Filmmaker Branagh Enjoying Life Behind Cameras

Herald Scotland, 23 January 2014
By Rob Carnevale

For an artist whose name has previously been synonymous with theatre and the works of William Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh is rapidly emerging as a blockbuster filmmaker of genre-defying merit.

Three years after kick-starting a superhero franchise with 'Thor', as well as helping to feed that film into Marvel's Avengers universe, Branagh is now breathing fresh life into another franchise, 'Jack Ryan', and reviving a character previously made famous by Alec Baldwin in 'The Hunt For Red October' and Harrison Ford with 'Patriot Games' and 'Clear & Present Danger'.

Yet ask Branagh, 53, whether making films on a massive scale was a long-held ambition, or even something he could have foreseen back when he was starting to make a name for himself with films such as 'Henry V', 'Peter's Friends' and 'Much Ado About Nothing' in the late '80s/early '90s, and he remains very modest.

"Frankly, it was astonishing to think I would be having a film career of any kind when I started out," he jokes. "Before 'Henry V' we had a very, very doldrum-like period within the British film industry. Films were not being made. I remember having a conversation with fellow actors and wondering if we would ever be in a film again. So yeah, it's astonishing really.

"But in terms of a moment where you wonder why and how you are doing it, that is bypassed because you are essentially trying to always follow your instincts as best you can."

His instincts this time told him that 'Jack Ryan' was an offer too good to refuse, having long been a passionate admirer of thrillers and a fan both of the previous films in the series and Tom Clancy's source novels - even though 'Shadow Recruit' is the first film not to be directly based on one of the author's books.

"I thought it was a chance to put Jack Ryan and the things that made him compelling for an audience into the 21st century, and see if he and that new world collided in a strong, entertaining way."

This even extended to taking one of the plumb roles for himself: that of the movie's villain, Viktor Cherevin, a Russian oligarch who provided a very contemporary foe. Describing such oligarchs as an "unusual modern creation" as well as '"formidable individuals", Branagh said he feels that the mystery surrounding these businessmen - "sometimes we don't know what they own, what the state owns, they're blurrily linked to government" - was in keeping with the traditions of the genre.

He also enjoyed the breathless pace of bringing the film to life, which involved some globe-trotting, as well as the ability to think on his feet.

Branagh recalls: "We did go to Moscow. I won't tell you for how many days but we were there briefly. I remember we got off the plane from New York that morning, went to recce the first place and that afternoon Chris Pine was standing on a hotel roof with us saying: 'We've got 40 minutes, the sun's going, we have three pages of dialogue, so do you mind doing it all in one?' Moving around in Moscow was a bit like that, so when we came back to some of the cheated Moscow in Liverpool, Manchester and parts of London we adopted the same kind of hit-the-ground-running approach."

Similarly, Branagh enjoyed putting his actors through their paces during the dialogue-heavy scenes, sometimes shooting entire sequences, requiring many pages of dialogue, as one, and encouraging improvisation.

"There was a sort of sense of 'play about that'," he explains, referencing the film's dinner party sequence. "But one thing I wanted with this movie was to feel that the character work and the reality of the acting all had that sort of edge underneath it, which is part of Jack's journey, part of the rhythm of the film and part of the little naturalistic edge that I enjoy doing with my fellow actors. I wanted it to feel as relatively raw as possible, so we were not too slick or too smooth."

The final lure of making 'Jack Ryan', however, lay in bringing one particular personal journey full circle given that another of the film's stars, Kevin Costner (who plays a CIA handler and mentor to Ryan), shares a little-known history with him.

"When I first went to Hollywood I was on tour with two Shakespeare plays and I got a call one day at the theatre saying that there was a guy called Kevin Costner who would like to take me out to lunch.

"This was in 1990, so I was very excited and said 'thank you very much' and we went out. He wanted to ask me what it was like to act and direct a movie at the same time, because I had just completed 'Henry V' and he was getting ready to do a film called 'Dances With Wolves'.

"So, we had a long boozy lunch, sharing war stories about the madness and fun of all of that. That was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted since then. In fact, he was very, very helpful about that same process 25 years later. So, for me, it was a little like coming full circle. Indeed, it was very generous of him to be in the picture."

Next up for Branagh the director is another big budget affair, 'Cinderella', which sees him re-working the classic fairytale with a cast that includes Cate Blanchett, Lily James and Richard Madden. You can bet he has gone about it with similar relish.

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