Kenneth Branagh Talks Michelle Williams, Olivier, and “My Week With Marilyn”, 19 December 2011
By Sean O’Connell Early in his career, Kenneth Branagh says he drew comparisons to Sir Laurence Olivier.

“Specifically, it all kicked off when I directed a film of ‘Henry V,’ which of course he had done spectacularly,” Branagh tells me. “The comparisons were always tough because, in my view, he’s an unsurpassable master. I never had any mind or intention of trying to compete with him. But I was inspired by him. That’s probably what gave me the courage to even try directing a film as an actor.”

Now, in Simon Curtis’ nostalgic “My Week With Marilyn,” Branagh can be seen playing Olivier during the production of the 1957 comedy “The Prince and the Showgirl,” which Olivier directed and starred in opposite Marilyn Monroe. It was a difficult shoot, one marked by creative compromise. But Olivier (through Branagh’s brilliant portrayal) understands that to capture a star as bright as Marilyn, one needs often to simply give up, give in, and go along for the ride.

Branagh spoke with me at length about his earliest memories on a film set, his preferred genre of film, and the charming “Marilyn,” for which he has been nominated for a Satellite, SAG and Critics’ Choice Movie Award, to name but a few.

Here’s Kenneth Branagh: Eddie Redmayne’s character, Colin, is all wide-eyed optimism on his first movie set. What do you recall about your first days on a movie set?

Kenneth Branagh: My first time on a proper film set was for a television film called “To the Lighthouse.” And I remember staring in wonder as a man who looked as if he was about to set up a model railway put down this train track. I asked him what it was, and he told me it was dolly track. He explained that they were going to put a physical machine on the track, strap the camera to it, and then they could then ride the camera, move it up or down, and get the shot that they need.

And then I suddenly realized that was how … you know, I specifically remember asking, God knows how or why, “In Laurence Olivier’s film of ‘Henry V,’ when the battle starts, there’s a hot where the camera tracks alongside the walking, then cantoring, then galloping horses. Is this what they would have shot it from?” They told me yes, and that was the beginning of, “Oh, so this is how you physically make films!”

I was 21 years old. This was September 1982. I remember it very clearly. We were in the southwest of England. The sun was shining, and men were creating magic through bits of metal. What a defining moment. Because of the Olivier comparisons you spoke of from early on in your career, were there trepidations about essentially putting yourself side-by-side with the acting legend once again?

Kenneth Branagh: Absolutely. When I came to look at the script for “My Week With Marilyn,” I suppose my initial thought was, “Oh gosh, this is such a bad idea. I’ll just get all of that grief all over again.”

But I also, at the same time, was feeling a sense of excitement because, like the rest of my generation, I owe Olivier a sincere debt of gratitude. He was a positively dominating figure. He dominated, not only because he was the best at what he did, but because he worked so hard. He was so industrious, and so inspiring. So the idea of going back to school to find out about him in detail was thrilling. When I realized that there would be a relatively full portrait of Olivier – a snapshot, but within that was the fact that he wouldn’t be treated reverentially nor disparaged needlessly.

The prospect, then, of reading his biography, of listening to the recordings, of revisiting the film “The Prince and the Showgirl,” that seemed to me to be the most incredible, blissful holiday. I couldn’t resist it. I felt like it was a way of paying gratitude, of saying “Thank you,” in a way.

And what I’ve already discovered is that people who’ve already seen this film, they’ve immediately gone out and rented “Some Like It Hot” to see Marilyn. They’ve rented “The Prince and the Showgirl” to see the pair of them. And they have tracked down “The Entertainer” to see Olivier in the film that is referred to at the end of this movie as the one in which he sort of transforms himself once again. So I think the film already is doing that which we’ve hoped for, which is to have people go back and visit the work of these remarkable artists. I’m so glad you brought that up. We seem to be in this pocket of nostalgia at the theaters, with films like “The Artist,” “My Week With Marilyn” and “Hugo” bringing audiences back to very specific, seminal moments in Hollywood history. I adore revisiting films from the 1950s, specifically sci-fi from the era, to absorb lessons about moviemaking and storytelling. Is there a particular time that you like to go back and revisit? And what lessons do you look for in those older films?

Kenneth Branagh: What is it about the ‘50s that you particularly enjoy? I love the tranquil, innocent façade of suburban life. And you find it often in the first half of ‘50s sci-fi, before whatever genetically altered creature from outer space attacks.

Kenneth Branagh: [Laughs] I am with you on that. And the creepy – well, I feel strange admitting this – but “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” for that normality in the first part of its film, is very effective for that. Also Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” where it’s so wonderfully normal-slash-creepy. It feels as if the ‘50s were invented for David Lynch to deconstruct.

In terms of this particular bit of the ‘50s, it was interesting for us to revisit because 1956, as a year – when this movie was made – was a year of “Look Back in Anger” being written in the theater, which is a play that literally turned the world on its head because an angry young man was at the center of it. He used bad language and was sexually provocative. Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Cliff were working. Bill Haley was about to arrive in England with rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis was around. The Beatles were in their houses in Liverpool listening to all of this. Revolutionary influences, really. … And that’s Marilyn, with her sex, with her freedom, and her provocation.

This was the last point, also, when it comes to actors and people like Olivier, when people came to work and rehearsed in suits and ties, when women never went out without a hat and gloves. This was all breaking down. And while, superficially, these are all banal, trivial things, they were indicative of an explosive atmosphere. And I think that was something Simon Curtis, our director, tried to get underneath with this film.

I like, for all sorts of purposes, very different eras of filmmaking. When I made “Dead Again” over here, it was with a love of the 1940s in mind. I think, as much as anything, this film is an invitation to an immersive trip back in time, to a time maybe – without being sentimentally nostalgic – a time of relative innocence, before the world as about to undergo this sociological earthquake. It was a fascinating time period to dip into. Have you given any thought about the fact that, 10 years from now, someone could be playing you on screen?

Kenneth Branagh: [Laughs] I haven’t. And I think if anyone did try that, I would say to them, “Listen, you need to get yourself some better material. You’ve got to be able to come up with something more interesting that this. Back to the drawing board.”

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