To Be or Not Mister B?

Premiere (France), May 1997
by Jean-Yves Katelan
**thanks to Marie-Dominique Vançon for translation

At 36, he has at last made his life’s dream. So, is it exhaltation or baby blues?

Première : 2 years ago, you said you would be speaking French.

Kenneth Branagh : Hum... I have a small appartment in central London in Covent Garden and this morning I read an advert in the Herald Tribune which said there was an excellent language school just a couple of feet away from where I live. Right now I’ve just finished Altman’s next film The Gingerbread Man, and the Hamlet promotion’s coming to an end, I’ve nothing else planned until the end of the year. So the first thing I’ll do when I get back to London tomorrow morning is get down to learning French !

Q. You were supposed to learn Italian too...

A. Compared to my non-existant French, my Italian exists un poco.

Q. Anyway, down to work. Where did you get the strange idea of adapting Hamlet in extenso ?

A. Since Henry V, my first film in '88, my next project was Hamlet. The only problem was that in '90 Gibson had his with Zeffirelli ; I had to wait. But after Frankenstein I said to myself that I had to go ahead : I had very little time left before I got too old for the role. Hamlet was one of the very first plays I ever saw in my life, and I’ve been bowled over ever since that first time. At the time I’d felt it rather than understood it and during the next twenty years, right up until now, I’ve tried to understand what it is I’d experienced. The idea of the film was to try and restore this physical reaction which took me over that first time. Having said that, the play works no matter what you do; even in the innumerable cut versions which have already been made. In fact, I think it’s impossible to go over them all. It’s entertaining, a thriller, a family drama all at the same time... And you can only put that across by using the unedited version. There are an incredible number of incidents and the last time I acted it in theatre, I had the impression it was richer and easier to understand - as if there had been a cumulative effect... Having said that, convincing the public is a challenge whereas financing the film hasn’t at all been part of the pleasure.

Q. What was your reasoning ? The casting ?

A. I started working with Castle Rock to finance Othello and to release A Midwinter’s Tale. Afterwards I told myself to stop everything until I’d made Hamlet - or at least that I was sure it was going to be made. And I ended up convincing Castle Rock. I told them : I don’t know precisely who will be in the credits but it’ll be an international release. And they decided to follow my strong convictions towards Hamlet. At the end of the day passion impresses the studios. It’s as good a reason as any... Even if one only gets as far as it being the quintessential "art film" in the most pejorative of Hollywood senses, it has always been a question of this being an expensive film. It’s an 18 million-dollar budget - not an enormous sum for a big studio but even so, it’s a lot of money... Saying that, all the actors worked for much less than their usual fee.

Q. Does this budget include promotional and editing expenses ?

A. No, the release expenses were separate. It therefore remains a major risk for Castle Rock. Even when considering that this type of film has a long-life expectancy and will be used for educational purposes ; moreover the CD ROM produced from the film is remarkable.

Q. What HAVEN’T you wanted to do ?

A. I haven’t wanted to "explain" Hamlet’s character. Or in my case that he cannot be explained in any single way : for example, "he’s in love with his mother" or "he’s mad" or "he’s gay"... He’s a character full of contradictions : I wanted to show all his facets because it seems to me we are all capable of having these contradictions, especially in families ! I wanted to leave room for every possible interpretation. So that the play’s mystery fully works...

Q. This isn’t at all an American principle.

A. And it’s probably one of American cinema’s major problems ; you become aware of it when looking for financial backing. The studios want to reduce the subject absolutely, so they can sum it up in one sentence : "Boy meets girl. Girl dies. Boy is sad. Boy meets girl’s ghost. They live happily ever after and have lots of children". That sort of thing... As for me, once you get me onto Hamlet you’d be able to come back and fetch me the next week because I’d still be there ! And then they ask you : "But how are we going to sell all that ?"

Q. And how did they "sell" the film in the U.S.A ?

A. Ha ! A bit like "THE EPIC DRAMA BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE" using that same loud voice they use for all their trailers, the one that says "SCHWARZENEGGER ! STALLONE ! HAMLET ! BRANAGH IS BACK AND HE’S DRESSED IN BLACK !"

Q. What did you cut out for the short version ?

A. Well, half of it !

Q. And when did you decide to make one ?

A. The contract stipulated I had to provide a two-hour version.

Q. Therefore right from the start ?

A. Yes. It’s totally linked to the film’s financing. I just asked, if you please, to release the long version first. So that it had a chance. I asked them : "In your opinion, who’s going to go and see the short version ?" They answered : "Those who are put off by the idea of a four hour film. And if they go and see the short version, they may perhaps go and see the long version afterwards." Having said that, I didn’t put together the short version before being sure the four hour one had had a chance. I waited until the beginning of this year. And it’s quite simply a question of a condensed, miniaturised version. Far less scenes - the opening for example, as is often the case.

Q. You’ve cut Depardieu’s scene ?

A. Yes. Even if I think it says a lot about Polonius’ character (Richard Briers), it’s true that it’s not really needed to follow the intrigue.

Q. With all these stars in really small roles, aren’t you afraid that people will only want to see their "acts" ?

A. They’s nothing wrong with that. One of the reasons for this casting is to entice people into watching the play from a different viewpoint. There are so many clichés concerning Hamlet, even for people who have never even seen it ! When you see Billy Crystal of Robin Williams, you see the scene in a different way ; it’s a way of getting rid of the audience’s over-familiarity with the play. There have been so many versions, and the last one, Gibson’s is only five or six years old. It was necessary to convince people - and this is often the case with Shakespeare - that there is a reason to go and see it. That it isn’t simply an ego trip on my part.

Q. This Hamlet’s more like your Frankenstein than your other Shakespearean adaptations. Was that intentional ?

A. There are certain similarities between the subject matters. The scale of course and death’s omnipresence. Victor Frankenstein gets going after the death of his mother and Hamlet has trouble accepting his father’s disappearance. And then they both live in enormous, empty castles. Where this is concerned, I chose not to create a gloomy, gothic universe in both cases : the places in which they live are bright and colourful... The darkness is inside themselves.

Q. Does this bring out anything personal ?

A. Above all it’s about one of man’s most fundamental questions ! Right from the awakening of our consciousness we know that during our lifetime we will endure the loss of someone we love. At totally random moments. In fact, what interests me is the way in which people get a grip on the possible loss of close ones. Whether it’s a question of death or the end of a love story... What makes life worth living ? Friendship and love is the answer, "distractions" from the idea that life isn’t just a pile of shit. Ha ha...

Q. Hence, could you die now ?

A. Now I’ve produced something this satisfying, the idea of going across the road to learn French could be truly interesting. Before, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. Because Hamlet’s always been there, this dissatisfying thing, this mountain to climb... It’s not that I have this impression of having created something perfect, it’s simply having done it. I believe this story is also in parallel, at least partly, with the moment in which a young person becomes a man. When he lets go of the fight against that which be considers to be unjust. One day somebody gave me this definition of suffering : "suffering is a resistance against that which is." A resistance against facts. It’s not that the end of Hamlet’s insensitive, it’s that he’s even more ready to let go. By making this film I’ve let go a bit of an obsession which was cutting me up.

Q. Do you feel empty of fulfilled ?

A. More fulfilled. Of course, I’m not indifferent to public opinion, but it’s not really what counts. What’s important is that I had the chance to do what I wanted. With Frankenstein I found myself, on the contrary, in a process which was completely tainted by the inflating budget. One has a sense of feeling crushed which has nothing to do with the film.

Q. Is Frankenstein a good or a bad memory ?

A. To tell the truth it’s not a memory at all. It’s more like a dream from which I feel strangely detached. There’s just something left in me which reminds me that it was very hard. Physically and morally, and then in the story itself there were far less light and hopeful moments than in Hamlet where even though everyone dies, there still remains a feeling of exhaltation.

Q. Have you spoken to Stephen Frears, who had a similar experience with "Mary Reilly", about it ?

A. Almost... We caught a plane together last week, but as soon as the film crops up, his face changes ! It’s a very low point in his life. What’s funny is that Mary Reilly and Frankenstein are both Columbia films and were made at the same time - him at Pinewood and me at Shepperton. In fact we spent our time crossing paths ! By the way, we could be working together next year. On a film for television that he would produce, and in which I would play an English memorialist who wrote his diaries between 1660 and 1669 ; he was a commander in the navy, he knew the King... A bit like your Beaumarchais.

Q. You’re not well-liked in England. How’s your relationship with the young film makers like Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting) ?

A. I’ve nevertheless got some fans over there ; it’s the critics I have trouble with. I’ve known Danny for years but there isn’t the phenomenon of a "group" or "wave". Each works in his own corner. Having said that, it’s a small circle and we spend our time crossing paths with each other. What’s more, English cinema is in rather a fast period at the moment. Therefore everyone is more willing to share their ideas and inspirations... The atmophere’s more generous. I think that one day Danny Boyle and I will make a film together.

Q. And come back to make films in England ?

A. English directors are resisting the idea of going to the States straight after their first success more and more. At present I’m building a house in England and it’s where I want to live. In the coming months I’ll probably get down to writing and I have a few ideas I’d like to produce in England.

Q. Have you finished with Shakespeare ?

Q. For the moment. It’s always been a long process with the plays I’ve adapted. I took notes, questioned people in order to identify key images... Hamlet’s opening scene for example, with the ghost, I wrote in '90 ! Therefore I don’t think I’d be able to make another for a good couple of years. I’d have to let it stew.

Q. And yet you’ve just made "Shakespeare’s Sister".

A. Yes, but surely they’re going to change the title. Because it has absolutely nothing to do with Shakespeare ! The producers have only just realised it’s not really a good title.

Q. What do you think about the recent audacious Shakespearean adaptations ? Especially Al Pacino’s (Looking for Richard) and Baz Luhrmann (Romeo and Juliet) ?

A. Pacino, it’s such a mad, passionate and personal journey ; and there’s an extraordinary authenticity. And I adored Baz Luhrmann’s film because his treatment is so radical ! So different from Zeffirelli and yet it gets straight to the heart of the play : teenage love, teenage violence... I think the play comes through it and if you study Romeo and Juliet at school, this provides you with millions of subjects to discuss ! It’s very stimulating. And very coherent.

Q. Have you ever thought of treating Shakespeare like that ?

A. No. I’m too much guided by the words themselves. For me, their music is a very important element, whereas Baz Luhrmann chose to favour the visual aspect.

Q. Would you say it’s a gay version ?

A. It’s certainly "ham acting". But very effective.

Last question : are there any truths about yourself you’d like to establish?

A. There are far too many for the time we have left !...

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