As He Likes It
San Jose Mercury News, May 22,
by Glenn Lovell
Shakespearean director takes
common approach to life, art
Now it can be told.
Kenneth Branagh, the much-admired
Irish actor and filmmaker who specializes in lusty treatments
of the Bard, is really a regular guy who most enjoys a "beer
out with the gang" and a good B-movie.
In a wide-ranging interview over
biscuits and tea, the 32-year-old director and star of the current
"Much Ado About Nothing" revealed:
His early passion was for low-budget
horror films, such as "Curse of the Demon" with Dana
Andrews and "One Million Years B.C." with Raquel Welch
and "no dialogue . . . It was impossible to follow."
His boyhood home away from home
was the Roxy Theater in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He didn't
set foot in a legit theater until he was 16.
Given a choice, he would opt
for Hollywood's sci-fi spin on Shakespeare's "The Tempest"
- 1956's "Forbidden Planet" - over countryman Peter
Greenaway's free-wheeling "Prospero's Books," with
The play may be the thing in
many cases, but money also counts for something. He refused screen
credit for his Gestapo agent in Disney's "Swing Kids"
because "they didn't pay enough. . . .If they had paid better,
they could have had me."
The merry deceit of his "Much
Ado" - co-starring Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, wife
Emma Thompson and an unintelligible Michael Keaton as Dogberry
- owes as much to the teams of Laurel and Hardy and Hepburn and
Tracy as to Shakespeare.
Thompson's brand-new Oscar -
awarded for "Howards End" - resides in the downstairs
loo, on the toilet tank.
"Visitors stay in the bathroom
for quite some time," he says. "You can hear them in
there, saying, "I'd like to thank so-and-so who many years
ago. . .' ".
As for wife and co-star Thompson,
she's impossible to live with now, Branagh says with a laugh.
"She's appalling - a right
nightmare. You can't speak to her. You have to book an appointment
to see her. I sleep in the spare room."
Typical Branagh , who can always
be counted upon to poke fun at Hollywood superstardom. He's having
the time of his life playing the do-it-all auteur who's often
compared to Olivier and Orson Welles. Besides the exuberant,
impossibly romantic "Much Ado," shot for $11 million
in a Tuscan villa and garden, he has directed four features -
the Oscar-nominated "Henry V," the wildly inventive
Hitchcockian thriller "Dead Again" and the lighthearted
reunion comedy "Peter's Friends."
He's now readying his most ambitious
production, a $50 million-plus adaptation of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein,"
with himself as the life-giving scientist and Robert De Niro
as the frustrated monster. The period drama, to be produced by
Francis Coppola as a companion piece to last year's "Bram
Stoker's Dracula," will be shot in late August in London
and Switzerland. Branagh , a fan of James Whale's "Bride
of Frankenstein" as well as Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein,"
describes his take as closer to the emotional heart of the Shelley
"Ours will be much more
of a Gothic fairy tale and much less of a horror film,"
he points out. "It's time, I think. It can be re-examined
now. . . reclaimed from its schlock-shock horror associations.
We're sticking close to the original story, its psychological
and emotional insights. But there will be some departures because
Shelley was vague about how the monster is brought to life and
what he actually looks like."
Certainly the casting of Method
actor De Niro is a bold stroke.
"I wanted someone who would
thoroughly re-examine the monster and look at every clue in the
book," he says. "Also, this is a part he hasn't done
before. De Niro embraced the idea of a creature who speaks and
indeed quotes Milton and Coleridge. His monster will be a figure
of great pathos."
How about some advance word on
Frankie's new look?
No can do, says Branagh.
"He'll be 8 feet tall, like
in the book. That's all I can say. Even as we speak, De Niro
is having body casts made. We're redefining the look. It will
be very far away from the squared head and bolted neck of Karloff's
And you can bet this Gothic fairy
tale will be viewer-friendly, like Branagh 's other movies.
His approach to Shakespeare has
always been to "unclutter the text. . . get rid of the obscure
classical allusions and let the play speak for itself."
The decision to cast American
movie stars in "Much Ado" rather than Royal Academy
graduates goes hand-in-glove with this philosophy.
"I wanted it to have a different
sound and look. . . to get away from the sometimes fruity voices
and mannered delivery of British actors. I wanted it to feel
like it was for everybody. Which is why I cast Reeves as Don
John and Keaton as the pompous and psychotic policeman."
Reviewers, for the most part,
have come down hard on the Yank half of the cast. Any second
thoughts about opting for marquee clout over theatrical expertise?
"I think the Americans more
than hold their own," Branagh replies with a tell-tale lack
of conviction. "I was glad to be on the same screen with
The whole business of Brits being
better suited to Shakespeare is so much tommyrot, in Branagh
"The notion that we understand
Shakespeare better because he's our national playwright is a
myth. The same fear and intimidation factor comes into play in
England. There may even be an inbuilt resistance to Shakespeare
If Branagh and Thompson seem
especially at ease as the sparring Benedick and Beatrice, it's
because the couple drew on their own relationship.
A classic conflict
"There was some degree of
caginess in our courtship, and certainly we both use humor a
great deal to deflect unwanted advances. But it's a classic conflict
- two people very attracted to each other, trying to remain independent
of each other. Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedies were
built on that kind of adversarial relationship."
Branagh plans to return to Shakespeare
on every third or fourth movie. "It's an ongoing process.
Each play, each film, each approach will be different. I wanted
to do "Much Ado" outside and on location because "Henry
V" was done in the studio, with the battles shot in fields
adjacent to the back lot."
Often lumped with the young Welles,
Branagh would just as soon be likened to the David Lean of "Great
Expectations" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai."
Branagh even has a David Lean-like project on the back burner.
It's the epic story of adventurer-entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes,
who founded Rhodesia and, at 24, was one of the richest men in
But first comes "Mary Shelley's
Frankenstein," which he fully expects to bring its own logistical
and post-production nightmares.
He's fit and eager for the challenge.
"I've been blessed with
reasonably robust health. I seem to weather the storms. As kids,
we were never mollycoddled or encouraged to indulge. There was
a strong Puritanical sense about our family. If you weren't dying,
you could go to work or school. When I'm filming, I lead a pretty
routine existence. I'm not like Welles. I don't have wild appetites.
I like a drink. I enjoy a good meal with friends. But I'm not
a clubby person. I'm not interested in spurious celebrity."
And when the sun sets on the
latest movie location and shadows fall on the editing bench,
he returns to wife Thompson and what he calls "the normal
"I have no joy, as it were,
staying late at the office."
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