Kenneth's Labour of Love
Reel.com, June 1 2000
by Tor Thorsen
Few thespians have suffered the
slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as much as Kenneth Branagh.
After a distinguished theater career with Britain's Royal Shakespeare
Company, he burst onto the international film stage in 1989 with
his phenomenal directorial debut Henry V, in which he also starred.
In the last decade, however, his career has been anything but
regal. Following several acclaimed collaborations with his former
wife Emma Thompson (Dead Again, Peter's Friends), Branagh's acting
projects have either met with critical disdain (Wild Wild West),
have been shunned at the box office (The Road to El Dorado),
or both (Celebrity). He hasn't fared well on the directorial
front either: Besides being shut out of the Oscars, his much-ballyhooed,
four-hour-plus verbatim adaptation of Hamlet took in less money
than an Elsinore Castle doorman on no-tip Tuesdays. In fact,
Branagh's greatest acting/directing success since Henry V was
taking one of Shakespeare's most celebrated comedies, Much Ado
About Nothing, and setting it in the lush scenery of 16th-century
Italy. Now the actor/director is set for a comeback with perhaps
his most innovative adaptation of a Bard play, a 1930s-style
musical version of Love's Labour's Lost. The film, which has
already shown at a benefit screening at Cannes and opened the
Seattle International Film Festival, begins its U.S. theatrical
run on June 9. But is the public ready to have song and dance
alongside sobering soliloquies? Reel.com sat down with the master
thespian (and a gaggle of other reporters) to find out.
Q: So, how was Cannes?
Kenneth Branagh: Well, Love's
Labour's had a gala screening at the beginning of this huge amfAR
[American Foundation for AIDS Research] benefit and
[Suddenly the door opens and
Kevin Kline enters the room.]
KB: And you are? Excuse me! As
I live and breathe!
[The two clown around briefly
to the amusement of reporters before Kline exits to the sound
of Branagh's playful insults.]
KB: It seems like we've worked
together all our lives, actually. When I was doing Much Ado About
Nothing I met Kevin in New York. You know, we always have lots
in common. Then we did this cartoon for most of our lives, took
about four years to do El Dorado
Yeah, but we did this amfAR benefit.
The film went on and then we had to go to this fashion show.
I had never been to a fashion show before, and it was just extraordinary.
Y'know, this Victoria's Secret thing with little things sprayed
on people? It just seemed a bit odd to me. Then there was a bizarre
auction afterwards and Harvey [Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax]
was just wild of course. I found myself stripped half-naked on
a grand piano being massaged by Heidi Klum by way of demonstrating
the massage she was to auction.
Q: You make it sound like
this is a bad thing.
KB: In front of 850 close friends
as we were, I found it rather embarrassing myself. Probably not
as embarrassing as she found it. James Caan was also on the same
piano with me.
Q: That is embarrassing!
KB: We raised lots of money so
Q: I was very impressed from
the first two frames of the movie where it says "Presented
by Martin Scorsese and Stanley Donen." How did that come
KB: I was very impressed.
I was awestruck. Harvey Weinstein, a man of many talents, decided
in his infinite wisdom that last September when we were almost
at the end of post-production that he would screen the film in
New York and invite some people. We were very aware that we had
something unusual and we knew the various elements that were
a challenge to market. We had a musical, and people haven't done
'em in this way for years and years. It's an obscure Shakespeare
play that people won't know. It's a cast of actors who are principally
in there as actors [instead of movie stars]. So [Harvey] wanted
to have the opinions of some people who knew the genre well.
We'd had this experience with screenings where it seemed to play
very well but it was unquestionably something people were genuinely
surprised by. From the moment the first number began people would
look around [like] "My god, they've started to sing!"
"Well, we told you it was a f***ing musical!" And then
you get this odd change of tone at the end because you get this
bad news and anyway, we had this screening and he invited
Scorsese who I had known for some years, and Stanley Donen who
I didn't know but obviously admired and who was something of
an influence on this film. They gave us their opinions and were
very, very supportive. They both said don't change anything.
And Harvey, as only Harvey can, decided that their endorsement
would be very helpful so he asked them and they both said yes.
So that's how they appear on the film.
Q: What made you want to bring
back the musical now? What made you feel the time was right?
KB: Well, who knows, maybe the
time isn't right. We'll soon find out! I had watched a lot of
musicals growing up they seemed to be an absolute staple
of British television in the late '60s/early '70s. That's where
I began to see this very vivid color palette, films in a sort
of world that was bright Technicolor, Wizard-of-Oz color, ever
so vibrant, escapist, glamorous; full of these graceful people
who were always doing silly things but were always charming.
It was always a simple plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl,
etc., and when I came to do Love's Labour's Lost in the theater,
it shared many of the same characteristics. Those films are mainly
about romance, and Love's Labour's Lost is also. It's also very
silly with a very thin plot, where the plot is actually secondary
to the main pleasure which is the execution of it, the flourish
with which it is all done the elan. So it seemed to me
like it would be a good marriage. Classic songs of that period
talk about the same subject romantic love so the
possibility of a screenplay where [there are] transitions from
the play into songs seemed to have a chance of working. What
I thought it could do would be to celebrate a very uncynical
form. There was a sort of abandon in those films, a carefree
quality, a lack of cynicism, and I think it's true of the play.
For all its sharpness and satire, it's still quite innocent.
Shakespeare's writing seems very exuberant. He doesn't really
care how many clashing styles there are in it he's got
low comedy and high comedy and romance and grotesque subplots
and he changes the tone of the play right at the end. It's wonderfully
undisciplined. It feels like a young man's play, it feels untypical
of his other comedies. I wanted to make a film like that, that
had that sort of delight in its own eccentricity. I definitely
wanted to put a smile on people's faces.
Q: Did you have some kind
of musical Shakespeare epiphany? I mean, did Love's Labour's
Lost as a musical just pop fully formed into your head or were
you actively seeking different ways to interpret it?
KB: A bit of both. Sometimes
people assume that I'm going to do all of these plays, you know?
[Laughter.] You work with the ones that you have a strong feeling
about. I was intrigued by introducing a play to people that they
weren't necessarily aware of. I mean, I've never seen Love's
Labour's Lost in the theater. I've been in it, but I haven't
seen it. It's rare and I've missed it whenever it's been on.
I've been amused sometimes by friends who come and see this film
and say, [adopts snooty voice] "Yeah, I haven't read the
play for a while
." Yeah, right. And when they go on
about, "Well, you've cut quite a lot." "Well,
how would you know? How would you know what I've cut?" We've
tried with each of these [Shakespearean adaptations] to find
ways of challenging the way we communicate the story, the way
we get it across to people. Although there's been this revival
over the last ten years of Shakespeare films, many people still
couldn't give a monkey's [translation: couldn't care less] and
find it dull and boring and stodgy. But that keeps you very much
on your toes. I don't necessarily want to convert people, but
I would like to offer them the choice. I would like to say, "Well,
make up your own mind here. We will try and divest it of some
of the things that put you off." It's interesting because
it's a fine line to walk. You don't want to patronize people
or be so gimmick-led that you are defeating another central purpose
which is keeping [Shakespeare's] language alive. We cut [dialogue
from] this play but we don't change the language that remains.
We try in the speaking of it to make it very clear, but also
very human and real. All of those things keep you on your toes.
Q: Some of the actors were
great singers and some were okay dancers. I wondered how much
the casting dictated your approach? I mean, once you've got Nathan
Lane and Adrian Lester onboard, you know you've got two veterans
of the boards who can do the musical show bit.
KB: People were cast because
of what I thought would be their ability with Shakespeare. And
then I hoped that all the singing and dancing would come out
of the characters. Here's a specific example. We all had singing
lessons. I had sung a bit and danced a bit at drama school
not a natural at either, but I enjoyed both, and when I work
on it I can get it up to some kind of standard. The point being
that I wanted to sing and dance like I thought Berowne [Branagh's
character] would sing and dance. So when we recorded the songs,
I did the end song which I sing the first bit of, "You Can't
Take That Away from Me." And actually, in the first recording
session I sang it really quite well. Of course, so much ego and
vanity comes into it, when I was in front of that microphone
I was so desperate to sound like I was a terrific singer, and
I had taken all these lessons. And Pat Doyle who did the score,
he came up to me and said, "I'll tell you what the problem
is here. You actually have sung it quite well, but the problem
is it just isn't Berowne singing. Kenneth Branagh's ego has taken
over. I think you should go back and sing it as Berowne. Really
sing it from the point of view of the situation, where you're
saying goodbye to a woman you may never see again." So we
went back and did that. So it's a little cracklier, it just is
what it is. It's that quality that I had to face up to in that
situation with myself that I wanted from everybody else. I was
prepared to eschew slickness for some kind of reality.
Also, I didn't mind what you
might think of as the inconsistencies. I suppose if I was in
another world, if I wanted to look like a better dancer, I wouldn't
have put Adrian Lester in it, I wouldn't have given him a two-minute
solo. But I wanted to celebrate that, in the same way I wanted
to celebrate Nathan Lane having this wonderful Broadway quality,
so that he can sing in such a moving fashion the first part of
"There's No Business Like Show Business." With Adrian
as Dumaine, I said to him, "Look, you'll be around a lot.
This will be a proper ensemble and you'll be on a lot. You haven't
got much to say, it's luxury casting for us having you, but I'd
like you to do it and we'll give you this two-minute slot. Please
be absolutely brilliant and would you do the thing with the chairs
that Fred Astaire did on Shall We Dance?" The mood on this
picture was that when he did that, all the other actors came
to watch and gave him a round of applause at the end. We were
all so thrilled, as we were all so f***ing terrified when we
did "No Business Like Show Business" because we had
all this bloody tap dancing to do.
Q: Did you look at any modern
musicals? Did you look at, say, the South Park movie or Everyone
Says I Love You?
KB: I did. South Park - that's
a real musical. They've got a real soft spot for musicals, those
boys. I did look at that and Everyone Says I Love You
especially the end section where it goes very classic in terms
of musicals. That's where I felt maybe we had a chance with this
kind of thing. Because maybe one of the issues with musicals
over the last 30, 40 years is that, in the theater, subject matter
changed from the mid-'60s onwards. It was possible to do a musical
about a South American dictator which, because of its near-operatic
quality, was maybe easier to accept in the theater than it was,
at least for a while, on film. People felt uneasy, I think. But
a musical that deals with romantic love, escapism, and glamour
appeals to that part of us that would love to have a top hat
and tails available to us at a restaurant with some lovely friend
of ours and a romantic orchestra playing in the background.
Q: Do you want to go back
to the theater?
KB: I get asked occasionally.
You know, I haven't been in a play for seven years. I can't believe
it. I think I will soon. I haven't quite found the right thing
to do, but I think I will.
Q: So what's next for you?
A Winter's Tale on ice?
KB: That's a good idea. Do I
have to credit you if I do it that way?
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