Creating a God, With Links to Olivier

The New York Times, 28 April 2011
By Dave Itzkoff
(Thanks, Virginia)

As he finished postproduction work on “Thor” here at Building 29 on the 20th Century Fox lot, Kenneth Branagh could often be found laboring in any of its massive chambers, from the pitch-black subterranean color-timing suite to the Howard Hawks audio-mixing theater, as cavernous and majestic as Valhalla. But when he needed a personal work space, Mr. Branagh retreated to a closetlike office he described as his “little hole of cubbyness,” whose only clue to its occupant was a temporary sign on the door bearing the initials “K. B.”

Such a minimal station might seem like a demotion for Mr. Branagh, 50, the Academy Award-nominated actor and director who is sometimes considered the contemporary cinema’s leading interpreter of Shakespeare. So too might the directing assignment that came with it: a $150 million 3-D film version of “Thor,” based on Marvel Comics’ incarnation of the Norse god of thunder.

The application of Mr. Branagh’s talents to this unapologetic summer blockbuster (which Paramount will open on May 6) could prove an inspired combination, even if on paper it seems an oddly populist effort from a filmmaker whose résumé abounds with more time-tested titles like “Hamlet” and “Henry V.”

While the story of a mighty combatant who is stripped of his standing and must reclaim his rightful place in the pantheon would seem like a natural thematic fit for him, Mr. Branagh said “Thor” was simply an opportunity to bring his storytelling abilities to bear on the largest stage he has ever been offered — if not a great excuse to quote from his favorite playwright.

“There’s a line in ‘As You Like It,’ ” Mr. Branagh said later in a telephone interview from London, “when Rosalind says to Jaques, ‘Oh, you have traveled far,’ and he says, ‘Yes, I have gained my experience.’ I feel at this stage I have gained my experience, and it sometimes comes in terrifically handy.”

Far from being repelled by the outsize stakes and excess technology that have become the fundamental building blocks of comic-book movies, Mr. Branagh said he took on “Thor” because he wanted to see if these elements suited him. “I wanted fantastical images and science fiction and the primitive world all to collide,” he said. “I wanted the humongous challenge of that.”

A certain amount of contrast has always defined Mr. Branagh’s career. His Shakespeare adaptations have been praised (“Henry V” in 1989) and picked apart (“Love’s Labour’s Lost” in 2000); his directorial efforts have been intimate (a 2007 remake of “Sleuth”) and extravagant (“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” in 1994); and his screen roles have run the gamut from Kurt Wallander, the protagonist of Henning Mankell’s crime novels, to a steampunk mad scientist in the derided 1999 action-comedy “Wild Wild West.”

Fittingly, Mr. Branagh was preparing to star in a Donmar Warehouse production of Chekhov’s “Ivanov,” adapted by Tom Stoppard, in 2008 when Marvel Studios first approached him about “Thor.”

Coming off the worldwide success of “Iron Man,” its $585 million hit about that armor-clad adventurer, Marvel began looking at other comics characters whose movie rights it controlled. These included Thor, an enduring if never wildly popular hero who split his time between the worlds of men and gods and spoke in an affected archaic tongue. (Among Thor’s unstated powers is the ability to bellow phrases like, “I say thee nay!” when a simple “no” would suffice.)

After losing the director Matthew Vaughn (whose film “X-Men: First Class,” based on another set of Marvel heroes, opens in June), the studio turned to Mr. Branagh, whose work has operated simultaneously on mortal and mythological planes.

Explaining his interest in Mr. Branagh, Kevin Feige, Marvel’s president for production, said, “I was intrigued by the notion of somebody who could take one of our more” — he paused to find the right description — “high-concept heroes and translate him for the masses.”

Mr. Branagh, who as a teenager moved from Belfast, Northern Ireland, to Reading, England, was more likely to be found poring over articles about Laurence Olivier’s National Theater in Plays and Players magazine, rather than well-worn copies of “Thor.” But he said he had vivid memories of British newspaper shops stocked with glossy, dynamic American comic books.

“It was like watching American movies,” Mr. Branagh said. “They just seemed so symbolic of the lure and excitement of America that you couldn’t help but notice them.”

Turning again to Shakespeare, Mr. Branagh said that the mystical elements of “Thor” — enchanted hammers, frost giants — were no more preposterous than the supernatural tropes in plays like “Macbeth” or “The Tempest.”

What ultimately drew him in, he said, was a family story about the father-deity Odin and the rivalry between his children, Thor and Loki, the trickster god, told at a cosmic level.

To illustrate his ideas, Mr. Branagh — a charming, loquacious speaker who can be self-congratulatory and self-deprecating within the time of two sentences — pitched Marvel executives with a short treatment he wrote and read himself, using photographs of Frank Lloyd Wright and Santiago Calatrava architecture as visual references.

Recalling the pitch, Mr. Branagh said: “I was quite pleased with it, actually. ‘He said modestly.’ But I was. I think they were completely uninterested. But that whole little process — the dance of ‘shall we? shan’t we?’ — I found fun, I must say.”

Mr. Feige said that Mr. Branagh was “able to distill exactly what this franchise was all about” and “funnel it down to a father and two sons.” Still, production on “Thor” was delayed nearly a year while the script was refined to achieve Mr. Branagh’s desired balance between the palace intrigue in Asgard, the realm of the Norse gods, and a story on Earth connecting Thor to his human love interest, a scientist named Jane Foster.

During this delay Mr. Branagh gave up directing the Donmar’s production of “Hamlet” that starred Jude Law (and later transferred to Broadway). But he got the “Thor” cast he wanted, including the Australian newcomer Chris Hemsworth as the title hero, Natalie Portman as Jane Foster and Anthony Hopkins — a onetime protégé of Mr. Branagh’s revered Olivier — as Odin.

Though Marvel has made no secret of its ambitions for “Thor” — whose characters, along with those from its “Iron Man” and “Captain America” franchises will meet up in an all-star “Avengers” movie next year — Mr. Branagh said the studio deferred to him on most creative decisions. (“I mean, they may have muscled me so subtly and beautifully that I didn’t see it coming,” he conceded.)

Mr. Hemsworth, a former soap-opera star who studied Mr. Branagh’s film of “Much Ado About Nothing” for a high school production, said he was intimidated at first to meet his “Thor” director. Instead he said he found an animated and egoless filmmaker who suggested that he prepare for the film by reading Hesse’s “Siddhartha.”

“He said, ‘Look, you may get nothing from it,’ ” Mr. Hemsworth said. “ ‘This is not a test, I’m not going to quiz you afterwards.’ It actually ended up being one of my favorite books.”

Mr. Hopkins said that, as an actor, “I phone it in a lot as I’m getting older,” but seeing the aura of his old mentor in Mr. Branagh stirred him to invest himself more fully in “Thor.”

“When I was in the National Theater with Olivier,” Mr. Hopkins said, “he knew the names of the entire theater staff. He knew all their birthdays. I think Branagh’s got the same instincts, the same magnetism, the same passion and forthrightness.”

Mr. Branagh said the production of “Thor” presented him with novel challenges like learning the vocabulary of 3-D filmmaking or contending with a day in New Mexico when “the wind and the snow and the rain and the hail have all decided to appear across the day when you wish Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth to be lying scantily clad across a lounger.”

But when you’ve previously filmed the Battle of Agincourt or produced, directed and starred in a four-hour, 70-millimeter presentation of “Hamlet,” Mr. Branagh suggested, the modern-day demands of “Thor” were not insurmountable, just different.

“It’s the 12th movie I’ve directed,” he said, “so it’s not my first canoe trip.” He added: “If it was easy, we’d all be doing it, and we’d all be trillionaires. It’s not easy.”

For some, the very idea of Mr. Branagh’s directing a film with such mainstream aspirations is heretical, no matter the outcome. In The Guardian, the contrarian essayist Joe Queenan wrote that Mr. Branagh’s choice of “Thor” was “beneath his talents” and evidence that his “train ride to Olivier-like superstardom was derailed.”

But Mr. Branagh said that no matter how “Thor” affects audiences’ perception of him, whomever he works with next “will get the same guy anyway.” As proof he pointed to a slate of coming projects, each of which could fairly be described as Branagh-esque: a BBC radio play about Russian history; a planned film version of Mr. Mankell’s novel “Italian Shoes,” starring Mr. Hopkins and Judi Dench that he will direct; a possible movie about America’s rowing team in the 1936 Summer Olympics.

And, lest anyone forget who his guiding influence is, Mr. Branagh will be seen playing Olivier in “My Week With Marilyn,” Simon Curtis’s biographical film about the making of “The Prince and the Showgirl,” with Michelle Williams playing Marilyn Monroe.

As he prepared to put down the phone and step out to see a finished version of “Thor” for the first time, Mr. Branagh made clear certain aspects of the moviemaking process would never change for him, no matter the project nor how much experience he amasses. “I am wildly excited,” he said. “I am nervous as a kitten. And I’m keeping everything crossed.”

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