‘Belfast’ Writer-Director Kenneth Branagh On Revisiting Childhood Trauma And How “Humor Becomes Not Just Valuable, But A Necessity”
Deadline, 22 January 2022
In his deeply personal story 'Belfast', writer-director Kenneth Branagh a child’s view of conflict. When he was nine years old, the Troubles in Northern Ireland began and Branagh had to leave his hometown. 'Belfast' follows Buddy, a fictionalized version of Branagh’s childhood self, played by Jude Hill, as he deals with the loss of the peaceful city he has known. While the subject matter is dark, Branagh chose to focus on how a boy and his family cope with the traumatic experience in true Irish fashion, with humor, dancing and music. Hill stars alongside Judi Dench, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan and Ciarán Hinds.
DEADLINE: This was something of a departure for you, so what made you want to tell this story now?
KENNETH BRANAGH: Well, it was definitely enhanced by the idea of the lockdown. There was much more introspection, I think, at the beginning of this period. But the desire to write something about Belfast had been with me really ever since I left the place, I suppose, because it made for such a revolution in my life, that somehow processing it, to use a cliché, was something that was very important to me. But I feel as though I approach every film the same way. I mean, every film matters as much to me. And the small, detailed pieces, whatever you might call it, the chamber part of a big, big movie is as important to me as it might be in a small movie, and whatever action there is in a small movie is as important to me as it might be on a much bigger movie.
So, to me, it wasn’t so much of a radical change. I felt as though going back to this very, very personal subject, I was using a kind of synthesis of many things that had come together. And in a way, the film illustrates that. In a way, you can see, the way I think about color in movies is in Belfast with 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' or 'The Great Escape'. And when I then jump 40 years forward to 'Cinderella', I can see a real connection between the impact that the wide screen color movies made on me, and particularly the intensity of the color, and the other worldliness of the color, because it felt like you could almost taste it. So somehow, even though this is a personal film, that exposure to cinema is completely wrapped up in it.
And when I’m looking at a piece like the riot scene at the beginning of 'Belfast', or the looting scene later on, I find I’m bringing moments from directing 'Thor', or directing something like 'Jack Ryan', or other pictures. So for me, the heart of it was the personal subject matter. But the actual making of it, the mechanics of it, were more a synthesis of the many different kind of influences that I’m subject to as a filmmaker that 'Belfast' actually illustrates at the same time.
DEADLINE: As a child, what was your understanding of what was going on when the Troubles began?
BRANAGH: It was so simple. Life was happy, and then life was not happy. And I wanted the center of this movie to almost try and take that position of just how the fragility of that is understood, because it completely perplexed me as a child. Same place, same neighbors, same city, same street, and yet within a few hours, a complete transformation of what our experience was. And so, from a feeling of being completely at ease and free inside that world is replaced by the very opposite. You are watched, you are listened to, you are spied upon, you have to sign in and sign out. You’ve been co-opted into a state of siege. And that basic terrifying notion of how simply and how swiftly something that seems in such perfect balance could suddenly have a seismic shift.
That was the position of the film. And, I suppose, to go back to your first question, why now? It’s because I think for the last 50 years, I’ve been trying to answer your second question, which is what was it like? How did you cope with it? Because I think what it does, ultimately, and you don’t realize until much later on, is it explains a lot about why you are the person you are, surprise, surprise. And you are more guarded. I went to see Spiderman the other day, and I found myself listening to Zendaya saying, “Expect disappointment and you’ll never be disappointed.” And I think you go through something like this, and it keeps you very much on edge.
You expect the world to turn upside down in a heartbeat. And really, I’ve understood that in my subsequent life, but prior to that, and I think it’s often the case for people experiencing their existence up to six, seven, eight, nine years old as, if you’re lucky, a glorious, maybe you would say innocent part of their lives, but something that you yearn to get back to. Not in a nostalgic way, you would just like to have that piece of mind. And this film was a search, I guess, for peace of mind.
DEADLINE: I definitely get what you’re saying about innocence, like how Buddy didn’t realize the gravity of the situation when he stole during the looting scene.
BRANAGH: Yeah. I think one of the things that it illustrated, because it was such a tipping point for my parents, was that you can lose yourself quickly. The adrenaline, the mob energy can take from you the discernment and the rational. And suddenly, you’re part of an energy, you’re part of a group energy… The idea that you break into a supermarket to steal, it’s way beyond the imagination. And yet, here, a whole group of people are doing it, and the world is changing because of this energy. And of course, it can be very exciting, it can be very intoxicating, it can be very seductive. But I think many, many people in the grip of it don’t realize quite how dangerous it is. So, there was a post traumatic element to that of realizing, “God, what have I done? What were we doing? What did we let ourselves get caught up in?” And not just casting yourself as the sane one. There were a lot of other perfectly sane, perfectly ordinary people in that situation who, for a moment, lost themselves, and they lost themselves in violence, and that’s a very dangerous situation.
DEADLINE: You said that was a tipping point, so how long did your family stay in Belfast after the Troubles began?
BRANAGH: It was about nine or 10 months, I suppose. And some of it was encouraged by the fact that, as the film hints at, my mother became pregnant with their third child, my sister, who was then born not long after we arrived in England. So, the idea of just greater protection and there was an economic opportunity for my father. They had a third kid on the way, they had the exposure of their younger kids to this daily intensification of hostilities, recruitment possibilities into things that they didn’t even know they were doing. There’s a sequence in the film that talks about kids being encouraged to collect milk bottles, which eventually turn out to be the containers in which crude petrol bombs are built. This was something that was just one of a number of things where people got dragged into being the delivery boys of menace. And these were all things that all parents had to take a view on, which is, do you try and live quietly amongst that? Avoid it? Or if you have the chance, do you get away from it? So, it was intensified very quickly across that, 1969 into 1970. And it was after about, yeah, nine or 10 months exposure to it that we left.
DEADLINE: Buddy has two reactions to leaving, one of them at Christmas where he’s very, very against it and then, later on, where he seems to have accepted it. How were you feeling when you left Belfast?
BRANAGH: I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to leave. I felt that I probably was being sold a bit of a puppy on the idea of this big garden. So, I can imagine a kind of Versailles-like, Madison Square Garden thing. But it was, although still undoubtedly a garden, it was a very small garden. Not one practically big enough to play football in. And we had a neighbor who wasn’t very keen on that anyway. But I was just so thrown by the removal from my extended family. It was the extended family of the street and of our larger family. Both my parents had many siblings, so I had many, many cousins. And so, there was a group in which you could sit very happily. You could find your place and you didn’t have to worry… It wasn’t a competition. Somehow, it was very mutually supportive.
When we moved, I felt, and it was true, that there would be a much greater sense of isolation. It maybe focused my imaginative skills in a more… It sent them inward, perhaps. In Belfast, we played on the street, games were imaginatively played, but they were played… They were outsourced into the street, into the groups of people you played with. And when I came over here, I became a much more insular, much more inward looking, much more protected, and a much more guarded individual, I think. So, I lived the life of the mind a bit more. And not long after we arrived, I really, really became a reader. That was the start of being a lifelong reader. And I felt as though I was at my freest in books and at the cinema. That’s where I could drop that sense of being on guard.
DEADLINE: While you were shooting, where there any memories that came back to you?
BRANAGH: Partly that, and I believe this about cities, any bit of natural world that you can get is just great. We had this little park, the Grove Park between where I lived and where I went to school. And as young as we were, we did go to school ourselves. We didn’t get taken by our parents. And when we went to scout the movie, the school had gone, but the park was still there. But I took Haris Zambarloukos, our DP, and Jim Clay, our production designer, and we walked from where my school was through the houses, and then through Grove Park, which is a small park, but for me it was a cornucopia of nature. I could really see there, where every idea for a western, every idea for a story was set, because there was a little river, there was a little stream, there was a hill, there were places for cowboys to hide. There was a hill further up where you could toboggan down when the snow came.
And it was also the way we went to get to the Capital Cinema on the Antrim Road, which was our nearest cinema. So that park, that little pocket of parkland, that little pocket of grass in the middle of that very urban, very industrial, a very masculine city, that I was reminded of what a soft influence that had on me. And how, for very much a city boy, that little exposure, which I managed to get in the film, of just you running through the grass, running through the natural world to get to another modern building was important to me. It was a great space for my imagination, and I was glad to be reminded of it.
DEADLINE: How did you approach casting, since you were essentially casting your family?
BRANAGH: Well, I viewed it as the point of departure, that it would be the place where, actually, it would start to be owned by other people. So, for instance, in the first conversation I had with Jamie Dornan, who I admired very much for his work on The Fall, the television series with Gillian Anderson, where he played a serial killer in that TV show, which could not have been further away from the character of my father, for sure. But he had incredible concentration and charisma. He’s from just outside Belfast, he’s a Belfast boy really. And in the first conversation we had about the project, he started asking me quite specific questions about my father. And I said, “Well, I could answer these, but to be honest, I’d like to ask you some questions about your father, because I think I’d like you to own this from the inside of you, out.”
I did want that, and they all brought it, all these actors, they all brought attention to detail. Attention to detail in terms of how they looked, even if it wasn’t literally built on how my parents looked. But how they looked, how they sounded, the clothes they wear, the props they used. In some cases, the dancing they did. They were all very detailed because they needed to be two things. They needed to be super prepared, because ultimately, I wanted them to be very playful. And in a short space of time, which is all that COVID gave us with all the protocols in place, and with young actors at the center of it, you have less shooting time. It needed to have both that basic prerequisite, truthfulness, and playfulness, and reality. And they were all actors who I’d seen bring that passion with their work.
And so, I did want them to understand the culture. Jamie understood that very well. So did Ciarán Hinds. Ciarán Hinds was brought up a half a mile from where I live. So, we were the other side of that park I’ve just been talking about. He was on the other side of it. And Caitríona Balfe came from a border town called Monaghan. If you live on the border in Ireland, between South and The North, it can be very, very volatile indeed. So, she really saw tension between Catholics and Protestants up close. And then Judi Dench, I discovered, had a much more extensive Irish background than I realized. She had Belfast relations who visited quite a lot when she was young. So, she had the accent in her head and a favorite uncle who inspired her. She used to practice the accent doing a rhyme that he used to speak to her, her Uncle Peter, when he would visit her. And this would get her back into the accent.
They all understood the culture, by which I mean big ad hoc parties. People aren’t afraid to do party pieces. People very quick to enjoy music, people very quick to enjoy dancing and singing. People with tough lives, for whom those things were great releases, and you grab them wherever you get them. And I think they understood all of that. But I wanted Jamie and Caitríona, particularly, to have what I would call the fizzle between my parents. They had a passion, they had a spark, they had a very vibrant, vital relationship. It wasn’t always easy. And like most Irish people, you’re quick to laugh, you’re quick to fight. And they had that. Our actors understood that as well.
I would say they all have that sort of firecracker quality. Things can go off really quickly. And so, they had a passion, but they were all very professional. And I think the youngest of them, young Jude Hill, he joined and he picked that up. Also, his mother’s a great Irish dancer, he’s a terrific Irish dancer, and his Dad’s a great sportsman, so he’s physically very adroit, Jude. So that gives him a certain kind of confidence. Not arrogance, but a certain kind of confidence. And then he’s a good listener. In fact, maybe the main reason I cast him was that he’s a phenomenal listener. He can hold the screen responding and reacting. That was going to be half of his performance, just us watching other people’s words affect somebody whose life is being written on the page of their face, even as we are watching it. And he was completely in that moment as a listener.
I learned a lot from watching him. And I always learn from kids, particularly, this capacity to be in the moment. And with their understanding of that culture came, quite quickly with that group, a family feeling. COVID meant there was a bubble that they were living in anyway, but they did all play together. They did all sing, and mess about, and they all tease each other, and still do. It’s a very nice, when we’ve been traveling across this last autumn, it’s been fun because that family feeling has continued. And that was going to be vital to try and make the heart of this movie beat.
DEADLINE: Ciarán Hinds grew up less than a mile away from you. Was his experience similar?
BRANAGH: He’s a little bit older than me. So, he was about 16 when the Troubles happened. And he was telling me about how, for a few days, it was phenomenally exciting. And then, the great big hangover of it all kicked in, and then the change of it all kicked in. But when he read the script, he was very pleased to see how much the character of Pop that he plays reminded him, in some ways, of his father and his grandfather. And I think he’s got very close family bonds. He understood that thing of visiting and being in each other’s pockets, that in this pre-digital world, pre-everything world, three channels on black and white television, the culture was much more out on the street and in amongst people.
He was also an Irish dancer, Ciarán. So, he had that social life as well. He was Catholic, I was Protestant. So, we definitely had those different experiences of the religious side of our lives. But he was somebody who absolutely understood the way those kinds of people spoke, and the way those kinds of communities interrelated with each other. He knows it’s complicated. And so, he doesn’t try and make any points inside the role. He just plays it truthfully. And I think Ciarán, as an actor, has a rare gravitas. He has terrific weight. And maybe it’s another thing, a certain kind of Irish people, they are great talkers. They’re great philosophers. I always think with Irish people, you can talk to them about football, philosophy, anything in between, and everybody’s ready to venture an opinion.
So, I think it makes them very thoughtful. And Ciarán, I think particularly, carries that quality. And it’s one that Jude Hill, as a young kid with something of an older head on his shoulders, I think also shares. So that bonding, that cross-generational bonding from two guys, in a way, they have a quiet authority. In fact, some of the loveliest moments in each of their performances are very, very quiet, very, very subtle reactions in the listening. They can both be quite larger in what they do. But I enjoy that thoughtfulness that seemed to cross the age range between grandfather and grandson. That part of the film, I think they do beautifully.
DEADLINE: There was such a great sense of comedy in the film. How do you find the humor in those dark moments?
BRANAGH: Well, I think it… Thank you for saying that. I mean, a friend of mine sent me an email over the holidays saying, this is a producer friend who we’d asked to finance the film 18 months ago, and they loved the script. When we shopped this movie around, we got tremendous response to the screenplay. People really got it. What was thrilling was that it seemed as though it traveled the world. So, people in America, financiers in Europe, everybody understood and felt as though it had a universality, and they were very complimentary about the screenplay. However, it was very difficult to get people to, at the time of COVID, actually step up and say they could do it right there and then. And one of the reasons is hinted at in your question. It was tone, and they couldn’t understand how we would manage to find something lighter in such a dark situation.
So, this friend of mine sent me this email in which she said, “I’m sending you this because what you pitched is exactly what you delivered.” And I said in the email, which must have been part of my pitch to financiers, “Although it’s about the troubles of a family in a very violent time, part of the coping mechanism is them finding, especially their young son, every possible means of returning to the light, and the fun, and the sunshine, and the laughter that was pre-this moment.” And I said, “I’m talking to Van Morrison. And we’ve got Jamie Dornan from Belfast who has a fine sense of humor,” and all the rest of it. And it was clearly a tough sell on the page, but it was something you had to see, as it were, to understand this very gallows-humor quality in the Irish, which is, “Well, what else are you going to do?”
People with a strong sense of Irish history will tell you the many, many occasions in the history of that island, that things have been dire, and somehow, they still manage to draw some sort of grim, humorous remark out of it. And I think that was my abiding memory. It’s often the case in Britain, in the Blitz in the Second World War, people talked about the amazing bonding of the communities, and the fun that could be had. I guess, because death was so close to the surface, it leaves you in a kind of hysteria where you are sometimes weeping hysterically, or in Ireland, you’d call it keening. I remember that from funerals where women would keen. They would just howl over bodies or in those wakes that we had.
Or you’d be hysterically laughing. I mean, weeping with laughter. And the two things seemed very, very closely connected. But humor becomes not just valuable, but a necessity. It’s a coping mechanism that I knew was going to run through the film along with music, and along with dancing, and along with singing. These were the ways working people found a way to cope with the central theme of the film, I suppose, which is loss. I really felt as though I was discovering that as I went along, to answer one of your previous questions, that you suddenly realize that the pieces may be about that beginning, from that period of innocence to COVID, the loss of this street, the loss of this neighborhood that you shared with your Catholic neighbors. The loss of a country eventually, and indeed, the loss of loved ones, like Pop at the end. These terribly difficult things to deal with, which human beings are just born into, isn’t it?
One thing we know that is always guaranteed is death and taxes, and there’s usually plenty of both. So, humor becomes the grease that makes those wheels go around. It makes you move sometimes when you think you can’t, in fact, put another step in front of you. So, trying to find it was just always looking to the humanity of the situation. Sometimes the humor is a kindness. The humor is a gift of generosity to just let someone breathe in a situation where death or loss is tightening us up. And it’s always, I’d say, it’s a poignant humor, and it makes the film and the experience of the film, of course, bittersweet. It’s a tragic situation, but human beings have to find a way to breathe their way through that. Otherwise, life’s not worth living.
DEADLINE: Earlier you talked about you and Ciarán, being Protestant and Catholic, having that different experience. A great part of the movie was when Pa said he doesn’t understand Catholics because it’s a religion based in fear. And then we cut to Buddy and his brother at the church getting screamed at that they’re going to go to hell.
BRANAGH: My father used to say that all the time… My father was a very generous guy, but he would just give phrases like, “Oh, the Catholics, it’s a religion of fear.” And of course, I couldn’t at that time, but I wanted to say, “I’ll tell you about fear, Dad. You ought to come down to church with us on a Sunday night because I leave there every Sunday night absolutely terrified.” It used to be a kind of guest minister and, my god, they were just terrifying. But yeah, the fascination combined with the ignorance, often, it led to a lot of comic speculation about what the mysteries of the Catholic religion were. And I certainly thought it seemed pretty cool that you got a free glass of raspberry juice or something and a biscuit. If you could get past the idea that you were drinking the blood of and eating the body of Christ, you had a free refreshment slot every time you went to church. We didn’t have any of that.
DEADLINE: You mentioned earlier this use of color. With Belfast being so predominantly black and white, can you talk a little bit about your use of vivid at the cinema?
BRANAGH: Yeah. Well, black and white suddenly gives you the past with this poetic quality. It also really reminded me of the massivity of the Belfast landscape as well. Those big cranes, that Cavehill behind us, and all of that granite-y, gray, often rainy world was very much in monochrome to my eyes. And it reminded me of the westerns that I was seeing on television. I somehow had an intuitive connection to Monument Valley, of which I’ve still never been to, but I would see those John Ford films in black and white, and they reminded me of the big upright structures in Belfast, and the harshness of the architecture, quite stern, quite forbidding.
So, whenever color came into my life at the cinema, it came in like a rainbow of intensity. So, early gifts, in that regard, were films like The Great Escape, the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, which is as trippy a movie as you could ever see, really. I didn’t make much sense of it then, but I know that it captivated me. And Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Sound of Music, wide screen entertainments that often took you vast distances. Geographically, they took you. Color seemed to take me around the world. Sound of Music, or Great Escape took me all over Europe. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang took me to a completely different world. In this case, it had the fairy tale castles of Ludwig of Bavaria in the magical land that they fly to.
So, color expanded my consciousness. Absolutely, color announced itself at the movies as a place to immerse yourself, a place of transformation and a place of escape. And it came with such happy memories. It was always with parents, and it was with crowded cinemas, and it was the massive image in color of such intensity that entirely lifted you from whatever pain, or darkness, or humdrum-ness, or whatever else you might be going through in your life. It was a magic carpet to a world of imagination. And I wanted the same thing to happen here. And for it to even happen in the world of the theater, when they go and see A Christmas Carol, and when they see, as a kind of tease, the color is reflected on the outside of granny’s glasses. It’s as if, somehow, imagination and escape is out there, but you have to go and get it. It just knocks on the door. It doesn’t come in. You have to go get it. For me, color was the great calling card of art. It was the great calling card of cinema. It was the great calling card of the imagination. And black and white was beautiful, and poetic, and sometimes gritty, but you were glad of the invitation into that Technicolor palace.