Kenneth's Labour of Love, 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? 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 that's alright.

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 about?

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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