Shakespeare Is Serious Stuff for Kenneth Branagh

Boston Globe, February 11 1996
by Jay Carr

Shakespeare, Shakespeare and more Shakespeare. That's the Kenneth Branagh diet. Since last month, he's been holed up with Derek Jacobi, Michael Maloney, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Gerard Depardieu, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal in London's Shepperton Studios, directing film's first uncut "Hamlet," playing the title role, hair dyed blond (though not as blond as Laurence Olivier's was in the role). "Othello" is already on the screen, with Branagh playing a mercurial Iago to Laurence Fishburne's smoldering Moor. And on Friday, Branagh's "A Midwinter's Tale" opens. When it previewed at last year's Boston Film Festival, it was called "In the Bleak Midwinter." But that title was considered too, well, bleak for Branagh's affectionate valentine to theater folk staging "Hamlet" on a shoestring in a drafty church in the provinces.

Somewhere in the middle of all this Shakespeare, Branagh's marriage to Emma Thompson crumbled and dissolved. But he's no more inclined to talk about it now than he was last fall, when the divorce agreement was being worked out. Thompson was his co-star in "Dead Again" and "Peter's Friends," as well as in "Henry V" and "Much Ado About Nothing," the films that established Branagh as today's premier source of filmed Shakespeare.

The actor-director's sense of the ironic is too keenly honed for him not to appreciate the contrast between the ragtag Shakespeareans going at "Hamlet" in "A Midwinter's Tale" and the international production he is currently marshaling. But, in an interview conducted last fall, when he came to collect an award at the Boston festival, he says it wasn't that many years ago that he was scratching a living from whichever stage would have him.

Branagh says he put himself on the spot, locking himself away in January 1995 to write the script for 'Midwinter,' determined to keep it small-scaled after living through the big-budget pressures of his "Frankenstein" remake. "I set up a reading for last February, so I'd put myself in a situation where I couldn't get out without immense embarrassment. And that seems to be what I need. I wanted the making of the film to have the speed and financial makeup of the play in the film. We shot it in 21 days. Everybody got a flat rate - Joan Collins, the electrician, the truck driver. It became a profit-share thing. We had to clear it through Equity and the other unions and explain how if we did reasonably well, they'd in fact make more money. That's turned out to be the case. Everyone has a percentage, which kind of reflects their hierarchical status, so Joan's percentage is gonna be higher than the truck driver's, but they all have made money now."

Delving into the source of "Midwinter," Branagh says, "I needed to find a funny way to talk about people being rather despairing. And about actors looking for family. The hunger never dies, you know. When the curtain goes down, the theater is a very empty place, a very lonely place. Magic in its way, but very sort of unforgiving. John Gielgud and Alec Guinness once sat at a restaurant table moaning about their agents, saying they are never being put up for anything. These two titans of the English theater, behaving like young actors! John Mills came up to me at the 'Frankenstein' premiere and said, 'When are you ever going to give me a job? I need to pay the rent as well.' And this is Sir John Mills!

"But all actors have that hunger, that actor's hunger. They're only fully alive when doing it. And this film's central character, wanting to do it in a real way for real people - that's obviously me in spades, believing there is some kind of non-patronizing bridge, where there's some possibility of revisiting Shakespeare's atmosphere, with that audience made up of every conceivable social type."

Not that Shakespeare is the whole story where Branagh is concerned. The Irish boy born in Belfast in 1960 grew up shaped by American movies. In his youth, Branagh wrote "Public Enemy," a play about a Belfast murderer with a Jimmy Cagney fixation. "The backstage genre sort of intrigued me," Branagh says, supplying the rest of the genesis of "A Midwinter's Tale." "I was introduced to the theater by going to see '42nd Street,' 'All About Eve,' 'To Be or Not to Be' - all with that sort of Marx Brothers pace, everyone rushing, opening-night adrenaline and tension, people talking very quickly, the women sounding like Katharine Hepburn in a kind of strange mid-Atlantic accent. I think it was one of the decisions behind going to black-and-white. Also for me there was a kind of mystery behind Mickey and Judy saying, you know, 'We get a few of the guys and we use the school gymnasium,' and suddenly there's a 3,000-piece marching band and a sound stage like an airplane hangar. It wove its magic, I must say."

All the while, Branagh says, he kept dipping into "Hamlet," both for the full-scale production he's working on now, and for the companion piece "Midwinter's Tale" turned out to be. "There was no time with the smaller production, but there was more time than on 'Frankenstein,' which I had just come from, because you're not on the phone every day, you're not sending dailies off to somebody, doing memos, bits of worry, previewing the picture, constant crisis management. I remember Clint Eastwood saying about acting and directing at the same time, 'Just make sure you get more sleep than the actors.' That's as practical a piece of advice as you could have, because if you don't, it catches up with you in the first week. So there I was, making notes all the time, and it became clear that 'Midwinter' was a companion film. If they put out a special-edition box of 'Hamlet,' they ought to stick 'Midwinter' in with it, because it's a discussion for why you thought you wanted to do 'Hamlet.'

"Well, one reason was that I was looking at my 35th birthday in December. Time's winged chariot, you know. I always told myself that I wouldn't play it on screen beyond that age because after a while, Hamlet's problems are less easy to understand from a more mature individual. So I hadn't planned to make three Shakespeare-related movies, but it all fell together, starting with the very first scene. 'Hamlet' ought to start with the premise that it's the greatest ghost story ever made, and that at the beginning you must build tremendous suspense. I've only seen productions of 'Hamlet' where it's perfunctorily done. Someone goes on and says, 'Who's there?' And it goes on and on and it's just people holding a pike. But there are a million things going on there. The place is about to go to war, the ghost may mean the country is going to explode. We're doing a 3 1/2-hour version because it's such a large canvas."

After "Hamlet," Branagh says, he doubts he'll feel any need to return to work soon. Still, he adds, he sees the end of the "Hamlet" shoot as a sort of career mark. Call it the beginning of his middle period. "I'm creeping up on the Scottish gentleman," Branagh says, referring to "Macbeth" while, in the theatrical tradition, not using the name. "And playing a great villain like Iago gave me the idea of doing 'Richard III' live at Dodger Stadium, or Wembley Stadium, with thousands and thousands - get the National Guard involved. Use video technology for all the close-ups and project it like a rock concert, but have the spectacle with thousands of people on Bosworth Field, with horses, and explosions, and flags. Total theater. Get 100,000 people to see it - a Shakespeare play - that'd be great. You'd get people who could afford to come. I just want to see the poster that says, 'Richard III, Live at the Astrodome!' "

As for his current Iago in "Othello" - a role he never has played onstage - Branagh says it was a comparatively easy assignment because Oliver Parker, and not Branagh, adapted the script and directed. "Not having to worry about the costumes and light and all that kind of stuff was a great relief," Branagh says. "We filmed mostly in Bracciano, outside Rome. It was a scary role to play because Oliver has Iago talking to the camera a lot, so that exposes you rather. It looks like the actor is being cocky, instead of Iago. It's chilling to play because he's so naturalistic in the way he dupes Othello. I got on very well with Laurence Fishburne. What surprised and depressed me was his sort of naturalness with the verse. You can understand everything he says, and effortlessly. And there was a tangible sense of danger with him.

"In the second jealousy scene, which we did on a rocky shoreline, there really is this invitation for some physical violence, which Laurence took - completely. He said, 'Hey, wouldn't it be good if I kind of held his head under the water? That would be good, wouldn't it? I could try to drown him. How would that be?' And we did it about 25 times that day.

"We both wanted to get the cut lines back in," he says of Parker's ruthless trimming of Shakespeare's text. "I got a few back in. Laurence got a lot in. Laurence really worked on Oliver. We both would say, 'Well, shoot it. You don't have to use it. But this way, you'll have it if you decide you want it. You can always throw it away.' Finally, Oliver said to me, 'Do you let actors have lines back in your shows?' And I said, 'Well, that depends. I let me have lines back in.' "

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