wars writer Ian Doescher

History Mine: How much additional research into Shakespeare and Star Wars did you have to do for this project?

Ian Doescher: Not a lot — almost all of the Shakespearean references I used were stored in my head from having read or seen the plays. More research actually went into getting Star Wars right. I used the online script to get the names of minor characters correct, and to make sure some of the lines were right. When it was time to write the educator’s guide, I also did some checking into the terms for various literary devices used by Shakespeare.

HM: You are quite irreverent with the source material where other authors might have been tempted to play it straight-faced and let the humour come from the contrast. How important was that editorial freedom to you?

ID: All along, this was a project that was meant to be fun. I don’t know that you could write a straight Shakespearean take on Star Wars and expect it to come off seriously. But the editorial freedom you’re referring to was also a gift given to me early on by Lucasfilm. When I wrote the first draft of the first act, I stayed very close to the original movie in terms of plot line, dialogue, and so on. Lucasfilm reviewed that first act and responded by saying that they liked what I had done so far, but wanted me to feel free to have some fun with it and take the book outside the bounds of the movie. What a great gift to give a writer! After that, I added in more soliloquies and asides, and things like R2-D2 breaking into English.

HM: Why did you decide to publish as a script rather than in any other medium (for example, as a book or a touring play)?

ID: My inspiration was really just the way that Shakespeare’s plays appear in print. I’m a big fan of the Arden Shakespeare series, so I wanted the book to approximate that look as much as possible. Arden isn’t a version of the plays that is meant to be performed; they are meant to be read. Similarly, as I wroteWilliam Shakespeare’s Star Wars I actually never thought of it as a play to be performed. In my mind, it was always going to be a book. But I wanted that book to look like a Shakespearean play as much as possible (for that reason, adding in the line numbers was very important to me!).

HM: How did you manage to square copyright?

ID: Dumb luck. After I had the idea for the book, I approached Quirk Books because I knew they had published several mash-ups. Once they were on board, they took that first version of act one to Lucasfilm. Once I had satisfied Lucasfilm that I could play with the script more and have fun with it, Lucasfilm was prepared to work out the licensing deal with Quirk. From there, I’m pretty much blissfully unaware of the details. But I do know I am lucky to have had Quirk trying to make the deal on my behalf instead of approaching Lucasfilm myself, which would have been more difficult.

HM: Where will you go after the original trilogy?

ID: I don’t know how many more Shakespearean parodies the world has interest in. That said, if someone approached me to do something like William Shakespeare’s Star Trek or William Shakespeare’s The Godfather, I would probably say yes. In the meantime, I’m working on a new project that is in some ways a natural next step from William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, but is also very much its own thing.

HM: You are now a bestselling author; could you ever have imagined doing it this way?

ID: Absolutely not. I always hoped I might publish a book, but because of my academic background I thought it might be an academic book. I never would have guessed I would end up on the New York Times bestseller list, and certainly not in the hardcover fiction category. It has been both an exciting and a humbling experience.

Thankyou Ian! If anyone know’s anyone else I should interview, please get in touch (particularly if they aren’t male, white or American – represent yo)!

A Quiet Word With: Epic Rap Battles of History’s Nice Peter

For History Mine’s first ever interview, I thought it was important to send a message about the kind of interactions between history and modern culture that we want to see more of. To that end I had a word with Nice Peter, part of the team behind the massively successful YouTube series Epic Rap Battles of History.

History Mine: History, rap and YouTube are an inspired combination, but not an obvious one. How did the channel come about?

Nice Peter: Lloyd Ahlquist came to my apartment, and told me about a hip hop improv show he was performing in. There was a game in that show, where he and Zach Sherwin (later to play Einstein among others) took suggestions of famous people from the audience and did an improvised rap battle. I was at a point in my career where I saw everything through the lens of a YouTube video, and this idea was no exception. It struck me as a great concept, and after Lloyd and I recorded a quick demo example, I got very excited and started flushing out the idea in my head. I reached out to my small but attentive audience on YouTube, and asked them for suggestions.

One that stood out immediately was John Lennon vs Bill O’Rielly. It had a special, quirky mix of characters that really set the tone for the series. I started putting together the full concept, a rap battle that takes place in a surreal, trans-dimensional space, with an other worldly announcer who is bringing together two characters from any time and place to settle their ideological differences in a funny exchange of insults set to music. The idea was clear to me, but pulling it off was not something I could do myself.

Maker Studios paired me up with Dave McCary, our director and editor. When I told him my strange hazy idea he understood it immediately, and guided us through making it a reality on screen. Lloyd and I wrote and recorded the song ourselves, and together with Dave and one camera operator, filmed it in front of a green piece of cloth. Dave created a logo to go with the announcer’s voice, and together we refined the edit until it was a fast, flashy and entertaining little burst of history and comedy. That first video was not a hit, but the reception was strong enough to get us to try again.

Our second battle was taken from the suggestions left on the first, and came out as Darth Vader vs Adolf Hitler. That video got featured on the front page of YouTube, front page of Reddit, got banned in Germany and Poland, and never stopped spreading. The iTunes sales from that song and some of my earlier YouTube songs enabled me to move out of my apartment and into a small recording studio. Although we had no shower and no kitchen, we could suddenly make noise 24/7, and a whole new world opened up to me. Over time, as the rap battles continued to grow, it became clear that I should focus more and more of my energy on it, and it also became clear that it was growing into something larger.

HM: How much research do you do into each person? Is there a balance between getting good dirt, and making sure your audience is aware of it?

NP: I do as much research as I possibly can in the time I have. Our earlier matchups were between characters I already knew and loved. As we went, we had to dive into new people and become true fans of their work and life. I think real jokes can only come out when you know the person inside and out. There is a balance; we want one third of our jokes to appeal to everyone, one third to only those who know a bit about the history of the characters, and one third to make real die hard fans say “oh snap… you did not just reference p-branes”.

HM: Do you think other people working at the cross-section of history and modern culture could learn something from your approach?

NP: I think we enable and inspire our audience to do their own learning. We write jokes that some kids don’t get when they hear them, but because they enjoy our videos and songs, they are motivated to dive in, to learn about why we chose those words. We get passionate about our subjects, and we express that passion in our own way. I don’t think anyone can learn from my approach because I learned my own methods from watching other independent content creators online. We all have a lot to learn from each other.

HM: How the hell did you convince Snoop to pretend to be Moses?

NP: Lol. I wrote him a spec rap in the voice of Moses, and sent it to his management. He thought it was funny, and agreed.

Thank you Nice Peter!