Film Set and Match

Sunday Times, September 22 1991
by Iain Johnstone

The opening wide-shot is of the vast shipyard cranes that tower over the huddled houses of east Belfast. The camera pans down to Mountcollyer Street, alive with children playing on the pavements. But it ignores them as it homes in on the cathode ray of a TV set in a small back room.

A carroty-haired boy, aged about eight, is transfixed by the Saturday afternoon movie: Dial M fo Murder. A reverse-angle close-up catches a knowing smile flickering across his thin lips.

We dissolve through to 20 years later. The same lad is crossing the Paramount lot in Hollywood with a jaunty step. He waves a cheerful hello to Mike Nichols, who is directing Regarding Henry on another stage, and returns the smile of Kevin Kline, on his way to work on Soapdish. Reaching his own set, Kenneth Branagh bids good morning to his American crew and embarks on an earnest discussion with Robin Williams on how to attack the next scene.

The frame flips forward a year to 1991 and the office of Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company in Soho, an oasis of light at the top of a dark stairwell filled with fungi, where the founder is sitting opposie me. He has just learned that his film, Dead Again, has gone to the top of the American box office the surprise hit of the late summer. "I'm relieved,'' he confesses, "completely and utterly relieved. I'm brilliant at taking bad news and find it very difficult to deal with the rest of it. That's a troubled, puritanical, Protestant upbringing for you.''

Troubled or not, Branagh cannot be accused of lack of chutzpah. What other British actor in his twenties would stride into a Californian studio, insist that his wife play opposite him in not one but two leading roles, acquire an American accent as effortlessly as he once discarded his Belfast one and make his foray into mainstream cinema with a romantic melodrama of the very genre that belonged to Hollywood alone?

In Dead Again, Branagh plays an LA private eye, Mike, investigating the case of a young woman, Grace (Emma Thompson), who hs lost her memory. She is tormented by dreams of a 1940s pianist (Thompson again), whose composer husband (Ken again) we see executed for her murder. Karmic reincarnation is in the air, and Derek Jacobi (hypnotist), Andy Garcia (jurnalist) and Robin Williams (psychiatrist) help and hinder Mike in reaching his dangerous conclusion. As a thriller, it is both complex and compelling, with Thompson at the very apogee of her talent.

But how did Branagh get the gig? The initial answer is a simple one: Lindsay Duncan, a former Paramount executive who had been trying to get Scott Frank's screenplay made for some time after rejections from several American directors, saw Branagh's Henry V and thought he would bring style and "real romantic chemistry'' to the story. Branagh read it and responded to it "I'm not in love with westerns or sci-fi particularly, but I've loved this genre since I was a child.''

In his initial meeting with the studio he immediately laid down bold, if not foolhardy, conditions concerning the casting of his wife and Jacobi as well as wanting to bring in the British designers and composer from Henry V. "The executive eyes flickered a bit, but they knew I would have happily walked away if they'd said no. I told them I didn't know how to direct films in isolation; I needed all these other people to help me.''

Today's Hollywood casts women from the top 10 seeds and at that time Emma Thompson hardly had a high computer ranking. "I said to Ken: 'They're not going to want me,''' she later told me. "Then I thought: 'This is rather a good idea these two people already know each other, somehow we'll match, look right.' They should be connectable, and I don't think Ken is as connectable with someone like Michelle Pfeiffer or Kim Basinger. I think that would look much odder.''

Thompson had also, initially, been reluctant to play Princess Katharine in Henry V. "I told him to cast somebody French. He said, 'No, I want it to be played this way, and you'll do it the way I want it.' We love working together. I'm surprised at the old-fashionedness of the reaction to the husband-and-wife thing,'' she said.

In fact, they were working together on the stage in Los Angeles when the Hollywood offer came the first in a series of serendipitous coincidences that enchanted their path. Renaissance should have been in Sydney, but the sponsorship fell through and at the same time LA's Mark Taper Forum became free. Thompson, whose only previous work for Renaissance had been "sticking things in envelopes'' after the couple met on Fortunes of War, was playing the Fool in King Lear and Helna in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

She was also getting used to being Mrs Branagh "We had just got married, it was our honeymoon really'' during a three-month stay in the Oakwood Apartments. "It's where all divorcees live one of those horrible places you're tempted to make an impact on. I used to go to the kitchen to try to break things just to make my mark. But you can't because it's all made of Terminator 2 materials and reconstitutes itself during the night. The only thing you can destroy are the ants.''

She did make her mark, however, on the Paramount exeutives, who were able to come and see her Helena and also assess her on film in The Tall Guy, which surfaced simultaneously.

Her husband was making a more buoyant mark. His meeting at Paramount, on St Valentine's day 1990, to continue the casting discussions, was unusually crowded "The whole of the top brass turned up, all over me like a rash that morning'' since it had just been announced that he was the first Briton since Laurence Olivier to be nominated for Oscars as Best Actor and Best Director. Any outstanding doubts were rapidly resolved. "I think the gods were on our side,'' Branagh observes.

His wife didn't come back for the Oscars by then Renaissance had reached Tokyo but Branagh dutifully took a day-trip to LA, with John Sessions as his date. "I remember introducing John to Steve Martin in the lavatory at the Oscars. I was completely star-struck. Nicholson was in the wings and said: 'Hi, I'm Jack. I liked your picture.' You're tempted to say: 'I know you're Jack. The world knows you're Jack.' I found it a very emotional evening. I was in tears most of the time.''

In the eyes of his wife, Branagh was already a Hollywood player. "He's got an instinctive understanding of the place. He just arrived there and started to work it out, because that's the kind of brain he has.''

He, in turn, was in need of more than her acting talents. "She was a very good influence on those Americans on the set who had me down as some kind of great white hope because I'd done a Shakespeare film, she was able to start the questions going in rehearsal and contribute towards a more collaborative atmosphere. We've always been able to divide the personal and professional. It's not a problem; we're perfectly happy. But if at some point there was any danger of us bringing any disharmony on the set because of our personal relationship, I simply couldn't do it.''

Their charmed lives seemed about to come to an end the night of the first preview of the film. "One of the most unpleasant experiences in my life,'' Thompson recalled, "like having your innards laid out in front of you. The movie wasn't finished and it wasn't right. You can feel the boredom and ridicule. And then they have a focus group where a spokesman stands up and says: 'I think that it's a piece of shit.' You're standing at the back and the studio executives start looking at you as if suddenly you've grown an extra head.''

With ruthless re-editing, Branagh managed to bring Dead Again up to a Fatal Attraction audience rating by the fourth preview. The box-office returns should leave him with some spare change after he has helped underwrite the loss the Renaissance Theatre Company has suffered during the recession. With a Hollywood hit behind him, he can now write his own cheque. "It would be nice to think there's some way the movies could finance the theatre,'' he muses, a knowing smile flickering across is thin lips.

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