Banking on Branagh
Sunday Times, August 15 1993
by Iain Johnstone
Hot on the heels of Much Ado
comes Frankenstein with Robert De Niro. The boy wonder of British
theatre is making British film rise off the slab again. Is nothing
beyond our Ken?
For somebody who is about to
spend the best part of $50m in the next few months, Kenneth Branagh
looked remarkably relaxed. He poured me a glass of New Zealand
Cloudy Bay white with a steady hand and sipped his own with the
assurance of someone who was calm and carefree. Maybe he wasn't;
maybe he was acting. He was a convincing enough drunk in Peter's
Friends ''The art of acting drunk,'' he told me after that, ''is
to try to act sober: that's what drunk people try to do.'' But,
as he sat back in his office chair, he let slip the information
that the calls from Los Angeles would keep coming late into the
night and early into the dawn, each one with a problem to be
solved. The Hollywood studios don't entrust that sort of dosh
to you without the right to keep an eagle eye on their outlay.
Branagh is already in pre-production
for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, backed by TriStar and thankfully
filling up the stages of Shepperton Studios. ''Most of the cast
and the entire crew are Brits. Certainly it's a buzzy old place
down there. We've taken over most of the studio and we're building
huge standing sets. Highly exciting but a bit brown-trousering
for me. Ninety per cent of it is on the back lot. It's a big,
old-fashioned studio picture'' he gave a rueful chuckle. ''When
I say that, of course, I don't know what I'm talking about, but
I imagine it's what a big, old-fashioned studio picture would
He'll play the title role himself,
with Robert De Niro cast opposite him as The Creature. Frankenstein
will make it five in a row for Branagh as stardirector, the other
four being Henry V (1989 Oscar nominations for both jobs), Dead
Again (1991), Peter's Friends (1992) and Much Ado About Nothing
(it opens next week and about which more anon). Such a run puts
Branagh in a rare category alongside Clint Eastwood and Woody
Allen even Olivier paused for breath after four.
I wondered what made him so bankable
in the eyes of Hollywood. Was it the nominations for Henry V
or the profitability of Dead Again and Much Ado?
''To some extent I think the
reputation is linked to having made the films on time and on
budget. They take a view on the Oscar nominations, but they're
actually much harder-nosed than that. Their attitude to what's
bankable changes on a daily basis. I mean, they claim I was first
choice for this but, you know, with the best will in the world,
I can't quite believe that. I don't think I've ever got a script
that wasn't covered in fingerprints. I just know that, if this
is a bloody disaster, they won't be offering me other $45m movies.
It's very cruel and ruthless.''
The project had originally been
developed by Francis Ford Coppola, who at one stage had been
intending to extend his Dracula into a Gothic trilogy. He remains
as a producer. ''Francis was a big help with De Niro because
he knows him well. He introduced me to him. In fact, I had the
unique experience of sitting in the back of a yellow cab in New
York with The Godfather on one side and Raging Bull on the other
and the two of them talking across me. I felt like a man from
Surbiton in a sketch saying'' Branagh broke into a squeaky south
London voice '''So glad you're interested in being in my film,
Although no longer top of the
box-office pops, De Niro remains the most respected actor in
Hollywood a view that extends to his British director. ''He's
somebody whom I admire extravagantly. I think he's a genius and
I've always wanted to work with him. He saw everything I'd done,
ran all the pictures, got all sorts of information he's very
thorough checked me out left, right and centre. So far we've
got on ever so well. Ninety per cent of his scenes are with me,
it's a classic two-handed mirror-image thing. It's much more
than schlock-horror, it's about a father and son, parenting.
We're very much playing the idea, as in Mary Shelley's book,
that Frankenstein gives birth to a person, not a thing.''
''Is Emma in it?'' I inquired.
''No, Em's not in it.''
''That will upset Spitting Image,
''I should think so,'' he grinned.
''I should have thought there's quite a lot to be had out of
that. A few sketches about 'Why aren't I in it?' Helena Bonham-Carter
is playing the leading lady.''
Branagh has grown a beard slightly
flecked with grey despite his mere 33 years for the part, and
now began to twist it. ''I was delighted about Em's Oscar because
it was good to see an unshowy bit of acting being recognised.
But if she hadn't won it, she would have still given the same
performance. I just didn't think she was right for this you'll
see when you read the script. Both characters have to play from
17 upwards a bit of a stretch for myself, actually. Listen, we
know we're going to do lots of stuff together in the future.
There's never been any agenda to just work together. There's
a certain scrupulousness about, you know, a savage artistic judgment
that says: 'This is not appropriate'.
''Despite the notion that I always
work with the same bunch of people all the time, I try to change
at least half of them for new stimulus, so one doesn't get too
used to things or too used to people. Richard Briers is in it,
though, as a blind man. He has a great scene with De Niro I can't
wait to see Dickie and Bobby together.''
We won't have to wait so long
to see Denzel and Keanu together. Branagh has rounded up many
of the usual suspects (wife and Briers included) for his Much
Ado repertory, but what is notable about the film is the inclusion
of four American actors in leading roles: Denzel Washington (Don
Pedro), Keanu Reeves (Don John), Robert Sean Leonard (Claudio)
and Michael Keaton (Dogberry).
Apart from the obvious appeal
for the American box-office, what was the appeal for Branagh?
This was not a question to which he came unprepared. ''There's
a rawness and emotional fearlessness about American actors, a
full-blooded approach that I think Shakespeare warrants. The
ability to reveal your soul. You see a lot of careful Shakespearian
acting that relies on technical virtuosity, but you have to be
more emotionally exposed. Maybe at its worst extreme, Americans
rather indulge that trait. On the whole, they're less repressed
than we are. As a race we're a little more contained; it's considered
rather vulgar to express emotions in this way.''
Certainly the most unrepressed
act in the film comes from Keaton as the Constable of the Watch,
Dogberry (with Ben Elton as his deputy, Verges). Batman plays
the part in a manner that would not be out of place on The Benny
''It could miss completely, and
for some people no doubt it does,'' Branagh acknowledged. ''He
goes for it; there's nothing safe about what he does. But as
a piece of dramaturgy, Shakespeare introduces another element
the comic turn. He would have brought on Will Kemp, a man whom
he later sacked for too much ad-libbing.''
Branagh's approach to the film
is highly polished and romantic, but he doesn't come at it at
an angle. I wondered if his assertion that Shakespeare's plays
were ''texts, not scripts'' was something of an alibi for not
putting a more marked interpretation on them?
He put down his wine to gesture
with his hands, a glint of defensive anger in his eyes. ''I would
say there is a vigorous interpretation in this version of Much
Ado About Nothing. I regard as a challenge what some other people
might regard as a middle way. The challenge for me is to release
the audience's imagination with a very vivid sense of place pastoral
and countrified and sense of character. But, for these films
to have the longish life I would love them to have, the obligation
is for the audience to fill in some of the dots themselves.
''I'm the patron of a youth company
in Swindon which has just done it with the returning soldiers
as GIs, with a very particular social milieu. That's fine. It's
just that every time you do that, you always pay a price, you
always cut at least one bit of the play.''
It was time to get off the matter
of Much Ado and on to the subject of ''luvvies''. It is not lost
on Branagh that to have fame, fortune, Emma and her Oscar does
not always endear him to his contemporaries. The joke of her
arriving home and him shouting, ''I'm in the kitchen'', and Emma
pleading, ''Oh, can I be in that, as well?'', has been going
the rounds for some time now. He didn't smile a lot when I repeated
it to him, rather ran his hand through his long, curling hair.
''I have to say I haven't seen
us on Spitting Image and probably I won't ever watch it. I read
the newspapers far less now, but that's just a concession to
being human. You're vaguely flattered but you know you'll be
a bit hurt at various times, so you just get on with what you
do. Certain elements of the media have seized upon this word
and they think they've plucked out the heart of our mystery as
actors with this generic term luvvies. Somehow they've got inside
us. But, as ever, it's not the case. And now, of course, at the
end of this century, it's very hard for an actor to open his
gob without whatever he says sounding risible. If you even whisper
a murmur of complaint you're labelled a po-faced git who can't
see the funny side of things.''
He took a strong sip of Cloudy
Bay. ''I'm ordinarily sensitive to the round of criticism which
is the lot for someone whose work is in the public arena. Extremely
adverse criticism of the very personal kind can be wounding,
but I cannot force myself to take it so seriously as to change
anything that I would do. I'm very firmly committed to being
in this country. My deal with Frankenstein was: 'I'll be delighted
to do it provided I can do it in Britain.' I'm fascinated by
Hollywood but I don't want to live there. Earning great sums
of money is not on my agenda. It's important to work where there's
an appetite for work, where there's a vacuum, and there is over
here. My future is absolutely tied up with making movies in this
And the future of movie-making
in this country would appear, at present, to be greatly tied
up with Kenneth Branagh.
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