The Cranky Critic Interview: Kenneth Branagh

Cranky Critic, June 9 2000

Even as I write these lines, three days before the release of Kenneth Branagh's musical adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost is released, I can see a chasm forming between people who absolutely love it or absolutely hate Branagh. Our initial reservations are detailed in the review. For this page, we present true stories of media publicity mayhem. Most press roundtables have 6 or maybe 8 of us lower life forms at the table. For LLL, it was like a dam had burst. 14 people in the room and each of us fighting tooth and nail to get questions in. It wasn't a pretty site. What we've done is, since we've talked Shakespeare with Branagh before, we added that stuff into this mix, but if you want more detailed explanations of why he did what he did, we recommend the British LLL site (and you can get the whole thing here)

Since the previous evening Branagh had presented one of the American Theater Wing's Tony Awards, and since Love's Labour's Lost is an all singing all dancing musical take on the Bard we thought the logical place to start off was to ask if he'd take to the musical stage next...

Kenneth Branagh: There's nothing specific planned. I enjoy watching them. I really enjoyed James Joyce's The Dead, did you see it? It was really, really charming. Very lovely music. The Irish influence and my background, the whole set up of it of people at a wake, essentially, singing parlor songs and bringing them to life was very; there's such a lovely lightness of touch about it and I enjoy seeing the big razzle dazzle stuff as well. I'd like to see Kiss Me, Kate and Contact.

CrankyCritic: When you started working on LLL, did it ever go through your head (as it did ours, and in the message boards on the site); did you start to think "what the hell am I doing???"[g]

Kenneth Branagh: Well, it took a long to convince myself it might work. At all points you thought could this work because the play doesn't get done much and musicals don't seem to work on film, etc. So you spend a lot of time trying to ask and answer that question in whatever way. I've been in the play and felt it played much more winningly than it reads. It's very tough to read. It's very dense. But in the theater it's an audience pleaser. They like it and found it silly and charming and then they went with the change at the end which makes it quite poignant. I like it that the evening can contain both those things. Slapstick and silliness and then something quite heartbreaking and thought provoking.

CrankyCritic: But a musical?

Kenneth Branagh: While I knew that I liked musicals, I must say I tend to like the ones that are superficially about frivolous subjects, that tend to make their more serious points lightly -- rather than the more overtly serious and earnest ones which, for me, tend to veer towards opera or melodrama or whatever. I love entertainment that is superficially one thing and surprises you with what else it does. So given that I liked both those things you start turning the worries into a positive. You think, well, if it hasn't been done for a while maybe this is the time to do it again.

CrankyCritic: How far is too far in taking liberties with Shakespeare?

Kenneth Branagh: I don't know that there is too far, actually. I think there's only too bad. If it's bad you've gone too far. The elasticity of Shakespeare is extraordinary. It seems that people have got all worked up this century about "oh! they've cut so much of the text!" Go back to the 17th century, David Garrick, who was responsible for the revival of Shakespeare's fortunes and was responsible for the Silver Jubilee of Shakespeare in 1764, he was part of a whole generation of theater practitioners who changed the endings. I mean, Romeo and Juliet lived (!) in the David Garrick version of it. King Lear is reunited with his daughter who's no longer dead at the end of King Lear and those were the very productions that reestablished Shakespeare after the whole hundred years (when) his plays weren't done. The radicalism that they applied, which kept it very lively and in the popular imagination and in fact gave us Shakespeare were way more brutal with a playwright who continues to be bouncing back from all of that. Stimulated and revived; revivified is the phrase I think. If it's good art, it's good. If you've done a brilliant version it becomes something else. Shakespeare then becomes the source of fantastic inspiration. I resist the idea that there's one way to do it. Otherwise why see a Shakespeare play twice? why hear a Beethoven symphony twice. Why look at a van Gogh painting twice. They're classics. Their very quality is their ability to resonate from time to time through, in the case of Shakespeare, the personification of the characters through living actors that's why you want to go see Kenneth Kline's Hamlet or Daniel Day Lewis' hamlet. You don't go "Oh I've seen that. I know what happens. Doesn't he go mad or something?" [laughter]

CrankyCritic: Where did the musical connection come from, to go with American classics instead of having new songs done (as in West Side Story)?

Kenneth Branagh: We did try to write songs. The real problem is the lyrics. It's very hard to, while retaining the original Shakespeare, to come up with original lyrics that didn't look pretty silly next to them. It took a braver man than me to try and do that. We did look at the less well known songs of these composers and that didn't work. It seems to me that these songs are classics in their own right. It took quite a long time, eighteen months to two years before sort of slowly wading through all the possible material, having previously cut the play, to try and find moments where you thought the characters might legitimately burst into song. Where you could believe in someway that words were no longer enough, that there was enough passion, frustration whatever to happen to encourage something more to happen. It took a while. CrankyCritic: How much were you inspired by Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You which has a similar construct of non-singing actors singing? Kenneth Branagh: Well, I enjoyed it very much. I was encouraged by the way in which, for the very last sequence of that movie, the audience seemed to feel especially comfortable in the sort of very romantic and heightened atmosphere. The very last scene, as I recall, with Goldie Hawn and Woody Allen is on the banks of the Seine. It's a glamorous city at night, moonlight, lush orchestration. He's in a tuxedo, she's in a beautiful gown and she flies. All of these things, as it were at the most extreme terms of musical film, and the audience seemed to feel at ease with that. Maybe [this] offered something that was different and fun. It wasn't just nostalgic. It was romantic and that was an encouraging thing to witness.

CrankyCritic: Did you talk to Woody at all about this when you made Celebrity with him?

Kenneth Branagh: A little bit. I mean, we don't have huge experience in song and dance. [All of them] had done some; it wasn't as big a step as it might have seemed. He told me that he encouraged no preparation at all in terms of vocal stuff, whereas, despite the mixed abilities in our group we did try very, very hard, having dancing and singing coaching in advance of rehearsal. We did it very intentionally. I told everyone "Look, character and form in singing and dancing is the most important thing but I also want you to try to do your very best. I'm going to buy what roughness or raw edges come out as long as your character and your whole being is absolutely behind it. I think that that will end up being charming, but we can't parody it. We can't be sort of tipping the wink and suggesting that we could be better; we're not just sending it up or satirizing it. I don't want that. We must do the very best we can and if we take a few hits, fine by me." I think our primary responsibility is to the Shakespeare play. I hasten to insist that there's a sort of strange balance. I'm not apologizing for it but I'm suggesting that the kind of Mickey and Judy "hey we can put the show on right here" quality is kind of what we wanted.

CrankyCritic: Was there a thought, though, that casting more people like Nathan Lane, who already had the experience, could throw the "amateurs" off?

Kenneth Branagh: Here was what I was worried about. My absolute instinct was I needed to feel that people had the right approach to the Shakespeare for me. I also wanted people who were totally committed to doing it. I wanted so much of a character performer that I didn't want too much technique when they suddenly started singing. I didn't want the experience to suddenly go into the admiration of a beautiful tone. I'll give you an example: when I sang the first part of "They Can't Take That Away From Me" at the end of the movie, with all this coaching and stuff I sang it musically more correctly when we first did it. I was, from personal vanity point of view, rather pleased with it. Then we sat down and listened to it and it just seemed to me that it wasn't Berowne singing. It was me having got very pleased with my voice -- still not Pavarotti, I hasten to add -- but I'd become something else. It's an infinitesimal thing. Sort of under the skin feeling that somehow took me away from the character. So we recorded it again, not with a deliberate attempt to roughen it up but just playing more directly. I am Berowne singing good-bye to Rosaline, a woman I love who I may never see again. What's in the picture is less musically correct but it's unadjusted, so I'll waver a bit flat there but it's got life and heart there and that's what I was asking everyone else to do. Up to that point, of course, I wanted to do both things. To be as technically correct as possible but also have some life. It was Shakespeare first and then the rest.

CrankyCritic: Were you surprised at some of the actors' abilities as singers?

Kenneth Branagh: oh no. [laughs] talent means acting. Acting talent. I know you're being a bit of a sausage to put it that way [we laugh] It did encourage me that they went for it with such aplomb. We checked out that people weren't tone deaf or had never moved in rhythm before and we put them through their paces with choreographers and singing coaches as soon as they were on board. There was something about the whole atmosphere of the picture that needed to go this way, from my point of view. It needed to have the sort of human dimension; I did not want to turn it into some sort of superpowered slick operation. It had to be about the Shakespeare and the ensemble. There's certain things that it brings up. The kind of shared fear which was quite useful from time to time. We were very bonded by the exposing, vulnerable-making process of starting to learn songs and dances, where you mess up and that kind of stuff.

CrankyCritic: People are always surprised at the American actors that you pick for your Shakespearean projects. How do you pick them? Do you watch a lot of movies?

Kenneth Branagh: I do. I watch quite sort of a wide range of pictures. For me, when we come to casting, it's quite important that the people really want to be in the movie. Something like this gets announced and agents will get in touch or actors will get in touch. I didn't want to have anybody in the movie who was working as a way of doing me a favor. They had to really, really want to be there 'cuz there are too many chances to mess up. Too many chances to look stupid. So the kind of attitude becomes incredibly important. There's not much money. There's not much time and you have to work very hard inside. With somebody like Matt or Alicia, both of them really met us halfway as well and that goes a long way with me. They both had gifts in the films I've seen that people take for granted. I remember when I cast Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing, eyebrows were raised about that, chiefly at that stage, because the Bill and Ted movies were his major claim to fame. I think people just kind of assumed that he walked out of bed and walked into those movies. I think they're very funny, that the comedy in them is very, very skillful. For me, that's what I walk away with. A sense of the talent. I don't just naturally assume "oh he's like that. He's that character." There's some art there. There's some artifice there. I don't respond to getting agented. Nor do I respond to the pressure of whatever people might regard as the sort of pressures of commercial casting. It doesn't work with something like this. Never works. You can't fool the public in this way. So, Star X, his agent rings me up and says "we want to be in it because Big Star X thinks it would be good for his career at the moment." It's no good if he doesn't want to be in it, if he just wants his or her name on the poster and isn't going to be prepared to do the work. They'll look silly. It won't be as good. People won't be fooled. So there has to be genuine creative reasons behind it. Otherwise, it's a bloody nightmare for me! There were a couple of people who wanted to be in it. I finished having sessions with them and I remember one saying "this is great. You'd be so good for me. You'd be such a good teacher." You know. [we laugh] Yeah it'd be great for you. Unfortunately I've got bloody film to make. You should come for other reasons, to meet me halfway. I'll do some solo sessions or something.

CrankyCritic: how would you define Stanley Donen and Martin Scorsese's relationship to the movie?

Kenneth Branagh: I shall define it thusly: [laughs] I spoke to Martin Scorsese, who I've known over the last six or seven years. We've talked about doing things together. He's a hero to me. A man of exciting knowledge about film including musicals, despite having made only the one [New York New York]. We talked a lot about practicalities and logistics. Things like dance numbers. When you schedule them in a shooting schedule? What time of the day? How many rehearsals before you start shooting it? All of these things linked to gauging fatigue or the possibility of injury or how that affects way to shoot. The advantages and disadvantages of being very cutty or doing it in uninterrupted takes. He was very helpful and right at the end, when we were just about finished with the film, the Harve-meister [Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein--cs], in his infinite wisdom, decided we should show people with a view to getting final thoughts. He invited Martin Scorsese and Stanley Donen, who were both extremely helpful. Very supportive. Gave me a lot of their time afterwards. That was very helpful. Captain Harvey thought, "if they like it so much," which they clearly did, "perhaps they'd care to endorse it." And he asked them and god knows they didn't have to. I think they were very sensitive to the fact that, in its small way, it was ambitious and a tough sell. So we're very proud to have them connected with it.

CrankyCritic: One of our readers asks a question about masks and doorways being prominent images in LLL, as in nearly all your movies. [thanks Jude Tessel]. Is that deliberate or a wrong impression.

Kenneth Branagh: Oh it's true that they are there. I sometimes work it out. I'm pretty interested in masks, I think, from a very mysterious and creepy experience in Venice one time. I went to a mask shoppe. And inside was an old Gepetto kind of character. This was years and years ago. And these things seemed to be moving to me; seemed to be completely alive. There were those sort of innocuous ones from the comedia dell'arte and then there were creepier ones. We went to this restaurant in a backstreet and it was carnival time [though the city] seemed to be dead. And out of the mist, silently came this huge mask, like a character from Don Giovanni on a gondola and it scared the living s--t out of me because you couldn't hear it and couldn't see it. A sort of incredible Pirates of the Caribbean/ Wes Craven moment. That whole Venetian mask thing has stuck with me ever since. I went back to the mask shoppe and couldn't find it, but have used them, for their unsettling effect ... and doorways, I don't know, it may be a dull literal kind of view of things. It's often nice to line up for the symmetry

CrankyCritic: oh the library doors in Love's Labour's Lost are huge

Kenneth Branagh: they are

CrankyCritic: and they make beautiful set pieces

Kenneth Branagh: There were a number of touches that I sometimes think "is anybody going to really see this? and do they really care?" Each time we go to the boys when they have their top hat and tails on we tilt down. At the top of each of the doors there is a sign saying "School For" whatever it is. School of Natural Philosophy. School of Metaphysics. And you get a sort of beat of that and you go down to Fred Astaire-man. That kind of thing amused me. I like doing the kind of contradiction between all those things. So I hope that answered the question.

CrankyCritic: Any thought of doing a film, somewhere down the road, about your Belfast youth?

Kenneth Branagh: Stephen Rea once said to me that I should do that very thing. Something about that late 1960s time. So I'm thinking about it.

And this is where they start dragging KB out of the room

CrankyCritic: and your favorite musical is...?

Kenneth Branagh: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

and next time we'll try to ask him if he was serious.

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