Branagh Moves from the Past to Past Life

Seattle Times, August 18 1991
by John Hartl

Although movies such as "Audrey Rose," "I've Lived Before" and "The Reincarnation of Peter Proud" have touched on the subject, reincarnation hasn't received a serious treatment in a Hollywood movie in years.

Kenneth Branagh, the 30-year-old wunderkind who was nominated for Oscars last year as best actor and director for his rousing adaptation of Shakespeare's "Henry V," thinks the time is right for another try. So does Paramount Pictures, which made a fortune last year on "Ghost" and produced the first American movie about hypnotic regression and reincarnation, "The Search For Bridey Murphy" (1956).

Paramount is bankrolling Branagh's first American movie, "Dead Again," which opens Friday at 400 theaters and then goes into wider release over Labor Day weekend.

Branagh and his wife, Emma Thompson (who also co-starred with him in "Henry V"), play dual roles: a married couple in 1940s Los Angeles and another couple in 1990s L.A. who appear to be linked to them. Thompson's 1990s character has lost her memory and reverts to a past life during hypnosis.

"We have an endless fascination with the fates, especially when death robs us of a loved one," Branagh said during a recent trip to Seattle.

"Once you get married, or you're in a relationship, at various times you're tempted to consider if you were just thrown together or if you'd met before. There's this deep connection with certain friends that's rather mysterious. As the script points out, there are more people in the world who believe than don't."

Ironically, the author of the screenplay, Scott Frank ("Little Man Tate," "Plain Clothes"), doesn't believe in reincarnation at all. He came up with the title first, then the idea for the story. Branagh thinks Frank's disbelief may have given him the objectivity to keep the Hitchcock-style thriller aspects of the story on track.

"I hadn't been looking for an American vehicle when I came to L.A. in early 1990," said Branagh. "I was trying to get the studios interested in Thomas Hardy's 'Return of the Native,' which seems to me a wonderful filmic opportunity. That didn't pan out at the time, though I'm going to work with a writer on a new script later this year."

Branagh is also preparing a movie of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," which he wants to film in Italy, "with an international cast and a very Italian kind of acting style. It should be sexy, funny, not Elizabethan but in period, and I can think of several American actors who would be perfect for it." Another Shakespeare play he'd like to tackle on-screen is "Coriolanus." He has also talked to Gerard Depardieu about playing Iago to Depardieu's Othello on film.

Financing, of course, is crucial. Although it earned $ 20 million worldwide, "Henry V" has not yet broken even. The similar middling success of the Franco Zeffirelli/Mel Gibson "Hamlet" has not encouraged a rush to film more Shakespeare. If "Dead Again" is a hit, Branagh may be able to get these other projects off the ground.

He's encouraged by preview audiences who comment that they can think of no other films like it. That's how he felt about the script when he first read it.

"After 'Henry V' came out, I was offered three separate scripts about life of Shakespeare, and another about Tolstoy," he said. "But really good scripts are so rare. Even the best of them need a bit of polish.

"Then out of the blue came Scott's script. I had a very powerful reaction. My disbelief was utterly suspended while I was reading it. It reminded me of some of the movies I first saw on television: the woman with no memory, the private eye, the creepy house, the hypnotist. I thought of Hitchcock's 'Spellbound' and its big dramatic score, the Salvador Dali designs, the dramatic lighting. I knew the script had been read by many other directors; perhaps the melodrama frightened them off."

Branagh wanted to do it only if he and Thompson could play dual roles, and if Derek Jacobi could be cast as the hypnotist. He then recruited Andy Garcia, Hanna Schygulla, Campbell Scott and the uncredited Robin Williams, casting them against type in key supporting parts. Sydney Pollack signed on as executive producer, and helped Branagh to convince Paramount that the 1940s scenes should be shot in black-and-white.

"I went through a lot of Hitchcock pictures while I was preparing it," said Branagh. "I watched 'Spellbound' and 'Vertigo,' as well as 'Citizen Kane' and 'The Third Man' and a few modern thrillers, such as 'Jagged Edge.' I ended up thinking that the key to the whole thing would be a breathless pace.

"We went through about five distinct cuts of the film before I felt it was working with audiences. At previews you can always tell if they're bored or if they don't understand something. We went back for one day of reshooting to clear up three story points and to get the effect I wanted.

"I always felt it should be full-blooded - some would say overblown - a roller-coaster ride that never lets you off the hook," he said. "There's a lot of dazzle and showmanship in it. Women seem to love it. I've been told it's a great date movie."

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