"Sleuth" Reimagination Shows Imagination

Hollywood Reporter, 17 October 2007
By Martin A. Grove

Second "Sleuth": Reimagining earlier films can be a dangerous proposition depending on whose imaginations are now at work.

In the case of "Sleuth," directed by Kenneth Branagh and adapted to the screen by Harold Pinter from Anthony Shaffer's play, the imaginations in question have generated their own unique take on the material behind the 1972 film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz ("All About Eve") and adapted by Shaffer. This second "Sleuth," which was an official selection at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, stars Michael Caine and Jude Law while the first starred Laurence Olivier and Caine.

The Sony Pictures Classics and Castle Rock Entertainment presentation of a Riff Raff and Timnick Films production, is produced by Jude Law, Simon Halfon, Tom Sternberg, Marion Pilowksy, Kenneth Branagh and Simon Moseley.

For some insights into making the thriller, which opened in New York and Los Angeles last Friday, rolls out this month and goes wider in early November, I was happy to catch up recently with Kenneth Branagh, with whom I've greatly enjoyed talking about filmmaking in the past.

"It started with Jude Law as a very hands on producer with his friend and co-producer Simon Halfon deciding that 'Sleuth' would be a very, very interesting piece to do again based on their familiarity with the play," he told me when I asked how the new production came about. "It was Jude's idea to consider using, if they could, if they dared and he said yes -- and he did -- Harold Pinter. It was an inspired idea. Harold Pinter was an actor (and) had been a very successful and excellent actor and had appeared in many, many thrillers and loved them. But as he said to me during rehearsals, 'I don't do plot.' He liked inheriting the plot of the Anthony Shaffer original. He didn't look at the film, but he did look at the play. He read the play and he based his new much shorter, much leaner, darker version on that.

"And it was Harold's participation that brought Michael Caine along, who didn't want to do a remake, but if it was, as he knew it would be, reinvented by Harold then he was on board. So when it came to me eventually, it was Jude Law producing a film starring him and Michael Caine, written by Harold Pinter, based on this extraordinary source material -- 'Would you like to do it?' 'Yes, please. Thank you very much,' I said."

That was about a year and a half ago: "I was shooting 'The Magic Flute.' I met with Jude a few times and then I met with Harold and Harold was very open about changes although the screenplay was very well advanced at that stage. I came on board at that point and worked on it for about six or nine months and then we shot it."

Asked how he worked with his actors, Branagh explained, "Well, for me, it seemed important to rehearse. What we did was have a read through very early on in the process and started discovering things like it was very funny -- much funnier even than on the page. It was very dark. It was very precise. And sometimes it was very raw and very naked. We tried to find the rhythm of the piece rehearsing individually, myself and Michael, and myself and Jude and then coming together and rehearsing with Harold, who is also a very fine director, as you know, and was also extremely helpful in that process.

"We decided on a couple of things (including) to shoot the film in chronological order and, although they knew each other a little, to try to maximize on the relative lack of familiarity between Michael and Jude. So the first 10 or 15 minutes of the movie represents the first week or so of filming and we exploit some kind of relative awkwardness there. We tried to find in rehearsal the ways that from my point of view we could absolutely visually embrace the cinema piece that Harold wanted. (Despite its) strong theatrical roots and given his background, it still nevertheless was a movie not a play."

As they rehearsed, he added, "It seemed to me that there wasn't a close-up in the film for 10 or 12 minutes and that's what turns out to be the case. We stay far away from the characters. We're on wide lenses. We're shooting anamorphic and we start to see the third character in the film, which is the house. And we see its very unsettling characteristics. We shoot from above. We first see Michael only as an arm that reaches out to shake the hand of Milo (Law's struggling actor character for whom Caine's very successful thriller writer character Andrew's wife is leaving him) and then starts immediately boasting about the size of his car. We come inside. We shoot through a glass that is filled with whiskey, a drink that has not been asked for yet or chosen.

"And we start to unsettle the audience and establish this vocabulary inside and outside the house of surveillance cameras and paranoia and claustrophobia and a sense of Andrew's apparent omnipotence, the whole house run by a single remote control. It was rehearsals that started to tell us when to move the camera, when to go close, when to go ultra close for a sort of interrogation moment for Michael's character with the arrival of the inspector in the second act. We also, I suppose, made a third character of the house and a third character of the woman who is not there -- the woman who they fight over and the piece seems to be about. You know, Jude's character says, 'I love her' and then it becomes about possessing her. Then she seems to disappear and it becomes about winning between the men. And then it seems to be about destruction of (each) other."

When he read Pinter's screenplay, he said, "which has none of the same kind of theatricality and flamboyance of the play or the original film -- that sort of delicious campy thing (while) this is a darker piece -- it reminded me of 'Lord of the Flies,' William Golding's novel of the descent from civilization into a kind of savagery amongst a group of young boys. But in this case two apparently sophisticated men, it seems to me, very swiftly across 90 packed minutes and three sets of tennis -- as it were, psychological tennis -- become cavemen.

"I so admired that and rehearsing in order to find all the ways to make it interesting visually and find the rhythm of the shots was invaluable. We rehearsed for a long time, but then we shot very, very quickly. We shot in 23 days. It's many pages a day. But it helped because it was claustrophobic, it was intense and it was good to get it out of the way. By that stage we had literally been rehearsing for months."

Caine's house in the film is, in effect, a third character. "It is," Branagh agreed. "Harold Pinter in his screenplay simply said, 'On the outside, the house is period. Inside it is all modern -- steel and wood.' I asked him, 'Well, any more detail than that, Harold?' He said, 'I went into the house of a very famous architect in London and outside it was a period house and inside it was almost like a James Bond set.' He let us have the invitation to make the house sort of texturally ever shifting. The house that could sort of express Andrew's personality -- conspicuous wealth abounds, a spareness, a sort of austerity. All the art that you see is by prominent contemporary British artists. And all of the technology (is contemporary) -- whether it's the use of surveillance cameras or the ways in which walls move and, indeed, lighting moves.

"We have a lighting rig suspended above the place, which means that from a lighting point of view the place can constantly change as if somehow when you enter Andrew's house you are in a permanent living installation and it's unsettling. But from a technical point of view, Haris Zambarloukos, the young DP, was able to play around with, for instance, changing the color on the walls at the end of the first act when Michael Caine's character suddenly reveals the level to which he's consumed by jealousy and suddenly you'll find that that's all played against a green background. The introduction of the idea that they might become this potential homosexual partnership in the third act is suddenly played in the red light of a bordello. There was a chance to bury things and be quite stylized in a way through this living breathing house, which Andrew has this tremendous pride in his technical mastery of."

All of this is reflected in how the film's story is told: "It seemed to me that it needed to play very prominently against the one thing that Andrew's character did not have over the young man -- he had wealth, he had success, he had the conspicuous trappings of that, but what he didn't have was the youth and beauty. So in a sense, there are some ideas floating in there just about technology versus the human body and it was very good fun to play with them."

The film's interiors were built, he said, "at Twickenham Studios and designed by Tim Harvey, who's designed every picture of mine. It was a challenge for all of us, but Tim Harvey, who's produced these wonderful lavish sets for some of our more sort of romantic period pieces and also for Patrick Doyle, the composer, who again has produced very romantic full orchestral versions of our scores, but here comes up with a minimalist string score mostly led by the cello and often, actually, part of a soundscape that also uses subsonic sounds (that are) almost invisible to the ear (such as) room tones, silences, the kinds of noises that you hear almost subliminally as if it were the effects of air conditioning or hydraulic devices or the movement of digital equipment. And that all helps to, again, unsettle the audience.

"So from the beginning really what we were trying to do with the camera and with the soundtrack was to unsettle the audience to the point where they have entered into the game the two men are playing and that Andrew's forcing Milo to play where everything and anything -- a sound, a color, the placement of an object, the position of an actor in the room -- could be significant so that the piece is kind of stuffed with, hopefully, compelling kind of significances or red herrings, whatever they turn out to be. But for those 90 packed minutes you are, hopefully, enjoyably in this very sort of dirty psychological cat and mouse affair, but you're definitely engaged."

Asked how he dealt as a director with something as confining as having two men sitting and talking in a room throughout most of the film, Branagh replied, "I think you have to try and look at it from another point of view. If you look at classic examples of variations on that theme -- '12 Angry Men,' 12 guys in a room talking, or an HBO film that I had the great pleasure of being in, 'Conspiracy' about the Wannsee Conference (in Berlin during World War II), 15 guys in a room talking. So, as it were, if you build it they will come -- i.e., if the story is strong enough, if the dialogue is strong enough, if the situation is strong enough then the audience are more than prepared to go along with that.

"You have to accept that as long as you don't shoot it theatrically and too much in a proscenium arch manner then I think you've got something which these days by what could be its very weakness in fact appears to be a distinguishing characteristic that defines it and helps you listen and look in a different way. I mean, we did some of the things we've talked about. We rehearsed and we established the character of the house and the character of the wife who doesn't appear. We have our tiny excerpts on television. We, in a way, were invited with the challenge (of two men talking mostly) to look at what we did have. And what you do have is what a famous director once said (is) 'that ever changing landscape in a movie -- the human face.' And in this case we had two extraordinary faces."

One of Branagh's favorite moments in the film, he continued, "which I would describe as a big cinematic moment is a close-up of Michael Caine in profile as he looks in the direction of the gun that he has just fired at the end of the first act. It's a close-up that lasts for 24 seconds. There is no music. There is nothing except one man looking in one direction. And I find it absolutely riveting. Of course, it fits at a very appropriate point in the drama. In rehearsal I began to understand how with the characters well embodied and with the concentration and the kind of experience that someone like Michael brings to it you have a kind of landscape of the human face that needs to be looked at in a different way cinematically, especially in a piece like Pinter's which is so rich and so subtle and so multilayered and so variable that the combination of that and what one could do visually with a modernist box of tricks as distinct from the 1972 film (set in an) English baronial country house, the world of 'Cluedo' (the classic murder mystery solving board game known as 'Clue' in the U.S.) and Agatha Christie wood paneled rooms and sort of wooden games.

"Here we were going for the sort of digital modernist sometimes rather bleak landscape against which human faces stick out in very strong relief. But what I knew, over and above that, was that I had two fantastic performers who knew that they had great roles and who were willing to listen to somebody who had some understanding of what it was like for them as actors to do a piece like this and who, certainly in my case, was thrilled to be involved in trying to help orchestrate what is like a piece of chamber music. I think it's not too pretentious to say that. It's got a series of sort of movements in it and you have to find them and you have to pace it and find the bits where it gets a move on and the long pauses and all of those beats. And that was a joy."

What Branagh didn't do that many Hollywood directors would have done is to open the film up by, for instance, having the two men drive to a nearby pub at some point in their conversation. "Well, it's interesting you say that," he told me. "There were discussions about that, but we said, 'If we believe in the power of the writing here and the power of the performances, but also, frankly, if we believe in the audience and believe that the audience can find this as fascinating as I do on the pages and if we can realize it to meet all of their expectations then the claustrophobia (won't be a problem).'

"I also felt that it was about Andrew's isolation, as well -- his loneliness. And it's a very modern thing. One has one's computers and one has one's remote controls and you can live a life of relative anonymity and invisibility, but (with) omnipotence, as it were. You can really be the king of your own castle -- invisible, but somehow in touch with the rest of the world and running your own world sort of invisibly. And yet it can be a very austere and rather isolated and lonely position. And I think all of that was underlined by keeping them there relentless, remorselessly under the spotlight, under the gaze or, perhaps you might say, caught in the web of this house, which they could not escape."

Actually, the only thing that Caine's character Andrew doesn't control is his wife. "One of the things we discovered was that the less we saw of her the greater a figure in both their imaginations and ours she became," Branagh observed. "We talked about who could possibly play this part if we did see them. You'd need a combination of Elizabeth I, Greta Garbo and Mae West to somehow fulfill the kind of goddess like proportions she'd assumed by the end of the piece. Best left unseen was our view, yes."

Looking back on production, Branagh pointed out, "Once I'd established with the boys individually over a series of months things about their characters -- with Michael the books he wrote, the titles, the covers, the kind of art he might like and making sure that everything in that house reflected something that he felt certain the character would have and the same with Jude, particularly in his work with the Inspector -- it was important to find the voice, the physicality and the same with all the details of Milo with his bleached blond hair and the sort of foppish quality of that -- then it became (a matter of) physically blocking it in rehearsal. We spent a couple of weeks doing that, working out the 'tennis match,' in fact. There's one sequence at the end of the second act which is all about really shooting as if it were a tennis court with the two men walking up and down the baselines in a kind of tennis meets tango moment.

"I basically shot-listed the entire movie across a couple weeks rehearsal so that when I started on Day One (I was prepared) with, of course, the idea that you would always move and shift for the better idea, especially to exploit the use of our anamorphic lenses. We basically were shot-listed from Day One. We went in with an idea of every angle on every scene and that's probably unusual for me. I think that's a kind of Hitchcockian thing. Apparently he had storyboards and everything was absolutely planned out from Day One. I would say that that would be 99% true of this that I had it basically down on paper before we started."

However, he added, the plan wasn't necessarily imposed and it could always be changed "from watching what the actors did. Of all the films I've made, this is one where I felt I was sharing the load and that I was really directing it with the other three -- Harold, Michael and Jude -- and had a vast amount to thank them for. We did change. You're always looking for the better ideas, the better moments, the moment of inspiration. But we had a very strong plan and, mostly, we stuck to it.

"As John Cleese once said of my set, he said he'd never been on any movie set that was both so disciplined and so lunatic. I guess that's the way it works. You work from 8 till 6 five days a week and while you were there concentrate, concentrate, then hysterical laughter, usually at Michael Caine's stories. We could say 'cut' and then he could suddenly go, 'And then Frank Sinatra said to me...' And that was a great sort of breath. You'd concentrate, you relax, you concentrate, you relax."

It also helped that they were shooting the film in sequence: "Yes (we shot) in chronological order so Day One/Shot One was Milo rolling up to the door and Michael Caine saying, 'My car's bigger than yours.' It was (a treat to shoot this way) particularly because all of our detailed preparation was entirely to do with trying to create a feeling of absolute in-the-moment spontaneity, which perversely and paradoxically is only really possible at its greatest depth if you prepared and prepared and prepared and then it really can be live, unexpected, spontaneous on the day.

"What it meant by shooting in chronological order was that there was no trying to guess (what was to be done). You know, if you shoot the big scene in the third act on Day Two you've got to have a really strong idea of where you are emotionally. The boys always knew where they were because they'd just done the scene before so everything was informed by the sort of emotional temperature of what had just happened. So it felt, therefore, as though we could be both wilder and more accurate because we knew what a scene could take given our clear understanding of how it had developed."

There was, he recalled, "one moment at the end where for a practical reason I suggested that we might go out of sequence just in the last week and both Michael and Jude said, 'No, no, no, no. We'll stay a bit later. Let's keep doing it in order. It's really helping us.'"

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