Branagh: The Long and Short of It
BAFTA magazine, April 1998
by Briget Bailey-Grant
Mozart may have been a musical
giant - but he definitely wasn't tall. The Salzburg maestro was
in fact shorter than an unfinished symphony, which came as something
of a blow to Kenneth Branagh. It was 1982 or thereabouts and
Milos Forman was toying with the notion of an all-British cast
for his film Amadeus. "A million of us went up for it,"
recalls Ken. "Lots of the big boys screen tested for Salieri,
it was really a cattle call." Then just prior to the audition,
Ken who is a respectable 5ft 10, discovered the 18th century
composer was vertically challenged. "It's the first time
I've ever been too tall for anything!" But he persevered.
"I went along in a pair of flat shoes and walked into the
room with my knees bent. I looked like Groucho Marx." Things
didn't improve from there. "They'd told me that Mozart was
outrageously happy all the time, so I had this beam on my face
the entire time, like I was on drugs. Now I was Groucho Marx
Wolfie was probably turning in
his grave, but Forman liked it and Ken got his screen-test. "I
was involved for months but nothing came of it," he says,
which makes you wonder what Tom Hulce did for his audition. "Tom
was great in the part, and did it on Broadway," says Ken,
adding wryly: "He is also a little smaller than me."
Being a 'normal sized bloke' - as Ken puts it - does have its
advantages however. "If you're tall and physically distinctive
like Liam Neeson it's much easier to be spotted." And Ken
prefers not to be, as it allows him to get on with things. "Unless
you are on telly or in something like Titanic, you don't really
get recognised. Most people in this country haven't seen the
stuff I've done, they just know me as 'the guy who does Shakespeare'
so they won't have put a face to it." Of course there will
always be that late night encounter with a bunch of mouthy youths
who insist on heckling him about Frankenstein, but only from
a safe distance - and he doesn't lose any sleep over that. "You
get people who say something was well done and others who'll
say it was crap," he philosophies. "So I don't really
have any expectations."
But who needs great expectations
when you've got Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry V?
Certainly not our Ken, who in bringing Hamlet faithfully and
flamboyantly to the big screen last year realised a lifelong
ambition. Yes, Ken was only 15 when he was bitten by Shakespeare's
great dane in Oxford and knew he had to act. Indeed, one could
almost describe Derek Jacobi as Ken's careers officer for it
was his sensitive portrayal of Hamlet that turned the schoolboy's
head. Twenty years later - by way of a thank you - Ken cast Derek
as Claudius to his own glittering top-of-the-range Hamlet. Then
on the last day of filming Derek gave Ken THE book.
"Its a small red bound copy
of Hamlet that has passed from actor to actor from the turn of
the century," explains Ken, but modestly forgets to mention
that it's only given to the finest Hamlets of the day.
"They've all signed it.
Johnson, Forbes Robertson, Michael Redgrave, Peter O'Toole, erm...."
Anyway you get the picture and it's up to Ken to decide who gets
it next. "Well Derek certainly hung onto it for a while,
didn't he?" says Ken. In other words if you're currently
playing Hamlet don't hold your breath. But when it comes to handing
out presents to the cast, he's a regular Santa Claus. "Over
the years I've done wine with special labels; a torch set in
a loverly gift box; a print of De Niro as the Monster for Frankenstein
and a nice tracksuit top for Hamlet." He stops short of
the cuddly toy, but reveals it was only mugs and t-shirts for
the cast of In the Bleak Midwinter. "It was a very low budget
film," he says apologetically.
Budget is not always an easy
word for a director to say, but Ken has the measure of it. "I'm
more aware of the budget than I probably need to be or should
be," he says. "I hate assuming that money is some faceless
entity because you've usually looked people in the eye and shaken
hands. I prefer to have a relationship that isn't combative."
Someone wise once described the process of filmaking to Ken as
"one where all through planning and preproduction, the studio
is holding a loaded gun to your temple. Then on the first day
of principal photography they hand the gun over and you hold
it to their temple." No doubt the producers of Waterworld
remember that feeling well. "It's easy to develop a knee
jerk reaction to financiers and believe that they're part of
some great mythical conspiracy to pervert your vision of the
film," adds Ken. "I don't think that's necessarily
true, but there are commercial considerations. That means that
people you'd like to be straight with often have a separate agenda."
Having grasped the money thing,
it's then time to focus on the cast and crew. For this Branagh
follows a set of rules:
1. Always pick a First Assistant
Director you like. "I've always got on well with the First,"
says Ken. "One is happier and more confident about handing
over to the right person."
2. Admit at the outset that the
First has a very important job. "If I'm acting as well as
directing, I need to save energy for what is required."
3. Do not pick a First who shouts
and screams. "I can't be doing with unnecessary disharmony
or confrontation on set. Filming is a bizarrely tense activity
that should be made as pleasant as possible. When you think of
all the money that's involved, and the fact that in the process
you're not curing cancer, it seems ridiculous that it should
be undermined by a bad atmosphere."
But don't let these rules fool
you into thinking that Ken never gets cross. "Passionate
personalities lead to a certain amount of temper which is fine,"
he says. "A set doesn't have to be cozy wozy, just polite
and considerate. You shouldn't pamper people, but if an actor
reads a particular paper in the morning, it's nice to have it
in their dressing room. If someone doesn't like coffee, find
out what they do like; just tiny goodwill gestures that allow
actors to feel happy and trusting. They may have agreed to be
in your film, but it requires a great deal of courage and they
often get nervous."
And if you want to know exactly
how they feel, Ken suggests you think about those crucial seconds
before giving a speech at a wedding. With four hours and three
minutes of Hamlet on screen - and 6 months of editing - Ken's
directorial advice is not to be sniffed at, and he maintains
communication is the key. "I like to share information and
pass on any doubts or anxieties verbally, I don't put anything
in writing because it'll be in someone's bloody biography in
five years time."
Ken has already written and published
the first volume of his autobiography - and with Hamlet achieved
his lifelong ambition. What's more he's still only 37 - which
makes you just want to spit. Spit poison in the case of some
journalists, who are understandably curious about his personal
life, but rather too eager to chip away at the pedestal they
put him on in the first place. Not that Ken needs a pedestal.
He's happy to sit anyway - as long as he can reach the ashtray
- and he can socialise beyond his coterie of actors.
"It's easier in some ways
to be with people who aren't thrown by fame," he says. "But
if they are taken aback it usually doesn't take long for them
to realise that you're just a collection of flesh, bones and
neuroses like everyone else." Where Ken hides the neuroses
is anyone's guess, he seems so straightforward. But having agreed
to star in the Woody Allen film Celebrity there must have been
ample opportunity to lie on the couch. "I just saw it as
a chance to watch someone else direct," says Ken who also
got to study Robert Altman at work on the Gingerbread Man.
"Someone once said that
directing is like sex. You never see anybody else do it, and
mostly you're doing it on your own.
"The truth is, all directors
are interested in the way other directors work," insists
the actor. "I've been doing Alien Love Triangle with Danny
Boyle, and as we rehearsed he asked 'What would you do with this?'
He didn't want advice, and he certainly wasn't paranoid because
he's a very impressive individual. He was just interested."
As he stands up to bid farewell Kenneth Branagh suddenly looks
very tall. Milos Forman didn't know what he was missing.
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