The following is an enthusiastic account of Kenneth Branagh's appearance at the benefit screening of HAMLET for the Panico Media Workshop. Following the screening, an interviewer and the audience asked questions of Mr. Branagh. The appearance took place on June 7, 1997 at the ABC Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in London.
(Thanks to Reba Bandyopadhyay for permission to print her original account, which was edited for spelling and formatting only.)
7 June 1997, 10:30a.m.
Ken: wearing forest green shirt, navy blue trousers, black sport jacket, no beard, light moustache (almost blond!), hair auburn, mid-neck length fluffy and cute, brushed slightly back naturally from forehead, dimples very much in evidence, looking trim and fantastic.
KB is introduced to huge applause, whistles, and shouts of appreciation. As he sits down in front of the mike, he looks up and says, 'Excitable crowd we have here this morning!' and everyone laughs. Throughout the interview he looks up at the audience, looking over the crowd, and the bright spotlight really makes his eyes twinkle. (Especially from my seat in the 6th row!)
In general, he is funny, charming, self-deprecating, and a very articulate speaker. He seems very relaxed and easy-going, but full of enthusiasm for his work and belief in what he does. He definitely radiates a love for Shakespeare and a great deal of talent, with a very clear idea about himself and his work. He also tells great stories, and tells them well! He has no problem holding everyone's attention!
Questions about getting the money for Henry V:
Everything was almost completely funded and then 10 days before shooting the producer said, oh no, we're short the last L100,000 and we won't be able to make it if we can't find it. This out of a 4-5 million pound budget. So at the last minute they had to flog themselves around London to scrape up the last finanicing. KB had just come from the almost complete sets when he heard about it, and he felt awful at the idea of having to go back to the 100-odd builders, construction guys, etc. and tell them it all might not happen! The entire process of getting funding for Henry V was a series of these crisis moments. But they had such an enthusiasm and naivete that they felt they could carry it off. When they started, they had no idea of all the practical difficulties they would encounter. It was the enthusiasm that kept them going--they always felt they would make it in the end.
Also KB made some comments about producers -- how they were so lucky to have a producer who was really *passionate* about the film. Normally, he said, producers are not at all *passionate* (implying that it was difficult to get them to really care at all). And then he realized, "Oh, there must be some producers in the audience today... Well, many producers are passionate!" The crowd laughs as he grins.
Question about getting up the courage to ask so many famous people to be in Henry V even tho he was an untested director, etc...
KB was extremely nervous, even with people like Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench whom he already knew personally. "At least, I knew them, so I had their phone numbers, but it was still me pacing up and down my flat for an entire morning before getting up the nerve to call! And then I'm wondering, before I call Judi Dench, do I call her 'Dame' or what?" Crowd laughs. With others, like Paul Scofield, he had to go through their agents. He wrote letters, saying "Please sir, would you consider playing the King of France" explaining why he thought Scofield would be perfect for the part, etc. KB referred to Scofield as one of the greatest living British actors.
He recommended that any young filmmaker not be scared off asking big name people to appear in their films. He said most young filmmakers cast Aunt Judy and Uncle Colin, and while sometimes Aunt Judy is very good, it wouldn't hurt their films to have some professional actors in the parts! Most actors, he said, like to work, and if the letter to the agent shows enthusiasm, that the picture has enough funding to get made, and you genuinely explain why you think that actor would be great, then such things will be considered even by well-known actors.
When asking big actors in person, Ken had some practical points. "Don't drink coffee or tea before, as the caffeine will make your hands *shake* [he demonstrates], and make sure you have something to lean your arms on! Don't wear tight trousers or they'll be able to see you knees knocking [demonstrates]!"
Question about being introduced to the Hollywood machine following the success of Henry V:
KB said that he got to go to his first round of Hollywood meetings when Renaissance was on tour out in the US. He learned about the "pitch" where you have 3 minutes to sell your film -- the attention span of the people you are pitching to! Longer than than their attention span! If you don't sell your film in the first minute, that's it! He went on to say "I'm not being cynical [crowd laughs] -- these people hearing pitches hear so many a day that you have to catch them fast. Basically you have to compare your film to three others, one of which was won lots of awards and the other two of which were huge moneymakers, and the last two have to be the ones that were top of the US box office last weekend! So it's "my film will be The Godfather combined with Independence Day with a bit of Jurassic Park thrown in!" Crowd laughs.
He realized all this as he was 'taking meetings' for the first time. At that time he was interested in filming the Thomas Hardy novel 'The Return of the Native'. As he tried to pitch this all over Hollywood he watched many eyes glaze over until he figured out how 'the pitch' worked. Much laughter all around.
Question about working with Patrick Doyle, how closely the music and film come together:
KB describes Doyle as "a mad Glaswegian -- 9th of 13 children and completely insane." Their collaboration has been very intense since Henry V -- Patrick usually is around the set with his synthesizer, coming up with the music as the film is being made. Patrick always wants to make things musically very sophisticated, while Ken is very interested in having some popular quality to the music, having it be hummable and memorable to everyone, which goes along with his wanting to make his films a very populist experience.
KB also says that he knows some people object to the use of music to go with the text in the Shakespeare films -- they feel the text stands on its own. Which of course it does, he said, but the music can help to enhance the feeling, or mood of the words. While you don't really need the music on stage, film is an entirely different medium and music is really an integral part of filmmaking.
Question about Frankenstein -- interviewer tried to beat around the bush about why it was a flop:
KB's answer: 'No, I think that people just didn't like it!' Crowd laughs. He went on to say that people tried to make out that the film had been taken away from him, but he denied that, saying 'It was my film, and if people don't like it, that's just the way it was.' He went on to say that it was very strange to be working on this huge budget picture ($45 million) and to be aware that at the same time his creative machine was running along, right along side it was this huge industry machine, churning out publicity etc. As an example, he said that 1 week into the filming, he received a tape of the theatrical trailer for the film. 'I thought, what the fuck is this!' Crowd laughs.
He conceded that perhaps keeping the studio at bay through the making of the film took a much larger fraction of his energy than he would want, and as such maybe he didn't have as much (his full) attention on the directing as he would normally. So that's perhaps how things happened, but in the end it was his film and he was responsible.
Question about the change of pace, going to Peter's Friends, was he surprised it was such a hit? Interviewer also mentioned that the success of that in the UK helped to get 'Four Weddings & a Funeral' made:
He was surprised, but he thought that, in 1992, the time was right for people to see a piece about 30-somethings in Britain, a piece very rooted in Britishness of the time. He'd wanted to write an ensemble piece like that, and then was talking "to two chums who said, no, let us write it." The film was written very much for the specific people who appeared in it. He wanted a film about how people feel when they get to a certain stage in their lives, having rushed thru their 20s without stopping to look around and then getting to their early 30s and thinking, what now? What have I done with my life? What am I going to do? He enjoyed working in the smaller, ensemble format (to which he returned in "In the Bleak Midwinter").
Question about KB being one of the few British directors to take the plunge into directing himself, which many American actors have done -- did he think it was a difference in the way actors/directors were seen in the US/UK?
KB said that he felt his films were very much tied up in one big vision of how each film should be, and as the vision was his, he felt that it was up to him to both direct and act. It would take too long to explain his whole vision to someone else anyway. He went on "Of course there's vanity and ego involved -- I'm an actor, and I love to act, so why would I give it up to someone else?" But primarily it was a case of wanting to bring his vision alive onscreen, and by playing both parts he was doing it most effectively. Of course it's exhausting as well!
Question about "In the Bleak Midwinter" (released as "A Midwinter's Tale" in the United States):
KB said well of course it was a film about people putting on 'Hamlet', summed up by the line 'Why do we want to put on a 400 year old play about a depressed aristrocrat?' That's the question that the film looks to answer, about how all these terminally luvvy types with modern problems can all find meaning both in the play itself and the putting together of it. At the same time it shows a lifelike comedy about the theatre environment. Ken's comment was 'No, I'm not obsessed with Hamlet!' Crowd laughs as he grins.
Everyone finds meaning in Hamlet and relevance to life now, despite the age of the play and the setting being so removed from everyone's real experience. That's one of the things which fascinates him about the play, how it is a real visceral experience, which is what he wanted it to be in his film version. At the time of "Midwinter" he really felt that the next film he had to do was Hamlet. It had been a few years since the Mel Gibson version and he felt very strongly about doing the whole play. After all it's considered to be the finest work in the English language by many, and as such deserved to be treated in an epic format. So he shopped around from studio to studio until Castle Rock finally gave him the go-ahead to do the full length version.
On to a discussion of the film of Hamlet:
An amazing experience all around. Often very difficult technically. KB talked about he got such a brilliant cast (and how many of them had worked on 'Midwinter' as well). He talked about how it's very difficult to be objectively critical enough about your own performances. At least now he has video playback, so he can see himself, but in the days of Henry V they didn't have that because they couldn't afford it. That's why he has Hugh Crutwell on the set of all his films, because "he's the *most brutal* critic I've ever had!" He told a story about filming the 'To Be or Not To Be' soliloquy. He said, "It's a nerve-wracking scene because you're thinking 'this is the famous bit' [laughter] that everyone will be paying attention to. And I was doing the shot in one take, which feels like about 10 minutes each time -- though I hope it doesn't feel like 10 minutes to you! [Laughter] After a few takes you think the performance has been brought up to a boil, and you don't want burn out. So after 2 takes I went to Hugh Crutwell, who was principal while I was at RADA and who I have on my films as a consultant -- really my acting coach! So I went to him and said, what do you think? And he says (putting on a posh RADA accent to imitate Hugh) 'Hmm..do it again please.' [Crowd laughs.] So I do another take and he says 'Mm, no, I'll speak when I've something to say.' So finally I've done like 5 takes and Hugh says, 'Well, I didn't really want to say anything. But I think the problem is that I don't believe a single word you're saying!' [Much laughter.] I did a few more takes -- 8 total I think -- and we used the 7th one. That's what I pay him for!"
The filming of Hamlet took place in 10 weeks, so it was very tight. As such the whole crew was extremely professional, with everyone knowing their lines and working very hard. But of course there was much laughter and as KB said 'It was a very happy film!' Sometimes things that were planned ended up not working out, which was frustrating, but funny later. There was the Laertes-Ophelia scene, where they walk across the front of the palace as Laertes gives Ophelia advice about Hamlet. So it's supposed to be this huge majestic shot as they pan across the snow-covered grounds, following L&O as they walk. The snow-guys had been up since 4 am producing literally *tons* of snow, which they had spread across the field. When the time comes to do the shot, they start, and then the wind kicks up and starts blowing all that fake snow into their faces, leaving a tiny snow-covered path instead of the huge majestic expanse! It was quite frustrating at the time. What you see in the film now is the tight closeup of their faces as they walk the length of the grounds -- some things happen out of necessity -- you can't control everything.
KB also mentioned that in the showbiz industry you get 'brownie points for making films like this [Hamlet], and people think you're a whole lot more intelligent than I *know* myself to be!' Crowd laughes at his obvious self-deprecating sincerity.
Opening up the floor to questions from the audience.
First guy asks how 'A Midwinter's Tale' informed his subsequent filming of Hamlet:
KB first repeats the question, and then says "In the Bleak Midwinter--or 'A Midwinter's Tale', as they called it in *some* parts of the world [laughter] -- I don't know, I guess they don't have that hymn over there!" He went on to say that yes, one fed into the other, as the first was an exploration of the experience of putting on Hamlet, which was a good segueway into doing the film of the play itself, especially as many of the cast members were constant from one film to the next.
A girl says that most of the time she's heard Shakespeare she has a very difficult time understanding the language, but with KB she has no problem. She asks him if he just has a natural talent? [Crowd applauds]
KB responds by saying that he knows most people's experience of Shakespeare is one of reading out loud in the classroom, or seeing very stilted performances. The trick is that what is being said should sound natural, not forced. It's a mixture of lots and lots of training, and maybe some natural talent. He particularly singled out Derek Jacobi, "perhaps the finest Shakesperean actor alive" as giving a marvelous performance in which 'you really feel like he's just coming up with those words at that moment, that he's speaking them as they come into his mind for the first time' rather than as lines from a text. For himself he feels it was lots and lots of practice, and maybe a bit of talent.
One of the things he is most passionate about is making Shakespeare into a visceral, believable experience where you believe in the characters as real people, which does not always come across when reading the text or seeing some productions. He wants to make it all understandable to people who may never have understood or enjoyed Shakespeare before.
A very enthusiastic group of students asks him how his RADA training has helped him:
KB says his RADA training did help. He then looks up at them, with a grin, and says, "You wouldn't by any chance be RADA students, would you?" They whoop and cheer, and one screams out, "Shakespeare, third term!" He said yes, that even though the RADA emphasis is on theatre, the training there was valuable. He then said "I hope Hugh will forgive me for being hard on him again, but when I was there he said 'Everything you need to know about TV and film you can learn in half a day.' I just want to say -- *he was wrong*!"
A bloke with a very Northern Ireland accent calls out, "Are you ever coming back to Belfast?"
KB responds immediately with his own long-buried Northern Irish accent, "Absolutely! Of course!" And the accent is *so* charming...! (Personal aside -- as that's my favourite accent on the planet, I wish he'd use it in one of his films someday...)
Final question from the interviewer: If you had to put one of your films in a time capsule to be opened in the year 3000, the film that you would want yourself to be remembered for, and a note to go with it, what would the film be and what would the note say?
KB immediately replies "It would be this film [HAMLET] and the note would say 'Don't cut it!'" Huge laughter and applause as he gets up to leave, and gets a standing ovation from many in the crowd.