Director Kenneth Branagh Talks Setting the Film Apart from Other Action-Thrillers, Playing the Villain, and More on the Set of 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit'
Collider, 6 January 2014
After the worldwide success of Marvelís 'Thor', Kenneth Branagh must have been offered a number of high profile projects as a follow up. So when I got to participate in a group interview on the London set in October of 2012, the first thing we asked him was why 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit'? He told us:
ďThe script arrived and it was unputdownable. It came out of the blue. I was going to be making another movie, it went away, and this one came to me, and I read it and responded very strongly as a kind of film I go to see. The script engaged me because it was a page-turner but this big personal story that youíre invested in at the heart of it.Ē
During the rest of the interview, Branagh talked about what sets this apart from other action-thrillers, playing the villain, balancing the action and drama, why they filmed in London, how Jack Ryan is not like Jason Bourne, James Bond, or Ethan Hunt, and much more.
Question: What made you want to make a Jack Ryan movie?
KENNETH BRANAGH: The script arrived and it was unputdownable and I knew the previous films, Iíd read some of the books and simple as that. It came out of the blue. I was going to be making another movie, it went away, and this one came to me, and I read it and responded very strongly as a kind of film I go to see. The world of the film has the antecedent of the Ď70s movies of great style that I very much admired. All the Presidentís Men, Parallax View, things like thisóquite extreme espionage thrillers with slightly distorted worlds. No Dutch camera angles, no worry. (laughter) Itís me and Haris Zambarloukos again but we found a spirit level on the camera (chuckles).
I donít know if you spoke to Chris [Pine], heís very eloquent about this but I liked Bond and I liked Bourne and I liked 'Mission: Impossible' and this is distinct from all those because heís not a paid assassin. Heís not a man coming up from program. We donít have the flamboyance of say Bond and we donít have the extremity of something like 'Mission: Impossible' as far as the technology and things that go on. In a weird way, even though Jack Ryan is the brightest and the best, heís sort of an analyst with the great skillful, intellectual mind, heís also in relative terms, heís kind of an everyman. He doesnít have the range of skills that Liam Neeson and I have a very particular set. He doesnít have that particular set of talents, but heís got his brain and heís got a desire to do something, to serve in some way and so all of that. Itís rich stuff.
With something like 'Thor', the human dimension inside a world full of fantastical elements and many disparate elements often felt like you were making lots of different films and with this, thereís also that element which for me, if you can get it right, leads to an interesting experience for the audience. You get surprised, thereís unexpected turns, and at the center of it, in both cases and certainly here, is this human element. The script engaged me because it was a page-turner but this big personal story that youíre invested in at the heart of it.
How do you balance the drama with the action?
BRANAGH: Itís a constant question between what you can take. Weíre very blessed with the actors, so Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley and a ton of other people who are really strong. We had people like David Paymer in the other day for just a small section of the film. Heís brilliant in it. These are people who once you get into a close-up, if you have story working for you, how they think is very, very striking and so definitely, the landscape of the close-up, the orchestration of that, versus bits of action like weíre doing today, so itís about a sleight of hand as he gets from one vehicle into another. Heís being followed. Heís in the headquarters of the man who may appear to be his nemesis, and so this is all about multiple camera angles and lots and lots of coverage so we can really pace it up and confuse and then sometimes, itís just what you hope is just the well-composed frame into which a very interesting character, played by a very interesting actor, walks and thinks for a bit, and it seems to me that it would be a very fascinating post-production process to try and orchestrate between the two things. I hope we have plenty of both.
I think weíve all been surprised ó Lorenzo, Mace. We had much more action than we thought weíd have, but we have the other dimension, the thinking man part of it and the thinking woman part of it, because Keira Knightleyís role is extremely central to how the story plays out. We have the resources to orchestrate both I think in a gripping way.
At one point did you decide you wanted to play a villain role as well and whatís your approach to that character?
BRANAGH: It came to me as a director but it became clear to me that Paramount were very interested in me playing Cherevin, and I said, ďWell, letís just put that on the sideburner. Let me talk to Chris and see our relationship is and letís see how we can cast the next important character to cast, Cathy his wife then Keira came along and we were very luck to get Kevin as well. And then by that stage, as I saw all those people sitting in the middle of the movie and by now, Chris and I had talked about some of the larger thematic strands in it, so itís partly old vs. new, old empire vs. new empire in a strange paradox where you might say that America is strangely the old empire and new money is Russia post-Glastnost and everything else is a new empire and thatís a swing from previous historical versions. Itís East and West in cultural attitudes and then itís a personal kind of serious of opposites of Jack and Cherevin in relation to what it takes to be a patriot.
If there was a subtitle at the moment for the ever-evolving story of whatís the film about, it would be at least partly that. ďWhat it takes to be a patriot?Ē How do you make a contribution that is not to do with nationalism but is to do with this very interesting subject of what love of country may mean when thatís a concept people sometimes can understand but really, whether in the military or sometimes in politics, our more ordinary smaller lives, you might say, weíre mostly interpreting that through interaction with people, with individuals, and how you relate to your fellow soldier or your fellow worker or your partner in life. We were so full of these things springing out of this we hope very good yarn that I thought that now I have a handle on how to give the other side of that, to make that side of the story as personal as possible, to try to answer your question. So how do you approach it? Like make it as personal a story, not a cardboard villain. Iíve never used the word villain in relation to him because if you play it, I donít think you can see it that way. Thereís this fellow called (puts on Russian accent) Victor Cherevin, who is a very powerful guy and he has a very particular grudge and a pain that is in his system and that he wants to do something about, and he has the imagination to go with it and take on America, the CIA and Jack Ryan all at once. All of those clashes I hope makes for good drama.
Can you talk about wanting to shoot this in London rather than anywhere else?
BRANAGH: Well, itís a good question. Initially, there had been ideas of shooting in all sorts of different places and sometimes, it can seem as if the constituent parts could be changed, it could be any international city, but the plot might suggest, because itís a global economy and an economic crisis, a disaster, a catastrophe in fact thatís linked to the center of this, but I felt that the initial instincts of the script and what I received from David Koepp very much meant that Russia in the East and America in the West were important to be distinct in terms of the internal character of the individuals and the sort of cultural strands coming out of the story. It didnít strain. It was getting good rich stuff. Actually, shooting in these places got complicated and complex, so for instance, Moscow is an amazing city but itís a challenge to work in because itís so big and so spread out, so some of what we wanted, which is the brilliantly noisy architecture of Moscow. Lots of buildings going up and the sense of the city being transformed. We felt that we could get in some parts of the city of London and get the scale and some visual effects, which will also allow us to create some of what we had to do ourselves. Victor Cheverinís building is going to be an adaptation of what you see here, and so we felt as thoughÖ we needed a place where perhaps, frankly, we could benefit from the tax rebates and we were pointed in all sorts of directions.
You make a film nowadays and of course everybody is going to knock on your door, from New Orleans to Montreal to wherever, the Isle of Man. There are advantageous conditions here plus London has big city DNA, big city architecture, and that was important for us, and we were able to also go to Liverpool and find some old imperianÖ Liverpool was once the most important city in the world for a short time when it was the center of the shipping industry and various trades, some notorious, so that was able to provide us with some old imperial Moscow that frankly is gone. We felt as if we could get the big landscape by moving around and adding some visual FX back here and get our lovely tax rebate as well.
You did an accent as Sir Laurence Olivier in 'My Week with Marilyn' which was quite comical. Have you refined that a bit so this is not as broad?
BRANAGH: Well, that was sort of a Ruritanian. This is literally ó I promise Iím not fibbing ó you can see that the light is dropping like a stone. Weíre sort of in canyon land here. Yeah, that was more of a Ruritanian kind of Prisoner of Zenda kind of accent that he adopted for The Sleeping Prince. Here, weíve got a couple Russian friends of ours now who daily listen to me. I have to speak some real Russian and they try to keep me on the straight and narrow. I love doing it. Itís a fantastic, fantastic language. Itís a great thing and the accent is also making it very distinct, but very easy for it to go too far in the other way. One of the things we tried to do with all the performances and Kevinís giving a sensational performance, so are Keira and Chris are the key to them, so Iím watching and learning from the three of them who are masters, I must say, all masters of this screen acting lark. Itís all very fascinating to watch. They are simple and simple is hard to do, simple is so hard to do, and I think they do it after a lot of practice of being complex, etc, so Iím trying to be simple with an accent and natural and naturalistic, thatís our cunning plan.