I would propose to place my version of Romeo and Juliet in a modern setting. This is because would be easier and better as you would have all the things you need in modern life.
The two families would not have social standing as the Montagues and the Capulets do but would rather be set at the other end of the social scale. They would be members of two criminal families who are battling for control of the city’s underworld. They would not have high social standing overall but within their own background they would represent a sort of criminal aristocracy.
The setting would be a modern city with surroundings of traditional heritage. The modern aspect of the city would be used for the fight scene and a more traditional setting would be used during the exchange between Romeo and Juliet on the subject of love. This would emphasise the change in the style of language which she uses in the play. The two dwellings of Montague and Capulet could also be contracted later in a similar manner; one would be traditional and the other would be modern to help audience recognition.
What to do about the names? I would keep the family names of the Montagues and the Capulets. These seem accessible in an increasing integrated world but I would change the first names to make them more westernised whilst trying to preserve some connection with the original name e.g. Benvolio to Ben; Mercutio to Mark; Tybalt to Tony etc.. The names of Romeo and Juliet would be left unaltered as they have a powerful association that it could reduce the power of the story if it was changed.
Costumes and dress would be modern. The older generation would wear expensive designer clothing. The younger generation would be split to show the difference in rank. The servants (Samson, Gregory etc…) would wear baggy clothing which is unbranded while the younger family members (Romeo, Benvolio, Tybalt etc…) would wear casual clothing which is branded and recognisable.
Weapons would have to be updated. Here again we could emphasise class difference. The servants could fight with fists and pieces of wood. The younger family members could fight with knives and guns. The older generation could have access, say, to shotguns which of course they don’t use.
The language used in the script would follow the broad outlines of the play but it will be updated for a modern audience. The difference in character of the dialogue between the social levels of the families would be retained. The servants would use) would use a more educated semi-formal type of speech without word-play. There would be no attempt to keep the iambic pentameter or rhyming couples where they occur. Words that have passed out of common usage or changed meaning would be dropped. An example might be the introductory chorus:
‘In London where the scene is set we find two families both similar in power. They’ve been enemies so long, people have forgotten how it started but now it’s getting out of hand.
The two families both have only children who fall in love and it’s only with their deaths that the power struggle ends.’
In the 236 lines of dialogue, Shakespeare succeeds in laying the outlines of the action in a powerful way which would work equally well in film. I would not introduce additional dialogue or sub-plots.
The characters of the cast would, I think, require some application particularly where age is concerned. The perception of servants today is different to Shakespeare’s time and I would recast the servants (Samson and Gregory etc…) as being more like bodyguards. In the play the servants come across as young and frivolous with their use of word-play (coals, collier, choler, and collar). I would make them older and more menacing- more suitable to the role of bodyguards.
For a modern audience the ages of Romeo and Juliet would have to be increased if only to comply with marriage laws nowadays. By doing this the ages of Romeo’s friends would have to be raised according so that they appear to be roughly similar. The family elders would not need to be altered, I would cast then as being around 55 years of age with the Prince’s character similar.
The role of the characters would need to be updated together with the background of the plot. I see the two families as warring drug dealers. Romeo and Benvolio are on the fringes of the underworld, supporting their families but not yet fully drawn into the family business. The prince of Verona could be a corrupt politician worried about the two families causing too much trouble.
The role of the chorus could be made more interesting, I think, if he was an actual character in the play as well. Someone of the standing, who has intelligence and is well respected. I would cast Friar Lawrence in this role. He would retain his religious part and provide a confessional aspect to his role later in the play. From a cinematic viewpoint, I would try to make the film realistic where possible would shoot on location.
The opening street scene and the fight I would film as a right shot with wet streets to increase the dramatic contrast gradually breaking into dawn for the exchange between Romeo and Benvolio where the atmosphere softens. The opening scene could be located in an area with a night club and alleys. The exchange between Montague, Lady Montague and Benvolio, I would move to inside one of the night clubs as this is a more natural setting for this passage. The final exchange between Romeo and Benvolio I would move outside again to make a feature of the sunrise. My version of the play would differ from the actual play in that it would begin in darkness and move to dawn whereas the play begins in the light.
The music would form a very important background to the film as there is a tremendous variation of action in the first scene of Act 1.
The music for the street fight would need to start slowly and build up to a crescendo for the fight scene before the Prince arrives. The following exchanges would need to be a lot less dramatic and less dynamic. It would be better if the same composer was used throughout to achieve a sense of continuity. I would choose a modern classical work with variations of tempo and mood, for instance Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ or Holst’s ‘The Planets’. They would both provide sufficient scope for the whole film. I would see the music soundtrack for Act 1, as being orchestral throughout.
As regards film direction the film would open on an empty street in a long shot. After a long pause the two servants would appear. The music would begin at this moment and the long shot will remain. The camera would slowly zoom in on the servants to close up for a dialogue. This would be repeated for the arrival of the second two with long shots but as the fight scene progresses the cutting would become rapid and shorter until the Prince appears when the film would return to longer shots. The remainder of the scene I would feature fades and dissolves to release the dramatic tension of the fight.
The lighting I would use for the street fight would be high contrast to emphasise the action. The remaining dialogue would be in a low colour. The film would have more possibilities to be shot in colour.
The play is concerned with basic human emotions which could be translated into any number of different settings but placing it in a modern context would make it accessible to more people.