American Film (cover story),
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
"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
"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
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
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,"
"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
"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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