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Over the past decade, Kenneth Branagh has become a key collaborator within the Disney family as he’s helmed four films for the studio and its various offshoots including Thor, Cinderella, Artemis Fowl and the upcoming Death on the Nile. In an era with no shortage of studios and streamers, such loyalty is quite rare, something Branagh chalks up to a key decision that Disney film chief Alan Horn made decades ago.
“Well, it’s often a people game, isn’t it? I had a really good relationship with Alan Horn when I was doing two or three films for Castle Rock in the mid-’90s,” Branagh tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We did In the Bleak Midwinter, Othello and Hamlet. So, he was a very important figure, along with Martin Shafer, in allowing me to do a 70mm version of Hamlet at four hours. They were incredibly supportive at a time when a lot of their other material was broad and mass appeal movies of high quality, but they really went for it then. So, I never forgot that, and Alan’s connection to the Disney world has been key.”
As far as his other ongoing collaborations, Branagh appears to be headed in the same direction with Christopher Nolan after acting in 2017’s Dunkirk and the impending Tenet. Despite devoting most of his present days to filmmaking, Branagh was able to mute the director side of his brain on the Tenet set as his multifaceted performance required his utmost concentration. Although, the two filmmakers did happen to bond over Tenet’s 65mm Panaflex cameras that Branagh’s Death on the Nile would subsequently use.
“There are a number of challenges to do with accent and physicality that happen in Tenet that really couldn’t have anything less than my undivided attention,” Branagh explains. “So, the sort of absorption of the great privilege of watching him at work was more by osmosis than anything conscious. Although, occasionally, we would talk specifically about, for instance, the 65mm Panaflex cameras that we were going to have immediately after him. There were issues about schedule, and we had a good collaboration about when certain cameras would arrive at a Death on the Nile set having come from a Tenet set.”
The Northern Irish multihyphenate also has some good news to share regarding his Murder on the Orient Express follow-up, Death on the Nile, which remains on track for an October release.
“The lockdown began when we were just at the point of presenting our cut to the studio, which went down very well, I am thrilled to say,” Branagh relays. “And so, we’ve been able to subsequently just continue work on finishing the film. So, that’s where we are right now. The music is being written as we speak. I spent yesterday socially-distancing with Patrick Doyle, who is writing the score for it. And so, yeah, my lockdown has been spent mostly remotely and now just beginning to be a little more in the room as we get to the finishing stages of it with the key collaborators.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Branagh also discusses his ongoing relationship with Dame Judi Dench, his second collaboration with Christopher Nolan on Tenet and auditioning an unknown teenager named Kate Winslet for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The interrogator in the bookends of the film sounded awfully familiar. How did you convince such a talented actor to take on an uncredited role?
(Laughs.) He was available and he was cheap. That’s how I was able to… We had great fun with that, actually. And I love working with Josh Gad. So, actually being off-camera for him anyway as director certainly led for that to be natural. With Josh, he’s such a pro and he does exactly what’s written, but you always have the opportunity for improvisation. So, it was a great chance to have just a little bit of that fun with him. I was glad that I was able to make a tiny appearance there, and [Artemis Fowl author] Eoin Colfer also does in the early part of the movie in one of the Irish television news announcer’s voices. So, we keep it all in the family.
I’m always fascinated by filmmakers and actors who frequently work with the same studio. Counting Marvel Studios, what’s been the key to your continued relationship with Disney which now includes Thor, Cinderella, Artemis Fowl and Death on the Nile?
Well, it’s often a people game, isn’t it? And so, I had a really good relationship with Alan Horn when I was doing two or three films for Castle Rock in the mid-90s. We did In the Bleak Midwinter, Othello and Hamlet. So, he was a very important figure, along with Martin Shafer, in allowing me to do a 70mm version of Hamlet at four hours. They were incredibly supportive at a time when a lot of their other material was broad and mass appeal movies of high quality, but they really went for it then. So, I never forgot that, and Alan’s connection to the Disney world has been key. On the whole, as a studio, they’re long term developers. They take their time. They try and get things right. They’re all the positive parts of careful, and they enjoy the deepening of relationships, I think. They enjoy trying to develop that shorthand. And so, they’re often long-bonding jobs, so if you count Thor, that was a movie that certainly took, for me, the best part of three years. The relationships made there with Kevin Feige, Louis D’Esposito and Victoria Alonso, et cetera, were all very important and all went through tons of different kinds of experiences, particularly at that front end of the Marvel Universe, just as Disney were joining, when not everything was as preordained and instantly successful as people may feel that whole amazing cinematic journey now seems. So, long-term marination with those characters, with people like Sean Bailey, and then basically, sort of a trust developing that has been based on that human interaction.
Since you likely remember what it was like to be a young boy in Ireland, did you imagine that you were making Artemis Fowl for your younger self on some level?
D’you know, I think there’s something to that. We went as a family to big family movies a lot. It was a big, important and very memorable part of my childhood. And for instance, a big colorful film that I really remember the family all enjoying going to a couple of times, as a big, big cinema experience, was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which had a house run by an extraordinary inventor, Caractacus Potts, and full of imagination. So the whole setting was a big Ken Adam set as you may recall — the great Bond designer — so it was fantastically imaginative. Plus, they went to a different world in a flying car, and they went to that central European mythical region with fairytale castles. And kids were at the center of it because, rather like Pinocchio, the children were at threat and they indeed were chased by the Child Catcher, an incredibly vivid performance by Robert Helpmann. Those elements really imprinted themselves on me — the escape, the size, the scale, the sort of dottiness of it and the wild imagination of it. And so, I think when I come to something like Artemis Fowl, that relationship to my younger self is a strong one. Yes, I would agree with that.
It’s very rare for an Irish story to get the tentpole treatment in terms of budget and scale. Thus, did you feel a sense of obligation to make Artemis Fowl for present and future generations of Irish families?
Well, there’s certainly an amazing tradition of Irish cinema in its own right. Irish stories. Films that often stay in Ireland and travel a little. Sometimes, they’re wonderful international successes. And then, there is the Irishness that is portrayed in mainstream cinema. And I think one of the things that I’ve been really gratified by in the early responses to this is that it sort of passed the Irish test. A lot of Irish people are grateful for what they, at least, describe as its unforced Irish authenticity. I suppose that’s embodied by what I felt going in and was very clear with Disney about as we needed to find real Irish voices. And although we did keep the net open, we really went around the world to find Artemis Fowl. It was incredibly difficult. We saw brilliant young actors from America and from Canada, but it was really difficult for them to do the accent. As soon as someone like Ferdia Shaw walked in, there was a difference in just that effortless sound, plus that attitude and a kind of wry, dry, self-deprecating sense of humor. Having that absolute kind of familiarity with folk stories and tales of the little people, a kind of embracing of romance and poetry and also an anarchicsense of humor… The kind of thing that, from a different direction, someone like Josh Gad brings in. It seemed to me that if that Irishness, if that quality in Ferdia’s voice, Lara’s voice and Colin Farrell’s being could be there, then that in itself was already sort of validating the very distinct thing about what Eoin Colfer had written. So, it did seem important and that it would be found out if it was phony, but that it shouldn’t be so lent upon because the paradox of these things is you want them to be specific — for people to sound like they really come from that place and to relate to each other inside the movie — but at the same time, the more specific you are, the more universal it feels, perversely. And so, it was key to me for it to be real, but sort of invisible.
Lara McDonnell was the highlight of Artemis Fowl for me. When casting young actors in prominent roles, I’m sure you’re looking for various attributes that align with the characters in question. However, will it often come down to that certain intangible quality?
I think you are using both responses. One is that instinctive sense that you have that something special, some quality is emerging that is particularly compelling. When I auditioned the very young Kate Winslet — I didn’t know quite how young at the time — way back for Frankenstein, I remember saying to the casting director once she left the room, “I’m not sure if she’s right for what we’re asking her to do in this show potentially, but I think I’ve just met a star.” There was a kind of an unshowy prepossession about the personality. That sort of duality between an instinct that you’re seeing a really special performing quality and then, the necessity to sort of test it, which we did with Lara over nine months where that same self-possession maintained itself. Her passion for the job, allied to her natural abilities, were really special. She’s 16 now, and a year after Artemis, she joined us and did her work experience with us. So, she did two weeks away from school on Death on the Nile, and she went through every department. We saw her once again with the same kind of enthusiasm, passion and interest. Being the clapperboard loader, being the first AD, she went through every department and that same sort of charisma, I suppose, was at play. And in order to cast her, you first feel it, and then you test it. But ultimately, she was always going to get the part, and like you, I think she’s tremendous in the movie.
Whether it’s Judi Dench and Nonso Anozi in Artemis or Derek Jacobi and Richard Briers in years past, you’ve had a number of frequent collaborators. Of course, I can’t forget about your composer, Patrick Doyle. While they’re all tremendous talents you can trust, does superstition factor into these reunions as well?
I don’t think so, no. It’s an interesting one because, you know, Michael Caine says that he is a kind of lucky charm for Chris Nolan, and that it’s one of the reasons Chris asks him every time. I say to Michael, “No, it’s because you’re a brilliant talent. It’s simple as that.” I think sometimes it can work like that, but with someone like Nonso Anozie, I worked with him in what was his first theater job at the National Theatre in England nearly 20 years ago. We played in David Mamet’s play Edmond together for four months. And he expressed everything that I would ever want from an actor. He was funny. He was bright. He was professional. He was fun company off-stage. He had a rock-like reliability on-stage with the possibility of real inspiration. That goes without saying about somebody like Judi Dench. And it’s just that they also turn up without any sense of being part of a club. There’s no sense of smugness or, “Hey, the gang’s all back together again.” They never assume anything, and they always come in with something new. Judi Dench came into this telling me that she’s not going to rehearse the part. She’s too worried. She’s too overwhelmed. She’s too intimidated by how far it is away from her. And then, on the day, she comes in to allegedly talk about it, and before I can even say “Hello,” she’s bent over, talking in a gravelly voice and walking like Napoleon or Winston Churchill. She’s sort of tasting it, being possessed by it and being all nervous about it, but wanting to work on it. That sort of commitment from the two of them is what leads them to be familiar and regular partners. It’s not superstition, so much as a complete belief in their utter commitment every single time, and their sublime talent.
As an actor-director, what do you provide your actors that most non-actor directors tend not to offer you as an actor?
Well, I think there are no rules about these kinds of things. I suppose what I can have some value in providing is a sensitivity and a sort of foretaste of what might be very nervous-making for them. A lot of acting is dealing with fear and nervousness about what might be unfamiliar, emotionally exposing and physically difficult. Parts of the character that are hard to draw on or that for some reason or another, you feel may be challenging. And the kind of actors I work with are almost always worriers. I think actors who are worriers are good actors. They’re alive to wanting to get past the difficulties to make it the best it can be. I’m usually pretty good at knowing when that’s going to come up, the scene that it’s going to bug them in or the line. And I try and get ahead of the curve. I try to be there to talk to them about it or rehearse them in particular ways or talk them through it or potentially change dialogue or surprise them. Or help them if it’s a scene where they want to just jump in straight away, no rehearsal, and I don’t bring them onto set until the last possible moment. If it’s something where they want to rehearse until they’ve done it one million times, I’ll do it that way. I remember when I did Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Mikhail Baryshnikov, amazing artist; we were lucky enough to have him there. And I realized very early on that as a dancer, he loved to practice again and again and again. So, I probably rehearsed more with Mikhail Baryshnikov than any other actor I’ve worked with in movies because that’s the way he liked to work and because of that, that’s the way I like to work. Somebody like Judi Dench often likes to just jump in. Somebody like Josh Gad likes to be free to improvise. And they need to know what the rules are and I think sometimes that ability to read what the “actor worry map” might be is maybe what I can bring to the party.
So, I was watching Chris Nolan’s tribute to you at the Britannia Awards, and he cracked a joke about Hamlet and how few people saw it theatrically. However, your film was a staple in my high school’s English curriculum, and a few of my colleagues have said the same thing. Are you often surprised by the differing experiences that people have with your films and how theatrical is just the beginning of their journey?
Well, it is pretty surprising and often very moving. It’s very, very rewarding to hear that from your good self. And just a little while ago, I was at a local garden center — this is before the lockdown — buying some things for the garden, and there was a very young man on the checkout. And my experience on the whole is that if younger people recognize me from something, it might be from the Harry Potter film. But as I was leaving, he helped me with my bags and said, “Oh you were a terrific Iago in Othello by the way, thank you.” He just finished his A-level English and Oliver Parker’s film with Laurence Fishburne had been a big, big part of their approach to that play. So, it is surprising. It’s very, very rewarding, and the reason for it, of course, is William Shakespeare. But that side of how one’s work continues to have an impact way beyond the theatrical release has been a real reward and satisfaction, for sure.
Have you been doing Death on the Nile’s post production remotely during quarantine?
Yes, I have. The lockdown began when we were just at the point of presenting our cut to the studio, which went down very well, I am thrilled to say. And so, we’ve been able to subsequently just continue work on finishing the film. So, that’s where we are right now. The music is being written as we speak. I spent yesterday socially-distancing with Patrick Doyle, who is writing the score for it. And so, yeah, my lockdown has been spent mostly remotely and now just beginning to be a little more in the room as we get to the finishing stages of it with the key collaborators.
You’ve talked previously about the complexities of Chris Nolan’s Tenet script and how you read it more than any other script in your career. Did he welcome you to inquire about it as needed?
It’s a very natural relationship with someone like that. He’s always there, so a relationship is possible because he’s one of those filmmakers who is on set all day. So, he’s always, as film directors are, in the short, medium and long-term planning business. So, if lighting is going on somewhere, he’s often working on the next action beat, the fights or the lens for a shot for later on. But because he’s there and because we’re there all day as well, quite natural moments of sort of interplay occur with everybody and across many things. He’s very focused on the work itself, but it’s entirely possible to have a conversation with him about the events of the day, what might be in the current news and, often, about films. It’s unforced, and he doesn’t ever cast himself as any kind of guru or as any kind of nerd, either. But he’s a passionate sort of film worker, and he’s always interested in the whole process. So, sometimes, he’s particularly interesting about elements of the process that he goes into in detail that other directors don’t do. That can extend to elements of the sound mix, elements of exhibition and projection, which as you probably know, he’s a phenomenally detailed sort of executive for. It happens quite naturally, and you get quite a lot of it. So, it’s unforced and a very happy conversation between colleagues. Way back when I did a short film called Alien Love Triangle with Danny Boyle, who I think is another sensational director, I remember him saying to me that he envied me and the possibility of working as an actor for other directors. He personally said, “I’d love to see other directors direct, but as a director, you don’t get that opportunity, that sort of fellowship and that collegiate quality.” That seems to happen effortlessly on Chris’ set, as it happens basically because he’s there all the time and so are we.
When you were on the sets of Dunkirk and Tenet, was the director side of your brain constantly observing and noting what Chris was doing?
Not so much consciously I think. It’s just you end up being fascinated by the way problems are solved, and I never find that I can directly be filing away specific things for reference. It’s more a kind of feel for the way, in the case of someone like him, the approach changes depending, inevitably perhaps, on the actor, the scene, where you are and how much time there is. Sometimes, that’s a swift process, and sometimes it’s a very slow process. Sometimes, it’s a quiet process, and sometimes it’s a little noisier. I enjoy the ebb and flow of that, but I feel — particularly with Tenet, but also on Dunkirk because of being part of something that was often ringed with physical chaos of noise, equipment, transport and everything — that my primary goal was to stay focused and stay concentrated on what I was doing. There are a number of challenges to do with accent and physicality that happen in Tenet that really couldn’t have anything less than my undivided attention. So, the sort of absorption of the great privilege of watching him at work was more by osmosis than anything conscious. Although, occasionally, we would talk specifically about, for instance, the 65mm Panaflex cameras that we were going to have immediately after him. There were issues about schedule, and we had a good collaboration about when certain cameras would arrive at a Death on the Nile set having come from a Tenet set. And that was specific and very valuable.
So, this is going to be the most out-of-left-field question you receive all day, but when I first saw you with Elizabeth Debicki in the Tenet trailer, I quickly thought of Janet McTeer. Debicki not only reminds me of her, but I also recalled your story about the time you saw Janet embracing her height on stage for the first time. Since Debicki is often asked about embracing her own height, did Janet’s name ever come up in your conversations on the Tenet set?
It didn’t, although there is a kind of connection. They both have that amazing power and the ability, even with a statuesque physique, to seem, when required for the role, frail and fragile. And then, they have this Amazonian sort of power. It’s interesting. I’ve enjoyed them both in the opposites of what they do. This year, I enjoyed Elizabeth enormously in Vita & Virginia. I thought that was a beautiful, delicate, fragile performance with a searing intelligence underneath it. And of course, I have loved Janet McTeer in Ozark, in which she is terrifying, formidable, brilliant and sexy. So, I can see the connection and to some extent, although very distinct, they remind me a little of each other.
I thought you were brilliant in Dunkirk, and I was wondering if you actually had incoming planes to react to in those medium close-up shots of Commander Bolton looking up at the sky. Or was that just good old-fashioned acting?
Sometimes, I did. Because Chris wants it real, it was frankly a question of whether the real plane could get around again in time before we needed to shoot again. And so, it was a combination of both things. And thank you for your kind remarks about the performance. But one of the things that was unusual about it was walking out every morning onto that mole, as they called it, and continuing to be amazed by all these real boats showing up and all these thousands, it seemed, of soldiers lining the mole as you went out there. And the ships, the planes and everything being around. So, that in itself, to be out there for the day and across days but inevitably, even in June in France, we were subject to the sort of four seasons of weather that you might expect on the coast there. It so sunk you into at least the beginnings of an imaginative experience of what it might be to multiply that by all the chaos and numbers and threat of the real situation. But, as an actor, you were given so much to work with. And then, when it came to us not having the plane there, you’d already got such a head start by what Chris had presented to you that it made the prospect, though as it were good old fashion acting, a little less intimidating.
Artemis Fowl is now available on Disney+.
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