Kenneth Branagh finds easy romance in Love's Labour's Lost

Time Out New York, 8-15 June 2000
by Stephen Garrett
*Thanks to Jane Land

What's next, a musical version of "Macbeth"? After his relentlessly faithful, unabridged four-hour "Hamlet" (1996), writer-director Kenneth Branagh is getting fancy-free with William Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost" - which at one point went unproduced for more than 200 years - and adding a few song-and-dance routines. By transplanting the play to the late 1930s, Branagh's fifth film foray into the Bard's famous folios has created a Hollywood musical comedy that's more "Top Hat" than "Taming of the Shrew," using old standards by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin to advance the plot (and give a chance for a little hoofing). The result is a beguiling mix of music and Elizabethan meter that delightfully matches Tin Pan Alley lyrics with classic iambic pentameter. Helping Branagh dance cheek-to-cheek is a cast including Alicia Silverstone, Alessandro Nivola, Timothy Spall and Broadway pro Nathan Lane.

Time Out New York: "Love's Labour's Lost" is one of Shakespeare's least-produced plays. When did you discover it?

Kenneth Branagh: Not until I was asked to be in it. And I have never seen the play in a theatre.

TONY: Really?

KB: I was in it with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984 - 85. I hadn't read the play, either, and when I did, I said to the director, "I do not understand a fucking word." It took a while to get used to. Underneath, it's quite a simple story - a boy-meets-girl story, essentially. And it plays with great lightness and jollity; that spirit definitely infected what we did.

TONY: Why set it in 1939?

KB: The period between the world wars was so precious, and the idea of doing something noble and ideal, if naive, was legitimate. And the year separation that Shakespeare wrote at the end of the play is now heightened by the war, which intensifies the emotional undercurrents. Also, that period has such an innate sense of style and glamour - glamorous but poignant, because of the war.

TONY: What musicals inspired you?

KB: Well, we borrowed a lot across many periods: the '20s, '30s, '40s, and '50s. It was a potpourri. The down-and-dirty choreography in "Let's Face the Music" is inspired by Fosse, and yet "I'd Rather Charleston" comes from the 1929 Gershwin musical "Lady Be Good." And Stanley Donen [was a great influence], obviously, particularly his movies with Gene Kelly. The look of it - the intense, primary Technicolors - is really from the '50s. Originally, I thought that maybe we would shoot this film in black and white, but I was nervous about trying to emulate Astaire & Co., which obviously we couldn't do, because we don't have the skill. But also that would distance the audience, and it would be an empty experience.

TONY: Donen and Martin Scorsese are presenting the film. Were you there when they first saw it?

KB: I was, actually! It was one of those horribly exciting, terrifying moments. [Miramax co-chairman] Harvey Weinstein decided that we should show it to "a bunch of experts." So I said, "What do you mean?" and he said, "What about Stanley Donen?" - at which point I became unconcious. I had the possibility of talking to him before we started and I just didn't have the nerve, quite frankly. I know Scorsese, though. I have for a few years, and we've always talked about doing something together. He's a big hero of mine.

TONY: You were up for the lead in "Taxi Driver," weren't you?

KB: You know, I was soooo close. [Laughs]

TONY: No one in your cast is a professional singer. What vocal style were you after?

KB: I didn't want anything super-slick. I wanted to catch the charm of each individual voice. I wanted them to sing from the gut, and have that human quality be one of the defining characteristics of the picture. And it's true of the dancing as well. It's not a question of us parodying - we meant to be as good as we possibly could. And if there are rough edges, that's fine.

TONY: Did Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You" inspire you?

KB: I enjoyed that film enormously, and what struck me was that last sequence with Goldie Hawn and Woody Allen. It seemed to have all the vocabulary of a romantic film musical: A glamorous city, they're dressed up, a lush orchestration, she flies. All of these elements seemed to make the audience particularly comfortable and ready to receive music, and I felt if we do [something like] that, then people would go for it. And after "Everyone," I thought, Let's go for it.

TONY: At Cannes, the charity group AmFar held a special screening of your film, followed by an auction that included you, topless - right?

KB: Harvey Weinstein owes me big time! Were it not for a good cause, I can think of no other reason why I would take my shirt off in front of 850 strangers to lie facedown on a grand piano - with a similarly seminaked James Caan - to be massaged by the heart-stoppingly beautiful Heidi Klum, manipulating various parts of my slightly unworked body. We were demonstrating the massage that Heidi would give the successful bidder, who paid $31,000. A lot of money was raised, but it was one of those things where you wake up the next morning thinking, What was I doing? How the fuck...?

TONY: People always take liberties in adapting Shakespeare. Have you ever seen a production that just completely offended you?

KB: I'm sure some people have experienced that watching my films! Never, actually. I'm just offended when it's boring - when people love themselves in it, where there's no communication with the audience, and when there's an implicit sense of exclusivity, that the people doing it are brilliant for understanding it and giving it to you. That kind of subtle superiority stuff drives me bananas.

TONY: But you've never seen, say, an all-nude "Richard III"?

KB: No - although I would pay to see that.

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