To Be or Not Mister B?
Premiere (France), May 1997
by Jean-Yves Katelan
**thanks to Marie-Dominique Vançon for translation
At 36, he has at last made
his lifes dream. So, is it exhaltation or baby blues?
Première : 2 years
ago, you said you would be speaking French.
Kenneth Branagh : Hum... I have
a small appartment in central London in Covent Garden and this
morning I read an advert in the Herald Tribune which said there
was an excellent language school just a couple of feet away from
where I live. Right now Ive just finished Altmans
next film The Gingerbread Man, and the Hamlet promotions
coming to an end, Ive nothing else planned until the end
of the year. So the first thing Ill do when I get back
to London tomorrow morning is get down to learning French !
Q. You were supposed to learn
A. Compared to my non-existant
French, my Italian exists un poco.
Q. Anyway, down to work. Where
did you get the strange idea of adapting Hamlet in extenso ?
A. Since Henry V, my first film
in '88, my next project was Hamlet. The only problem was that
in '90 Gibson had his with Zeffirelli ; I had to wait. But after
Frankenstein I said to myself that I had to go ahead : I had
very little time left before I got too old for the role. Hamlet
was one of the very first plays I ever saw in my life, and Ive
been bowled over ever since that first time. At the time Id
felt it rather than understood it and during the next twenty
years, right up until now, Ive tried to understand what
it is Id experienced. The idea of the film was to try and
restore this physical reaction which took me over that first
time. Having said that, the play works no matter what you do;
even in the innumerable cut versions which have already been
made. In fact, I think its impossible to go over them all.
Its entertaining, a thriller, a family drama all at the
same time... And you can only put that across by using the unedited
version. There are an incredible number of incidents and the
last time I acted it in theatre, I had the impression it was
richer and easier to understand - as if there had been a cumulative
effect... Having said that, convincing the public is a challenge
whereas financing the film hasnt at all been part of the
Q. What was your reasoning
? The casting ?
A. I started working with Castle
Rock to finance Othello and to release A Midwinters Tale.
Afterwards I told myself to stop everything until Id made
Hamlet - or at least that I was sure it was going to be made.
And I ended up convincing Castle Rock. I told them : I dont
know precisely who will be in the credits but itll be an
international release. And they decided to follow my strong convictions
towards Hamlet. At the end of the day passion impresses the studios.
Its as good a reason as any... Even if one only gets as
far as it being the quintessential "art film" in the
most pejorative of Hollywood senses, it has always been a question
of this being an expensive film. Its an 18 million-dollar
budget - not an enormous sum for a big studio but even so, its
a lot of money... Saying that, all the actors worked for much
less than their usual fee.
Q. Does this budget include
promotional and editing expenses ?
A. No, the release expenses were
separate. It therefore remains a major risk for Castle Rock.
Even when considering that this type of film has a long-life
expectancy and will be used for educational purposes ; moreover
the CD ROM produced from the film is remarkable.
Q. What HAVENT you wanted
to do ?
A. I havent wanted to "explain"
Hamlets character. Or in my case that he cannot be explained
in any single way : for example, "hes in love with
his mother" or "hes mad" or "hes
gay"... Hes a character full of contradictions : I
wanted to show all his facets because it seems to me we are all
capable of having these contradictions, especially in families
! I wanted to leave room for every possible interpretation. So
that the plays mystery fully works...
Q. This isnt at all
an American principle.
A. And its probably one
of American cinemas major problems ; you become aware of
it when looking for financial backing. The studios want to reduce
the subject absolutely, so they can sum it up in one sentence
: "Boy meets girl. Girl dies. Boy is sad. Boy meets girls
ghost. They live happily ever after and have lots of children".
That sort of thing... As for me, once you get me onto Hamlet
youd be able to come back and fetch me the next week because
Id still be there ! And then they ask you : "But how
are we going to sell all that ?"
Q. And how did they "sell"
the film in the U.S.A ?
A. Ha ! A bit like "THE
EPIC DRAMA BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE" using that same loud
voice they use for all their trailers, the one that says "SCHWARZENEGGER
! STALLONE ! HAMLET ! BRANAGH IS BACK AND HES DRESSED IN
Q. What did you cut out for
the short version ?
A. Well, half of it !
Q. And when did you decide
to make one ?
A. The contract stipulated I
had to provide a two-hour version.
Q. Therefore right from the
A. Yes. Its totally linked
to the films financing. I just asked, if you please, to
release the long version first. So that it had a chance. I asked
them : "In your opinion, whos going to go and see
the short version ?" They answered : "Those who are
put off by the idea of a four hour film. And if they go and see
the short version, they may perhaps go and see the long version
afterwards." Having said that, I didnt put together
the short version before being sure the four hour one had had
a chance. I waited until the beginning of this year. And its
quite simply a question of a condensed, miniaturised version.
Far less scenes - the opening for example, as is often the case.
Q. Youve cut Depardieus
A. Yes. Even if I think it says
a lot about Polonius character (Richard Briers), its
true that its not really needed to follow the intrigue.
Q. With all these stars in
really small roles, arent you afraid that people will only
want to see their "acts" ?
A. Theys nothing wrong
with that. One of the reasons for this casting is to entice people
into watching the play from a different viewpoint. There are
so many clichés concerning Hamlet, even for people who
have never even seen it ! When you see Billy Crystal of Robin
Williams, you see the scene in a different way ; its a
way of getting rid of the audiences over-familiarity with
the play. There have been so many versions, and the last one,
Gibsons is only five or six years old. It was necessary
to convince people - and this is often the case with Shakespeare
- that there is a reason to go and see it. That it isnt
simply an ego trip on my part.
Q. This Hamlets more
like your Frankenstein than your other Shakespearean adaptations.
Was that intentional ?
A. There are certain similarities
between the subject matters. The scale of course and deaths
omnipresence. Victor Frankenstein gets going after the death
of his mother and Hamlet has trouble accepting his fathers
disappearance. And then they both live in enormous, empty castles.
Where this is concerned, I chose not to create a gloomy, gothic
universe in both cases : the places in which they live are bright
and colourful... The darkness is inside themselves.
Q. Does this bring out anything
A. Above all its about
one of mans most fundamental questions ! Right from the
awakening of our consciousness we know that during our lifetime
we will endure the loss of someone we love. At totally random
moments. In fact, what interests me is the way in which people
get a grip on the possible loss of close ones. Whether its
a question of death or the end of a love story... What makes
life worth living ? Friendship and love is the answer, "distractions"
from the idea that life isnt just a pile of shit. Ha ha...
Q. Hence, could you die now
A. Now Ive produced something
this satisfying, the idea of going across the road to learn French
could be truly interesting. Before, I wouldnt have been
able to do it. Because Hamlets always been there, this
dissatisfying thing, this mountain to climb... Its not
that I have this impression of having created something perfect,
its simply having done it. I believe this story is also
in parallel, at least partly, with the moment in which a young
person becomes a man. When he lets go of the fight against that
which be considers to be unjust. One day somebody gave me this
definition of suffering : "suffering is a resistance against
that which is." A resistance against facts. Its not
that the end of Hamlets insensitive, its that hes
even more ready to let go. By making this film Ive
let go a bit of an obsession which was cutting me up.
Q. Do you feel empty of fulfilled
A. More fulfilled. Of course,
Im not indifferent to public opinion, but its not
really what counts. Whats important is that I had the chance
to do what I wanted. With Frankenstein I found myself, on the
contrary, in a process which was completely tainted by the inflating
budget. One has a sense of feeling crushed which has nothing
to do with the film.
Q. Is Frankenstein a good
or a bad memory ?
A. To tell the truth its
not a memory at all. Its more like a dream from which I
feel strangely detached. Theres just something left in
me which reminds me that it was very hard. Physically and morally,
and then in the story itself there were far less light and hopeful
moments than in Hamlet where even though everyone dies, there
still remains a feeling of exhaltation.
Q. Have you spoken to Stephen
Frears, who had a similar experience with "Mary Reilly",
about it ?
A. Almost... We caught a plane
together last week, but as soon as the film crops up, his face
changes ! Its a very low point in his life. Whats
funny is that Mary Reilly and Frankenstein are both Columbia
films and were made at the same time - him at Pinewood and me
at Shepperton. In fact we spent our time crossing paths ! By
the way, we could be working together next year. On a film for
television that he would produce, and in which I would play an
English memorialist who wrote his diaries between 1660 and 1669
; he was a commander in the navy, he knew the King... A bit like
Q. Youre not well-liked
in England. Hows your relationship with the young film
makers like Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting) ?
A. Ive nevertheless got
some fans over there ; its the critics I have trouble with.
Ive known Danny for years but there isnt the phenomenon
of a "group" or "wave". Each works in his
own corner. Having said that, its a small circle and we
spend our time crossing paths with each other. Whats more,
English cinema is in rather a fast period at the moment. Therefore
everyone is more willing to share their ideas and inspirations...
The atmopheres more generous. I think that one day Danny
Boyle and I will make a film together.
Q. And come back to make films
in England ?
A. English directors are resisting
the idea of going to the States straight after their first success
more and more. At present Im building a house in England
and its where I want to live. In the coming months Ill
probably get down to writing and I have a few ideas Id
like to produce in England.
Q. Have you finished with
Q. For the moment. Its
always been a long process with the plays Ive adapted.
I took notes, questioned people in order to identify key images...
Hamlets opening scene for example, with the ghost, I wrote
in '90 ! Therefore I dont think Id be able to make
another for a good couple of years. Id have to let it stew.
Q. And yet youve just
made "Shakespeares Sister".
A. Yes, but surely theyre
going to change the title. Because it has absolutely nothing
to do with Shakespeare ! The producers have only just realised
its not really a good title.
Q. What do you think about
the recent audacious Shakespearean adaptations ? Especially Al
Pacinos (Looking for Richard) and Baz Luhrmann (Romeo and
A. Pacino, its such a mad,
passionate and personal journey ; and theres an extraordinary
authenticity. And I adored Baz Luhrmanns film because his
treatment is so radical ! So different from Zeffirelli and yet
it gets straight to the heart of the play : teenage love, teenage
violence... I think the play comes through it and if you study
Romeo and Juliet at school, this provides you with millions of
subjects to discuss ! Its very stimulating. And very coherent.
Q. Have you ever thought of
treating Shakespeare like that ?
A. No. Im too much guided
by the words themselves. For me, their music is a very important
element, whereas Baz Luhrmann chose to favour the visual aspect.
Q. Would you say its
a gay version ?
A. Its certainly "ham
acting". But very effective.
Last question : are there
any truths about yourself youd like to establish?
A. There are far too many for
the time we have left !...
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