Banking on Branagh

Sunday Times, August 15 1993
by Iain Johnstone

Hot on the heels of Much Ado comes Frankenstein with Robert De Niro. The boy wonder of British theatre is making British film rise off the slab again. Is nothing beyond our Ken?

For somebody who is about to spend the best part of $50m in the next few months, Kenneth Branagh looked remarkably relaxed. He poured me a glass of New Zealand Cloudy Bay white with a steady hand and sipped his own with the assurance of someone who was calm and carefree. Maybe he wasn't; maybe he was acting. He was a convincing enough drunk in Peter's Friends ''The art of acting drunk,'' he told me after that, ''is to try to act sober: that's what drunk people try to do.'' But, as he sat back in his office chair, he let slip the information that the calls from Los Angeles would keep coming late into the night and early into the dawn, each one with a problem to be solved. The Hollywood studios don't entrust that sort of dosh to you without the right to keep an eagle eye on their outlay.

Branagh is already in pre-production for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, backed by TriStar and thankfully filling up the stages of Shepperton Studios. ''Most of the cast and the entire crew are Brits. Certainly it's a buzzy old place down there. We've taken over most of the studio and we're building huge standing sets. Highly exciting but a bit brown-trousering for me. Ninety per cent of it is on the back lot. It's a big, old-fashioned studio picture'' he gave a rueful chuckle. ''When I say that, of course, I don't know what I'm talking about, but I imagine it's what a big, old-fashioned studio picture would be.''

He'll play the title role himself, with Robert De Niro cast opposite him as The Creature. Frankenstein will make it five in a row for Branagh as stardirector, the other four being Henry V (1989 Oscar nominations for both jobs), Dead Again (1991), Peter's Friends (1992) and Much Ado About Nothing (it opens next week and about which more anon). Such a run puts Branagh in a rare category alongside Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen even Olivier paused for breath after four.

I wondered what made him so bankable in the eyes of Hollywood. Was it the nominations for Henry V or the profitability of Dead Again and Much Ado?

''To some extent I think the reputation is linked to having made the films on time and on budget. They take a view on the Oscar nominations, but they're actually much harder-nosed than that. Their attitude to what's bankable changes on a daily basis. I mean, they claim I was first choice for this but, you know, with the best will in the world, I can't quite believe that. I don't think I've ever got a script that wasn't covered in fingerprints. I just know that, if this is a bloody disaster, they won't be offering me other $45m movies. It's very cruel and ruthless.''

The project had originally been developed by Francis Ford Coppola, who at one stage had been intending to extend his Dracula into a Gothic trilogy. He remains as a producer. ''Francis was a big help with De Niro because he knows him well. He introduced me to him. In fact, I had the unique experience of sitting in the back of a yellow cab in New York with The Godfather on one side and Raging Bull on the other and the two of them talking across me. I felt like a man from Surbiton in a sketch saying'' Branagh broke into a squeaky south London voice '''So glad you're interested in being in my film, Robert'.''

Although no longer top of the box-office pops, De Niro remains the most respected actor in Hollywood a view that extends to his British director. ''He's somebody whom I admire extravagantly. I think he's a genius and I've always wanted to work with him. He saw everything I'd done, ran all the pictures, got all sorts of information he's very thorough checked me out left, right and centre. So far we've got on ever so well. Ninety per cent of his scenes are with me, it's a classic two-handed mirror-image thing. It's much more than schlock-horror, it's about a father and son, parenting. We're very much playing the idea, as in Mary Shelley's book, that Frankenstein gives birth to a person, not a thing.''

''Is Emma in it?'' I inquired.

''No, Em's not in it.''

''That will upset Spitting Image, won't it?''

''I should think so,'' he grinned. ''I should have thought there's quite a lot to be had out of that. A few sketches about 'Why aren't I in it?' Helena Bonham-Carter is playing the leading lady.''

Branagh has grown a beard slightly flecked with grey despite his mere 33 years for the part, and now began to twist it. ''I was delighted about Em's Oscar because it was good to see an unshowy bit of acting being recognised. But if she hadn't won it, she would have still given the same performance. I just didn't think she was right for this you'll see when you read the script. Both characters have to play from 17 upwards a bit of a stretch for myself, actually. Listen, we know we're going to do lots of stuff together in the future. There's never been any agenda to just work together. There's a certain scrupulousness about, you know, a savage artistic judgment that says: 'This is not appropriate'.

''Despite the notion that I always work with the same bunch of people all the time, I try to change at least half of them for new stimulus, so one doesn't get too used to things or too used to people. Richard Briers is in it, though, as a blind man. He has a great scene with De Niro I can't wait to see Dickie and Bobby together.''

We won't have to wait so long to see Denzel and Keanu together. Branagh has rounded up many of the usual suspects (wife and Briers included) for his Much Ado repertory, but what is notable about the film is the inclusion of four American actors in leading roles: Denzel Washington (Don Pedro), Keanu Reeves (Don John), Robert Sean Leonard (Claudio) and Michael Keaton (Dogberry).

Apart from the obvious appeal for the American box-office, what was the appeal for Branagh? This was not a question to which he came unprepared. ''There's a rawness and emotional fearlessness about American actors, a full-blooded approach that I think Shakespeare warrants. The ability to reveal your soul. You see a lot of careful Shakespearian acting that relies on technical virtuosity, but you have to be more emotionally exposed. Maybe at its worst extreme, Americans rather indulge that trait. On the whole, they're less repressed than we are. As a race we're a little more contained; it's considered rather vulgar to express emotions in this way.''

Certainly the most unrepressed act in the film comes from Keaton as the Constable of the Watch, Dogberry (with Ben Elton as his deputy, Verges). Batman plays the part in a manner that would not be out of place on The Benny Hill Show.

''It could miss completely, and for some people no doubt it does,'' Branagh acknowledged. ''He goes for it; there's nothing safe about what he does. But as a piece of dramaturgy, Shakespeare introduces another element the comic turn. He would have brought on Will Kemp, a man whom he later sacked for too much ad-libbing.''

Branagh's approach to the film is highly polished and romantic, but he doesn't come at it at an angle. I wondered if his assertion that Shakespeare's plays were ''texts, not scripts'' was something of an alibi for not putting a more marked interpretation on them?

He put down his wine to gesture with his hands, a glint of defensive anger in his eyes. ''I would say there is a vigorous interpretation in this version of Much Ado About Nothing. I regard as a challenge what some other people might regard as a middle way. The challenge for me is to release the audience's imagination with a very vivid sense of place pastoral and countrified and sense of character. But, for these films to have the longish life I would love them to have, the obligation is for the audience to fill in some of the dots themselves.

''I'm the patron of a youth company in Swindon which has just done it with the returning soldiers as GIs, with a very particular social milieu. That's fine. It's just that every time you do that, you always pay a price, you always cut at least one bit of the play.''

It was time to get off the matter of Much Ado and on to the subject of ''luvvies''. It is not lost on Branagh that to have fame, fortune, Emma and her Oscar does not always endear him to his contemporaries. The joke of her arriving home and him shouting, ''I'm in the kitchen'', and Emma pleading, ''Oh, can I be in that, as well?'', has been going the rounds for some time now. He didn't smile a lot when I repeated it to him, rather ran his hand through his long, curling hair.

''I have to say I haven't seen us on Spitting Image and probably I won't ever watch it. I read the newspapers far less now, but that's just a concession to being human. You're vaguely flattered but you know you'll be a bit hurt at various times, so you just get on with what you do. Certain elements of the media have seized upon this word and they think they've plucked out the heart of our mystery as actors with this generic term luvvies. Somehow they've got inside us. But, as ever, it's not the case. And now, of course, at the end of this century, it's very hard for an actor to open his gob without whatever he says sounding risible. If you even whisper a murmur of complaint you're labelled a po-faced git who can't see the funny side of things.''

He took a strong sip of Cloudy Bay. ''I'm ordinarily sensitive to the round of criticism which is the lot for someone whose work is in the public arena. Extremely adverse criticism of the very personal kind can be wounding, but I cannot force myself to take it so seriously as to change anything that I would do. I'm very firmly committed to being in this country. My deal with Frankenstein was: 'I'll be delighted to do it provided I can do it in Britain.' I'm fascinated by Hollywood but I don't want to live there. Earning great sums of money is not on my agenda. It's important to work where there's an appetite for work, where there's a vacuum, and there is over here. My future is absolutely tied up with making movies in this country.''

And the future of movie-making in this country would appear, at present, to be greatly tied up with Kenneth Branagh.

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