30 Things We Learned from Kenneth Branagh's 'Dead Again' Commentary
"Another terrible in-joke coming up I'm afraid, but I couldn't resist it."
Film School Rejects, 21 January 2021
Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits Kenneth Branagh’s Hollywood debut, 'Dead Again'!
Kenneth Branagh‘s shift from indie Shakespeare champion to populist film director has seen its ups and downs, but it started with one of the filmmaker’s most entertaining movies. 'Dead Again' (1991) is a mystery/thriller unafraid to go big at times, and the throughline from beginning to end is fun, energetic, and stylish. The film has finally come to Blu-ray — in Australia — and it’s well worth the import for fans. One of the extras is a commentary track by Branagh recorded back in 2000, so we gave it a listen to celebrate the film’s long overdue move into HD media.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for 'Dead Again'.
Dead Again (1991)
1. “We wanted to set up the atmosphere of this film immediately,” he says which is why it opens with a “low grind” of a score during the opening credits before ramping up with those murder headlines. The goal was to set expectations early for an entertaining gothic mystery.
2. One of the newspapers is dated December 10th, 1949, which is Branagh’s birthday. “Sorry for the in-joke.”
3. He received an influx of scripts after the success of 'Henry V' (1989), most of them historical epics, but when he read Scott Frank‘s screenplay aloud with his then-wife Emma Thompson they were both gripped from the opening onward.
4. While the black & white was in earlier versions of Frank’s script the detail had been dropped by the time a version reached Branagh. They discovered through previews, though, that audiences were confused by the time jumps — an issue that was fixed by switching the flashbacks to black & white.
5. Roman Strauss’ (Branagh) prisoner number, 25101415, is the date of the Battle of Agincourt — the famed battle featuring Henry V. “We felt that this kind of film was one in which you could allow yourself little moments like that.”
6. Grace (Thompson) awakening from her dream to a stormy night features gothic touches in its visuals and score, and it’s all part of Frank’s enjoyment of “the vocabulary of this kind of film.”
7. People assumed — as did I — that the introduction of Mike Church (Branagh) parked on the wrong side of the street was a little joke about Branagh being British, but it was actually because they wanted the shot to feature the skyscrapers in the background.
8. Mike is struggling to quit smoking, but Branagh was a non-smoker and was unable to convincingly portray the smoking scenes — he was so bad at them they ultimately had to be cut. “The sad, horrible truth is that sometime later I now do smoke.” He hopes that this rewatch, once it reaches the gross scene with Gray Davis (Andy Garcia) smoking through his neck, will convince him to quit.
9. The commentary was recorded in 2000, and he name drops Agatha Christie unaware that seventeen years later he’ll direct a pretty terrific adaptation of her 'Murder on the Orient Express'.
10. The home playing the composer’s mansion turned Christian orphanage is located in Pasadena, CA. They added the front gate and extra towers to maximize the gothic nature.
11. This was his first real go at a sustained American accent, and he would go out in Los Angeles to practice it with strangers. No one seemed to notice or care.
12. Thompson had worked with Wayne Knight previously, so they insisted that he be cast here.
13. Frank cameos as one of the cops in the elevator at the mental hospital.
14. He suspects the big issue that left a large number of other directors cold on the script was the introduction of hypnosis and past lives.
15. The flashback sequence with Roman and Margaret (Thompson) walking on the beach was filmed on a stretch of CA coast where 'Baywatch' would be filmed years later. “Who knows, it may have been the very bodies that they saw here that gave them the idea for that show. I may be wrong, I’m not sure.”
16. The shot of Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams) looking at the couple after their grocery store chat at 46:43 was a quick insert Branagh grabbed unsure if he’d use it. He told Williams “let’s just get a closeup of you looking a little bit odd so that we can continue to have your character as a possible candidate for the one who did it.”
17. Cast and crew members on 'Dead Again' told Branagh he was far more cheerful and fun to be around when he was playing Mike as opposed to when he was playing the brooding Roman.
18. The conversation between Mike and Grace amid the Christmas lights was a reshoot captured a few months after the film had wrapped. Preview audiences weren’t buying into the couple’s romance, so the scene was added to give the pair more personal time. “You can see that in my face there’s a little more weight perhaps… something the makeup people weren’t too pleased about.” He was also out on his first ski trip in the days before the reshoots, and he caught hell from the producer and insurance people.
19. A pair of talented stunt performers doubled for Branagh and Campbell Scott during part of their bridge fight, but it was Branagh who “received the blow in the testicular area which was given to me live by Campbell Scott who was zealous to the point of inflicting actual bodily harm.”
20. He credits producers Lindsay Doran and Sydney Pollack with using their weight to support the casting of both himself and Thompson, two Brits who were yet to become big stars, in a Hollywood thriller.
21. They apparently kept losing scissors on the set and had to keep bringing in replacements. Seems pretty obvious that Knight was the one stealing them.
22. He attended some 'Dead Again' screenings and recalls a deathly silence in theaters during the reveal that Mike was Margaret in his past life.
23. Doran suggested that the introduction of Grace’s apartment/studio should feature insert shots of the scissor sculptures and artwork, but Branagh said no. He eventually realized his mistake and blames his own stubbornness adding “quite frankly the director was stupid not to have listened.”
24. Frank added the scene with older Gray smoking through his neck hole after seeing someone do it in a restaurant.
25. The character played by Derek Jacobi is named Franklyn Madison — as in “Frank mad son” — and that’s something that not even Branagh noticed at first. “I didn’t spot it at the time, such is my piercing intelligence.”
26. Not every filmmaker enjoys the preview process, but Branagh is a fan. Early previews “were disastrous” and led to some fiddling with additional scenes and third-act edits that helped keep the audience entranced and in sync.
27. Grace’s apartment was located at High Tower in the Hollywood Hills, but while they filmed the exteriors there the apartment’s interior is a set. They took photos from within the real location and blew them up as translucent backdrops visible outside the set’s windows.
28. It’s a very serious scene, but on the day of filming the end fight the three friends — Branagh, Thompson, and Jacobi — found it endlessly amusing to be standing there, staring intently at each other, while one of them held a pair of bloody scissors.
29. The end beat with Franklyn leaping and landing on the large scissor sculpture — a jump that Jacobi had to be convinced was absolutely necessary — was to some “massively and campily over the top,” but Branagh and friends found it entirely appropriate.
30. 'Dead Again'‘s final shot is a fade from Roman and Margaret kissing to Mike and Grace kissing, and for the longest time, they had them lined up by actor — Thompson on the left and Branagh on the right. They ultimately flipped the negative on the second pair as it actually makes the most sense keeping in line with the film’s past lives narrative.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“The script had been through a number of directors, let’s put it that way.”
“I had fun.”
“Robin Williams, very free with improvisation, and I tried feebly to keep up with him.”
“Another terrible in-joke coming up I’m afraid, but I couldn’t resist it.”
“Used to love doing these scissor shots.”
“He’s a baddie, you see.”
“This is a good moment in a movie like this, I think, he says immodestly.”
“Oh hello, that’ll be the villain, right on cue.”
'Dead Again' remains a terrifically fun thriller that takes big swings in its story and style, and if you can get onboard its wavelength there’s much entertainment to be found. Branagh’s commentary sees him honest about his shortcomings as a green director, but it also highlights the thought and effort that went into the production. It’s a good listen, and it’s just one of two commentaries on the disc as another features Doran and Frank. This new Blu-ray is definitely worth a pick up from fans.