The Big Gamble Behind 'Thor'

 Zade Rosenthal/Marvel

Six warriors charge through a vast golden gate, clad in Viking-like leather and metal, their steeds thundering over a rainbow bridge that will carry them to another world -- and freeze. "Hold it right there," says Kenneth Branagh.

He sits at the back of an editor's dark room, heavy bags of fatigue lining his eyes, chin rested on his hands in thought, as he adds the final touches to his filmed adaptation of the Marvel comic Thor.

"The beat's about four frames off," he says. "Can you play it again?"

Even at this stage in late March, just days before he must sign off on the $150 million Marvel Studios/Paramount movie that has consumed him for much of the past three years -- and that holds his future as well as an entire franchise at stake -- Branagh is reluctant to let go.

At 50, with his best-known directing in a decade-old rearview mirror, he's no longer the wunderkind who earned actor and director Oscar nominations for Henry V before he turned 30. Instead, the art house icon has drawn more acclaim for his recent acting work than for helming -- with TV movies and the limited series Wallander.

Branagh's most recent directorial efforts -- Sleuth, The Magic Flute and As You Like It, all from 2006-07 -- were widely deemed artistic or commercial failures. Indeed, it's been years since he earned kudos for his most prominent pictures, including 1996's Hamlet and 1993's Much Ado About Nothing, and since the studios had him on their A-list for mega-ventures such as 1994's Frankenstein.

Thor is both his Hollywood comeback as director and, in many ways, his make-or-break moment. Will he commit to more American films if Thor works? "Yes," he says. If not, he shrugs, "It's academic."

Three years ago, the very notion of this renowned Shakespearean actor making Thor seemed academic.

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The movie had gone through multiple incarnations since the character first appeared in the Marvel comic Journey Into Mystery #83 in 1962. At one point, it was developed at Artisan Entertainment (later bought by Lionsgate), among 10 comic properties the mini-major had obtained, before reverting to Marvel.

"There've been scripts that we don't even know about anymore," says Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, an 11-year veteran of the company who also produced Thor.

Under Feige, Thor went through further drafts. One, written by Mark Protosevich and admired by almost everyone, had its earthly portions set entirely in the Viking era, but Marvel decided this was the wrong way to go. "In that version, Thor is banished from a very foreign world to another very foreign world, which didn't work," Feige notes.

Marvel proceeded with the material under director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class), but when Vaughn decided he didn't want to leave his native England and spend the requisite time in the U.S., the studio had to look elsewhere. Which is when Branagh's name came up.

"My first contact with him was an e-mail he wrote to his agent saying how incredibly interested he'd be and why," Feige recalls. "And his agent forwarded that to me."

The idea of yoking an actor's director to a comic book adaptation appealed to him. "We like unlikely choices," he says. "Even going back to our studio pictures [movies that Marvel licensed rather than financed itself], with Bryan Singer on the first X-Men or Sam Raimi on Spider-Man, they were unexpected. We go for names outside the box."

Branagh was about as far outside the box as one could get. But the idea intrigued him. "It came from an exotic place -- it was colorful and larger-than-life," he explains. "Europe can seem like a very gray place, and these comic books, I loved them." 

In Sweden at the time, shooting the first part of Wallander, he began a number of phone and e-mail conversations with Feige, who was initially reluctant to show him the scripts -- fearful they might leak on the Internet, Branagh assumes. So in summer 2008, at his own expense, he flew to Los Angeles.

"He pitched an opening that started on a gigantic cosmic scale, which is what this movie is -- it's the first that takes place among the stars and on the cosmic side of the Marvel universe," Feige says. "But that very quickly funneled down to a father and his two sons and encompassed what we wanted: a movie set against this incredibly regal canvas and alternative world yet never lost sight of this family drama."

Branagh clarifies: "What I was interested in was the family saga. I think everybody was having trouble arriving at the right way to tell the story, and I was fairly clear about wanting to have a significant proportion of it on contemporary Earth."

After months of talks, the two sides agreed to go ahead, which meant Branagh had to extricate himself from directing Jude Law onstage in the London production of Hamlet. "That wasn't easy," he says. "There was an issue of honor" -- resolved when director Michael Grandage agreed to take over.

In late 2008, Branagh moved to Los Angeles and lurched toward a production slated to start in July 2009.

Living close to the sea in Manhattan Beach, ensconced in the Los Angeles area for the first time since he'd made Dead Again two decades earlier, brought back fond memories of superproducer Peter Guber telling him he was sure Branagh would move here for good and a trip with then-wife Emma Thompson to Disneyland, where the roller coasters made both queasy. So working in America was a pleasure-- even when Marvel started inundating him with material.

"He'd seen all the films we had made at that point," Feige says. "But now we sent him every issue of Thor ever written and story lines that could serve as inspiration."

Rather than being intimidated, Branagh says he was "excited."

Then everything changed: Following the success of Iron Man, Marvel decided to postpone Thor's release, creating a gap of six months before Branagh would be able to shoot the film.

"Initially, Iron Man 2 and Thor were to be released in summer 2010 and Captain America and The Avengers in summer 2011," Feige notes. "But when the first Iron Man was so big, we had the luxury of knowing that the sequel could sustain us in 2010."

That's when Thor was bumped to 2011 and The Avengers to 2012, which Feige says "was beneficial because this is the most complicated film we have ever made, from the costumes to the set."

Beneficial for Marvel but not necessarily for Branagh, who was reluctant to be away from home so long. "I seriously considered leaving," he admits. In the end, he chose to stay, though he did go back to Europe to film a second cycle of Wallander.

In October 2009, he returned to Los Angeles full time, and now everything proceeded at warp speed. He kept working on a script that combined the efforts of Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz, J.Michael Sraczynski and Don Payne, with Protosevich brought back for a final polish.

Meanwhile, he continued the enormously complex process of casting, which had begun before he left, signing Anthony Hopkins to play Odin and Natalie Portman as Thor's love interest, Jane Foster.

In Branagh's memory, both hesitated somewhat, though Hopkins recalls it differently.

"I went to meet him at a hotel in Santa Monica, and I thought, 'This is very pleasant,' " he remembers. "He's very personable, very friendly, and I thought, 'What a relief.' He said, 'I can't give you the script, but if you'd be interested, we'll work it out.' Then a few days later, a script came, and I phoned and said, 'I'd love to do it.' "

A far greater challenge was casting Thor.

In early 2009, accompanied by his casting directors and Marvel executives, Branagh had taken the unusual step of visiting the major agencies to talk about what he was looking for, then watched as hundreds of tapes flooded in. "We started in January and went into April 2009," he says of the casting phase.

After months of searching, Branagh had narrowed his list to four, with each candidate invited to do a screen test. They included Australian Liam Hemsworth -- but not his brother Chris, who would eventually get the role.

Today, Chris laughs about it, recognizing that he wasn't in top form when he first met Branagh and noting that his younger brother gave him tips based on everything he'd gleaned through the auditions. "We're competitive, but in the best way," he says.

When Branagh felt uncertain about the final four and wanted to revisit some earlier contenders, Hemsworth was helped by a supportive phone call from his Cabin in the Woods producer Joss Whedon and by a video the actor made with his mother. "I was on the 17th floor of a hotel in Vancouver with my mom reading the lines to me," he recalls, "and something great must have happened. It got me back in the room."

This time, Branagh knew he'd found his man.

"We did two or three interview sessions before we tested him," he says. "We pretty much knew as we were shooting the test that he was the guy. It seemed, across these meetings, he had grown into it. He understood it better. And crucially, he was at ease."

Hemsworth impressed not just Branagh but also Marvel, critical for a movie of Thor's scale. "When you are spending this much money and looking for a franchise, you have to run it up the flagpole," Branagh notes.

More technical issues now began to consume the director, as he had to decide whether to film in 3D. He ultimately opted against it, even though the movie will be released in that format. "I researched it sufficiently to know we would be able to convert all of our shots," he says, "but I didn't want to have two cameras and all the physics involved when I had a brand-new actor as Thor."

With his Sleuth cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos onboard, shooting finally got under way in January 2010 on Marvel's soundstages at the Raleigh Studios in Manhattan Beach, then in March moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where the earthbound part of the movie is set. Luck was on Branagh's side: Other than a bout of bad weather, the shoot went without a hitch.

"We had a morning that was incredibly beautiful when Chris and I fall asleep together on the roof of the lab," Portman recalls. "And it was so windy that it was hard for us to stay in place. But other than that, it went really well."

After some 30 days on location, the crew returned to California for two weeks of greenscreen work. This was the hardest part, Portman says, "where you have to imagine a destroyer coming at you or looking over a canyon where Thor is fighting. It was incredibly helpful having Ken describe it, explaining what you were seeing."

The 90-day shoot wrapped in April. Then Branagh embarked on almost a year of postproduction that's in its final stages as we speak.

By press time, he'll be done. Then he'll just have to stand back and wait until Thor premieres April 21 in Australia, two weeks before it opens domestically, to see if his years of endeavor pay off.

Either way, he seems surprisingly unperturbed. "I've enjoyed it enormously," he says with a striking calmness, "and the commercial gods will have to decide whether it's a success."

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It is hard to imagine branagh would have been so composed earlier in his career, a brilliant young man in a hurry.

His first inklings of ambition came when he was uprooted from his native Belfast, Northern Ireland, moving to the English town of Reading at age 9 as his working-class parents fled "the Troubles." It was the first upheaval in his life.

"In Northern Ireland, I truly, effortlessly, knew who I was," he says. "I knew where I belonged. I felt completely and utterly secure. Once taken out of there, I didn't speak the way other people spoke; we didn't have the same income level other people did. You ended up hiding a lot. You ended up constructing a version of yourself."

The version he constructed was of Branagh the actor, and it proved so concrete that he won acclaim almost as soon as he graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. That was when he launched on a storied career, playing the title role of Henry V onstage while still in his early 20s, creating his own theater company and earning those dual nominations for his 1989 adaptation of Henry V.

In England, however, this wasn't viewed well. Rather than being hailed for his success, Branagh was criticized for hubris. Doing Henry seemed to position him as a putative heir to Laurence Olivier, who had made his own revered movie version. (Curiously, Branagh recently finished playing Olivier opposite Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn.)

Branagh was far too ambitious for the staid world he inhabited -- though he says ambition wasn't his main thrust.

"The idea of accumulating ambitions or achievements didn't get much further than wanting to do the next exciting thing," he insists. "I really haven't set out with any list of achievements."

Further success with 1991's Dead Again and Much Ado About Nothing and his marriage to Thompson didn't quell the envy.

Then came the failure of Frankenstein, and Branagh's directing career stumbled. No longer the boy wonder, he was soon seen as part of the establishment -- respected and admired but not quite the rock star he'd been.

Looking back, he says, "You are very, very hot for a time." But he seems quite pragmatic about a career that "could have gone in a very different direction."

Opportunities to direct big films came his way, but he turned them down, favoring stage work including a production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya that brought him back to Belfast.

Munching on a sandwich in a tiny office after we leave the editing room, he reflects on that time -- not just on his choices but also, strangely, how little joy his biggest triumphs brought him.

He says he's grown from the person who wrote in his late 20s that a "sense of achievement was something that I almost consciously denied myself." Joy is something he experiences much more readily now.

"That came from a sense that, at all times, disaster might be around the corner," he says. "It's quite the opposite of how I feel today. Maybe it's the acquisition of a few years, but I really do enjoy the simple pleasures."

Living with his second wife, art director Lindsay Brunnock, and their dog in a country house outside London, there's a modest, very human quality to him that seems far removed from the somewhat cocky young man who wrote his autobiography at age 28.

Reaching 40 was a turning point, he says: "It was coincidental with getting married but also with beginning to meditate quite seriously. I had a friend who introduced me to a meditation practice which involves a couple of half-hours a day of meditation, where essentially you try to achieve a stillness that allows you to just be there in the moment."

This meditation helped him cope with his parents' deaths -- his mother's in 2004, his father's in 2006. Branagh had been close to both, but their illness also had tied him to home and been a key factor in his decision not to move to Los Angeles. Now, he realized, he not only had the freedom to travel but also to explore new horizons, new worlds, that might have conflicted with their expectations.

"I suppose there was an element in what one did, or the work one produced, that was to some extent for them," he explains. Losing them opened "a different chapter of allowing one's own personal taste to take over."

In other words, allowing Thor.

Branagh shoots down any notion that making the movie is purely a career move. He says he doesn't plan or calculate. "I enjoy the small things more -- not thinking of the future, not denying oneself anything, but simply being."

So why is it one senses something is wanting?

Everyone who works with Branagh adores him -- Hemsworth calls him "a normal, great bloke" -- but a shadow seems to hover over him. Perhaps it's exhaustion; perhaps it's a deeper concern about the movie than he lets on; perhaps it's his eternal sense of being "a little bit of an outsider, because the fate of some Irish is to be forever wandering, you know."

None of this will change unless Thor succeeds, and maybe not even then.

Branagh is already at work on other projects -- The Boys in the Boat, about a champion rowing team that competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and Italian Shoes, about an isolated old man who has to fulfill one last request -- which may reteam him with Hopkins -- but Thor has to deliver if he wants to come back to the epicenter of Hollywood. 

That won't be the aberration it seems.

Says Branagh, "I'm surprised I'm doing Thor, and yet it has a logic I can't fully articulate."

Kenneth Branagh's 5 Favorite Films

  • Children of Paradise 1945, Marcel Carne
  • Black Narcissus 1947, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
  • Cool Hand Luke 1967, Stuart Rosenberg
  • Dog Day Afternoon 1975, Sidney Lumet
  • Au revoir les enfants 1987, Louis Malle
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