Anthony Hopkins, at 69, speaks so softly that you can't help but worry you won't pick his words up. But, of course, his elocution is so good that every word registers clearly. He is explaining the challenges of playing hirsute King Hrothgar in Robert Zemeckis' new motion-capture film of Beowulf, which opened in Taiwan on Friday. The technicians placed little beads on his eyelids. "It was strange," he says. "They record every muscle. You stand in front of all these cameras and you do all these gestures. Once the computer has taken in all the information of your body, facial muscles and structure, you don't have any costume or makeup. You have these silly hats on and it is all recorded by 200 cameras. I don't know how it works."
Beowulf may be a bizarre hybrid of live-action and animation, but it is nowhere near as odd as the film Hopkins really wants to talk about: his own directorial debut Slipstream, which has just been released in the US. It is a willfully and wildly self-indulgent film. We can say as much without offending Hopkins, because he says as much himself. Imagine a cross between The Player and Being John Malkovich with a bit of Mulholland Drive thrown in and you will come close.
Slipstream clearly has autobiographical elements. It's about a someone called Felix Bonhoeffer (played by Hopkins), a Welsh screenwriter in Hollywood whose latest movie - like his life - is going off the rails. The piano music, much of which Hopkins wrote himself, has a hypnotic quality. The jokes about Tinseltown (the movie star who dies of overacting is one example) hit home. Hopkins even mocks himself, with asides about an impenetrable Welsh accent as well as a gag about a new Hannibal Lecter movie called Blue Dragon. A motormouth producer played by John Turturro sneers, "Hopkins? He's in or out? He wants more money? Fuck him."
More puzzlingly, Slipstream includes some jarring montage sequences in which we see footage of everybody from Richard Nixon (one of Hopkins' most memorable roles) to Adolf Hitler, whom he once played on TV, as Bonhoeffer becomes ever more delirious. A friend babbles about "past-life regression" and being "pulled back through the slipstream" into a world of dreams and fantasies.
Yes, Hopkins acknowledges, the film is "very difficult to encapsulate or put into words. It has the quality of a dream. Dreams are so illogical and non-linear and chaotic." It is not an easy film to talk about, either. Questions don't so much elicit answers as provoke mini-streams of free association. Why are there so many cars in the movie? "I dream about cars all the time," he says, as if that is explanation enough. Nor can he fully explain the presence of actor Kevin McCarthy and the constant references to his most famous film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
"Do you know who the conductor Thomas Beecham was?" Hopkins suddenly asks. Without waiting for an answer, he embarks on a digression about Beecham. "He was the conductor of the London Philharmonic for many a year and he was supposed to be a tyrant of a conductor. I saw an interview back in the 1950s where they asked him: 'Are you a tyrant?' He said, 'Oh, I am a disciplinarian.' All these people - the violinist, the flautist - they don't get paid much money. These people are doing it for love. At first, I don't tell them what to do. I let them go. Then, on the second rehearsal, I say, 'Let's do it again.' I bring the standard up. That's my job, but I never tell anyone how to play their instruments."