Kenneth Branagh can go from directing a Shakespearean classic to a remake of a classic penned by one of the most formidable playwrights of all time. Ken Branagh is an actor, and director who brazenly changed the Shakespearean landscape when, at 21, he took on Henry V and became an instant star.
Now, Branagh’s take on the wry and ferociously dark Sleuth is another milestone in his career, not to mention his recent role opposite Tom Cruise in the upcoming Valkyrie. And he intends to continue adapting the Bard for the movies. Branagh talked to Paul Fischer.
Question: How intimidating was it for you to embark on this when it was first proposed that you take it on?
Branagh: Well, more exciting, I think, than intimidating. I mean, I was fairly scared the first time I met Harold Pinter. You know, I did an audition piece from one of his plays when I was 15, 16 and I’d seen many of his plays. I’d had a tiny bit of correspondence with him about something. I don’t know what it was, but very brief he seemed a sort of colossal figure to me, so to be in the room with him was scary to begin with. But like all great artists, they put you at ease very quickly and they’re suddenly doing it. I mean, if they’re in the room, they’ve got some time for you, as it were But your more selfish instincts for what you think is good have kicked in already.
And that happened when I read the script. I thought, “This is bloody marvellous,” you know? I couldn’t put it down. And although I certainly well remembered the 1972 film and I had recently see the play, I still was very excited at the prospect of doing something so different with it. I thought that the central idea, two blokes in a room arguing about a woman who’s not there, and taking it to a very sort of deadly conclusion, was a very sort of universal, dramatic situation. And if you found the right two heavyweights together in a situation – in a two-hander like this, I think is very compelling. So I hadn’t worked with Michael before. I was a bit intimidated, with him and Harold, but I was more excited than I was intimidated.
Question: What were the challenges for adapting this play? And having a playwright adapt this play giving it a new cinematic sense.
Branagh: Well, always, I think, trying to stay away from making some form of historical theatrical record, and having even in the writing a sort of proscenium arch approach. I wanted to be away from that and to find, for instance, in this case, probably – I mean, it would make sense, and it did make sense, in the end, to be away from what Anthony Schaeffer had so much fun with, which was the idea of the almost amateur author writing about the amateur aristocratic detectives. These sleuths. You know, the original movie starts with a dictation of his latest piece, you know? And it’s very much in the world of Lord Peter Whimsy, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie. The look is very much the English baronial country manor house.
And just to get right away from there, and to introduce the sort of modern interior, I think was a very important means of addressing what you’re asking. How do you make it different? What are the difficulties? It’s finding that modern equivalent, and deciding that everything that’s happened in the 35, six, seven, eight years since the play was written, by way of technology. What has it done to all of us? And in this case, you know, a fairly isolated, embattled and perhaps embittered author. He’s in a house where he is omnipotent. He has a remote control that seems to be the master of every function in that house. And he is invisible, because he can observe other people, unseen. But is he any happier? Is anybody these days, with this – all of the technology that’s available to us? Are we, in fact, happier? Our lives may be simpler. They may be said to be more efficient. But, are they? I think these questions are asked.
And in a way, the first piece was so much about class, and you might say, about literature and this, I think, has larger issues in it about the simple humanity versus technology. And how much we can rely on, depend on, or even hide behind technology when it comes to matters of the human heart. Is a computer, our CCTTV cameras conspicuous signs of wealth – are they of any use to you in any way, shape or form, if what your problem is, is the fact that your wife has cuckolded you? That you are in the grip of sexual jealousy? What does any great human advance mean next to that? To get into a way of telling the story that brought all that to the fore – that was the challenge. And I think Harold Pinter met it.
Question: Let me ask about the third act, which I guess is the part of the film that starts to deviate from the play in standard ways. And certain sexual subtext exists between these two characters, which clearly never existed in any previous incarnation of this material. What line do you draw in that regard, and how tricky was it for you to try and pull that off without it being too obvious?
Branagh: Well, what Harold Pinter managed to achieve, I think, in the first two acts, was an extraordinary compression of this encounter between these two men, that made us feel the sort of naked, profound, wounded, raw quality to Michael Caine’s character’s jealousy. And then the equally intense and deep desire for revenge that Jude’s character is capable of. And then it spreads in cruelly desperately inventive ways in his creation of Inspector Black. So by the time we get to the beginning of the third act, Pinter has managed to get us from naught to 60 in about four seconds, it seems like, emotionally. The emotional temperature is hot, hot, hot, hot. Wild. Primal. Sophisticated men have seemed to strip themselves swiftly of the veneer of civilization, and an element of the cave man is in play.
They’ve each shown that. And it seems, therefore, what he helped bring off in there, I thought made the third act possible, was a believability, a credibility about the idea that Michael’s character should say, “You’re my kind of person,” because he has used the same extraordinary inventiveness to wreak his revenge, because also, that very invention allows a sort of degree of ambiguity about the beginnings of this change. Is he homosexual? Is he discovering a kind of latent homosexual – you know, feeling, disposition, as a result of what’s just happened? Or is what he appears to be offering, a life together with him, is it some provocation that he will eventually trump with an even greater kind of trick? Something we don’t understand, or we can’t fully understand because Jude pulls the rug out from under him by suddenly turning on him, you big poof, and f**k off.
But there was, along the way, as that was revealed, another interesting question mark that goes all the way through the piece. What is real? Who is being genuine, and at what point? And so within the context of this, I thought, compelling – absolutely integrated, organic ambiguity about motivation, then the twist in the third act became something of a jaw-dropping thing. But I thought in the context of a film that had been doing that throughout, you know, really came off.
Question: It seemed to me that this is the perfect film for you, because it gets your theatrical juices flowing, as a theatre director, and as a theatre practitioner, and your cinematic vision. Did you find it rather nice to be able to balance, almost, those two sides of you in this one piece?
Branagh: Well, I think retrospectively, I can now begin to see that it does have something of a unique combination of influences that I was drawn to. I found the spareness of the central elements – you know, it was very performance-dependent, so it was the two characters. You could call the house – we chose to make the house a third character. We made the character of the woman off-screen a significant presence. And we even include Pinter himself in the – seen in a brief moment, slapping me. It’s me he’s hitting. I’m the guy on the other side of that slap.
Question: Oh, really?
Branagh: Yeah. Yeah. The back of my head. I never gave myself a close-up. I wonder why. But. I think in the end it certainly did sort of appeal to a love of performance that I have, obviously, as a practitioner, but as an admirer of those who do it really well. These two are included in that group for sure. Michael and Jude. A respect for the script, for the text, you know? I was very happy to be part of something that you’re serving. That’s a theatrical instinct. But also, with those things there, the sort of bare-boards quality to that central ingredient. Two guys in a – two pints and a passion.
It seemed to me that that was a wonderful invitation to then be cinematic. You know, let’s make the house another character, find the ways to unsettle the audience from the word go. Ration those close-ups. You know, really hear the play and hear the rhythm of the visuals. So I suppose retrospectively, it became something I understood – I’m beginning to understand, what was the very opposite, for me. I certainly I loved doing it.
Question: It seems an eternity since Henry V brought you all this attention. How surprised are you at the way you’ve developed as a filmmaker since that time?
Branagh: Well, it’s an interesting question. I mean, I’m surprised to be a filmmaker. I suppose that’s the first thing. Henry V was part of a sort of larger passion that was across theatrical touring and seasons in the West End, and radio, and all the rest of it, to do with – you know, sort of a way of conveying Shakespeare to people that might have been suspicious of whether it was any good or not. It wasn’t absolutely connected to the idea of being a film director.
And yet, in a way, you were unveiling what, perhaps, you really were, which was someone brought up on films and television, not brought up on theatre. And where that medium with which you felt more comfortable, in a way, where you certainly did most of your viewing. I certainly went to films and watched television much more than I went to the theatre. Nevertheless, it became a sort of way, a place to, in a way, share some of your enthusiasm for that other medium, for theatre, which ended up being what occupied, really, primarily, the first half of my career.
I’ve been pretty excited in the last three years, doing As You Like It and The Magic Flute and this, at how much more confident I feel as a film director. I feel as if I’ve got a kind of a voice. And not that I feel I need to have one. But I feel there’s something there. I feel more confident in the medium. I feel I kind of – I feel I know a little bit more about what I’m doing, and I feel less of a fraud, I suppose, as a film director.
Question: Do you miss acting? I guess you haven’t really given it up.
Branagh: No, for sure. in fact, I think probably I’m gonna be doing a little more of it now. I just did this film with Tom Cruise, Valkyrie..
Question: Do you play another – Nazi?
Branagh: I do –
Question: Is this like, the other side of you?
Branagh: Yes, it is. It’s my good Nazi. I play my good Nazi, and he’s the guy who recruits the Tom Cruise character to the assassination attempt on Hitler. And I enjoyed that hugely, I must say, I enjoyed working with a great director. It was fun working with a big movie star, who’s a nice lad. I enjoyed that very much. And I’m gonna act in the theatre next year, with Chekhov’s play, Ivanov, in the West End, in September and I’m gonna direct Jude in Hamlet as part of the same season in about 18 months time. I’ll do some acting between now and then, I think. But I assume nothing in this business, because you never know.
Question: Well, but feature film-wise, as a director are you developing anything?
Branagh: I am developing stuff, yeah and I’ve been working on a picture, contemporary comedy that’s set in India and I’ve written it as a contemporary thriller of my own, entirely original screenplay that is just working on.
Question: Weren’t you supposed to be doing a film version of Macbeth?
Branagh: Yeah. We just haven’t got around to it yet, but we’re not doing too badly. We’ve got five in the bag in the moment, and that’s – there’s some going. But they are hard – you know, it’s – it’s a tough world out there. And there’s an Australian film of Macbeth a couple of years ago. Very, very interesting, so, I think that’s queered our pitch for a little while, and so we’ll wait. But I hope it’s on my dance card.
Question: Is there a Shakespeare that you have a burning desire to see on screen?
Branagh: Winter’s Tale is the one I’d like to do next.That’s the one that’s actively in development that I actually worked on a screenplay for.