Exclusive "Sleuth" Interview

FemaleFirst, 23 November 2007
By Helen Earnshaw

Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh are two of our finest actors both of whom have had very successful and illustrious careers. But now, while Michael Caine has stayed in front of the camera, Kenneth Branagh has gone behind it and started to direct. The two have come together for their latest project "Sleuth", a remake of the 1972 version which starred Lawrence Olivier and Michael Caine.

This time around Michael has takes up Olivier's role as the betrayed husband while Jude Law takes Michael's original role of Milo Tindle.

'It's true to say actually, and I sometimes wonder why people get so worked up about it, there is the implication sometimes there's a dirth [sic] of imagination in this dirty word remake that it means people weren't clever enough to think of something new,' says Ken.

'"Hamlet"'s a remake,' Michael chips in.

'Exactly, Jude and I are about to start on the fifth remake of "Hamlet" that I have been involved with. If it's a shot by shot remake if you are literally reproducing it.'

'Whereas I think, and it has certainly been my experience with the Shakespeare's, that no one has been more grateful to me for doing the Shakespeare films than other people who have made Shakespeare films because the DVD's sell; the first "Get Carter" will have been celebrated by increased DVD sales.'

'Oh well the second "Get Carter" sold more of our "Get Carter" than we did in the first place,' laughs Michael.

We are in Soho Hotel in London were director and leading man, Kenneth Branagh and Michael Caine, have come to promote "Sleuth". A film which follows successful writer Wyke (Caine) as he invites Tindle (Law) , his wife's lover, to his house to discuss a possible divorce what follow is a cat and mouse game that has dangerous consequences.

How nervous was Jude stepping into your footsteps or shoes?

(MC) 'He didn't seem nervous at all! It was his idea, he is the producer, he got Harold to write the new script and he came to me with it, and in any case I knew Jude we were friends already, and I was a big admirer of Jude right from "Mr Ripley" I thought he was great.

He is a very relaxed sort of director (points to Ken) , I know it doesn't seem it with all that Shakespeare stuff, [but] you can relax so it's ok.'

(KB) 'Well it does come from the top. Jude had been working on it for about three years and he had already got past what he happily conceived as the first big scary moment which was talking to Harold and giving him notes and suggesting how it might develop.

'Then I think once Michael had said he was in and once Michael had read Harold's version everyone knew it was going to be very different, just to have them on board and for it to become real started to relax Jude.

'He was a very hands on producer so for him the most nerve-wracking moment for him, I think, was when he had to take his producer hat off and say 'Christ I'm in this'. There was a moment or two into, and you don't know this (to Michael) , a day or two into rehearsals, those early rehearsals, he came to me and said 'Christ I'm really going to have to put the producing aside' because he had just seen him at it for two days and was inspired by what your man was doing here.'

Is it true that after "Get Carter" you said that you should only ever remake bad movies not good ones?

(MC) 'Yeah I thought that because we remade a bad movie that starred David Niven and Marlon Brando and we called it "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" the first one wasn't funny at all! If you remake a very good movie you are kind of on a hiding to nothing, I would never have remade Tony Schaffer's script, but you see in Pinter's script there isn't a single line from the ordinal script in the Pinter script so it's not a remake for me, it's a double whammy for me because I'm not playing the same part anyway and it's not the same script, but I would never have remade "Sleuth" the original.

'To remake "Get Carter" and "Alfie", which were very good movies I thought, was a mistake in the first place, I was even in the remake of "Get Carter" because Sly Stallone is a friend of mine and he said come and walk on for a day so I did it for a joke.'

Do you regret doing that?

No not at all because you can't regret things that you did. You must always regret things that you did, if you must, but you mustn't regret things that you didn't do; that's a bugger because you think 'well I wonder what would have happened'. But no I don't regret it I don't regret anything.

Was there ever a thought, as Michael said, this film is so far removed from the original, that you could have changed the title and the character names?

(KB) 'Well I still think that you needn't walk away from what the central idea is: two guys in a room, deadly game, about a woman that we don't see and that's what the nice, the neat, the cheeky, the dirty little central conceit. So I think that that is what you are looking at but from a very different angle, you are shining a different light on it. Michael is right, I think that there is one line the 'little bell' is maybe in there and the 'it's a game', but everything else is through Harold's view of that same delicious idea.'

(MC) 'Also there is a snobbery thing, that's less in ours.'

(KB) 'The subject matter is different.'

(MC) 'Oh it's completely different because it was really from Tony's point of view, it read like an Agatha Christie I know, and that was that thing that era, when everyone was writing novels about upper middle class people who were so much smarter than poor working class PC Plod, and you knew that Larry, actors do a back story on what they are doing, if Larry had a back-story his father would have been a professor and his mother a teacher.

'My own back-story was different my back-story was I came from a working class family who were very ambitious for their child, went to Oxford or Cambridge or whatever and covered his background but what remained there wasn't snobbery, because he could afford to be a snob, but was the toughness, he was a tough-looking guy you wouldn't want to take him on in a fight and what replaced it was a psychological phenomena in jealousy which is called morbid jealousy.

'Ken gave me treaties on this and it was about the murders that men do, the lover, and the surprising thing was, even though Harold hadn't read it and put homosexual stuff in, there were cases of the cuckolded husband actually seducing the lover in order to humiliate the wife and that replaced it.

'And in a more real sense, if you think of 1972 and now, the snobbery, I will give you a concrete example: Larry Olivier was Lord Olivier, we had never met and we were going to do this very intimate film together, and he wrote to me saying 'It occurred to me that you may be wondering how to address me when we met, but you must address me as Larry at all times'. Which was lovely but the fact that he felt it was necessary to right the letter if you come now...'

(KB) 'Well you are Sir Michael Caine.'

(MC) 'I am Sir Michael Caine now; the idea that I would write to Jude and say you may be wondering how to address me' (laughs)

Ken do you prefer directing to acting?

(KB) 'No I don't find that I end up making that judgement. I was so involved with the acting in this, and my interest in performance is very, very intense, but I do enjoy watching it and I do enjoy seeing how people approach it in very different ways.

'It was a real privilege to be in on something that was this chamber piece, very small, requiring lots of fine brush work from everybody, to have a very fine actor and director in Harold himself, who had been in a gazillion Agatha Christie's as an actor in the late fifties, who's expertise was there and then to see someone like Michael from whom I learnt an enormous amount between, and it has always [been] something that has fascinated me, between what you might call an inventive actor and a creative actor, he is unquestionably a creative actor, in addition to being an inventive actor he is primarily a creative actor, where the acting actually comes from being and behaviour rather than actually laying something on.

'During rehearsals it was fascinating to see that stripped away so it became more and more the essence while still adhering to this other challenge in this piece, delivering technically Pinter heightened dialogue. So you needed two things; you need that to be crispy and clear and get the humour that it had, and then for it to have a reality to it, so being involved in watching that from both Michael and Jude was utterly fascinating as a director. It didn't make me want to act in this but it did make me feel, it got my acting juices going actually.'

(MC) 'Movie acting is a double-edged sword because it's extremely difficult to make it look easy; it's like Fred Astaire dance, you say I could do that but you can't.'

(KB) 'And it was funny, there were moments that were so interesting to do, I remember saying to Michael, there's this moment at the end of the first act of the picture he has got this line, and it's a very primal line, we have started so civilised in a way, then you have got the childlike response about the size of the car, at the end of the first act, after a little bit of sophistication and brutality there is this primal line 'My wife is mine she belongs to me and I am her husband' a sort of chest beating thing, and I remember in rehearsal I said to Michael it feels like a bit moment, to me I don't know what that means, but it feels like there's some heat, and he said 'let's run the scene and shall I put a little flame under it today'?

'And I remember him doing it and me going 'Wooah easy back off back off' but it was only seventy per cent on a scale of one to a hundred, but he almost winked at me, said 'we will leave that know cooking, that will simmer for a bit, leave it with me and we will return to it on the day, there's no need to work it to death in rehearsal'.'

(MC) 'The word rehearsal is very important on this picture because we rehearsed intensely for three weeks and we shot it in four, in the original one we rehearsed for five days and shot it in sixteen weeks, I'm still trying to figure out what we did for the other months I can't remember, I think my memory is going, I know we went down to Cornwall and we were..'

(KB) 'In some very nice hotels probably.'

(MC) 'The lobster was very good and all that stuff.'

(KB) 'But we all said we did the three weeks which was pretty full on but prior to that you guys were all good about my view that a little bit of long term marination would happen. We started shooting in January, but the previous September we had the first reading at Twickenham.

(MC) 'Jude and I knew it like a play before we ever started rehearsals we knew all the lines, it didn't mean we would remember them, but we knew them.' How difficult was it telling Harold that you had tweaked one of his lines?

(KB) 'Well you don't tell Howard that you have tweaked one of his lines you creep up to him, you get down on two knees. No I think part of the rehearsal was us working on it and when actor instinct, or some sense of when I was watching it felt like there was a funny note here or does this feel false or am I clear about what is being said here, we stacked that up and we invited him in and we would show it to him and say 'what do you think Harold, do you agree'?

(MC) 'It was in that rehearsal when he was watching a run through when we knew it all, or thought we knew it all, and there is a moment in the movie where Jude's character is talking to my wife on the phone and sort of goading me with what he is saying on the phone and Ken said to Harold 'What do you think she is saying at the other end? You couldn't hear her dialogue and Harold just said 'How do you know it's her?' That's Pinter. Because it could have been his best friend who he had told to call him and pretend to be the girl.'

(KB) 'Exactly all we know is that we hear his side of a conversation, we don't know if it's real with a woman or a man or whatever. When he said it he wasn't preening about, it was just a key note to then how, in a way, you started to approach it, so I said 'well that being the case, Harold, I want to do something right at the beginning when these boys come into the house. I would like to shoot through two glasses, one glass already has a drink in, and I want it to be there before he even asks if he wants a drink or chooses it'. And he said 'Great that's it exactly, exactly everything means something'.'

Wasn't Olivier in a vulnerable place when you worked together?

(MC) 'Olivier had just got fired from the National and was on Valium or something then Joe Mankiewicz (director) found out.

'He couldn't remember the lines and we were in trouble but then he stopped taking them and he was fine, but for a moment there, there were two moments, there was one in rehearsals were Larry was obviously uncomfortable for about three days, we did five days rehearsal for this we did three weeks, Larry came in got a matchbox and got out a moustache and stuck it on and then he went 'Now I know who I am' and he said to me 'I can't act with my own face, Michael, I have never been able to act with my own face and I thought I could do it in this but as you can see I can't.' Then he was Andrew Wyke.'

(KB) 'And you are right about what you said because that version then became a lot to do with class with Olivier definitely as a writer who wrote about aristocratic detectives. Whereas in this version it's a self-made man recognising someone who is much more like him, so instead of the class, that central issue between them becomes the only thing separates him with his success and his wealth and all the rest of it is age I suppose.'

(MC) 'Well it's also the sexual thing, the first thing I say to him is 'My car is bigger than yours' and we go off from there.'

How do you choose your roles?

(KB) 'Well I choose, it?s partly the same thing, I'm quite a quick reader I don't know if you are? But I read them quite quickly.'

(MC) 'Oh yeah very fast it takes me twenty minutes.'

(KB) 'Basically if I can't put it down and keep turning the page then I'm very intrigued. I mean it's a different kind of excitement when you, I was in one of the Harry Potter films, and you go on there, and on a crew like ours we maybe had a crew of sixty on "Sleuth" and they have a crew of fifteen hundred names, it's an enormous machine with a whole prop factory along side and in their case a whole school alongside, make-up and a special effects department, it's pretty exciting, and it's the same with "Batman" I'm sure and our film "The Magic Flute" offered a bit of this, being alongside the cutting edge of technology, CGI and getting a chance to be inside that is exciting.

'But basically for me it's do I want to keep reading and is it a character, as Michael says, that you feel that you can't not play and I feel the same way that it has to have that, while you can still pay the rent, then really use the opportunity to do something that really gets you excited.'

What drew you to Shardlake?

(KB) 'Shardlake is a character who is in a book called "Dissolution", and two other books, he is a hunchback medieval detective and lawyer. Reading is my chief pleasure and I came across it just by accident.

'The character is guy who is basically dismissed by society, but not by Cromwell because he is one of the most brilliant criminal minds of the day, but he has an advantage over people because his physical appearance suggests that he is not a threat and so that unlikely hero is a very interesting one to play, a smart man who is an outsider, I hope it happens, it's a work in progress.'

(MC) 'Is there anything for me in it?'

(KB) 'There are some wonderful parts for you.'

(MC) 'Oh good.'

You have worked with a lot of today's young actors Bale, Law, Jackman what do you think of the quality of their acting today compared to when you were their age?

(MC) 'Fantastic really fantastic. If you see Christian in "The Machinist" and "Rescue Dawn", and there's an another one he did earlier this year whose name escapes me, these three performances are all brilliant. He is the best actor ever to play "Batman" by the way, in my opinion, but he is by far the best actor.

'Hugh Jackman is extraordinary, he can do everything, he's annoying he can sing, tap dance and do all those bloody things that I would like to do and he does them really well.'

'These young actors are wonderful, look at Jude Law, he is a wonderful actor, he never gets good reviews because he is good-looking, but he is a wonderful actor, you don't want to give him a good review, the bastard, he is rich, he's famous, gets all the girls, let's screw him somehow.'

(KB) 'Michael is an utter gent, totally civilised, very kind, a real collaborator, but you know were you to step over the mark I would very much like to be in the next county, possibly in the next country, if he chose to blow, I wouldn't like to be there.'

(MC) 'The last time I blew on a movie was on "The Last Valley", James Clavell was directing, and they put me on this horse and it nearly killed me and I had said that I wasn't a horse person, and I had found out that he had a German name and I found out what this name meant and it was Thunderbird, they put me on this horse and led this charge and I couldn't stop it I ended up two miles away.

'I came back to the set yelling and screaming at everybody, which I thought was quite natural because it did it nearly killed me. Now Jimmy Clavell, he had been a prisoner of the Japanese, he was taken prisoner when he was fourteen, and had a Japanese mentality, he dismissed the crew for two hours and he said come and have a cup of tea with me so I did.

'He said 'Michael, anger you so should only vent in front of intimates and friends and relationship, you should never be angry in front of strangers because you lose face. Anger is one of the most intimate of emotions and to expose it to strangers is the most stupid and sickening things to do.'

'He said 'Never get angry with strangers because they are they strangers. What you do with strangers is you ignore them for ever more, no second chance, no sorry I did it, never accept an apology but never ever get angry with strangers, you ignore them.' And from that time on I have never ever lost my temper on a set no matter what happens.'

And what do you think of the writer's strike?

(MC) 'It's a very good moment for me because I'm finishing a film now, on December 11th, and I don't want to work for six months, and I had decided that before the writers strike, so it's kind of good for me because there will be a big pile up of scripts when I get back to work.'

And it will seem that you are stopping work in support of them as well.

(MC) 'Yes, I could do that, I support the writer's strike, I'm not working for six months, I'm very good, then the writers will love me.'

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