What's next, a musical version of "Macbeth"? After his relentlessly
faithful, unabridged four-hour "Hamlet" (1996), writer-director Kenneth
Branagh is getting fancy-free with William Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's
Lost" - which at one point went unproduced for more than 200 years - and
adding a few song-and-dance routines. By transplanting the play to the late
1930s, Branagh's fifth film foray into the Bard's famous folios has created
a Hollywood musical comedy that's more "Top Hat" than "Taming of the Shrew,"
using old standards by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin to
advance the plot (and give a chance for a little hoofing). The result is a
beguiling mix of music and Elizabethan meter that delightfully matches Tin
Pan Alley lyrics with classic iambic pentameter. Helping Branagh dance
cheek-to-cheek is a cast including Alicia Silverstone, Alessandro Nivola,
Timothy Spall and Broadway pro Nathan Lane.
Time Out New York: "Love's Labour's Lost" is one of Shakespeare's
least-produced plays. When did you discover it?
Kenneth Branagh: Not until I was asked to be in it. And I have never seen
the play in a theatre.
KB: I was in it with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984 - 85. I hadn't
read the play, either, and when I did, I said to the director, "I do not
understand a fucking word." It took a while to get used to. Underneath,
it's quite a simple story - a boy-meets-girl story, essentially. And it
plays with great lightness and jollity; that spirit definitely infected what
TONY: Why set it in 1939?
KB: The period between the world wars was so precious, and the idea of
doing something noble and ideal, if naive, was legitimate. And the year
separation that Shakespeare wrote at the end of the play is now heightened
by the war, which intensifies the emotional undercurrents. Also, that
period has such an innate sense of style and glamour - glamorous but
poignant, because of the war.
TONY: What musicals inspired you?
KB: Well, we borrowed a lot across many periods: the '20s, '30s, '40s, and
'50s. It was a potpourri. The down-and-dirty choreography in "Let's Face
the Music" is inspired by Fosse, and yet "I'd Rather Charleston" comes from
the 1929 Gershwin musical "Lady Be Good." And Stanley Donen [was a great
influence], obviously, particularly his movies with Gene Kelly. The look
of it - the intense, primary Technicolors - is really from the '50s.
Originally, I thought that maybe we would shoot this film in black and
but I was nervous about trying to emulate Astaire & Co., which obviously we
couldn't do, because we don't have the skill. But also that would distance
the audience, and it would be an empty experience.
TONY: Donen and Martin Scorsese are presenting the film. Were you there
when they first saw it?
KB: I was, actually! It was one of those horribly exciting, terrifying
moments. [Miramax co-chairman] Harvey Weinstein decided that we should show
it to "a bunch of experts." So I said, "What do you mean?" and he said,
"What about Stanley Donen?" - at which point I became unconcious. I had the
possibility of talking to him before we started and I just didn't have the
nerve, quite frankly. I know Scorsese, though. I have for a few years, and
we've always talked about doing something together. He's a big hero of
TONY: You were up for the lead in "Taxi Driver," weren't you?
KB: You know, I was soooo close. [Laughs]
TONY: No one in your cast is a professional singer. What vocal style were
KB: I didn't want anything super-slick. I wanted to catch the charm of
each individual voice. I wanted them to sing from the gut, and have that
human quality be one of the defining characteristics of the picture. And
it's true of the dancing as well. It's not a question of us parodying - we
meant to be as good as we possibly could. And if there are rough edges,
TONY: Did Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You" inspire you?
KB: I enjoyed that film enormously, and what struck me was that last
sequence with Goldie Hawn and Woody Allen. It seemed to have all the
vocabulary of a romantic film musical: A glamorous city, they're dressed
up, a lush orchestration, she flies. All of these elements seemed to make
the audience particularly comfortable and ready to receive music, and I felt
if we do [something like] that, then people would go for it. And after
"Everyone," I thought, Let's go for it.
TONY: At Cannes, the charity group AmFar held a special screening of your
film, followed by an auction that included you, topless - right?
KB: Harvey Weinstein owes me big time! Were it not for a good cause, I can
think of no other reason why I would take my shirt off in front of 850
strangers to lie facedown on a grand piano - with a similarly seminaked
James Caan - to be massaged by the heart-stoppingly beautiful Heidi Klum,
manipulating various parts of my slightly unworked body. We were
demonstrating the massage that Heidi would give the successful bidder, who
paid $31,000. A lot of money was raised, but it was one of those things
where you wake up the next morning thinking, What was I doing? How the
TONY: People always take liberties in adapting Shakespeare. Have you ever
seen a production that just completely offended you?
KB: I'm sure some people have experienced that watching my films! Never,
actually. I'm just offended when it's boring - when people love themselves
in it, where there's no communication with the audience, and when there's an
implicit sense of exclusivity, that the people doing it are brilliant for
understanding it and giving it to you. That kind of subtle superiority
stuff drives me bananas.
TONY: But you've never seen, say, an all-nude "Richard III"?
KB: No - although I would pay to see that.