If any one filmmaker can be said to be responsible for the current renaissance of Shakespearean film production, it is Kenneth Branagh. In 1984, only three years after graduating from England's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Branagh became, at the age of twenty-four, the youngest actor in the history of the Royal Shakespeare Company to perform the title role in Henry V. He first came to the attention of international movie audiences with the 1989 release of his film version of Henry V, for which he wrote the screenplay, directed, and again played the title role. It received widespread critical acclaim, with many critics favorably comparing the film's darker, grittier post-Falklands portrayal of England's military invasion of France and Branagh's more complex portrayal of the youthful, untested ruler, to Laurence Olivier's classic, but more simplistic and patriotically inspirational, World War II- era production.
In addition to writing, directing and/or acting in numerous other films in recent years, Branagh has produced three other Shakespeare or Shakespeare- related films, including Much Ado About Nothing (1993), a sexy, sun-drenched, and highly energetic film adaptation of Shakespeare' s battle-of-the-sexes comedy, featuring Branagh and Emma Thompson as the bickering but lovelorn Benedick and Beatrice; A Midwinter's Tale (1995), a black-and-white semi- autobiographical comedy about a group of actors who stage a low-budget production of Hamlet in the English hinterlands; and, crowning his twenty- four-year-long obsession with the play, an epic, Super Panavision 70mm, full- text film version of Hamlet (1996).
During the midst era hectic shooting schedule for Barry Sonnenfeld' s Wild Wild West, in which he plays a lead role, Branagh graciously made time available so Cineaste could question him about his Shakespearean filmmaking efforts. Thanks to Tamar Thomas for her assistance in coordinating the interview. -
Cineaste: Our first question is easy because it's multiple choice.
Kenneth Branagh: [Laughs] I usually find those the most difficult.
Cineaste: You have commented that, after seeing a play, you are often haunted by cinematic images suggested by the play. Is this because of a) the overactive imagination era longtime film buff, b) a desire to translate the play into a film version because it would be seen by many more people than would see a stage play, or c) the belief that, in terms of dramatizing a play's themes or exploring its subtext, the cinema actually offers more expressive artistic means than the theater.
Branagh: It's a combination of all of the above. I suppose I would disagree with the last point. I don't know that the cinema offers more expressive means, but it certainly offers different means. It' s obviously a medium that many more people see, and many people would choose to experience Shakespeare, or perhaps even be able to afford to experience Shakespeare for the first time, only through that medium. Certainly an overactive film buff imagination is involved, as well as a terrific desire to share one's enthusiasm for something which seems to demand rediscovery.
For many people there continues to be the sense that this writer and his work, which has this Masterpiece status, is something to fear and dread, something that will somehow expose their lack of learning or intelligence. My experience has been that when people have had a good experience with Shakespeare, it's beyond perhaps just the snob factor, and feeling rather clever, it's something that can open up a certain part of themselves which, from that point, starts to be much less intimidated by great works of literature.
I'm simply attempting, as part of what a lot of other people are doing as well, to allow Shakespeare to be seen without prejudice, and without the implicit assumption that I believe it will be good for you or better than any other piece of cultural entertainment you may experience, but that it deserves its place. For my money, what' s important is the way in which Shakespeare unlocks that part of us which is currently rather bereft of poetry or mystery, something that is expressed with the ongoing obsession with New Age philosophies or philosophical books attempting to exercise that part of us seeking some kind of spiritual fulfillment. I believe these plays, written by a great poet, affect us, in conscious and unconscious ways, spiritually. Once you start talking this way, it all starts to sound a little highfalutin, but the fact is - and one has seen proof of this in performance and in reaction to films - is that people have been moved beyond what they necessarily, consciously can articulate. That mysterious power of a great poet, working through words in the way that music can affect us, is a marvelous thing to untap because it's difficult to find that in cinema or in writing these days. That's very important to me.
Cineaste: In each of your three Shakespearean films to date, you had previously played the lead role on the stage, but in an interpretation directed by someone else. When you directed your own film version, you were obviously free to develop your own interpretation of the play and the character, but to what extent did you find it necessary to more fully elaborate your interpretation simply because you were doing a cinematic version? In other words, does the cinema demand a more fully developed interpretation of the play on the part of the director?
Branagh: I don't know if it demands it, but it invites it, and I think it changes depending on the circumstances of the play. With Hamlet, for instance, there is an invitation there to see whether the cinema can provide a stronger experience of what's clearly a large part of the central character's personality, which is the expression of his inner life, his interior life. In the theater, that's brought about chiefly by the personality of the actor playing Hamlet. That remains the case in film, but it seems to me that in the theater that experience of his inner life is a combination of the relationship between actor and audience and the audience's imagination, what they choose to receive and how they identify with that performance and their view of Hamlet, even if they're seeing it for the first time.
But in the cinema, I felt it was legitimate to be more strongly interpretive about that inner life. I felt we could usefully illustrate, for instance, some more explicit confusion, torment perhaps, and guilt on Hamlet's part about his relationship with Ophelia, and that would be a cornerstone of our inflection of the piece. In a way, we' re trying to do two things at once. One is to give a reading which addresses what I mentioned earlier, allowing the play to sing, if you like, for each individual viewer, so you're not confining it too much. But at the same time you want to inflect it and somehow direct them into what you hope will not be some sort of reductive area where you're instructing them to understand one narrow idea of yours, which, next to the vastness of the play, is tiny. I felt a balance needed to be struck.
I've certainly tried to experiment with the level to which I interpret strongly, without denying parts of the play that could otherwise reveal themselves to the audience. The other extreme is a kind of laid-out, uninflected play, which, in a way, can be more dangerous. Finding that fine balance between telling the story in a way that concedes that many people may be seeing it for the first time, and not necessarily know what's going to happen, so clarity about the plot is important, and yet at the same time trying to interpretively address those issues which your experience tells you have perhaps been unclear, sometimes because of the circumstances of theater. That was one obvious issue for me in making the film of Hamlet.
Cineaste: One of the terrific things about the film is that you get a much better understanding of the characters' relationships and motivations. The fact that you can make it clear that Hamlet and Ophelia have been intimately involved, for example, is very beautifully done cinematically, and it makes the relationship between them, and her later descent into madness, much clearer.
Branagh: My view is that it did and, even if people familiar with the play felt it was a debatable point, it nevertheless sharpened up an overall view of the play, trying to strike the balance we talked about earlier, but also including other theatrical experience. For instance, when I have been in the theater, we were often involved in question and answer sessions in schools or after performances, and younger audiences are usually very concise about where they feel the difficulty in the play exists. With Hamlet there was often a great deal of questioning about the character of Gertrude, and why, despite her apparent importance in the scheme of things, she's given so little to say. In the theater it's actually difficult to keep her in focus, because she has so little to say even in important scenes, like the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Even in her great scene, the closet scene, she doesn't respond very often, but the film certainly gave us the opportunity to see how she was with Claudius.
The film seemed to me a terrific invitation to do something which doesn't make redundant the debate about why Shakespeare chose to have her say so little. Yet she's referred to so often, in her sin or crime or however Hamlet chooses to characterize it, which is so hugely important to the story of the play, that it seemed to me legitimate to try to bring her into a little more focus and see whether cinema, in doing that, affects the play in a positive or negative way. My feeling was that it was bound to make it more interesting. There was actually an invitation to a lot of the actors to try, without crassly point- making, to allow work that they'd done around subtextual thoughts to emerge in subtle ways.
Cineaste: You clearly prefer to have as much rehearsal time as possible prior to shooting. Russell Jackson's essay on the making of Hamlet discusses how you developed exercises so that each actor could develop their character's backstory. Is this intended simply to generate more of an emotional through- line for modern actors to make them feel more comfortable in the role, or is this something that might actually visibly translate in the performance?
Branagh: Both, I think. The greater sense an actor has of the kind of person their character is, then the more they can provide in their performance a sense of freedom and fluidity. In my films so far there' s been no attempt, beyond some tiny specifics to do with understanding and modern usage of language, to improvise, and yet at the same time one wants to feel it's as natural as possible. I don't feel actors can do that unless underneath their understanding of how the actual language is constructed, what each word means, is a strong sense of who they are. It gives them confidence in performance.
When trying to strike this balance between clarity and interpretive nuance, however, one of the key contributions comes from the actors in rehearsal, when we can perhaps discover a moment where, in another world, you might want to ask Shakespeare to write six lines to explain something for you. But in identifying that need on the part of the actor, you can offer a closeup or some moment of business discovered in rehearsal, that in cinema terms does perhaps offer some kind of interpretive insight, and so not to rehearse is to deny that possibility. Many discoveries are made in rehearsal and this combination of specifics, which you may choose to include in how you shoot it, plus a more general sense of a deeper understanding, a greater sense of reality, a greater comfort level in saying sometimes difficult things, all of this I think does translate. That feeling of confidence and knowledge is something you can't quite put your finger on, but you know it when it's there, because it's just much easier to understand. I think practice goes a long way in Shakespeare, even if it's only the practice of rehearsal.
Cineaste: It's quite clear from the casting of your Shakespearean films, especially Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet, that you believe it's not only possible but in fact preferable to present Shakespeare by combining classically trained English stage actors with American or European film actors with little or no prior experience with Shakespeare. Would you explain why you prefer this approach and how you go about making that work effectively, especially when you have to deal with actors with such a wide variety of acting experience and techniques?
Branagh: It can be difficult. It goes back to what we were just talking about, in trying to achieve this comfort level, a sense that the people you're watching are not concerned about sounding Shakespearean or proper, they're simply being in front of you, and happening to talk in a heightened language. There are many ways to achieve that. Sometimes it's by casting people who your instinct tells you are very close to the kind of character you want them to play, or who you feel have an intuitive understanding of such a character, or who have an intuitive understanding of cinema and are comfortable in front of a camera in a way that is not necessarily the case with classically trained theater actors. Therefore trying to find confident actors is important, actors who will not be intimidated, whatever discipline they come from, and who, if they come from the world exclusively of film, will be prepared to engage in the rehearsal process. The catching up in terms of practice, of actually saying this stuff, is something they're prepared to do.
I also like the dash, if you like, of accents and sounds, so that we don't try to homogenize the sound of Shakespeare, which again, in its cliched form, is equated with some kind of overblown theatrical delivery, usually English in accent. That actually can be very seductive and I think as actors we can all be rather vain and enjoy hearing the sound of our own voices, in a kind of mythic connection with some old actor-laddy tradition. Somehow it feels proper and sometimes it' s hard to shake one out of that. In casting different groups of people, however, you start to do that, you start to create a more level playing field. I think it's true that sometimes for the British classical tradition there's a nervousness about filmmaking, about the ability to simply be in front of the camera. It's been my experience sometimes that it's harder for some of those actors to take advantage of a moment given to them where they may not speak, but where there's a chance to say something about the character. Often they're much more comfortable with lots of lines.
For me this approach helps to keep things exciting in the rehearsal process, it means that questions are asked from quite different cultural viewpoints, and the performances and the whole execution of it is debated from all sorts of angles, from interior character reasons to apparently superficial technical questions about whether a line or a phrase needs to be said in one breath. For some people that's enough to somehow, in the process of experiencing it, to lead them towards the emotional connection with that thought. So we try to approach it from every possible angle, given, as the sociologists say, the current state of knowledge. Having many different views involved makes the rehearsal process exciting and it also means that each time you do it, there is not an attempt to find a style that one would create throughout more of these films, but to find what works now, at the moment when you're doing it. International casting helps keep that alive and exciting and different.
Cineaste: Would it be unfair to ask whether you have more difficulty getting stage actors to deliver the verse more naturally, or to train non- Shakespearean actors in learning how to deal with the verse without getting totally intimidated by technique?
Branagh: It's really so specific to individual actors and the nature of the roles themselves. Suffice it to say that everybody finds that there is something to learn. It's continually challenging, sometimes frustrating, to either make a long, wordy piece sing with the excitement, passion, and poetry you have felt in reading it off the page, but which suddenly has dissipated when you start being self-conscious and strutting around. Even with the best of intentions, this is tricky for anybody. So the difficulties are pretty widespread, and they can vary.
Sometimes classically trained actors also happen to enjoy enormously the luxury of the less effortful style of delivery that they can employ. I'd use Derek Jacobi as a specific example of someone who has enormous theatrical experience, but who took real relish in the intimacy that he could use for the role of Claudius, particularly in those few moments available to him in the full-text version, that give away his guilt. Somehow they were able to be couched in the film version with a degree of effectiveness that's not always possible in the theater, where asides remain big, and you have to go down front. But I wouldn't say, beyond those broad generalizations, that it's harder for one or the other, because people experience it to different degrees. To be quite honest, I experience both myself.
Cineaste: You're part of a generation of Shakespearean actors who've rejected the old-fashioned declamatory style of Shakespearean acting in an attempt to make the verse sound more natural, more realistic, almost conversational, but without completely losing its musical qualities. Is this the RSC approach, or your own personally developed approach. For example, did you ever study with John Barton?
Branagh: Very briefly, because our time at Strafford didn't really coincide. I did value every form of textual analysis that was made available to us there through the experience of other directors and other actors. I've always been resistant to allying myself to what might be called a school of verse speaking, or coming up with any particular policy for speaking verse, beyond attempting to address every possible option in discovering what a particular line or speech means. To do that, I use whatever means are available, either technically, or by looking through every Folio and Quarto version, by checking out punctuation offered by different editors, and by thinking - in a way this is more where I come from - about the kind of person the text seems to indicate this character is.
Cineaste: One of the key elements of the RSC approach is a very in-depth, comprehensive understanding of almost every word in the text.
Branagh: One of the dangers, though, is that it's hard not to become self- conscious about that, and I have certainly been guilty on stage in the past, with the best of intentions, of attempting to pass on my homework. What that can lead to is a very arch delivery in which there are little upward inflections as you wish to draw attention to some internal rhyme scheme or some tiny brush stroke of understanding which analysis has led you to believe is very fully there. In performance, that can sometimes be dangerous because, quite frankly, it can end up in a mannered delivery where it feels as though the actor is delivering a lecture about what he's saying rather than living it.
The experience of actually performing Shakespeare, is one which starts to teach you that, while all that understanding is helpful, probably necessary - although it's true that intuitive performers can sometimes be a fantastic vessel, and need not necessarily know everything that they say or the full meaning of it and somehow still allow themselves to transmit that to the audience - what's very important to grasp is the lightness of touch that is required, and that is something I have found a little more easily achievable in the cinema. It doesn' t require less breath or less effort or less concentration or less applied intelligence, but because you don't have to shout so much, you're less liable to be trying terribly hard to show everybody what you've learned. Those are the dangers of overanalysis. You need to let all that go and somehow to trust that you as a vessel, with that understanding, serving a piece of text which has all that available to it, is something that the audience will somehow intuit, that they will receive the richness of that understanding, but you have to somehow trust that you don't need to bang it out. When you do, I think it sometimes, as a result of that, I will be led to understand that I perhaps cut too deeply or that I need to restore a line or two that continues an idea inside the language that I had underestimated in terms of its importance for the actor. And for those interested, and they usually always are, there is a lot of talk about the meaning, or the change in meaning, of particular words, especially in anything where Shakespeare is punning or being satirical. That can lead into more general conversations about the Elizabethan world picture, the use of language and conceits, and the whole Elizabethan cosmos, which can sometimes be useful to bring into rehearsal. If you're doing something like Henry V, for instance, it's useful to talk about the concept of honor as understood by people of the time, to talk about the concept of a Christian king, to bring that into rehearsal for the sake of the actors' imaginations, so that sometimes they can understand the real import of things which may seem to emerge more casually from the play for us. produces a kind of arch Shakespearean acting which, because of its emphasis on the complexities of the text, alienates people.
I also think in the theater generally, and with Shakespeare particularly, you have an obligation. Part of the bargain you strike, when they buy that ticket, is that you must communicate the play to them. Your job must be to give to the audience any understanding you possess of the character and the story. The overt presence of an overanalytical approach is something that can set the actor back on himself. I'm not anti-analysis, I'm very much for it, it's just that what makes this work challenging, particularly in film, is somehow trying to produce the art that hides the art.
Cineaste: We interviewed Ian McKellen last week and he said somewhat the same thing, that the challenge for the actor is to master this technical understanding, but then, once you're on stage or before the camera, to make sure the audience is not aware of that at all.
Branagh: Absolutely, and I find that a particularly interesting challenge. It's something that I try to pass on to actors I work with. I do wish to hear the consonants, I do wish to feel that it's crisply and yet unself-consciously delivered, that it just is. As somebody like Benson or Irving said, you've got to speak loudly and stay natural.
Cineaste: In light of the fact that you write the screenplays for your Shakespearean films, as well as direct and act in them, would you talk a bit about the roles played by Russell Jackson and Hugh Crutwell?
Branagh: Russell is someone with a very rich understanding of the textual history of Shakespeare's plays and an immense knowledge of Shakespearean performance, so he's a useful bridge between academia and his own knowledge of the ways in which, somehow, the play simply works, or how this difficult bit that the actor is having trouble understanding, and that no amount of textual analysis will clarify, works. So Russell is a reference point for actors in rehearsal who, for instance, may have an issue with having to perform a much shorter version of a speech or a piece of prose. Often they'll go to him and talk about the whole speech and sometimes, as a result of that, I will be led to understand that I perhaps cut too deeply or that I need to restore a line or two that continues an idea inside the language that I had under-estimated in terms of its importance for the actor.
And for those interested, and they usually always are, there is a lot of talk about the meaning, or the change in meaning, of particular words, especially in anything where Shakespeare is punning or being satirical. That can lead into more general conversations about the Elizabethan world picture, the use of language and conceits, and the whole Elizabethan cosmos, which can sometimes be useful to bring into rehearsal. If you're doing something like Henry V, for instance, it' s useful to talk about the concept of honor as understood by people of the time, to talk about the concept of a Christian king, to bring that into rehearsal for the sake of the actors' imaginations, so that sometimes they can understand the real import of things which may seem to emerge more casually from the play for us.
Hugh Crutwell is there not only for me but also for those who wish to partake of his extensive knowledge of the plays. He was a principal of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for about twenty years, so, apart from his own professional theatergoing, he has had huge exposure to all the Shakespeare plays many times over during that period. He's also seen, at many stages of their careers, a whole generation of experienced Shakespearean actors that includes Jonathan Pryce, Ralph Fiennes, Mark Rylance, and Juliet Stevenson. They'd probably all agree with me that he's a ruthless and savage seeker of the truth in acting, particularly in Shakespeare, and he has many now tested and challenged and pretty passionately held views on some of the plays and the motivations of the characters. He's by no means the oracle, and he freely confesses that he doesn't sit in some guru-like position, but he is a lively debater, an erudite man who certainly, from my point of view as director, will challenge anything that he feels is gratuitous or that steps outside what might be legitimately involved in the overall interpretation.
I remember when we were doing a stage production of King Lear and, for reasons best known to myself, in the storm scene - for which we were presenting genuine precipitation, we had real rain and wind - I wanted to bring Richard Briers as King Lear onto the stage, carrying a makeshift cross of boughs he had constructed for himself. I remember we spent a month arguing about exactly why I should do this, and, in the end, I suppose my rather feeble answer was, 'I think it's effective.' But Hugh felt that it was drawing a Christian image across a pagan play, it did not pay off, and that it was gratuitous, ineffective, and distracting. Finally, to be perfectly honest, I agreed with him. He'd have been perfectly happy for me to do it, but over such points and other issues of interpretation, he holds a strongly argued, passionate point of view. He also has very good taste in acting from take to take as we shoot, and he's there to keep an eye on me, but also to offer up that kind of healthy critical assessment of both my performance and that of the other actors. It's been very valuable for me, in doing both jobs, acting and directing, to have him there so that the other actors, if they feel remotely undernourished by their director because of my other responsibilities, can have another voice to listen to.
Their knowledge is extensive and, while I have hopefully developed improved intuitions and knowledge about this whole period, the plays, the characters, and the structure of the language, I find that I remain chiefly a practitioner, and I feel like a beginner every time. The practical side of executing these things, in fact, keeps me from turning into the academic bookworm I sometimes wish I could be, so I'm very grateful that Russell and Hugh are there, filling in the many areas of knowledge that I don't have.
Cineaste: You've commented that it was during the postproduction of Henry V that you discovered the enormous creative possibilities that film editing offered in terms of elaborating one's interpretation of the play. Could you talk about that a bit?
Branagh: The power of the close-up, well acted, in a Shakespearean film seemed to me very striking. If you were remotely interested in pursuing the internal life of any of the characters, there was a real invitation to the actors to take advantage of that. In Henry V, the fact of my relative youth then, as distinct from the more mature performance of Laurence Olivier in the other film which I mention only because there is another film, not by way of comparison or any other way, I hasten to add - but I was surprised at how strongly that played, from the earliest rushes, and we shot it more or less in continuity. I found it exciting to see how little I had to do, and it seemed to me that involved responding to the doubt in the language of Henry V early on, and the caution, the nervousness, the youth, the guilt, and all sorts of other things that were different from what Olivier chose to emphasize in terms of his leadership qualities and the general feel of a wonderful, celebratory pageant that his film had.
For us, the film offered a chance to more realistically get inside the lives of the people on the campaign, to go for a dirtier, more realistic sense of what it was like to go across country in the rain. Seeing people in that kind of scenario was also helpful because it immediately changed your whole perspective. It seemed to me very untheatrical and quite revelatory at the time. The actors themselves responded to it, and then performances changed in magnitude - would that be the word? - or in terms of the level of intimacy. There was a sense of release. Many of them had been in the play before, there were about four or five Henry Vs there - Michael Williams had played the role, Ian Holm had played it, Jacobi had been in it before - and they all responded to the sense of having to do less by way of projection and allowing the intelligence and wit of the characters to emerge. They also felt they could respond more to the environment, there was just a reality to it which was exciting.
Cineaste: How much of your interpretation was influenced by historical readings you did on the real Henry V and his exploits in France? I know you've read John Keegan's The Face of Battle, for example.
Branagh: Yes, and that is a strong tonic in resisting the idea of banners and flags and celebration, when you read eyewitness accounts, as it were, of the battle and begin to understand that there were so many deaths by suffocation because people's bodies piled up on each other, and learn about the kinds of noises that were heard from the battlefield for hours and days afterwards from people dying very, very slowly, the awfulness of that. I remember us having a rehearsal discussion and talking about how people would like to go. Would you like a nuclear bomb to fall on you, or would you like six inches of cold steel, during combat, in terrible, face to face conditions, on a tightly packed, wet, sodden battlefield, where arrows are raining down on you, and where it was necessary to hectically keep revolving and fighting in a way that was bound to produce chronic fatigue over a period of hours? Is that the way to go? I think those influences were important.
I also felt that a general feeling of unease, of conspiracy, of political uncertainty - that level of reality which we could see in our normal lives and that fascination with what goes on behind closed doors and how politicians can rationalize one brutal, violent act by reference to some other apparently important policy - all of it helped galvanize the film and get us away from any sense of some sort of chivalric pageant.
Cineaste: I think that comes out very clearly. From the opening scene, you get a very clear impression that not only is Henry being manipulated by the clergy, but also by his own uncle, Exeter, and other wealthy nobles who obviously stood to benefit from a foreign war.
Branagh: Yes, it's a rather unfortunate position to be in, where the very people that you need to lean on, the people who you're stuck with in terms of your confidants, are also people with their own personal agendas. This is something which Henry needs, at the same time as being aware of in its fullest complexity, so it makes for a very interesting scenario, it's very potent with drama. It was something we chose to exploit with the atmosphere of the smoky, dark room, something just picked out of reading. The reality of rooms like that were very smoky, because they weren't great with chimneys and ventilation, and it all added to the mystery and the sense of pressure.
Cineaste: I loved some of the film's other textural details, such as, during the long tracking shot across the Agincourt battlefield, the enraged French women who at one point try to attack Henry.
Branagh: We were trying to make a film of some commercial or watchable length but also still trying, in a cinematic way, to complete the picture, to make it as complex as possible. There's no question that many did not regard Henry as the savior, and that such a battle also involved tragic consequences for all sorts of other people tangentially involved. That tracking shot was an attempt, after having put the audience inside the battle, to suddenly stand back for a moment and say, 'Look what happened!'
Cineaste: 'This is a victory?'
Branagh: Yeah, exactly...
Cineaste: In terms of your political fleshing out of the film, since you kept in the political betrayal of Cambridge, Scroop and Grey, the threats of rape, murder, and pillage at the gates of Harfleur, and the hanging of Bardolph, why did you decide to cut Henry's order to kill the French prisoners?
Branagh: Well, it's the subject of much debate, as you know, both historical and textual, and to have stuck with everything that represented the real king historically would have been fighting against so much else in the play. I felt that we could achieve a sense of Henry's ruthlessness or brutality without it and make for clearer drama. On one level, it felt appropriate, because to have him do that at that point was to be utterly inconsistent with the rest of what we were presenting as a troubled and ambiguous character. It seemed to me that it would unduly draw attention from that ambiguity and suddenly make him one kind of character, and that that would be dramatically less interesting.
Cineaste: But its absence, for those who know the play, is almost underlined by Henry's outrage at the killing of the baggage 'boys. It seemed to me, given the overall grittier tone you were aiming at, that retaining that scene would add to the complexity of the characterization. I know you wanted to emphasize the Christian nature of the king, but ruthlessness on the battlefield does not necessarily contradict, even during that era, a deep sense of religiosity.
Branagh: It's a debatable point, and it was something we argued about at the time. In the end, I felt that it was appropriate for the dramatic shape of what we were doing, in terms of pictures, showing the camp being attacked just beforehand, and that it added up dramatically. As I think about it, you may well be right about its actual impact had we included it.
Cineaste: It's only a few lines, but the impact is stunning. It wouldn't be necessary to illustrate the way they were actually killed, which was pretty gruesome, as Keegan explained. The more historical readings you do, the more you realize that, despite all the ambiguities and complexities that Shakespeare brought into the play, it was still a fairly sanitized portrait.
Branagh: Yes, indeed. It may well be that one was swayed by what one would refer to as a kind of a cinema logic in regards to the hero, so I confess that that may well have had an impact.
Cineaste: Russell Jackson, in his diary on the making of Hamlet, wrote that you often encouraged actors to do a variety of takes, using slightly different emotional colorings or registers. Did you also do that for yourself, and what did that mean in terms of shaping the final version in the editing room?
Branagh: The idea behind asking people to do such a thing relates to what we were talking about earlier. One can't improvise, but one wants as much life and spontaneity as possible and that, for me, is a valuable commodity. It's really in the pursuit of that that one would encourage extra takes. My experience with playing the part so often was that there were some clear anchor points in my interpretation that had developed - if I played it again now maybe it would be different - but at that point there were certain things that I felt sure of about my Hamlet. Although central to the performance, however, they were not limiting in terms of how one actually said lines or approached scenes, as long as a central core understanding of what one was playing was there.
So the encouragement of different kinds of takes really aimed at trying to be as alive in each scene as possible, trusting that my understanding of the part would, could, and should ring out as new minted as possible. This was also affected by how the lines were being given back to me, and the interpretation and sense of character that I was receiving from the other actors. There was a large part that was unknown about how this actual group would present this story. We knew the kind of world we were setting it in, and the kinds of feelings we had about the characters, but moment to moment we wanted it to live as strongly and passionately as possible. So I encouraged a great deal of freedom in that way, believing that the action one is playing in any particular scene is understood.
For example, in the closet scene, 'Hamlet tries to convince Gertrude of her guilt.' Well, he can do that in many ways - he can mock her, he can shout at her, he can harangue her, he can plead with her, he can tease her - with the overall objective that somehow he wants to make her suffer or feel guilty or make her understand or confess, or whatever it is that one had decided upon. I enjoyed that very much, so, when I arrived each day, it was a kind of blank sheet. Factors like where we set it, and how swiftly or slowly we played it, were the things that started to affect how it came out that day, with our fingers crossed about believing that the understanding of the scene and the character was deep in the system.
Cineaste: Patrick Doyle's score for Hamlet seemed to come in for a lot of criticism, especially in terms of feeling that some of the soliloquies or other key passages were musically underlined for the audience. The only part that seemed to me to be questionable, and it's more a question of the mix, was on the "How all occasions do inform against me" soliloquy, where I felt the music competed with the verse in what was an otherwise spine-tingling scene.
Branagh: Well, he was definitely led that way by yours truly. I felt that it was an epic moment in a play where that particular beat, if it remains in the production, is somehow undervalued. It seemed to me that, in the wake of having killed for the first time, mistakenly, and with us brought in that speech through a sort of summing up of Hamlet's understanding of his predicament as he perceived it at that time, and given where he was and what he was seeing, that it was a huge moment, and so I wanted from Patrick a huge, stirring anthem.
Cineaste: It comes up at the intermission break.
Branagh: Sure, there's a theatrical element to it as well. This whole question of the use of music in our films has been something of a thorny subject, really, since the first one, and the same debate has ensued. My respect for the spoken word is great, but I have followed my instinct about music, and it's part of what I have felt up to this point makes for a translation from the theater into the cinema. Maybe it is too obvious a way of somehow leading people by the nose, and some people might find it either intrusive or even faintly patronizing, but I've listened to my instinct about what I thought was correct.
I tink it's a question of taste, and for my taste it has been appropriate, although I have to say it's something about which I debate with myself continually, right through and up until things like the very thing you mention, the actual mix of that cue, in the mixing stage. In the end, one follows one's instinct about, 'Well, I think the effect of this is worth just straining for a little bit.' I think it is questionable, and it's something I think carefully about each time I do it, and to date I haven't chosen to resist my desire for seizing on those moments that, when they do work, I think work well.
I'd say, for my money anyway, that the St. Crispin's Day theme underneath Shakespeare's speech in Henry V, for example, works spectacularly well, catching as it does the source of instantaneous connection with emotions that the script, the text itself, addresses. Some would argue that, 'Well, that would happen anyway,' but I would argue that we helpfully accentuate it in a way that the cinema invites us to do. But I do accept and continue to consider the view that we play sometimes a little fast and loose, so it continues to be a real subject of concern for us.
Cineaste: You must have been glad that, for a change, you had only to act in Oliver Parker's film of Othello, and not direct it as well...
Branagh: I was.
Cineaste: ... because you've got to concentrate on performing one of Shakespeare's most compelling, but also one of his most ambiguously motivated, villains. How did you deal with that problem as an actor? Or did you not perceive it as a problem?
Branagh: I chose not to perceive it as a problem. One comes at these things in all sorts of different ways. I'd been in the play once before, as a very young amateur actor playing Cassio, and so I'd listened and watched, in ways that are sometimes very helpful when you're in another part in a play, because you hear it from a different perspective. You can choose to scratch the surface or dig deeper into the vast reams of literature that exist on all these plays and all these characters. With Iago, it's particularly dense and although I began that process, I was very quickly frightened off. I found that, in a way, I wished not to explain him, that he was what he was, and I took his words at the end at face value, "What you know, you know." And I thought, well what I know is what I know from the text.
Cineaste: So rather than coming up with some sort of inner device for yourself - for example, to play him as clinically paranoid...
Branagh: No, I did not seize, for instance, in any character-defining way, on his suspicion that Othello had slept with his wife. I did take at face value his immense disappointment and bitterness at being passed over but decided that that was also, aside from its personal characteristic, the evaluation of a soldier who realized that Othello had made really a very stupid decision. I suspected Iago believed that had more to do with an outsider feeling that he was suddenly being welcomed into the Establishment and ought to do those things that were appropriate, like getting the right face in the job of Lieutenant.
It seemed to me that was a real enough starting point, and then to allow his sometimes delight in the ease with which he could manipulate what he would regard as Othello's vanity to sort of self-propel itself. But in that character, almost more than anything I'd done, I was playing it absolutely moment to moment, and thinking on my feet, as I think he does, and then realizing that he enjoys it enormously. It's enormously daring to be as outrageous as he turns out to be. It was a very, very enjoyable role to play.
Cineaste: You perform most of the role in big close-up, in asides to the camera.
Branagh: Although I'd been faced with the issue before, this was the first time that I'd actually been involved, through Oliver's decision, in actually talking directly to the camera, as opposed to having monologues essentially sort of overheard, which is mostly what I've chosen to do. I found that rather releasing. It's an unusual relationship to have with the audience and with the camera, and, again, it's an intimacy that film afforded that I suspect would not have been quite the same on stage. It felt very familiar and comfortable in some way playing that role. In a way it sort of played itself.
Cineaste: You not only played a lot of his asides directly to the camera, but also developed that relationship through physical gestures, such as obscuring the camera lens with your hand at several points. Was this something of your own devising?
Branagh: No, this was strictly Oliver. He had a very strong idea of how he wanted to present that relationship between Iago and the audience.
Cineaste: He had previously played the part himself on stage.
Branagh: He had, indeed, and knew the play very well. He'd also enjoyed playing that role enormously. There's something releasing about it, Iago is without any sense of morality.
Cineaste: As a character, he's very close to Richard III.
Branagh: Yes, less of an actor probably, less self conscious, I think, less of a flourish to him, but a little more deadly, in a way. Less overt, self- conscious wit, but immensely powerful, immensely compelling. It seemed to me that it was all in the text, and then, given the way that Oliver wanted to present that relationship with the audience, that it was my job probably to do as little as possible.
Cineaste: So just play the text and let the contradictions and ambiguities take care of themselves?
Branagh: Absolutely. I felt that very strongly and played him extremely in terms of his mood swings and his believability in relationship to the other characters, his sympathy with them. I felt that that, because of its chilling effect, was a great thing to play.
Cineaste: I've heard it said that you go through a long period of "marination" in regards to ideas about possible Shakespearean film projects. We've read about your plans for a musical version of Love' s Labour's Lost, and maybe a film version of Macbeth. Are you thinking of another Shakespeare film?
Branagh: I am at the moment trying quite seriously to formalize a little more what I clearly understand now is something that I continue to wish to do, which is to make these kinds of films. Indeed, the very two you've mentioned are in the process of being planned, with Love's Labour's being the first of them. I hope to make that very much sooner rather than later, but setting it up in such a way to perhaps even set three up at once, and do them year by year. That's the cunning plan.(*)
Cineaste: Will the current renaissance of Shakespearean film production make it easier for you to make another Shakespeare film? At the very least, you must be terribly relieved that you no longer have to carry the banner alone.
Branagh: Very much so. I think it just goes to show that a good film is a good film and a good Shakespeare film is a good Shakespeare film and people will go to see them. It remains difficult to raise money for any kind of film and, with every Shakespeare film, including the four I've been involved with in one way or another, it's been difficult. Such templates as there are for box- office success, the most conspicuous of which is Baz Luhrmann's film, tend to make people want to somehow reproduce those elements, either by casting the same actors or by doing it in the same way...
Cineaste: That's the Hollywood mentality.
Branagh: ...even though people know that it's necessary for there to be new ideas and new versions and interpretations, so there's always this strange contradiction. There's now much more evidence that Shakespearean films can be successful and profitable but, at the same time, as you can imagine, Love's Labour's Lost as a musical is a tough sell, but not impossible. The problem is always trying to find the circumstances under which you believe you can do the film well, not being compromised by those factors that wish it to become something that from the outside looks comfortingly commercial. That doesn't mean the two things are mutually exclusive at all.
But I feel more strongly than ever the need to have, for want of a better phrase, creative freedom, the freedom to cast who I wish and to do the film in exactly the way I wish. In the case of Love' s Labour's Lost, there are a number of factors involved with that movie that make it scary for financiers. Nevertheless, my desire for that kind of freedom is paramount, so one is currently trying to find the way to do it that allows one to make the film one wants and have enough popular success, obviously, to do the next one, which would be Macbeth.
*A few weeks after this interview, Variety announced that Branagh' s Shakespeare Film Company had signed a three-picture deal with Intermedia Films, which would handle financing, and Miramax Films, which would handle North American distribution, for productions of Love's Labour' s Lost, which would be filmed in 1999, followed by film adaptations of Macbeth and As You Like It.