by Gary Susman
It's easy to forget that Kenneth
Branagh, who is almost singlehandedly credited with reintroducing
Shakespeare to the filmgoing masses, is still a young guy in
his mid 30s whose directing career spans just six features in
seven years. Last September, when he visited the Hub to pick
up the Boston Film Festival award for career achievement, he
seemed nonplussed at being included among such august company
as fellow honoree Vanessa Redgrave.
"I did say to Vanessa, `What
the fuck am I getting one for?' She's a fucking genius. It doesn't
seem to be anything to do with me. It's probably being connected
with Shakespeare. People shove another 20 years on your age or
assume that you are endowed with greater intelligence, which
is, I'm afraid, not the case."
Branagh's current film, A Midwinter's
Tale, shows off both his love of Shakespeare and his knack for
light entertainment, a combination that makes him difficult for
producers to pigeonhole. "I keep being asked to do big,
high-concept pictures, and people are very interested in hiring
me because I make films on time and on budget. Even Frankenstein,
which was obviously a big disappointment to the studio, took
in $106 million worldwide. We didn't go way over budget, and
they'll get their money back. There are worse things. So I'm
not such a risk.
"Then there's a critical
or audience response that would just have me do Shakespeare films.
My tastes are eclectic. To do Shakespeare well, either in the
theater or on film, it's healthy if you're involved in watching
or making more overtly popular entertainment. Making a film is
so difficult that it needs to be something that really fires
me up. I can get fired up about making a really entertaining,
Branagh's memories of his hungrier
years inspired Midwinter, a backstage comedy about a road-show
production of Hamlet. "Everything in it is based on personal
experiences, from mad audition sequences to the frenzy of trying
to get a play on. The first Shakespeare I ever directed was Romeo
and Juliet, which I put my own money into. It was always going
to lose money. We built the sets. We rehearsed it in three weeks.
People were playing three or four parts. They would go off one
exit and come on another dressed in another robe, which often
got a laugh. Girls were playing boys. There was a series of cock-ups.
People couldn't find their way back on. I was in a film during
the day. We'd go on at eight o'clock, and I'd sometimes get there
at five to eight. When you're in those things, you're so wrapped
up in them, you believe nothing else exists. It's like being
in Southern California."
Throughout the rehearsals, the
actors wonder why they're working so hard for so little reward.
"The conversation that goes on in the movie, I have all
the time with myself. Like we say in the film, kids are watching
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on a Saturday morning. What, are
we going to say, `Hey, let's go see this 400-year-old play about
a depressed aristocrat! That'll be fun, kids!' And yet, when
well done, it's a life-enhancing, positive experience. I get
frustrated and depressed about whether there is a point to it.
But when you make a connection with a live audience, lives change.
Mine certainly was by contact with this playwright. Or a movie,
like Much Ado. All across this country, teachers have seized
on this and other movies, not just mine, to be living examples
of why they might be interested in these stories. The kids write
to me and say that it was neat or cool and ask for more."
Branagh's protagonist is an idealistic
actor/director who would rather put on Hamlet for culture-starved
schoolchildren than make a Hollywood movie, but the real Branagh
is cynical enough to know how hoky that sounds. "Actors
want hoky endings. Actors want to be in that story. They want
to make the decision not to go to Hollywood because they'd always
run out. They'd never stay. Part of them feels that their artistic
soul would prevent them from doing it. But they'd be on a fucking
plane straight away. As one of the actors in the movie says,
`We're actors. We're beggars. Everybody's expendable.' I haven't
met a great actor who didn't have a sense of his own sell-by
Branagh is certainly a convincing
actor; during our interview, he gave no indication of the trouble
in his marriage to Emma Thompson that would lead to the announcement
of their split just a week later. I caught up with him in New
York when he was promoting Othello, where he had just this to
say: "I'll talk about the personal inasmuch as it's pertinent
to the professional career that people have a legitimate right
to be interested in. When it comes to things that are more personal
than that, I'll be perfectly happy for people to ask questions,
and of course, I'll answer to the degree to which I feel it's
their business, and no further."
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