What Makes Kenny Run?
Empire Magazine, December 1991
By Tom Hibbert
Kenneth Branagh is in reality
entirely lacking - well, almost - in those flirty affectations
or popular perception that have so damned him to date. This rather
shocking realisation takes place in the offices of his Renaissance
Theatre Company in the middle of Soho, bought by Branagh with
the "handsome" advance money for Beginning. The unsuspecting
visitor has first to climb ten flights of stairs - squalid, rickety,
damp and ill-lit stairs - and there, sitting by a desk, is the
owner, decked out in a sensible shirt, dishing out the mineral
water, beaming, charming, defying anyone not to press the cliche
button marked Youthful Good Looks.
"I'm suspicious of talking
about the acting of life," wrote Branagh in the introduction
to Beginning. "it seems that as soon as I think I know something
and try to describe it, it's gone." And still he is suspicious:
wary of the personal, averse to discussions of the meaning (or
not) of "life". We talked, for the most part then,
of terrible old films and it is refreshing indeed to find that
Kenneth Branagh, who one may imagine to be far too snooty to
encompass such decidedly lowbrow tastes, is in fact a great admirer
of bad comedy and crap films about big tops with Ty Hardin in
them. First though some opposite questions such as:
WHY, PRAY TELL, DID YOU CHOOSE
A THRILLER SCRIPT LIKE DEAD AGAIN FOR YOUR FIRST FORAY INTO THE
INFERNO OF HOLLYWOOD??
In America they didn't know quite
how to take me, basically, because I'd done Henry V, this lovey
lovey Shakespeare (HE PRONOUNCES 'SHAHK-SPEARE' FOR TERRIBLY
ENGLISH EFFECT) and they thought I was eternally classical (PRONOUNCED
'CLAH-SSICAL FOR T.E.E.) So they kept sending me costume things
with lots of battles in, lots of fighting pictures.
Oh yes, there was some of that.
And I kept being sent lives of Shakespeare - with fighting in
it. There are lots of lives of Shakespeare doing the rounds in
America. And then I got sent Vietnam War stories, American Marine
stories, naval things. They'd decided that lovey Kenneth Branagh
could do two things: Shakespeare and battle stuff. But then I
was sent Dead Again and I read the script and I simply couldn't
put it down. Simple as that. It reminded me of the first sort
of films that really made an impression on me.
ACCORDING TO YOUR AUTOBIOGRAPHY,
THE FIRST FILMS THAT REALLY MADE AN IMPRESSION ON YOU WERE CHITTY
CHITTY BANG BANG AND ONE MILLION YEARS BC. DEAD AGAIN ISN'T MUCH
LIKE THOSE AT ALL.
Er, no, ha ha. I saw those in
the cinema when I was young but my real sense of being hooked
into acting , into storytelling, into pictures, came from watching
television - I didn't go to the theatre until I was 16. And I
remember watching television on Saturday afternoons in Belfast.
My Dad was away and my mother was working so I would sit in front
of the telly watching film matinees - and films like Dial M For
Murder, films like Rebecca, American B pictures that always seemed
to have Dana Andrews in, or Victor Mature, they had an enormous
effect on me. I just loved noir-ish things any things in the
DEAD AGAIN SEEMS, AT TIMES, TO
BE PAYING SOME KIND OF HOMAGE TO HITCHCOCK WITH TRACES OF NORTH
BY NORTHWEST, ETC.
Well I always loved Hitchcock.
I saw lots of Hitchcock as a boy: North by Northwest, Spellbound.
Notorious I was very taken with because it is so weird. I re-viewed
a lot of Hitchcock stuff in the early stages of preparing for
Dead Again. I wanted to remind myself of just how far he went
because with Dead Again you certainly needed alot of melodramatic
Hitchcock approach to carry it off. You've got all the classic
ingredients haven't you: the spooky house, the woman with amnesia,
the detective who's got a slightly lost quality, the textures,
old Los Angeles, a spooky old antique shop. It was just a love
of old movies that enthused me. And then you've got re-incarnation
and a plot that, if you sit and analyse it, is totally implausible.
I hope I've managed to make people suspend their disbelief.
YOU DON'T ACTUALLY BELIEVE IN
ANY OF THAT REINCARNATION HOCUS-POCUS, DO YOU?
It's interesting because almost
everybody who worked on the picture had some belief in reincarnation
- except for the author who thinks it's completely nonsensical.
With me. I suppose the kind of ooo-eee-ooo-eee-ooo factor that
we get when we encounter the old deja vu is there in me. And
Dead Again certainly deals with reincarnation in an entertaining
way. Making the film felt strangely like where I'd started off
from because that kind of noirish, sort of creepy film was something
I was steeped in much more, actually, than the classical theatre.
YOU MEAN YOU FEEL MORE AFFINITY
WITH DOUBLE INDEMNITY OR RAY MILLAND IN THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES,
OR SOMETHING, THAN WITH SHAKESPEARE?
Ha ha ha, oh, not necessarily.
I love classical theatre but my visual reference system all come
from film. When I'm directing theatre, I always refer to films
to try to convey to actors the shorthand of a scene. I'll say
"Remember the piece in the Godfather when Brando did so-and-so,"
or, "There's that scene when Burt Lancaster said to so-and-so
in Sweet Smell Of Success"... They don't know what I'm talking
about half the time.
SO YOU PREFER A VISIT TO THE
CINEMA TO "THEATRE GOING", DO YOU?
Oh yes, that is absolutely true.
I like being able to talk while the film is on and I like being
able to have something to eat. I like a bucket of popcorn and
a drink. The cinema is a slightly more alive thing, strangely
enough. I go to the theatre so I can see my mates in things but
the whole physical process of going there, buying a ticket, buying
a ridiculously priced drink or a ridiculously priced ice cream
and the terrible, ridiculously priced programme - I just think,
"Oh, fuck this, I could be going to the pictures and having
a better time, getting up and going to the loo if I need to and
not feel terrible about it, paying less than a quarter of this."
And just think if you're on the other side of the camera, actually
making the film. Christ, you get to be seen by so many more people
- and that's exciting.
HOW DID YOU FIND WORKING IN HOLLYWOOD?
"LIFE ENHANCING" OR JUST GHASTLY?
Neither really. I'm sure Hollywood
is quite ghastly - there's only about 300 people who run the
place, you know. I was surrounded by Hollywood horror stories
of interference from studio people, but I had a very lucky experience.
Paramount liked me because I didn't fuck up on practicalities:
I was on schedule and I was cheap. They've just sent me the final
budget figures and Dead Again cost under 15 million dollars.
Fourteen million, nine hundred and fifty-seven thousand dollars!
Fuck me that seems like a lot of money to me, but in their terms,
it was probably the least expensive picture Paramount had made
in the last year. I was Mr Reasonable, Mr Efficient, so they
SO NEXT TIME YOU GO TO HOLLYWOOD,
YOU'LL BE ABLE TO GO COMPLETELY BONKERS?
Well, I like to think that maybe
I'll be given a little bit of rope with which to hang myself
DO YOU THINK THAT THE CHOICE
OF EMMA THOMPSON AS YOUR, ER, LEADING LADY WAS A SOUND ONE?
Oh, yes, because I was convinced
that the belief in the chemical combination of the man and woman
must be right - so I was insistent that my wife should play the
other part. I wanted a team around me that I knew so I was insistent
that Derek Jacobi should be there too and that the nucleus of
the creative team that had been on Henry V should be there. I
had to make it under those terms otherwise I wouldn't do it.
It was never going to be a hi-tech glossy thriller . . . Emma
is a terrific actress you know; I know that casting her in Dead
Again may be seen as a bit of a cop-out, but we had a good professional
relationship which led to good acting before we fell in love.
And, er, well...
WHAT IS ROBIN WILLIAMS DOING
IN YOUR FILM? AND WHY IS HE A 'SECRET'?
Robin is brilliant - and he's
a secret partly because he wanted it that way and partly because
the reaction when he comes on and they are not expecting him
is delicious. It stops setting up the wrong kind of expectations:
it would be wrong if his big fans thought this was a Robin Williams
movie. He was very interested in the part - the slightly sinister
thing. He said when he saw it "Christ! I didn't realise
I could be THAT seedy!"
HOW WAS HOLLYWOOD SOCIALLY? AWESOME
PARTIES? MOUNDS OF COCAINE?
Do you know, Emma and I are the
most fucking boring, boring fucking people in the world. In nine
months we were there in Hollywood, we went to one do: an American
Cinema tech tribute to Martin Scorsese who is a great hero of
mine. They can be pretty ghastly those kinds of things. But it
was OK because essentially in America nobody in America knows
who the fuck I am so I could be quite anonymous ... There's a
great piece in John Sessions' new show where Robert De Niro has
a great fall out with Scorsese so De Niro goes to England and
decides he's going to be a theatre actor and he learns panto
and he's in panto with Sue pollard in Wimbledon. And then he
goes back to America and he is so camp, with a kind of language
taught to him by Billy Sparkle, the actor's friend. I felt a
bit like that all the time in Hollywood. A bit kind of surreal
I suppose. But most of the time I was just knackered. All I ever
wanted to do in Hollywood was come home, glass of wine, bowl
of something in front of the telly and blank off. I was a bit
monkish in Hollywood ... I was also really fucking scared shitless,
ha ha ha.
YOU WERE NOMINATED FOR OSCARS
FOR HENRY V, BUT YOU'VE SUGGESTED THAT THE INDUSTRY JUST SAW
IT AS SOME KIND OF FEISTY BATTLE SCENE OATER...
That's exactly how it was seen
in that way by alot of potential employers. Oscar nominations
help but they don't stop people from misunderstanding you. Fortunately,
Henry V was incredibly enjoyed by the public there. They tell
that over there it's the third highest grossing art film of all
time, which doesn't mean much in terms of money - although we've
done about 20 million dollars which for something that cost about
eight million dollars is extraordinary. So it was very interesting
that Henry V caught on so much in America. I got a lot of letters
from people who were grateful that they had seen something like
that and actually enjoyed it as opposed to just thinking it was
good for them. It cut through the middle of the snobby thing
and the intimidating thing: people would write to me as if they
were drowning men who'd found some kind of raft to cling to in
relation to this ogre of difficult english literature. All very
HENRY V WAS RECEIVED RATHER DIFFERENTLY
IN ENGLAND. CERTAIN CRITICS SEEMED A LITTLE PEEVISH...
Ha ha - that's a good way to
describe it: "peevish". I mean, last year at the European
Film Awards, Henry V got two things and the next week an English
critic - who bemoans the state of the British film industry every
other week - said, "Well, there is no accounting for taste."
Which is just indicative of the negative corner people get into.
I just feel that the influence of the cinema is such that it
has an important part to play at a time like this, to entertain,
to illuminate, to enlighten, to exhilarate, to ... I'm sorry,
I seem to be wittering on a bit here....
HOW DO YOU REACT TO PERSONAL
CRITICISM? DO YOU EVER THINK,"WHY DOES EVERYBODY HATE ME?"
I do, and I don't understand
it, to be perfectly honest. It's just an arbitrary thing that
this country is very capable of: a resentment that just occurs
against someone who is relatively young and relatively successful.
It is always upsetting when you read abusive stuff about yourself.
You feel bruised, you know. Christ knows, you make a film and
it takes 18 months so that it is a great personal investment
and when people don't like it, you have a bit of a blub. But
swiftly you recover because, essentially, it's meaningless. It's
just a fucking film. It is completely and utterly unimportant,
isn't it? My life, my personal happiness, does not hang upon
what people think of Henry V or Dead Again. Ninety percent of
the world don't know you've made the fucking thing anyway. But
I just try to keep my head down. There's so many other fucking
horrible things in the world that the fact that some people find
you annoying is not the greatest revelation. So what the fuck?
There's fucking nothing to complain about. You want to be in
fucking Bangladesh! If some people don't like your films, what
a tragedy, what a great personal tragedy! You won't get rid of
me that easily. I'm MUCH too fucking thick-skinned for that.
WHAT SORT OF THING DO YOU FIND
There's something about those
70's sitcom shows where people are time locked: George and Mildred,
Love Thy Neighbour, Rising Damp. I love all that. Emma and I
watched Benny Hill in America and we were looking at each other
absolutely amazed. He's in a fucking time capsule. It's 20 years
on and he's still doing gags like he walks up to a door and it
says "Push", and then he comes to a bell-pull and it
has a sign saying "pull", and then a woman comes in
with enormous breasts and she's wearing a name tag saying "Pat".
You can't believe that this is still happening - and it's done
with such commitment! I'm ashamed to say that Emma and I found
it very, VERY funny.
HAVE YOU SEEN YOUR SPITTING IMAGE
PUPPET? IT'S QUITE A JOLLY LITTLE FELLOW.
Is it? Ha ha ha. No I haven't
seen it. Haven't avoided it either, it's just that...er, I don't
read the papers, actually. I just get the news off the radio
and assume the world will do whatever it wants regardless of
whether the nation is pantingly waiting for Kenneth Branagh's
movie. I don't think it is.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO DO SOME COMEDY
YOURSELF IN THE FUTURE?
Yes, I would. I often feel that
my natural predisposition is that way. The kind of people I would
have liked to have met are people like Tony Hancock - a most
fascinating, dark, infuriating creature; mad but a bit of a genius
- Max Miller and Eric Morcambe. That's why I love working with
Richard Briers. He's a genuinely funny man - much funnier as
a person than he ever is acting. He's got a real spice in him,
a real dark side to him, likes a drink. I'd love to do some comedy
like Briers and co. I think that I've got to the stage now where
everybody expects me to be a Serious Lovey, so I can afford to
do something a bit farty. Who knows, I might even make a really
good film one of these days......
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium