Trust Kenneth Branagh

Belfast Telegraph
22 March 2000

Branagh. He took the international film community by storm with his debut movie, Henry V. It was shot on a tiny budget in a series of fields outside studios near London. And it grossed millions. He's never looked back since.

Trust Kenneth Branagh to make an entrance. In he comes, grinning hugely, picks up a bottle of fizzy mineral-water from the table between us, unscrews the cap with a flourish...and sends it all over the cloth and down his trousers. The language - brief - is extremely un-Shakespearean. "Oh God, I DO apologise", he says, all of a fluster, "Here, where's a cloth...?" Having settled himself down, we're all systems go to talk about his latest project, a musical version of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, in which he stars as Berowne, a lovesick courtier (last time he was in the stage version of the Bard's obscure early comedy he was playing the King of Navarre), alongside his old chum and mentor, Richard Briers, the Broadway comic and Vaudevillian, Nathan Blake, Alicia Silverstone, Emily Mortimer ad Natascha McElhone.

It was , he says with an engaging grin, "hard to know how to pitch it to the studio chiefs and the people who might give us some finance for it. It is obscure, and I wanted to do it as a Thirties musical-comedy, using material by Jerome Kern and George Gershwin. I might as well have told them that I wanted to do Makkers - The "Scottish Play"-- on ice, with Torvill and Dean...coming to a cinema near you, any day now!" at which point he pauses. "It was," he continues, choosing his words with care, "er, slightly new territory for them to negotiate!"

Undoubtedly, Branagh's reputation as a cinematic and theatrical underking, and the fact that Baz Luhrmann recently produced a highly-successful modern-dress version of Romeo and Juliet that slayed them all at the Box Office, helped...a lot! The music stems from Branagh's love of "a lot of those old black-and -white movies that used to dominate the Sunday afternoon TV schedules when I was a kid...Flying Down to Rio,Top Hat, Swing Time, that sort of thing". He went back and watched a lot of them while researching this one: "I was totally fascinated by the Busby Berkley sequences. I loved the Esther Williams films, too, where she'd emerge from the water looking stunning, with 500 aqua-babes in perfect formation skiing along behind her! She was always totally unruffled, however wet she was. It makes you awestruck at what they got away with!"

Though there has subsequently been a big denial, his friendship with Silverstone secured her services and of the others it was a question of "calling in a few favours". Nathan Lane agreed to come on board, as he explained: "This, despite the fact that it is a quarter-of-a-century now since I was in tights! I had to get them out of the airing cupboard and give them a good rinse...ditto with the leg warmers!"

Recalls Branagh, with a chuckle: "Richard Briers was the funniest of the lot. I rang him up and he said - here, he breaks into an uncanny impersonation of the much-loved star: 'Darling, where are you shooting? Shepperton? Well, it's not all that convenient to the bus from Chiswick but I'll do what I can. I'll use my Over 65 Pass. I know you don't pay too much money, Ken, old love, but I suppose that if you don't give me too much to do, I'll be able to do a few voice-overs and things to keep the pennies coming in'. "His daughter bought him a pair of lime-green leg-warmers so that he could join in the month-long rehearsals for the musical numbers and he makes a simply delightful Sir Nathaniel. Richard kept wandering around; "I'm a much -loved Vicar, old son! Had us all in tucks!"

For Belfast-born, Reading-reared Branagh, Love's Labour's Lost is his eighth feature as a director, but he's recently been concentrating on acting, playing a Savannah lawyer in Robert Altman's The Gingerbread Man; a priest opposite William Hurt and Madeleine Stowe in The Proposition; a caretaker of a victim of motor-neuron disease with his on-off-on again girlfriend, Helena Bonham -Carter, in The Theory of Flight; an American writer in Woody Allen's Celebrity; in Danny Boyle's Alien Love Triangle and Barry Sonnenfeld's much ridiculed flop, Wild Wild West. "I know it didn't do all that well," he admits, "but there we are. I did my best, that's all I know...and whatever else, the money I got for it went to fund a few other things".

That's the point with Branagh. In 1989, he was persuaded to write an early autobiography called Beginning. It sold well and it raised considerable amounts of money for his-then Renaissance Theatre Company. The company triumphed in the late 1980s and early 1990s but, best of all for Branagh, it managed to employ all manner of actors, designers and stagehands. He is known as being fiercely loyal to everyone he has ever employed and has gathered a considerable repertory company of players and technicians around him, using them over and over gain. It was in 1988 that, already a celebrated stage actor, he took the international film community by storm with his debut movie, Henry V. It was shot on a tiny budget in a series of fields outside studios near London. And it grossed millions. He's never looked back since. He persuaded Michael Keaton and Denzel Washington to appear in Much Ado About Nothing; Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, with Robert DeNiro, made over $100 million worldwide; Julie Christie, Billy Crystal and Charleton Heston appeared with him in Hamlet...he's been Edgar in King Lear, and Quince in The Dream, in hit TV series and in numerous radio productions.

Recently, he narrated the BBC's hit series Walking with Dinosaurs, and his shelves must be groaning with the weight of awards that he's pulled in over the years. And yet he remains totally self-effacing, not at all flash, his eyes twinkling with fun. Who, I wondered, gave him the idea of the tap-dance sequence in Love's Labour's in which he stands at the top of a flight of stairs and starts beating out the rhythm of an iambic pentameter with his feet? Lesser men would claim this witty device as their own but not Branagh: "Oh that, you spotted that. Well, I mentioned that I wanted to go into a song at that point, and I told Helena that I was facing a problem and she said: 'Why don't you...?' I did...and it works. She also gave me the idea of that dance bit when Timothy Spall (as the Spaniard) kicks the moon out of the way".

He says of his cast and crew: "We were at our boldest a combination of the most joyous and dedicated people. It was totally uncynical, everyone was devoted to the project, and it's loyalty to both the play and to the music. It does take risks, yes , of course. My challenge is to...well, to get it right". So what did he admire about LLL? He says immediately: "It's a play that not many people are familiar with an yet it's a beautifully expressed love story. They may know the more popular plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night or Hamlet or The Dream, but not this one. So, I was attracted to the idea of introducing what I think is an equally beautiful play with the added advantage of knowing that an audience would NOT be sitting and waiting for the balcony scene or for Hamlet to start talking to the skull of Yorick.

And he's got an equally valid answer when you ask him about the pre-WW2 setting: "I liked the idea of setting it in that sort of idyll between the two great wars when everyone was trying to make some sort of sense of the chaotic world in which everything seemed to be about to change forever. At the end of the play the men and women can't stay together because of the death of the French King and also because a war is about to begin. So the question of whether or not they will ever meet again becomes all the more poignant". And, he adds: "The play responds very well to music. There are loads of reference to music and dancing within the structure, and the style and wit of the play seemed to me to sit very well in a context not unlike the fictional world of the great Hollywood musicals.

"Shakespeare was trying to convey how silly and agonising and wonderful and stupid it is to be head-over-heels in love and the songs we have chosen convey all the same ideas of the vicissitudes of love. "It's always hard to cast an ensemble piece, because so many elements have to work with each other. We have four girls and four guys and even though some of them don't have a great deal to say, they are on screen for nearly all the time, so it was important for them to look charismatic on the screen...and they really do!

"I was particularly looking for actors who would bring a tremendous commitment and energy to their work because I knew that it would be VERY demanding for them all. They not only have to act, but also sing and dance...and do it well. We only had a very few weeks of rehearsal to create a real company of performers. I was happy to accent a certain rawness in the singing and dancing provided it came from a very clear understanding of who the people they were playing actually were.

"I listened to a tape of me singing from one take, and it just sounded - this is not false modesty - like Kenneth Branagh being too good. It did not sound like Berowne addressing his lady-love. So I went back to an earlier take, which sounded worse...but better, do you understand me? Berowne is a great part with some wonderful lines, but he's also very flawed and silly, but he also has a capacity to enjoy life and a huge generosity of spirit, and that's every well drawn and I wanted to be part of that for a while. It was all - all! - far more exhausting than I had ever imagined. But I'm glad that I hadn't known how terrifically hard it was all going to be, otherwise I'd have done something a lot more gentle!

"The idea, actually, came to me when I was in New York doing Woody Allen's Celebrity, and that was the winter of 1997. I had a lot of time on my own, and that' when the ideas come to me, so I just started scribbling away on pieces of paper". And, confesses Branagh: "It was a genuine thrill to be able to include that old warhorse There's No Business Like Showbusiness in the movie...we had 25 actors singing and dancing in unison, and they all did it perfectly. It still brings a tear to my eye when I see it".

And what's up next for this very busy actor? "Well , something a darn sight less convoluted and stressful, I'll tell you that much. It's an awful lot of effort getting a film together, especially when you're part of the production team, and you direct it and you appear in it. I think that I would like to go back to the stage again, and sooner rather than later. I really do want to recharge my batteries in front of a live audience".

Is there any other Shakespeare he would like to film? He shakes his head and says that nothing much comes to mind. Then he grins: "I'll tell you what, I"ll give you the two that are totally unfilmable in my opinion. Timon of Athens and King John. Come to that, they're both well nigh unstageable".

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The Guardian
Monday March 27, 2000

What is this thing called Love's Labour's Lost?

Sarah Gristwood joins Kenneth Branagh on the set of his all-singing, all-dancing version of Shakespeare's play

Under the fake shade of fake trees, a group of actors have set up camp with an air of conviction that makes sunshine seem like a reality. On the foot of a swirling staircase Alicia Silverstone is curled up asleep, her scarlet evening dress capped by sneakers, hair net and a giant puffa jacket (a more realistic reaction to the temperature), a towel cuddled, teddy bear-like, to her chest. While the crew perches on cold simulated stone to discuss piles and other personal problems picked up elsewhere ("Just wait till you've done the Ouarzazate Quickstep") the cast, at 9.30 on a chilly morning, is faced with the task of laughing loudly and musically.

This is one of Shepperton's biggest sound stages, decked out with walls, willows and punts to make a kind of "movie Oxbridge" - otherwise known as the court of Navarre - for Kenneth Branagh's film of Love's Labour's Lost. It is, he says, "a larger-than-life atmosphere in which people would naturally burst into song."

Branagh, who adapted, directs and plays the romantic hero, Berowne, is wearing a dinner jacket and has a tiny moustache. He used to dislike the comparison, but his resemblance to Laurence Olivier is extraordinary. Branagh has set the story of four young men sworn to abjure women, and four young women who make them change their minds, in the 30s. And he has replaced two-thirds of the words with the songs of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin - "artists who have a chance of sitting alongside Shakespeare and not being embarrassed by it".

The production team tried writing original lyrics. It didn't work. Neither did using the composers' lesser numbers, which would have been cheaper. "But," says Branagh, "when you have Berowne going on about the transforming power of love, saying that when love speaks, the voice of all the gods makes heaven drowsy with it, it seems very appropriate to start singing 'Heaven, I'm in heaven'. So far, the play has not bucked against our treatment."

Branagh's previous Shakespeare films (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet) were more straightforward. But Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet moved the goalposts. A musical Love's Labour's Lost may be a gamble but the initial response (the reception at the Berlin film festival, the Variety review) suggests it has paid off. Unlike the four-hour Hamlet, this clocks in at a brisk 90-odd minutes, and that's nothing to do with Harvey Weinstein, whose firm Miramax is distributing it in many territories: "This is the director's cut," says Branagh firmly.

Perhaps he has hedged his bets by going for one of Shakespeare's less popular plays. Love's Labour's Lost couples a simple plot with an elaborate poetry packed with topical references that "make it seem as if it's written in code", as Richard Briers (who plays the curate Nathaniel) puts it. Branagh says the play responds best to heroic treatment: "In this century there have been only five significant productions and they've all had quite strong directors." He refers to Harley Granville Barker's line that it is "a fashionable play 300 years out of fashion" and says that, like Romeo and Juliet, its youthful energy is a great plus.

Back in his RSC days Branagh played the King of Navarre to Roger Rees's Berowne. He admits he didn't understand the work. Perhaps you need to be edging towards middle years to appreciate youthful verve. Now the 39-year-old Branagh says Berowne is less cynical, less set against love, than Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing: "This is the film about the look across a crowded room."

Drawing on the late 30s works thematically as well as stylistically. Besides the showtime element - "very perky and silly and full of fun" - the period produced a spate of films "where women called the shots while the men do the posturing". A recurring theme was men's constancy - "or inconstancy" - and women got their turn at "the game of torturing the boys", as Silverstone (who plays the Princess) calls it.

In the play, the romantic games are ended when the sudden death of the King of France makes the Princess sweep her ladies home. In the film, the visuals give his death a political context; this is 1939 and France is falling to the Germans. As the Princess and her entourage leave Navarre, the film reference is to Casablanca. A plane stands on the tarmac as the cast sing They Can't Take That Away From Me. In crackling black and white news footage the Princess and her ladies are led away to internment camp, while the King of Navarre and his men join the services.

"The play benefits from being set very specifically in time and place, and it fits the prewar generation," says Branagh. "There's something ennobling about that last hurrah." It makes sense of the couples' arbitrary separation, the one that has led many Shakespeareans to postulate a long-lost sequel, Love's Labour's Won, and gives a poignancy to their two-day love.

Branagh is stirring a rich soup of references, but he sweeps everyone along. On set, he is above all reassuring. He has to be. On the basis of three weeks' rehearsal - "Shakespeare boot camp" - a cast not exactly famed for its musical experience is being asked to perform the numbers we are used to seeing done with real panache. Broadway star Nathan Lane, many times a musicals award winner, plays Costard the clown but sings only one number (There's No Business Like Show Business, appropriately). Briers, and Geraldine McEwan as Holofernia, get to sing The Way You Look Tonight. Timothy Spall as a Dali-eseque Don Armadio combines RSC experience with Topsy-Turvy, and Adrian Lester as Dumaine combines professional dance and Sondheim's Company with Rosalind in the all-male As You Like It. But many other cast members, including Silverstone and Matthew Lillard as Longaville, mention neither Shakespeare nor musicals on their CV.

Eclectic is too mild a word for it - but a mixed cast is something Branagh has used before, even more conspicuously. Hamlet featured Billy Crystal and Charlton Heston alongside John Gielgud. Much Ado had Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves alongside British unknowns, and Emma Thompson told graphically of how the disparate group had to be welded together by impromptu spaghetti parties - rather as Merchant Ivory casts, in their poorer days, had to be placated with Ismail Merchant's curries. But it is noticeable how many older members of the cast, and the production team, have worked with Branagh regularly. None more so than Briers, who was regarded only as a TV actor when Branagh first cast him on stage in Twelfth Night. Through Branagh's Renaissance company Briers went on to play Lear. "Lear after The Good Life!" says Briers incredulously. "It would have been awful if I had got into my 70s and never had those opportunities." As a director, Briers says, Branagh's special gift is to draw ever more emotion out of his performers. "If you're English middle class, it's very difficult to yield it easily."

Branagh is planning more Shakespeares: Macbeth should be coming shortly, followed by As You Like It. That's another sort of gamble. His producer, David Barron, says: "Where Shakespeare films have made money, they've made money. Where they haven't, they really haven't." But the energy triggered by Shakespeare in Love and Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet is still pumping. Ethan Hawke's Hamlet and Julie Taymor's terrifying Titus have been praised in the US, and Tim Roth recently announced plans to direct King Lear as adapted by Harold Pinter: "I'm not interested in a bunch of people standing around a castle talking," Roth says.

It seems only fair that, given the length of his relationship with Shakespeare, Branagh should ride the wave. But he could have been swept away. Lillard says reading a scene with Branagh is "like shooting hoops with Michael Jordan," but also that in Branagh's company, "I'm sitting with the grandfather of the Bard." It is a double-edged compliment.

"We have broken away from the various earlier periods of Shakespeare movie-making that were linked more closely to theatre," says Branagh. "Now these stories are free for exploration in a way they weren't before. The canvas is blank again. There's a generation out there who have never seen one of Orson Welles's Shakespeare films, or Zeffirelli's - or even one of ours. What we've done with Love's Labour's Lost might provoke hostile debate, but even that's a good thing."

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The Bard of Belfast

Michael Doherty meets Kenneth Branagh, the Belfast actor who has returned to the director's chair for another crack at his beloved Shakespeare

Kenneth Branagh has crammed a massive amount into his relatively brief professional life to date. Described as a one-man film industry, as actor, writer and director, the Belfast man has been instrumental in bringing Shkespeare to a modern big-screen audience in much the same manner as his natural progenitor, Laurence Olivier. In addtion to the classics, Branagh has dipped his toe into the Hollywood waters for key roles in Dead Again, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Celebrity and, er, Wild Wild West.

But Stratford is his one true love. He recently established the Shakespeare Film Company with the express aim of presenting more versions of the Bard's plays in the most compelling and exciting way possible, quote unquote. The first of these projects to hit our screens is Love's Labour's Lost, which Branagh has set in the 1930's to the musical soundtrack of Gershwin and Porter. The film features Branagh himself, Adrian Lester, Natascha McElhone and, if you can beleive the tabloids, his current paramour Alicia Silverstone (he's separated from Emma Thompson and until recently was dating Helena Bonham Carter).

At the tender age of 39, Branagh can already boast a brace of BAFTAs to his name, not to mention prestigious nominations at Venice, Cannes, Berlin and the Academy Awards. All this and a published autobiography, too. Who ever said that youth was wasted on the young?

MICHAEL DOHERTY: If I could ask you first, Ken, at what stage did you realize that Love's Labour's Lost had the makings of a screwball musical comedy?

KENNETH BRANAGH: Well, I was in the play in 1984 for the RSC and the atmosphere in the theatre always seemed to lead it that way. There's something daft about the story: boys thinking they could give up women for three years. You know when the women arrive that these guys are going to be completely tortured. It felt like, times four, the plot of so many romantic musical comedy films. And they surprise you by being rather touching in the end.

MD: Was it difficult to abridge the Shakespearean text to fit the film model? I'm sure the really die-hard Bard fans will be suitably aghast.

KB: I think it would have been pretty difficult to finance a film which included all the dialogue. The play, alone among Shakespeare's work, was unperformed for two hundred years after his death. It was very contemporaneous. My experience of doing these plays is that when you do cut them for film and people like them, they go back to the play. When it comes to irritating the purists, I can't think anything we do is remotely as savage as the 18th century where actors and producers were changing the endings at will. In some productions, Romeo and Juliet didn't die! When so-called purists get outraged, I always want to say: "Were you there in 1600? How do you know!" The reason these plays are classics is that you can do them again and again.

MD: Having been away from the director's chair for three years, was it daunting, challenging or intimidating to get the old megaphone out again?

KB: All of the above. It did feel a lot longer than three years. I was unaware of the physical toll it would take on me, especially with the singing and dancing. I really had to get my kip of an evening! But once you're in the middle of it you have no choice, you're better going on than going back. To be honest, it was a big team effort.

MD: When you were casting the film were you trying to balance acting talents with an ability to sing and dance?

KB: The emphasis was on acting and commitment. We knew they weren't going to be Fred and Ginger, but we needed them to work their cotton socks off. As long as they were not tone deaf or physically unco-ordinated, I took them at their word that they would work hard on the musical side. Primarily, I wanted them to be able to act and be comfortable with Shakespeare. That genre is uncynical and so we didn't want the characters to be cool and to be tipping the wink to the audience all the time.

MD: From the reaction you've had on the festival circuit, are you happy that the audiences have plugged into that approach?

KB: Yes, I've been delighted with the reaction so far. There's always a real shocked reaction from audiences when the cast first start to sing. Even though they know it's a musical! I feel at that stage we'll either keep them here or we'll lose them. So far we haven't lost anybody. It's a little bit scary, but sometimes you think it's hard to do anything unusual in movies these days, and the singing does get a reaction.

MD: On a personal note, how gratifying was the recent Gielgud Award?

KB: It was very gratifying, actually. I had a brilliant night surrounded by all my mates. I've worked with Gielgud a few times and he was an absolute model professional and truly a great actor. He's done Shakespeare more service than I shall ever do. He's a great ambassador also, so kind, so humble and so full of stories. That's why it was such a thrill to be mentioned in the same breath as Gielgud.

MD: Is the "Scottish Play" next up for the Shakespeare Film Company?

KB: I hope so, yes. If we can get away with this one, then I'm hoping that they will let us do the next one. And it would be the Scottish Play. MD: As a final question, Ken, you are about to turn forty. Are you worried that people might stop describing you as a wunderkind?

KB: Ha! Ha! No, that would be very nice, actually. There has been certain pressure attached to that label all these years and I've never felt very "wundery" or "kindy"! In a way it's nice and I intend to have a very large party. Those sort of milestone decade parties are fun. I feel the same way I did when I was a teenager. I hope I feel the same way when I'm 65. I spoke to Richard Briers the other day and he had just got his bus pass. "Look at me," he said, "I'm an old scrote, but I don't feel any different now to when I was 16." That's what I say, too. Forty, schmorty!

(Thanks to Jane Land)


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For the Love's Labour's Lost page, click here.

For the Making of Love's Labour's Lost page, click here. Includes interviews, articles and essays.

For more essays and commentary on Love's Labour's Lost, click here.

For the Story of Love's Labour's Lost, click here.

For the studio production notes for Love's Labour's Lost, click here.

Click here for Trust Kenneth Branagh. Interviews with the Belfast Telegraph and The London Guardian are paired with photos and screen captures from Love's Labour's Lost.

For the Daily Telegiraffe review of Love's Labour's Lost, click here.

For other reviews of Love's Labour's Lost, click here.

For an interview with composer Patrick Doyle on the music in Love's Labour's Lost and more, click here.

For Love's Labour's Lost and more in the Guardian interview with Kenneth Branagh at the National Film Theatre's 1999 Branagh retrospective, click here.

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