Branagh's 'Labour' of Love is Lovely

The Hollywood Reporter, June 7 2000
by Martin A. Grove
*thanks to film lover

Lovely "Labour:" With the year only half-gone, it's still a little early to call Kenneth Branagh's "Love's Labour's Lost" one of the year's best films. It's not, however, a moment too soon to call the Miramax release to the attention of anyone hoping to find a terrific summer movie for adults.

Branagh turns Shakespeare's "Labour" into a sexy, glamorous 1930s-style romantic musical comedy, marrying the Bard's words to show-stopping songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern that play like they were always meant to be there. Included are classics like "I Get a Kick Out of You," "The Way You Look Tonight," "Cheek to Cheek" and "There's No Business Like Show Business." The singing and dancing is by Branagh and his merry troop of players, including Nathan Lane, Adrian Lester, Matthew Lillard, Natascha McElhone, Alessandro Nivola, Alicia Silverstone and Timothy Spall.

Adapted for the screen and directed by Branagh, "Labour" was produced by David Barron and Branagh. Its executive producers are Guy East, Nigel Sinclair, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein and Alexis Lloyd. It begins its run Friday via Miramax, opening in New York and Los Angeles and a week later in Toronto, where Branagh was busy doing promotion when he called to tell me about his new "Labour" of love.

"I'm doing my Toronto day today on one of these whistle-stop tours," he explained. "Five cities last week and five this week. Just banging the drums for the film."

The picture came about, he said, "through love of the musical genre and love of the play. I've seen, historically, a big history of Shakespeare and music working in the theater. The two things, in this case, share the same subject matter -- romantic love. 'Love's Labour's Lost' is so witty about love and so silly. It's a very thin plot. It's a plot not unlike the plot of many romantic musicals. It's a boy meets girl/boy loses girl plot, this time times by four in Shakespeare's play , but with this gallery of comic characters. It just seemed to me that if you could combine the joy of them both and the wit of them both, that you'd give people something very unusual which, for sure, was aimed at putting a smile on their faces. And in a genre that hasn't worked in a spectacular way, really, for the last 30, probably 40, years. All of that was a big challenge and an excitement -- to get out a top hat and tails and see if we could do something that wasn't just a sort of retro appeal, or just nostalgia, but actually might surprise people and feel rather unusual."

To make that happen, he told me, it was necessary to begin by getting the play, itself, in shape: "The first thing was to try and cut 'Love's Labour's Lost,' which is a long and very dense play and one of the reasons that in its full form it's seen relatively rarely in the theater. (The goal was) to cut it in order to find a structure that could be believable as a musical, where you felt transitions from the play to the songs were organic. Where a character had reached a pitch of emotion -- either frustration or love or delight -- that meant words were no longer enough, they had to sing. In singing (Cole) Porter, we were creating a musical rather than doing a play that had numbers tacked on. Given as Shakespeare refers so regularly to song and dance and often includes both in his plays, particularly the comedies, that happened with more ease and straightforwardness than I had imagined."

Selecting the type of music that would really fit the movie posed its own challenges. "I found moments where I thought songs could work, where just as we feel in romantic love when you get those urges to burst into song and really wish that an orchestra was playing while you were trying to woo whoever it was," Branagh pointed out. "We have those moments. Then the songs became key. We tried to write them. You can imagine how long it took for me to realize that my lyrics would not be sitting nicely next to Shakespeare's. It took about 10 minutes to get myself out of that job. Then we looked at the lesser known works of classic popular composers of the mid-20th century, including many of the ones we have in the movie. That seemed not to work, as well.

"It seemed as though we needed classic songs to match this classic text, songs that in themselves were very complete, that had the beauty of memorable and instantly affecting melodies. And, crucially, had this same sort of linguistic characteristic of being witty, of playing with rhyme and of being able to isolate tiny bits of human behavior -- from 'the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea' -- and parlay them into sort of an observation about something universal in the human condition that affects people very profoundly. In both cases, the play and the songs do this with such a lightness of touch, with such a delicacy, with such a carefree and insouciant quality that it's so, in relative terms, I think, innocent and youthful. That particular marriage seemed to me perfectly appropriate. I think you could argue strongly that the wit of Porter, Berlin, Kern and Gershwin in its own vernacular is very possible to sit next to Shakespeare and not be embarrassed."

For the film, Branagh set Shakespeare's story in 1939, just prior to World War II. The story gets underway with King of Navarre (Nivola) and three friends (Branagh, Lillard and Lester) taking an oath to give up women for three years so as to devote themselves to studying philosophy. The unexpected arrival of the princess of France (Silverstone) and three beautiful attendants (McElhone, Emily Mortimer and Carmen Ejogo) on a diplomatic visit throws the men's plan into disarray. Unable to resist the ladies, each of the men works secretly to seduce his favorite.

Asked how he managed to get such a unique film made, Branagh replied, "Nigel Sinclair and Guy East at Intermedia approached me. I knew them both. I'd worked with Guy on 'Henry V' when he was at Majestic (Films). I knew Nigel over the years. Both said, 'We want you to make some Shakespeare films for Intermedia.' They were surprised, but still on board, when I said, 'Well, the first one I'd like to do -- of what he hoped would be a three picture deal -- would be 'Love's Labour's Lost' and it would be a musical. I said, 'We must give people something new every time. We must earn the right to do these films. We must communicate with the audience. It's not about just chalking up all the plays or a kind of hollow, ego trip for me. This is the one I want to do.'

"They were right behind that and, very quickly, they assembled partners -- Pathe in Britain and Miramax in the U.S. plus a number of foreign distributors who came on board for three pictures. And so it became a very good collaboration. Both Nigel and Guy and Alexis Lloyd, who's now moved on from Pathe in London, and (Miramax co-chairman) Harvey Weinstein were all strongly part of the collaborative process." Intermedia, based in London and Los Angeles, has been involved in developing, financing and distributing a wide range of films including "Sliding Doors," "Hilary and Jackie" and "Where the Heart Is."

What projects will follow "Labour?" "I hope very much that the next one will be 'Macbeth,'" Branagh replied. "When I finish this promotional tour, I'll be going to work on the screenplay for that. I hope we shoot that at some point next year. That would be the next one. Beyond that, I'm not quite sure. But I feel very certain that we will make all three. There's a terrific commitment, I must say, from distributors around the world for them. I've traveled quite widely to promote the film. I've been and I am continually amazed and humbled but delighted by the lives that these films have with students and with educators and at film festivals."

Shooting a film with musical scenes, he noted, was "hugely challenging. We were very lucky that presenting the film in the U.S. and Stanley Donen and Martin Scorsese. I had a chance to talk to Martin, particularly, ahead of shooting about some of the practicalities of shooting musicals -- how to work with play-back, how to rehearse without injury, how to plan for shooting sequences without fatigue for the actors and yet giving yourself options in terms of filming. All of that became logistically a huge challenge. We rehearsed for three and a half weeks and we shot for about seven weeks, which is very, very tight for a show like this. But when you're working on this kind of challenging material the budget gets squeezed. So all the help you can have in planning becomes hugely important. But we had a very committed cast who really threw themselves into all three things -- being natural with the Shakespeare and giving the singing and the dancing all the expertise they possibly could, but with primarily a human quality that would come out of the character. We definitely cast it in terms of appropriateness for the Shakespeare and then let the rest of it be formed by that rather than starting the other way round and casting, primarily, singers and dancers."

Although some of the cast members don't have singing and dancing credits that immediately come to mind, Branagh pointed out, "To some extent (they had experience) in various ways. Certainly, at drama school. Many of us who had gone through drama school, had done quite a lot of singing and dancing -- not for a while -- and girls, thank God, have a sort of early or adolescent period of having gone through dancing. That was true of people like Alicia Silverstone and Natascha McElhone. But in all cases, it was a little bit of starting again as an ensemble to find the discipline and find the muscles, indeed, to really go at it for film."

Branagh's own drama studies were done at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where his honors included the prestigious Bancroft Gold Medal. Early in 1982, about six weeks after leaving RADA, he made his professional debut in London's West End in "Another Country," winning the most promising newcomer award given by the Society of West End Theaters. In 1984 he became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing the title role in "Henry V" and later appearing as the King of Navarre in "Love's Labour's Lost" and as Laertes in "Hamlet."

His career went on to include numerous roles on the stage in England, including "Much Ado About Nothing," directed by Judi Dench, "Hamlet," directed by Derek Jacobi and John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger," again directed by Dench. He subsequently undertook a world tour with two Shakespeare productions that he directed and starred in -- "King Lear" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Branagh's debut as a film director came in 1988 with "Henry V," which he adapted to the screen and in which he also played the title role. The critically acclaimed film received many honors, including a British Oscar or BAFTA Award for Branagh as best director and the Evening Standard award for best film. He followed that with "Dead Again," his first Hollywood film, which he directed and co-starred in with Emma Thompson. Among his other films are "Much Ado About Nothing," starring Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton and Thompson, which was screened in competition at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and "Hamlet," starring Branagh in the title role and such stars as Julie Christie, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. Branagh received a Screen Actors Guild Award for best supporting actor for his work in Oliver Parker's 1996 "Othello."

How did Branagh feel about plunging into song in "Labour?" "Challenged," he told me. "I enjoy singing and dancing very much. I'm not a natural at either, but if I work hard I can get it together. It was helpful doing it to be amongst a company who were being asked to work very long hours to do often physically quite demanding things and mentally quite stimulating things. So to be in amongst it, sleeves rolled up, was quite helpful. When you would do a number like 'There's No Business Like Show Business' with 25 people all trying to tap dance and move at the same time -- with ages ranging from 18 to 65 -- it was quite helpful, as was sadly the case, that the first person to mess up in a long three minute take 10 seconds from the end was me! There was a mixture of terrific support for me, because the company was very close, glee that it was me and massive relief that it wasn't them."

The film was shot, he said, "on soundstages at Shepperton (outside London). Indeed, that was part of the style that we were aping from classic film musicals. We wanted a heightened realism, so we built a sort of fantasy Oxbridge set, the kind of movie college that I'd seen so many times and that allowed us, also, to use very vivid colors, primary colors that were part of that Technicolor palette that people like Stanley Donen used so brilliantly that, I think, just signaled to the audience that, 'You're a slightly heightened reality here. It will be OK when people start to burst into song.' It offered us control being on a soundstage in a way that would have been impossible on location given our schedule." The film's seven-week shoot, he added, was done on a budget that was only "around the $14 million mark."

There hasn't been a lot of action on the movie musical front in recent years, although Woody Allen tackled the genre -- quite well, I thought -- in "Everyone Says I Love You" in 1996, working with a non-musical cast including such stars as Allen, Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda and Julia Roberts. "I found the very last sequence of that with all the film romantic comedy musical vocabulary -- the banks of the Seine (where Allen and Hawn are dancing late at night and Hawn actually begins to take flight over the scene), the moonlight, the glamorous city, her in a glamorous gown, him in a tux -- that did seem to me a world in which the audience did feel comfortable to watch people singing and dancing," Branagh observed. "And, I think, we've given some version of that at greater length. I sometimes think the seriousness of subject matter that's been reflected in stage musicals over the last 20 years or so hasn't been something up to now that people have found themselves intimately comfortable with. So I hope we found a way to give them a musical that isn't just a throwback, isn't just nostalgia, but is something different. I've seen the film play with people who are seven to 70. It's particularly interesting to see how the kids have gone for it. They've been absolutely rapt. You know, all this music that's (classics) to us, is all entirely new (to youngsters)."

Besides making use of classic show tunes, "Labour" also employs 1930s style newsreels to tell its story. "The newsreel device (is used) in order to tell the story and make it clear in this cut version exactly what happens to whom and when both in its immediate effect, which is to let them where they are plot-wise, and also works in its tone for letting people know from the word go that they can have fun," he said. "So we sent those signals out very early on. I think at 93 minutes, you get to tap your toes and laugh and cry and do all the things that pictures were supposed to do."

Asked where the idea of creating pseudo-newsreel footage came from, he explained, "It was a kind of voice that was part of my childhood. You have your English version and American version (of the newsreel form). It was very familiar to me. I enjoyed working on that. It was an idea that we came up with very late in the day that became the sort of unifying gel that let people know where they were and let them know it was funny, that we could have visual fun with."

Moreover, Branagh said, he made a point of employing for the newsreel narration the sort of clipped British accents that were heard in movies made in the '30s and '40s. "A kind of incredibly chirpy, silly almost sending itself up at the same moment quality (that) seemed to me pretty much in tune with what we were doing," he said. Martin Grove is seen Mondays on CNN's "ShowBiz Today" and heard weekdays at 1:55 p.m. on KNX-AM in Los Angeles.

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