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Making of ‘Belfast’: How Kenneth Branagh’s Film Was Made in Between Lockdowns

After spending much of the first wave of the pandemic writing the script for his "small, intimate, personal project," the filmmaker and his creative team seized upon a very short window to prep and shoot their awards-season frontrunner: "It was our only opportunity."

For all its warmth and tenderness, there was actually a fair amount of competition on the set of Belfast.

This wasn’t concerning the film or shoot itself; the cast and crew have all spoken about the joyous harmony and rapport experienced during the making of Kenneth Branagh’s semiautobiographical eulogy to his home city in Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the 1960s. But it was off set, between takes, and mostly — according to Jamie Dornan — involving soccer.

“We played so much football,” says the actor, who admits that, despite approaching 40 years old, he’s still “really competitive when it comes to anything, particularly sport.” But Dornan had rivals in his onscreen children, including Belfast‘s young lead star Jude Hill, 10 at the time of filming, and Lewis McAskie, 14. “There was lots of turning everything into a competition,” he says.

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Despite the age — and size — differences, it didn’t always work out in Dornan’s favor.

“Both kids are quite good at football,” says Branagh. “So [Dornan] was not pleased when they fared better at penalty shootouts, which he believed were rigged.”

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From left: Hill, Lewis McAskie and Branagh. “Both kids are quite good at football,” says Branagh of the impromptu soccer matches that occurred during downtime on set. “So [Dornan] was not pleased when they fared better at penalty shootouts, which he believed were rigged.” Courtesy of Rob Youngson/Focus Features
Occasionally everyone — even the director — would get involved in games, which would kick off on the playing fields surrounding an abandoned school outside London, where much of Belfast‘s shoot took place in the summer of 2020.

“Sometimes there would be these totally impromptu football matches that would erupt where we’d all be playing and would be asked, say, not to tackle Jude too hard as he had a scene coming up,” says Dornan. Co-star Ciarán Hinds also took part, although he says that, given his age (68), the younger players went easy on him and “wouldn’t try to knock me out.”

But it wasn’t just soccer. A fair amount of golf was played. (Branagh says they had to change the game from how far the ball could be hit to how close it could get to a certain mark, as Dornan, who “couldn’t help himself,” was getting too competitive again.)

There also were plenty of trivia quizzes, where the more experienced — and perhaps less athletic — individuals had a chance to step forward. “Judi Dench was by far the most competitive of everyone with the quizzes,” notes cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, who says whenever the questions turned to Shakespeare or Broadway, Branagh, Dench and Caitríona Balfe (“Ma” to Dornan’s “Pa” in the film) would dominate. “We were all useless, so there had to be some fairness … a few pop songs or famous lyrics in there.”

There was a good reason for all this off-script high jinks, and not simply to keep people occupied during periods of downtime. The games, sometimes set up deliberately by Branagh, helped create a genuine family feel among the cast while also having an important disarming effect, particularly for its central — and most important — star, Hill, who’s rarely absent from a single frame. Making him as comfortable as possible in front of the camera — ideally forgetting the camera was even present — was vital.

“Jude’s a truly gifted child and a naturally effervescent, lovely human being,” says Zambarloukos. “But the pressure of a camera rolling can be tremendous and sometimes mask that.”

Occasionally, following a secret signal from Branagh, the cinematographer and his crew would actually start filming while Dornan and the boys competed over a game of football or golf or while the cast laughed over a quiz, or just generally mucked about, capturing unrehearsed, unscripted and entirely natural moments.

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With the pandemic making shooting on location an impossibility, and with studio space unavailable, the filmmakers re-created Branagh’s childhood street on the end of a runway at Farnborough Airport, just outside of London. Courtesy of Rob Youngson/Focus Features

“Sometimes that’s where the best bits happen, where the smile happens, the funny remark, the daft comment or the argument or whatever it might be, and for most of us that’s our lives, which are made up of these beautiful very tiny moments between us,” says Branagh. “So we tried to catch these between our cast.”

A five-time Oscar-nominated actor, writer and director, Branagh long had been preoccupied by the idea of putting together a film about Belfast, where he was born in 1960 to working-class Protestant parents but left at age 9 as violence erupted between loyalists and republicans. He’d made numerous notes over the years about how to tackle the concept, but it was only during the sudden quiet of early 2020, as the world hid inside from the growing COVID-19 crisis, that he found the time to give it some serious thought.

Having finished the edit of his all-star Death on the Nile for Disney, and with a small additional chunk of shooting in Egypt clearly not happening anytime soon, Branagh retreated to his garden shed each morning at 9 to begin turning this idea into a full-fledged project.

“It was the silence of the beginning of the lockdown that really allowed it to come out,” he says. “But it also came out without any firm determination to make it.” Instead, he took it stage by stage, centering the story on the Troubles and his family being forced to decide whether to leave Belfast.

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Branagh (center) watches a playback in between takes. The production had to adhere to strict COVID-19 protocols, including three different zones on set to facilitate social distancing. Courtesy of Rob Youngson/Focus Features

As the script began to take shape, Branagh started to tell some of his long-standing collaborators what he was up to, including Zambarloukos, production designer Jim Clay, hair and makeup designer Wakana Yoshihara and editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle.

Branagh initially was a little cagey about the details, merely revealing that he was working on a “small, intimate, personal project” that he wanted to shoot as soon as COVID restrictions lifted. “But he wouldn’t tell me what it was,” says Zambarloukos.

Eventually, in the spring of 2020, Branagh began sending drafts of the script out. Says Zambarloukos: “My first thoughts were, ‘My God, what an incredible achievement my friend had done over lockdown,’ and just how moving it was and unlike anything else we’d ever made.” Branagh also — and most importantly — showed the screenplay to his brother and sister.

With their approval, he worked with longtime casting director Lucy Bevan to assemble Belfast‘s core family, bringing aboard his dear friend and regular co-star Judi Dench to play Granny alongside a number of figures he’d never worked with before, including Hinds (as grandfather Pop), Dornan and Balfe. In Hinds and Dornan, he also had two Belfast-born actors, Hinds noting that he and Branagh “grew up within half a mile of each other” (although he’s eight years Branagh’s elder). While they would have gone to different schools (Hinds was raised Catholic), Hinds notes the script felt “all too real” and brought him back to his own childhood.

Dornan acknowledges that, given his accent, he “had an upper hand” (although he did change it slightly because he comes from a much more middle-class background) but still says it was an honor to be asked to play Branagh’s father. “You go through your career thinking that someone like Ken Branagh doesn’t even know who you are,” he says.

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Dornan and Caitríona Balfe, who plays Branagh’s mother in the film. Hair and makeup designer Wakana Yoshihara partly based their overall look on screen icons Brigitte Bardot and Marlon Brando. “With Brando and Bardot, you can never go wrong,” she says. Courtesy of Rob Youngson/Focus Features

The most crucial casting, of course, was for Branagh’s version of his own 9-year-old self, Buddy, a role that required “something very authentic and natural” and on which the whole film would rest. In a story that likely will be repeated numerous times over the years as his star inevitably soars, Hill — from the small Northern Irish village of Gilford — was selected from about 300 hopefuls.

Due to the pandemic, the auditions and meetings were all held over Zoom, but Branagh and his casting team could easily spot something very special in Hill, just 9 at that time.

“You can tell when a young person is genuinely listening or whether their eyes glaze over because their nerves are stopping them from being present,” he says. “But he stayed, it was like he was having fun with it. He’s a bright young man, very engaged and engaging. He listened, he was 100 percent there. It felt like he wouldn’t get thrown by the rather challenging elements of carrying the picture.”

For Branagh, it was the ease of Belfast‘s casting and crewing process that made him realize that this idea he’d been shaping each morning in his shed could actually be made into a film. Thanks to the pandemic, pretty much everybody was available and most eager to get back to work. “It was one of the swiftest I’ve ever encountered,” he says.

And so, in August 2020, just as the U.K. was gradually emerging from its first lockdown — and with the local film and TV industry having drawn up a substantial list of COVID-19 safety protocols — preproduction began. But with talk of another shutdown coming in the fall, there was a very narrow window for Belfast to squeeze into. “The plan was to do six weeks prep, six weeks shoot,” says production designer Clay. “Three months in total. That’s it. In the bag. It was our only opportunity.”

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, shooting on location wasn’t going to be an option, and even if it were, Belfast had changed dramatically since the ’60s. That said, Branagh, Clay and Zambarloukos did a scout around the city on bikes and walked the routes Branagh would as a child (although he notes that half of the street he grew up on “wasn’t there anymore”). Studio space also was an impossibility, with most locations still full of productions that had been gathering dust during lockdown.

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From left: Judi Dench, Hill and Ciarán Hinds. Branagh occasionally would film his castmembers surreptitiously in between takes. “Sometimes that’s where the best bits happen,” he says. Courtesy of Rob Youngson/Focus Features

Instead, Clay and his team re-created Branagh’s street on the end of a runway at Farnborough Airport, just outside of London, with the interiors constructed around the abandoned school (and built to take in as much natural light as possible to save time with lighting setups). There also was COVID-19 to consider, so the set was created to allow plenty of shots by open windows. Given the special consideration over octogenarian Dench, Zambarloukos actually filmed many of her scenes looking through a window in another building.

Belfast‘s main street didn’t have to be a replica of the original — Clay says the aim was to “capture the spirit of the era.” For Branagh, the goal was to create a “fusion that could light a spark under the imaginations of all the key collaborators.”

The same could be said of the cast, which wasn’t required to exactly match the appearance of Branagh’s own family. That said, he did present Yoshihara with what she says was a “lovely” Christmas photo of them all together, which became a starting block as she devised the hair and makeup.

She also brought along her own mood boards, which included for Pa, Branagh’s father — who she says was a “very classical looking guy” — a picture of Marlon Brando looking “rough and sexy,” and, for his mother, who sported a tidy coiffed hairdo in the photo, a picture of Brigitte Bardot from the ’50s. “With Brando and Bardot, you can never go wrong,” she says.

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“He’s a bright young man, very engaged and engaging. He listened, he was 100 percent there,” says Branagh of the decision to cast Hill as his younger self. Courtesy of Rob Youngson/Focus Features

In the end, the only member of the main cast to not look like their real-life counterpart was Hinds, whom they had to bring closer in age to Dench (they’re 18 years apart in real life). While Branagh’s grandfather was clean-shaven, they kept Hinds’ white beard. “I think [Yoshihara] just gave up with me,” he says.

The decision to shoot in black-and-white meant that some elements of the actors’ appearances, including what Yoshihara describes as Balfe’s “beautiful red hair,” were lost, adding that Dornan frequently was teased about how the film was essentially another version of Fifty Shades of Grey. But she admits that the monochrome palette actually made things easier, instantly masking any skin problems.

For Zambarloukos, black-and-white offered a certain transcending quality, getting to the “true essence” of the film and helping convey an emotional state more clearly. One of his key inspirations, he says, was photojournalism of the 1950s and ’60s — particularly the work of noted Welsh photographer and former Magnum Photos president Philip Jones Griffiths — and the cinematographer looked to frame Belfast almost like a Life magazine article from that time.

Once principal photography kicked off, Dhonghaíle — who worked for two weeks in London then shifted to her own edit suite at home in Dublin, never once being in the same room as Branagh — devised a system in which she would receive the rushes each Friday and have them edited for his inspection by the following Tuesday — something she admits is a “pretty good turnaround.”

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“You go through your career thinking that someone like Ken Branagh doesn’t even know who you are,” says Dornan of the opportunity to play the filmmaker’s father. Courtesy of Rob Youngson/Focus Features

Despite the tight window and being forced to work under extremely rigorous coronavirus restrictions — which included three different zones on the set to facilitate social distancing — Branagh and his Belfast team somehow got the job done. The timing was nearly precise: A second lockdown, as expected, was announced at the end of October, just a couple of weeks after they had wrapped. “We definitely got lucky,” admits Branagh, who says that it was only on the last two days of the shoot that they had their first positive cases, two people — who “thank God weren’t unwell” — working on the “outer rings” of the three zones.

But even with this phenomenal achievement in the bag, there still was one crucial hurdle to overcome. In December, Branagh showed his brother and sister a rough, 80 percent-ready cut of the film. To his relief, they were delighted.

“They were absolutely made up with it,” he says, adding that the three then had a “very teary lunch” reminiscing about their parents and childhood. “I asked my sister what Mum and Dad would have thought. She said they would have been very pleased with the casting.”

This story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.