SFIFF Last Friday: Kenneth Branagh Interviewed at Castro Theatre

San Francisco Chronicle, 29 April 2012

The San Francisco Film Society gave this year’s Founder’s Directing Award to Kenneth Branagh on Wednesday night at the Warfield theater, but on Friday night the actor/director, who’s arguably best known from his popular film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s work, was in the glorious Castro Theatre for an onstage interview with CalShakes director Jonathan Moscone. Branagh’s 1988 noir thriller film Dead Again rounded out the evening.

Moscone started off by reading a litany of headlines & quotes about Branagh from over the years — and pointed out how many times the phrase “renaissance man” has used to describe the Belfast-born blonde, who has directed and acted in numerous stage, film and and TV productions. In addition to directing the Bard’s 'Henry V', 'Much Ado About Nothing', 'Hamlet', 'Love’s Labour’s Lost' and 'As You Like It', he also helmed 'Dead Again', 'Swan Song', 'Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein', 'The Magic Flute', 'Sleuth', and 'Thor'. He co-launched the Renaissance Theater Company in 1987 and has been nominated for five Academy Awards and five Golden Globe Awards, and has won an Emmy Award and three BAFTA Awards.

He did a lot a relatively young age (Branagh wrote his autobiography at age 28 — the first installment, anyway) and that raised some eyebrows– and possibly prompted some schadenfreude when a rare clunker surfaced. Janet Maslin wrote that of his direction in 1994's 'Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein' that “Frankenstein is a cogent reminder that Mr. Branagh’s reputation as a film maker rests primarily on seductive popularizations of Shakespeare.” Ouch. If you’re going to miss the mark, be as inspired as you can and miss it my miles, otherwise you’re not trying, Branagh countered.

On his autobiography at age 28, he said “I did it solely for the money… I didn’t think about (how it might be perceived) too much, I though I’ll just do it. Why not?” He mentioned how some sports figures have also written their life stories at similar young ages, and although they have different career arcs, most people cannot properly comment on youth while still being in it.

Branagh said he eventually developed his standard British accent after moving to Redding, England, at age nine, because he simply wanted to survive and blend in, although he did trot out a Northern Ireland accent to imitate his mother: “Kenneth, can you sit still for five minutes?” Moscone quipped, “I didn’t understand a single work [sic] you said.”

Much ado was made of the Academy Award nom he received for Best Adapted Screenplay for 'Hamlet' (1996). Seems silly, right? Branagh said “No one was more surprised that I.”

The screenwriter members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) do the nominating, and Branagh said they were saying two things with the nod to the uncut version of Hamlet: 1. The writer’s work should not be edited, and 2. William Shakespeare deserves credit from Oscar. “He was 400 years overdue for his nomination.”

Branagh mentioned how TV and film language became part of his vocabulary. He rattled off four movies as examples: 'The Great Escape', 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang', 'Sound of Music' and 'One Million Years B.C.', then he paused to reflect on “Raquel Welch … Gosh gosh gosh!… She advanced my puberty by quite a bit, and did that for a lot of young men.”

Having done 'Henry V' onstage for 18 months, he said there was an excitement in using close-up shots and other cinematic tools for his 1989 film version instead of merely replicating the declaratory pageantry style and traditional staginess of putting a play on film. He said he and his colleagues needed to do what people said could not be done: “(Our work) wasn’t always rational, wasn’t always reasonable or even clever, but it always had a fire in its belly.”

These showpiece events in the SFIFF have more mainstream star-power than most programs in the fest, and that sometimes makes for awkward moments during the Q&A period. Though the film fest staffers usually hold onto the mic while the audience member speaks into it, sometimes the person just grabs the microphone and launches into their own very special performance — that’s when you can see a little flash of dread on the film fest staffer’s face.

Many folks did preface their questions with fan-speak, a la “Thanks so much for your work, it’s mean a lot to me, etc. here’s my question…,” but thankfully there were no “non -questions” along the line of “Wow, you’re so famous.. That’s awesome.. thanks!” before the person then sits down while everyone uncomfortably stares at their shoes.

One woman from Chile said Branagh’s Shakespeare work revealed how the English language had so much color, shape and light, and told him “Are you aware that for the non-English speaking world you are Shakespeare’s ambassador?” Branagh, who was graciously and self-effacing the entire evening, accepted the very nice comment, but then leant some perspective by saying “Shakespeare was doing very well without me, for 400 years he’s had a good career … The man’s work is profound. I’m not an ambassador, but a servant.”

After a standing ovation send-off, there was a short break before the screening of 'Dead Again', the 1988 film noir with healthy doses of Hitchcockian melodrama. Branagh plays a smart-alecky LA detective who tries to bring amnesiac, played by one-time wife Emma Thompson, back into the present. They both have American accents here, btw.

Enter Derek Jacobi, in full-on Brit accent, who helps out the plot with some hypnosis and formidable Antiques Roadshow calibre knowledge. Lots of drama and intrigue ensue before the whole thing comes to a very pointed ending. There are some great 80s touches in the modern sequences, like Thompson’s bob and Wayne Knight’s bright blue Members Only jacket.

Branagh said the initial edits of the movie progressed from catastrophic to disastrous to really bad and (eventually) to good as they made tweaks to the style, form and story.

One of those major changes was the use of black and white to designate past sequences. The film, which I had never seen, was projected on actual film, something we’ll be seeing less and less of as more works are either created or restored in digital.

… and speaking of the material of film, at a screening of 'The Last Screening' the other night I met a fellow named Carl Martin, who blogs for the Film on Film Foundation, based in Berkeley. As their name suggests, they take special notice of projected film presentations. He said he attended an experimental shorts program called Blink Of An Eye that had one work — whose title escapes me — submitted on 16mm, but unfortunately the screening he saw at the FSC theater in San Francisco projected it digitally, because they don’t have the equipment for the 16mm format. The program also played at Berkeley’s PFA, where it was screened in 16mm. (Should’ve stayed in Berkeley for that one, Carl.)

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