INTERVIEW: Kenneth Branagh
Film News, 5 March 2018 2018
Kenneth Branagh directs and leads an A-List cast, including Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench and Leslie Odom, Jr., in this stylish, suspenseful and thrilling mystery based on the best-selling novel by Agatha Christie, the world’s best-selling author.
Everyone’s a suspect when a murder is committed on a lavish train ride, and a famous detective must race against time to solve the puzzle and stop the killer in their tracks. 'Murder On The Orient Express' is a timeless classic.
Film News caught up with Kenneth Branagh to find out more...
Where do you see an Agatha Christie mystery fitting in modern culture?
Agatha Christie fits in with the now as her stories intersect with other peoples' experience. In 'Murder On The Orient Express' she brings up a number of chewy moral dilemmas. They include a consideration of the nature of revenge, whether revenge equals closure, whether revenge equals justice and whether an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is ultimately the way to resolve human differences. If it isn't, where does conscience lie in all of that? And at least in this version, she gives us a Hercule Poirot, or the seeds of a Poirot, who says in this movie there is right, there is wrong, there is nothing in between but the story (and it always did, but it does even more so now) challenges that moral absolutism and says maybe there's plenty in between that has to be considered. All of that I think fits underneath into the underbelly of something that continues in its sort of classic form to be an entirely intriguing, kind of lean-forward mystery where this issue of 'Do people know what happened or not?', well, my experience on this journey has been that fewer people remember what the end was than they like to let on! She has her populist storytelling excellence and she has a sort of secret moral debate so I think these are good things to engage with a modern audience.
As a Brit, did you have to engage with Agatha Christie?
I'm one step removed, perceived as an Englishman but technically Irish. Also, interestingly, I found it quite sweet when I heard that the first actor to ever play Poirot was also a Northern Irishman, a Belfast fellow called Austin Trevor (in 'Alibi', 1931) and, so we've got two Northern Ireland boys have been part of the Poirot tradition!
Agatha Christie is a strong part of your televisual life growing up, whether it's watching Miss Marple or Poirot or Tommy and Tuppence (Partners in Crime series). And she was a dramatist in her own right, so she wrote sometimes directly for the theatre; she loved actors.
In my own lifetime, I've seen the fashion regarding Agatha Christie go in and out. For a while she was regarded as old hat. The image of her herself as a Marple-ish spinster possibly unconcerned with genuine passions, and all of her works somehow being confined by a sort of 'village green' sensibility, I've also seen explode in the last few years. There was a very dark and troubling account of 'And Then There Were None' the BBC put on a couple of Christmases ago (2015). I've seen the same thing done for 'Witness For The Prosecution'. I've seen much more of what you might call 'dirty' versions of Agatha Christie in the theatre and I've seen also a great appreciation for the - and this is no easy task - the workmanship, the craftsmanship of a writer who is very, very honest and direct about what she feels about her work. She talked often about writing through bad periods and producing work that she still published that was not her best. I've seen her be in and out of vogue and it seems to me that at the moment she's riding high again with people coming to accept that there's a level of perception and intelligence which she often poo-poohed; she described her work as mere entertainment - I think mere entertainment is a pretty good target to hit.
But I found this very interesting working on this film, learning her own life was rich, varied and complicated (although) she says that very interesting thing in her autobiography that she's often been dreadfully, dreadfully unhappy and lost and depressed but that she believes that life ultimately is a grand thing. I feel that admission - it's not a very English admission, is it? I feel it is something a little more introspective. She had an unhappy first marriage, she had the famous disappearance (where she disappeared for 11 days after her husband asked for a divorce), and she travelled, bravely, courageously in dangerous parts of the world. So, I think she's got a little grit in her accounting of human behaviour that is the thing that keeps her re-emerging as a newly discovered expert as opposed to some sort of biscuit-tin, heritage English museum piece.
You're a student of classics; do you think she's approaching classic status?
One enemy of the potential perception of Agatha Christie's classic status has been volume. People are very resistant to the size of her output, indicating somehow that it must mean a diminishing of quality. But, you know, Shakespeare, his 37 plays, that's fairly prolific! She would indeed be the first to admit that there's variable quality. She's always had the ability to provide a page turner but amidst the very significant volume of high quality pieces, I think she still does have something. John Banville, who's a wonderful writer and a great literary figure as well, even he, who is no fan, says 'My god, she's got something though, she really has got something, and she's got that hook into what interests a reader.' And I think it goes beyond that often, so I think she deserves a significant re-appreciation.
Tell us about the challenges assembling such a cast?
You know that with 15 leading characters and 12 or 13 suspects, depending on how you view it, in a film that, in our case, is one hour and 47 minutes long, there's going to be a finite amount of time to meet all those people with detail. Consequently, when they do make their impression it must to be [sic] punchy and significant, so you look for the highest quality of performer. You're also looking for someone who's going to take their opportunity to have their moment with Poirot, in their detective moment, and also in their appearance in these ensemble scenes where they might also score more powerfully and join into the spirit of that without competing. The key in this instance was Judi Dench, she was the first domino (to fall) that produced the effect with everyone else. She said yes immediately; she hadn't read the script, didn't know the story but knew she wanted to work with me for some reason (laughs)! We were in the middle of doing a play, Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, and she said yes before I'd finished asking the question. She was really a totemic figure for the others, a magnetic draw in terms of the quality of her work and her sense of fun. She was also in a way a yardstick for tone because we knew that she could be funny and joyous and have a larky quality but she could also turn on a dime when it comes to a seriousness of purpose.
I wanted everybody to take the notion of death and murder seriously, that it's not just an element in a murder game but something that in this case goes deep into a past tragedy and is to do with a loss of a child. So, we needed that sort of gravity to be available but, also, we wanted people who could embody the glamour of the escapist excitement that is taking a train from a foreign, exotic location through a dangerous environment eventually to be marooned there for a while and then off into Europe. You wanted people who could wear the clothes and live the life, as it were, so Judi Dench begat Michelle Pfeiffer, who begat Johnny Depp and Daisy Ridley.
I think they all needed to feel that they could make an impression with their characters and so I'd meet with them and talk to them about their individual traits. And once we got on to the set I rehearsed very little and we tried to capture as much initial excitement and first-take energy from those actors as we could.
How did the director judge the lead actor's performance?
(Laughs) Well, thank God he had some help! I had the great luxury of months and months of run up to it. I was in a theatre season with Judi, 13 months at the Garrick Theatre in London doing 7 plays that we had a company assembled for (in 2015-16). Across the second half of that season was my chance to work on the accent and the walk and the moustache and all the things that go with it. And I worked with a director, Rob Ashford, an American director who co-directed a number of plays in that season with me and then came on board for a part of the time as my associate. His job was to watch my performance very carefully and offer another set of eyes. Also, Jimmy Yuill, an actor associate of mine who I've worked with for many years, did the same thing. But, of course, ultimately in film you do have the opportunity to look at the rushes of what you did and, in some cases, I'd do the scene again if I didn't think I'd quite hit the mark.
I found that a touch of Poirot was infecting me, so I was liking being a bit of a neat freak! I liked things clean and clear and not too many people around on set, so that's what the actor brought to the director; I would say to myself you need that person there. And my ritual in the morning was very quiet; I'd give my notes (to the actors), start the very time-consuming process of assembling the moustache and then try and meditate and clear my head for the day's work in much the same way as I felt Poirot went to work on a case.
You mention most people first being exposed to Agatha Christie's work on television and I guess you also saw the 1974 film of 'Murder On The Orient Express' on TV too. What hints or detours did you take from that classic?
I love (director) Sidney Lumet's work and had the chance to meet him a few times over the years before he passed away, which was a great privilege. He also wrote a fantastic book, called Making Movies, which I've always recommended to anybody directing a movie for the first time. Even in the digital age, it works because it's so much about process and what film's about. It's a fantastic book.
I knew that I wanted our film to be more expansive than that one chose to be. I wanted to be outside more, I wanted to explore more of the train and the environment around the train. In a way, it was a marker of what I enjoyed hugely but did not want to do. Sidney described it as a romp and I didn't feel ours was a romp. I felt ours was more of a brood, a bit more of a brood on death, and in a way the further the story goes in, the more layers are unravelled, the more naked it becomes, the more raw it becomes. Whereas I think the other version loved its theatricality and its size. I loved it, but we were determined to be different.
Agatha Christie mysteries stand up to repeat viewings due to their twists and 'Murder On The Orient Express' should do the same in home entertainment as people will want to watch it repeatedly.
I hope so. I noticed when I was talking to people about doing this film and along the process of making this, there's definitely a keen interest. It's a very fetching title, you get 'Murder' and you get 'Orient' and you get 'Express', which are all very powerful words in their own right, very evocative. Even the gift of a good title is something that Agatha Christie understands. And there's something about night time, escaping into something different and her absolute engagement with murder that is bold. It also feels like a movie that's for the nights closing in, as it were. People huddling down and watching this thing about people trapped in the winter.
What special features have you kept for home entertainment viewers?
We have many deleted scenes. I'm a bit off long films at the moment - I've made a number myself! - and I just think part of the way people live now makes it hard in the cinema for those long event films. Or at least I've always believed films just need to be the length they're supposed to be, but no longer, and sometimes they are longer than they need to be. It felt as though you needed 'Murder On The Orient Express' to be tight because you didn't want the audience to be too aware of the contrivance of there being a certain number of people Poirot has to interview. You don't want it to seem repetitive or you don't want to get too locked into the mechanics and the maths of that, so you needed to divert and distract.
However, along the way, for instance, there are a number of action sequences that were in the movie that we chose not to go with because they just felt ultimately tonally not quite right. MacQueen's (Josh Gad) escape from the train was something that was significantly extended into a gun fight and a race across the cracking ice that had Poirot and MacQueen locked in a mano a mano scenario that was just a little too much. There was a much longer fight between myself and Leslie Odom (who plays Dr. Arbuthnot) at the end in the freight car that also bit the dust and some interesting sequences when we introduced people as well that we decided we could do without. So, more sub-textual stuff will be available in those features.
Can you explain the different way you filmed 'Murder On The Orient Express', which looks ravishing?
We chose 65mm (wide high-resolution) film which is the format that I used when I did 'Hamlet' 20 years ago. And I had the privilege of seeing it used again when I was in Dunkirk watching Christopher Nolan use those same cameras (on his 2017 film, 'Dunkirk'). They are the last four 65mm cameras in the world and we got to use them again on this film.
The goal there was to exploit the additional size and definition of this larger piece of celluloid. All my movies have been shot on film thus far, and my own view is that 65mm - even though most people will see this on glorious 4K digital and it looks fantastic that way - baked into it is all the human quality. With the celluloid, you get that warmth, because literally it's moving, the silvers moving through the celluloid, the pixels aren't locked in in the same way as digital. It isn't fixed, so there's a dynamic to it that also allows when it comes to evoking a city like Istanbul, to just get the layers in the frame to feel more three-dimensional. There's a more immersive quality.
Plus, in my view, you really have to make an appointment with the audience in the first instance for a trip to the cinema these days. You want not only location and spectacle to be there but you want something where the subject matter meets the format and if you're talking about a forensic investigation into the truth of the matter, as we do in 'Murder On The Orient Express', close ups - as I noticed in 'Dunkirk', are incredibly powerful when they're at that massive size and with that amount of definition. Talk about seeing the whites of the eyes; you can see everything else that's in the eyes as well and when the story is about whether a lie is being told or not, it's a very expressive medium.
You've left the door open to return as Hercule Poirot with a hint that he's heading to the River Nile?
Who knows? It really depends on whether the audience responds. It feels with Michael Green as screenwriter, Twentieth Century Fox behind it as they are and certainly with my appetite for Poirot, we'd love to do some more but the audience will decide.
'Murder On The Orient Express' is available on digital on 26th February and on 4K, Blu-RayTM and DVD from 5th March.