Vaulting Ambition

American Film (cover story), September 1991
by F.X. Feeney

The backyard is a vast wedding cake of marble stairs, terraced lawns and rococo railings, framing a luscious swimming pool lined with china-blue tiles. I count about 45 extras, all in Venetian party costume--tricorn hats, ceramic masks, 18th century wigs. The date is October 23, 1990; the place a palatial Italianate villa in Palos Verdes, California. The scene is an elaborate party sequence from the new Kenneth Branagh film, Dead Again.

If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures," then Kenneth Branagh may be the most terrifying person alive. He's only 30 and already he's conquered the London stage, co-founded a theater company and directed himself in a Shakespeare film --Henry V--which won an Oscar for costumes plus nominations for acting and directing, and scored a box-office smash. Two years ago (at age 28) he published his autobiography. And now here he is, invading the south coast of Hollywood with a battalion of extras, making what's been described as a "reincarnation romance" with a cast that includes Andy Garcia, Hanna Schygulla and Robin Williams.

A less likely follow-up to Henry V cannot be imagined--and yet, how perfect. The idea that anyone would make a film of Henry V after Laurence Olivier (especially as a first film, especially with oneself in the title role) was so unbelievably audacious that when Branagh pulled it off, he attained the glamour of a miracle worker. He played Henry with a beautiful, Hamlet-like uncertainty that (among other things) communicated his own very real vulnerability in tackling the role at all. That subtle honesty forged an emotional impact between the actor and audience, which in turn threw off a number of wonderful sparks. Now even cynics compare him to Olivier and Welles. He's been so saturated with praise that one suspects he'd even welcome a good healthy attack--but at this stage, the only reason to attack him is envy.

I'm introduced to Lindsey Doran, the film's producer; then to Scott Frank, the film's screenwriter. Frank and Doran have been developing Dead Again since 1986--when Frank first worked up the idea with producer Dennis Feldman. (The other key players are Sydney Pollack, through his company, Mirage; Bill Horberg of Paramount and Charles H. Maguire.) Scott Frank is arguably the least bitter screenwriter alive. Not that he hasn't lived his share of horror stories--he tells a few--but Dead Again is not one of them.

"From a writer's standpoint, Ken is an incredible director," he tells me. "Very respectful of the word. Because he comes from theater, he's very clear and precise about not deviating from the text. When there's something that doesn't work for him, he's very good about letting me come up with the solution. He would never impose one." (Months later, when he's seen the film in rough cut, Frank's enthusiasm is still blazing, but tempered by an insight very few screenwriters ever live to see: "It's the strangest thing. Ken shot the script word for word--he didn't deviate from it by so much as a line--and yet when he assembled the first cut, it was different from what I'd pictured. Not bad--just different. He brought a view, a take on it, that had a real power apart from the writing. The look and feel of it is very magical now, very offbeat, whereas I'd pictured something darker."

Part thriller, part romantic comedy, the script traces the star-crossed destinies of two sets of lovers--a couple in 1948 and a couple in 1991. (Branagh and his wife, Emma Thompson, play both couples.) Roman and Margaret--a composer and pianist--are part of the expatriot community that has come to Los Angeles in the 1940's to escape the war. Their lives end in double tragedy when Margaret is stabbed to death and Roman, who is blamed for the crime, dies in the electric chair.

Mike and Grace--a private investigator and an amnesiac living in 1991--are, by contrast, sun-bleached archetypes of contemporary California. He's a man without a past, and she's a woman without a memory. As Mike investigates Grace's amnesia--bringing her to a hypnotist, rooting through an assortment of peculiar antiques, encountering the city's psychic denizens--the two stories merge. The mystery of Grace's lost memory and the far more brutal mystery surrounding Margaret's violent death become one and the same. In due course, Mike not only discovers that Roman may have been innocent--he also discovers that he may have been Roman in a past life--and that Grace may have been Margaret.

Then again, they may not have been. And Roman may not have been innocent! Writer Frank plays expert cat-and-mouse with our expectations. The dialogue is wonderful--atmospheric, precise. Exposition is rendered in the silences between what people say.
I steal down the steps to mingle with the crew at poolside. Off to my right, a voice says: "Are you happy with that Ken?"

"Didn't see that."

And I get my first sight of Ken Branagh: the doughy, eerily distinctive features forging a clean Arrow-shirt profile amid a huddle of lesser heads. Pomaded period hair. Powdered temples. Dark goatee. He concentrates on the images skittering through a black-and-white monitor with an oddly Lutheran clarity of purpose. Apart from the Germanic makeup, his costume is de rigeur director. Loosely fitted blue jersey, iron-gray pants, Addidas track shoes.

What does he feel in the middle of all this?

Looking at him, there is now way to tell. While by no means a secretive man (he has, after all, written an autobiography), Branagh is a deeply mysterious one, even to observe in person. Especially to observe in person! Everyone and everything around him has been seamlessly well-organized to conserve his time and energy. On the set, during my five visits, all directorial stage commands are given by the first AD. Branagh himself barely moves--he simply watches, arms folded coolly, absolutely alert. He occasionally speaks to the crew or a cast member, but briefly. (He's perfected the art of not being overheard.) When directing actors, his manner flashes vividly from mode to mode: confidential here, as if he's sharing a joke; boisterous there, crouching, suggesting physical business in a kind of shorthand pantomime.

Emma Thompson emerges onto the scene in a peacock dress. With her 1948 hairstyle (auburn), high cheekbones and porcelain-delicate features, she's quite magnetic, a swan. She has a gorgeous back and shoulders, perfectly tan, generously revealed.

Branagh and I pass each other several times in close order. At no time does he so much as make eye contact with me. This feels studied but vital. He's got enough on his mind without me to contend with; even a brief hello could throw him off his stride. But invisibility has its illuminations: I'm standing three feet away when Branagh paces over and takes a seat in a tall director's chair labeled Rip Torn. (This was evidently the name of the chair's former occupant but now describes its condition.) Branagh has barely made himself comfortable when the chair collapses with a slapstick crack.

He says nothing; looks at no one. Embarrassed silence among the few bystanders. He squats in the wreckage for a frozen moment, staring at the ground in pale fury. Then, silently, purposefully, works himself upright and stalks off to the far end of the set.

He steams by moments later and sits at the end of a much safer chaise longue. He sulks like Rodin's Thinker--fist against chin. After a moment, Thompson (moving with care so as not to muss up her gown) quietly kicks off her shoes and boards the chaise as well--slipping her feet under his sweatshirt and planting her soles against his bare back. He doesn't react right away--he just stares at the ground, brain teeming--but after a long slow moment, his eyes roll shut and he relaxes. They sit like that for the longest time.
The day he is supposed to film his own most difficult scene--the scene where Mike Church lets himself go under hypnosis and comes face-to-face with the final horror of his "past life"--I make a point of being on the set early. How will Branagh direct himself in this soul-baring scene?

Getting there early is a good idea--but a lucky accident. I'm just curious to see how the crew members begin their day (mostly standing around half- asleep over a lavish array of doughnuts, bagels, bananas and cheeses). Branagh passes by at a clip, looking sharp in a 1990's suit: "Hello-hello- hello!" And he promptly vanishes into the cloistered know of interlocking sets that dominate the stage. His camera- and soundman drift in behind him for a quick strategy session. I remain standing with the rest of the crew members, who continue to graze.

Then by chance I glimpse a nearby monitor. Branagh is pictured there, eyes shut, head tilted back--mouthing soundless words. My God, is he doing a take already? I pick up the monitor's headphones--yes. A scene is in progress. I can make out the real Branagh through the alley of jumbled furniture, enthroned in a clearing almost too narrow for anybody to move in, much less wield a camera. The only people with him are the cameraman and his partner in the scene, Derek Jacobi. The sound-man is seated near another monitor 10 feet away.

Branagh grips both armrests of an antique chair. The scene is played at a whisper. Mike speaks his own name, describes what he sees in his trance and then--with a suddenness that makes me jump--cries out in agony.

As the take progresses, one can feel his performance building as he tackles the moment again and again. His timing--the beats and breath spaces--have been organized with exquisite care at some unseen rehearsal. He hits those inner marks each time--but in a telling way: What he's after is not the delivery, he's after the same momentary loss of control as his character. One can feel him getting it by take three--when his habitation of the moment jumps from the "exquisite" to the authentic. He starts surprising himself. He has it nailed by take six, but goes for seven, just for good luck--and there achieves a kind of "dying-fall" timing that will probably cut well with the surrounding matter.

It is barely nine o'clock, most of the cast and crew have not even arrived yet, and the most excruciating work of the day is behind him. Branagh becomes lighthearted--he even seems light-headed--joshing with the crew, disappearing and reappearing with mercurial jest. His cheer infects everybody, and a rapid, enthusiastic tempo reigns as they do the next sequence.

Emma Thompson enters, Derek Jacobi returns in costume now, and they take their places at the seance table. It's the same scene--they're the witnesses to the trance Mike is plunging into. I'm allowed to climb onto the catwalks directly over their heads, and--for the first time--I'm able to hear every word they say to each other between takes. (Not that it's immediately helpful--they all speak in shorthand. They even joke in shorthand.)

Branagh: Em? The reaction to Strauss. Just take a breath or something.
Thompson: Should I look at the other--?
(Branagh goes to the monitor.)
Thompson (archly): Are you going to play the whole scene from there?
Branagh: That's just because of the camera move, love. I'll be able to do all these things!
(Big laugh from the crew.)
Thompson (after a take): Shouldn't I do this? Doesn't that give her a surprise?
Branagh: Bigger. Empathize with Mike. Especially as he builds to it. All that squeamishness.
(He acts startled; exposes his tongue. Thompson makes a camera suggestion that I don't hear. The crew moans with delight.)

Branagh takes it stoically, hands in pockets. I don't follow the gag but can feel the stylish logic of the interchange. Branagh and Thompson play the old married couple like a seasoned comedy team.
As I'm driving over the Paramount to meet Branagh, my memory of him on the chaise with Thompson is the one that haunts me. This was my one uncomplicated glimpse of Branagh as a human being. Yet it also (like so much about him) was as quiet and private as a No Trespassing sign.

By now I've read the autobiography. Menacing though it may be, in principle, to contemplate the memoirs of a 28-year-old man, the book itself is amazingly unpretentious. Branagh disarms the reader right away. "I have read a number of actors' autobiographies," he tells us in the first sentence. "I've come to think of them as dangerous things." So why did he write this one? "Money." In the winter of 1988, with still a year to go before the unforeseen success of Henry V, he was struggling to raise funds for his Renaissance Theatre Company. He was by then a precocious, much-publicized force in the British theater world; a publisher made him an offer he couldn't refuse--and hey, presto.

The book is a delight. Funny, frank, self-mocking almost to a fault. He starts off with a wonderful chapter about Belfast, where he was born, and the early life of his parents (these passages are the most emotionally rendered in the book), painting a delicious portrait of what the Irish call "the crack"--the afternoon gabfest. A storytelling gift clearly runs deep in Branagh's blood. Charmingly (and revealing), he enters his own life story in the third person, closely followed by a joke. "On Saturday 10 December, 1960, in the late afternoon, a second son was born, Kenneth Charles. It was about 10 minutes to five and apparently I was just in time for the football results."

That exuberant good humor (and the rude health it implies) is sustained throughout. He is winningly quick to quote anybody who criticizes him to his face. He consistently thanks his collaborators for all his good fortune. And if the book has any one flaw or false note, it's that. Derek Jacobi was astounded to learn that he had suggested he direct Branagh in their acclaimed production of Hamlet. "No no," he told me with a laugh. "That was Ken's idea completely." Which is not to call Branagh a liar--if anything, the discrepancy is a touching indicator that, for all his robust honesty, he's a bit embarrassed by the bald truth of how pushy his talent has forced him to be. As his life story unfolds--from his early teens on, it's a staccato account of doors pried open, auditions tried and parts landed--one gets the sense of a human being in the grip of a gift so ferocious that (this side of a publisher's whopping advance) he would be the last person in the world to try and explain it.
"How do you comprehend so much fabulous luck?"

Kenneth Branagh takes a startled breath and looks out the window, then down at his teacup, then back at me. "I don't know," he says gently. But he doesn't resist the question: "I am aware of being incredibly fortunate. But the feeling is tempered by what I know to be the immense--and increasing--difficulty of trying to do things well. Trying to do difficult pieces of art well. You pay a price, whatever way your career goes. If I were to be at a more 'natural' stage in my career--whatever might be considered a natural point for me to be at this stage--there would be other prices to pay."

With the gravity of a crew and a soundstage sloughed from his shoulders, Branagh is a very different man from the one I saw on the set. Not relaxed, exactly, but open, direct, soft. He nurses that cup of tea (which is the size of an American cereal bowl) for the whole two hours and molds himself against a plush office sofa with a sleepy smile.

I'm thinking, now that we're comfortable, should I ask him about the budget? Months of eavesdropping have repeatedly placed the figure at "twice that of Henry V." Roughly $14 to $16 million. I'm screwing up my courage to ask him when he proves both candid and psychic.

"I can't help taking it personally that people have said, Here is $15 million of somebody else's money, could you please make this film work? But responsibility--for me--is a very creative pressure. I like to return the faith, as it were."

I ask him about directing himself, especially with respect to the "hypnosis" scene. He seems amused at the memory.

"I didn't have a stubborn actor to deal with. It was just me. And thank God, you know. With Henry V, the fact that I played on the stage was big help. I could trust that the character was somehow inside me and on the set. With Mike, especially in that hypnosis scene--there was a useful agitation in him, an edgy wish to maintain control that was very close to what I was already feeling as a director. Mike's emotional state was a lot easier to find that some other things I can think of. I think it's a very case-to-case thing, whether you can direct yourself in the part."

How about working with other actors? When I was visiting the set the day of his big scene, one of the crew members--an American--marveled that Branagh and Thompson were able to go straight from doing very heavy, emotional scenes to being very lighthearted between takes. He told me, "An American actor is usually a basket case after a big emotional scene. You can't go near 'em for 12 hours."

Branagh laughs when I repeat this to him but demurs from making any similar pronouncements: "I don't know if it's a difference between American and British players so much as a boring and practical one--between, say, an actor's function as an actor and mine as an actor who must also direct. If I let myself become all teary and unapproachable after a big scene, we'll never get the bloody movie made!" he grins. "But as the differences between British and American theater and film actors--I don't think they're so vast. Em, for example, is intensely emotional in her approach. I think one of the great pleasures for her is that she can really let it all out. Almost, as it were, in therapy." He pauses a moment and looks up toward the ceiling, intrigued. "But is there a difference? Let me think about his--because--there is something, a particular quality I did observe at the rehearsal stage, that is a difference. Let me find the right words. Yes: Americans prize spontaneity above all. Rightly so--it's the great virtue of 'American' acting, that freshness. But at the same time, there's often a resistance on the part of American players to going all-out with a line or an emotion in rehearsal--an understandable wish to save it for the camera.

"Part of what we did in rehearsal for Dead Again was encourage an adventure, as it were, away from that. A sense of, Go on, mate--have a bash. You won't lose it. Again, not to find the right performance so much as to generate a bond of trust all 'round. A feeling that, should a moment come right, here, now, we won't be stuck trying to recapture it for the camera. That what we will do is re-create it, because it is here we'll find the core emotion.

"You know, you can play Hamlet any way you like--as an 'angry' Hamlet, a 'jealous' Hamlet, a 'terrified' Hamlet--what matters is, you find that core--that unity of emotion which will replenish you in the middle of a performance. Obtain that core and spontaneity follows."

Then he says something that surprises me. "If I have any trouble comprehending what you call my 'fabulous luck', it's because I don't see myself as a 'filmmaker'. I feel like a bit of an impostor in the role, actually. After all, at this stage of the game I've made only two films. One-and-a-half films, actually--the second one isn't finished. It's hard for a crew to work with someone like me, who has both the advantages and disadvantages of a relative lack of experience. I can break rules with gay abandon, and yet, sometimes things daunt me that needn't daunt me. I find myself sometimes saying Christ, wouldn't it be good if we could do this, or if this bit here could kind of tumble into that scene there, and we could move this here at the same time...? And suddenly I've dragged everybody around into a whole discussion about opticals." He makes a wry face.

"A good working atmosphere is everything. Because you just can't guarantee the end product. Henry V was an example of a very happy set. The same kind of discipline, a real sense of enjoyment, born of working on something unique in a healthy atmosphere. That it also hit some kind of nerve with the public was a miracle. It could as easily have gone the other way. I haven't seen the Zeffirelli Hamlet, but I'm sure that if it had opened a year before we did, instead of the other way around, our film might not have enjoyed the smashing response that it did. If that had been the case, what would we have had to look back on? A great working experience, of warmth and camaraderie and high hopes. It's the only thing you can be sure of, so why not make that the priority?

"I'm such a believer now in William Goldman's remark about nobody knowing anything in this business. All you have to go on is your own view, your own vision of a movie. Like this one, or even a movie like Henry B, where you have deal with all those--I think, finally--useful pressures. I feel responsible to the studio, obviously. But I feel an ever deeper responsibility to the film's author, Scott Frank. First and foremost, I'm the protector and communicator of his vision.

"He and Frank are working closely together even at this stage, as the movie is being edited--Frank composing new voice-overs for certain sequences, Branagh experimenting with the structure and testing his ideas out on Frank. Both are excited by what's been emerging from the moviola, but a delicate balance has to be achieved in playing the present-day love story off the one from the past.

"It's precision work now," says Branagh. "Laser work. The key tricks are sleights of hand. You musn't give people too much time to think. They must be carried along by the excitement, by familiar images which we're hopefully reinvested with the power that they require. The detective. The woman without a name. The murder mystery. The sort of Joseph Cotten protagonist in grave danger. I wanted to go for the style of those pictures. A feeling of the period, a strong sense of the verve and style, the audacity of late '40's movies. All by way of pulling us into a love story across time and between souls. A certain mystery and heightened strangeness are, to me, a necessary backdrop for such a piece--especially when you're asking people to believe in the notion of reincarnation."

Ah! The R word. Here, Branagh both protects himself from the critical brickbats and spares the audience from breaking out in skeptical hives by means of two clever strategies: 1)by sticking to the script, which uses the dread word but once, and 2)by putting it into the mouth of Robin Williams is only in a few scenes, mainly to state the story's one gentle credo: "There are more people in this world who believe in past lives that don't."

"For the greatest movies, verisimilitude is not the requirement," says Branagh. "But you must be emotionally involved."

Speaking of emotional involvement, how does that work, being married to one's costar? How does it work for Thompson, being married to her director?

He smiles--he could hear this coming--and sits forward guardedly. "I would never presume to speak for Em. But for my part, I'd say we seem to be managing it. We're both grown-ups. That is, we both know better than to let private issues intrude upon work or vice versa. We're careful of one another."

It's a topic I'm eager to pursue, because clearly it would be the key to comprehending the private Branagh. His life story--if you base it on such information as he's volunteered--is the epic tale of a man at work. Work is his life or has been up until now. To the extent that his life has included love, it has been with coworkers: an actress at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art when he was a student, and now marriage to Thompson, herself a performing dynamo with a TV series in England that rivals the best of NBC's Saturday Night Live. Their marriage perfects the enigma of both public identities.

Still, it can be no accident that such spiritual twins are are making a movie that is, as he puts it, "a love story between souls." I fish in this direction but he doesn't take the bait. In the course of our hours together, he'll say revealing things in an offhand way. In answer to a particularly long-winded question about his preparations to play Henry, he remarks: "My missus says I have a king complex." In answer to a question about spirituality, he says: "My marriage is the most important thing in my life. It is the thing that is central to it. I would say Em is naturally more disposed to have some sense of the true priorities in life. I think women generally are--far more so than men. Women are better at making a life, and Em's a particular example of someone who has always been able to enjoy things as she goes along."

"What happens after you finish Dead Again," I ask. "Will you stay in America?"

"No," he says. "My arrangement with Paramount is a one-shot, one-picture deal. After this, I'm going to take some time off. I've not done that in--Christ--how long? Not since 1981."

"You're forgetting those five days in Australia in 1985." (I've read the autobiography more recently than he has.)

He laughs. "Yes! You're right, actually. I did have those five days. But beyond that--nothing, not since 1981. Ever since then I've been in rehearsal for one thing and another, sometimes rehearsing two things while playing another. So now I've got no films planned, no plays. I'll not be looking at anything. I need to let go--that's a very great issue with me I do tend to hang on to things." He says this softly. Hearing it, I'm surprised--Branagh? The theme of his autobiography--if there is one--is: Don't look back, something may be gaining on you. I try to formulate a question along these lines, but he goes on: "I just want to think a while. See what it is I'm really about."

When I ask him why letting go is such an issue, he shrugs. "You have to stop yourself being greedy."

What would you like to be doing? If you could plan the next five years. "I'm not sure. That's why I need the time. For many years now I've had it in mind to adapt The Return of the Native, the novel by Thomas Hardy. I could really do that film; I know those people, that landscape. Do you know it? A marvelous, complicated, teeming thing. Also, I've become friends with Gerard Depardieu, who was instrumental in getting Henry released in France--his voice was substituted for mine on the French-language sound track. I would love to make a film of Othello with him. I think he'd make a great Othello. All that earth, masculine quality."

Interesting how you keep making movies about placeless men, I tell him. King Henry. Roman and Mike.

He smiles, startled, but doesn't say a word. I shift my tack. Don't you want to play Othello?

"No. I'm for Iago!" His eyes flicker. "A very different Iago than we've seen, I should think. A 'nice' Iago. Or--if not nice, precisely--an Iago with an open face. A kind of guileless villain who succeeds because he's convinced himself he's above deceit."

Will you ever be open to simply acting in a film again, under somebody else's direction?

"I would love to. In terms of me taking time off, that would be ideal. I'd lobe to be relieved of the total responsibility of acting and directing. For the appropriate part, with the appropriate director director, I wouldn't hesitate to simply act again. After these few years' experience directing, I think I would have a lot more to give as an actor. I would love nothing more than to create a part, putting all my energies to use for just that. Also, I would be furthering my education. I would sit at the feet of a Martin Scorsese or a Woody Allen or a Francis Coppola. That would be my master's course in directing."

As I am reaching to shut off the machine, I feel moved by Branagh's attitude toward his work--so vulnerable, so sane--yet sad, too, because I never really did figure out a decent, non-Barbara Walters way of asking how it feels to be him.

Once again, he proves himself psychic: "I wouldn't know how to work out how I do it," he says.

"I don't regard myself as someone who is trying to run a film crew. I can't. That would be like watching two people every day. You know? 'How are you pulling this trick off?' Then you remember that morning how you woke up, you were almost sick again with nerves and anxiety and everything. that has really happened to me every single day on this shoot.

"I was just so nervous. Real tummy-tickling nerves. All the time, and the same was true all the time I was doing Henry. Last weekend was a terrible black weekend: 'I don't know how to do films, I don't know to direct films.' Black despair just tormented me. 'You're a fuckin' counterfeit, you can't do fuckin' anything.' I went and got some fish and chips on Santa Monica pier with a couple of friends and by the end of the evening, I'd turned it 'round. I'm thinking, Yeah! I've got this now. Yeah! I've got this! Next day you're laughing at yourself: What a Drama Queen you are!"

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