Guardian Interview of Kenneth Branagh at the NFT

The following is a transcription of the Guardian interview with Kenneth Branagh. The interview was a highlight of the National Film Theatre's mammoth retrospective of Kenneth Branagh's film work. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

(Thanks to Toni Slaven and Catherine E. Kerrigan)

National Film Theatre, London
Sunday 23rd May 1999

MB = Michael Billington
KB = Kenneth Branagh

(-----) short comments which are inaudible
(thunderous applause as Ken enters)

MB: They're on your side! Welcome back again to the National Film Theatre where I believe you've been before?

KB: Yes (big smile).

MB: Can we begin fairly naturally by talking about Celebrity which the audience have just seen, indeed I've just seen. Perhaps you could explain to us how one gets into a Woody Allen film? How a Woody Allen film happens? Does a virgin script arrive in the post or does a phone call come from Woody Allen? How did it all happen?

KB: I think I'm still trying to work it out actually. I've heard many, many tales of people auditioning for Woody Allen, many actors--most actors I know--are very keen to work for him, but the process is mysterious. Sometimes it involves going into a very dark screening room where he does his auditions and I'm told that sometimes he sits in a corner behind a piece of cardboard with holes cut out--and people are in and out; and 2 minutes is a phenomenally long audition. (laughter) That didn't happen with me, I had a, er, a letter, a faxed letter came from the great man and to my astonishment they sent the screenplay, the complete screenplay. I think I had to sign something, some security document to say it would go back straight away as the world is waking up every morning, as you know, wondering what's in the next Woody Allen film! (laughter) Erm, and so I sent that back having read it and there was a letter that came with it that said a number of things which were very interesting and er, that was really the extent of, of what happened before we actually started shooting.

MB: When you say a number of things were interesting, what exactly do you mean?

KB: Well there was one phrase, I hope he won't mind me saying this but er - make of it what you will - erm, 'this man is somewhat attractive to women, therefore no facial hair'. (lots of laughter from audience) That's--I don't know, some kind of a mystery really. He's a very shy man, he seems a genuinely shy man - and I didn't really speak to him about the part until the first day, the first day we were shooting. Because there have been numerous occasions on which Woody has asked people to leave shortly after the beginning of filming. I think a lot of actors arrive wondering whether they're gonna last, er, more than a couple of weeks. So I pretty much had, er, my brown trousers firmly on - for a wee while (laughter) and er, of course theres's a sort of atmosphere of awe and reverence around him. I don't know whether that's helpful. Anyway, obviously it's an extraordinary cannon of work. It's very, very impressive, so I didn't, I didn't er, feel brave enough to say 'what would you like?' So I responded instinctively to the script which did seem to me written very much with *him* in mind. Erm, the kind of character that he plays - I mean down to the er, sort of hesitations and stutters and things, and so I suppose, I.... Well, anyway, I went back to what he also asked me to do in the letter which was a neutral American accent.

So on the first day, the first thing we shot was with the, with Leonardo di Caprio - the scene of the er, hotel where I meet him for the first time. And so the very first shot, the very first take - I'd only just met Leonardo di Caprio, so I was a bit nerve-wracked anyway (laughter). In fact he looked just like Mr. Rabbit in the headlights (laughter) because I don't think Woody had spoken to him either so (more laughter) we were all in there, you know, wondering whether we were going to make it until the end of the day or whether the first day's play was going to, you know, get rid of us. SO we start the first day, I think with the crowd scene; policemen everywhere. I think they were real policemen as well? You don't really get introduced, so I guess that's all fantastic for spontaneity....(laughter) I can think of other words to describe what it produces (tittering) but anyway, we start the first day and (-----) Woody's very quiet and so we run 2 or 3 lines and he came over looking sooooo miserable and sad (laughter as Ken physically hunches himself up and adopts a Woodyesque manner) "So I think, erm, I think, I think you should do it again. Erm, it's too broad. It's like Jerry Lewis (laughter) and er, it's not funny (more laughter). You shouldn't, you know you shouldn't do it like that." Don't do it the not funny way. (back into the Allen accent) "Don't do it the not funny way". And then of course I relaxed after that (much laughter). So I tried to do it, I tried *not* to do it the not funny way (laughter).

MB: Does he ever talk about the ideas behind the film or the concept of the character? I mean, does he just give instructions scene by scene in other words, like rehearse scenes?

KB (jumping in): No rehearsal. I think he's very anti-anything that would create something that was too prepared, not having the spontaneity that is typical of his films. There's a bit of a--at least in my experience there was--a little bit of an illusion about the notion of improvising in his films. I think that he was very happy for a certain percentage, I don't know, maybe 10 percent, of a kind of, what'd you call it--conversational waffle (Ken adopts an Allenesque accent--'well, you know, erm, so good!'--to much laughter and clapping).

But, one day, actually we got on very well. He was very kind to me and we chatted away from the film. I don't think he likes to have to look at the script in too much of the wrong kind of actor-worrying detail. But away from the script we talked about about what's on in the current cinema. He's very interested in what's out there. We also talked about sports and his interests in the political scene. SO we talked about all of that but we didn't tend to talk about er, the part. (-----) difficult to catch part about Woody will talk to members of his crew (-----) He'll talk to the great cinematographer Sven Nyquist, the cinematographer on this and I don't even know whether he goes out and chooses his locations necessarily. It's all happening before your eyes. (-----) You're shooting immediately, then he's very, very clear about where he wants you to stand and you see him sort of constructing these Woody Allen shots, you know - with people exiting the frame or talking off-camera, then coming back in and all that kind of stuff. But, so a little way in I started to, as I thought, improvise in a way he might like - but he made very clear, a clearly cut distinction, you know, between all that, you know 'conversational waffle' and what he calls 'content gags'. SO if you come up with anything that actually adjusts what is, you know, a very fine piece of writing -almost always - that is not done because you're essential affecting the authorial voice in a way that he, quite rightly, erm, doesn't want. You know, I'm not going to come up with anything of the top of my head that's more interesting than anything Woody thinks. So improvisation was not as free in that way as I imagined it might be.

MB: But what's interesting is what you said about a lot of these hesitations, repetitions - the defining quality of a Woody Allen script - being all there, like Frankie Howerds 'ooohs' and 'aaahs'. They are all written in, in fact.

KB: I thought of playing it as Frankie Howerd for a while (big grin from Ken, laughter from audience). In fact I found that er, that er, there's something quite (-----) (big bit difficult to hear but seems to be about not wanting to do an irritating Woody impersonation??) (-----) It's a very particular, as far as I can understand it, anyway, it's a very particular kind of comedy, and the character of Lee is a particular kind of Woody Allen comic engine for the piece - and early on where Woody didn't like it, it was almost always where I would try and somehow adjust or adapt or play a different kind of rhythm. I was very struck by the, the rhythmic quality of the writing. A lot of times it's the necessity to score a nervous energy that adds a kind of pace to the scene, against which, other people react - that you can puncture or er, react to, and, er, to not do that would make the scene go very flat. So he was very keen that that be maintained and inevitably because of the voice in the script, it sounds like him.

MB: There's a key line in the film where the hack says 'I'm awash with self-contempt' and that to me is the defining (-----) character, and indeed Woody Allen's thesis, isn't it, actually, they're aware of their own self-hatred?

KB: And obsessed with it as well. Comically, er, obsessed with it.

MB: What about the thesis of the film? It seems to me that there's a line where someone says, you know, you can define a society by the people it celebrates? (-----) that in America now, (-----) people are celebrities in their lunch hour, lawyers are celebrities, (-----) are celebrities, etc, etc. The idea of talent and fame is being debased and degraded.

KB: Well, he spoke quite passionately at one point about this, during a piece of the film where Joe Mantegna's parents are talking about hostages and (puts on an American accent) "Well, what did they ever do? They just got kidnapped, you know, they just became hostages, what is that?" (drops out of American accent) and Woody spoke about the same thing. He's, he's astonished that just by circumstance--albeit in the case of those people, extraordinarily tragic circumstances--that suddenly has produced this dangerous fifteen minutes of fame. Another line that talks about this has an odd resonance is when Judy Davis's character says, 'you know, I've just become the kind of woman I always hated and I've never been so happy'.

MB: (Here the interviewer says something about the concept of the film and the public.)

KB: Yeah, for whatever we may feel is gratifying about this issue of being a celebrity.

MB: Let's just talk a bit about celebrity and fame, because you lost your anonymity quite early on. You became famous very young. You've been famous for the last 18 years. I mean, obviously, that has some advantage in being able to get things done. It enables you to get projects moving in a way that you might not otherwise. Are there negative aspects of fame?

KB: I guess there are things that irritate me, I don't feel all that comfortable talking about the downside. It's something that you're aware of, it's a part of what we do, and the cliches (-----) you fully accept that, you have human reactions to the downside of it, but I don't think, that, well, I think it's inappropriate on many occasions when celebrities talk about being [bothered] I don't really feel much sympathy with the kind of celebrity victim. You know, there are times when, depending on the degree of celebrity, depending on the heat as Hollywood describes it, there are intrusive elements of attention--and that's unfair, in anyone's life, not just the life of a celebrity. I think that there are lines you can draw in the sand that are there, and they would be there for everyone. But, otherwise, if you are doing work, privileged work where, you inevitably are creatively exposing (yourself), as an actor: your face, your body, your talent, such as it, then you have to accept the criticism. Sometimes that's taken to a ridiculous extent, and sometimes that's irritating, but it's not a great drama.

MB: But does celebrity insulate you from the lives most people lead, because celebrity carries obviously perks with it. After all, you don't have to stand for the bus in the rain anymore, do you, or wait in the Tube for the Northern Line.

KB: Well, you can choose to do that, though. And that's, I think, the core of it. It's easy, I think, to become identified with the alleged problems of celebrity and sometimes they're actual and perhaps (something) feedback, but it's very easy to get carried away. And I think it depends on what point you experience it, how old you are, how able you are to deal with the some of the intensity, the molestation, the constant attention, and sometimes that can happen explosively and in a very exponential fashion. Then it can be alarming for a while, but then I think you can choose to not identify with the horrors of that. If you want to wait for a Tube on the Northern Line, then go and do it. On the whole, noone is waking up wondering what we're up to. You know, the world, people are much much more interested in themselves and so, you start going crazy when you are worrying that everyone is somehow thinking about you. They're not. Whatever juicy gossip might be of interest to them, they don't go out of their way to find it. So once you start assuming that that's the case, then you live the life that you live. And in a way this issue I think is much harder for people on primetime television and soap operas, where they are in people's living rooms three or four times a week. I think that produces a different kind of relationship with celebrity and I haven't experienced that, and, in a way, thus far have sort of had an entirely acceptable--more than acceptable--level of celebrity experience. Mind you, Woody Allen defines it as being able to get to the best restaurants. So being a celebrity gets you to the head of the queue in the best restaurants. (Bit of inaudible banter)

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MB: Where are we? Yes, the work you're currently doing: you're editing your film version of Love's Labour's Lost, your fourth Shakespeare project. Love's Labour's Lost is the most beautiful of Shakespeare's comedies, as you well know. But it is also packed with the most incredibly dense, sophisticated, Joycean wordplay, isn't it, especially in England?

KB: Not any more. (Huge burst of laughter and applause from the audience).

MB: Not any more.

(More laughter)

KB: Well, I think also it is the most beautiful of Shakespeare's comedies, but it has this extraordinary history where, for two hundred years following Shakespeare's death, where uniquely among the plays it was almost never performed. Essentially it was rediscovered fully, in this century, with various landmark productions. But the very issue that you brought up, about the density of the language, is one of the things that I think (something about preventing) and it's also different in structure, with, you know, four groups - four women and four men as a quartet. (-----) The play seems in some ways to involve a first half, a first two-thirds, which seem to want to play as a (-----) comedy, very light and charming, and fluffy, and then in the last third of the play there is a different kind of essay on the relationship between men and women and the issue of men's constancy and the debate between the men and the women becomes quite hard-edged. And then in the very last section of the play, it becomes a poignant, and almost bitter--like an uneasy combination of things; something that is not as organically interwoven as much as, say, Much Ado or Twelfth Night where, sort of, the melancholy and the comedy sit a little easier.

MB: You've brought songs into it, haven't you, sort of classic songs of the Thirties and Forties.

KB: We have--embracing the idea that on one level, as I mentioned earlier, it's a classic four-piece boy-meets-girl, girl-meets-boy movie. And so the period also seemed to accommodate, just before the Second World War, the idea of that. A world in which this idea, (that) the men have at the beginning of the play--that it's a great idea to study for three years, to give up women and do all those sort of ennobling, soul-nourishing things. Then the four women come along and then (-----) but that's the only thing of wars where they have the memory of the awful, tragic events of the previous war and this uncertainty of a world about to change. The idea being embraced by the king in a blinkered fashion--saying I resist the idea that the world is about to be turned upside down again, and then to do what life may not provide the opportunity to do--seemed like a good place for that play to live, and it seems like it's a play that requires a strong directorial inflection. And then so much of the language, the vocabulary of the play deals with, if you like, the transforming power of love. It's not study that makes them sing and dance and become poets, it's love; it's the transforming power of love. It's (-----) and that, as subject matter, is wonderfully essayed, equally wittily it might be argued, by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and George Gershwin.

MB: Did you have to ditch a great deal? For example, there is a whole area which is a satire on pedantry. (-----) Nathanial, Holofernes, etc. Does that fit into your world or not?

KB: I hope it does. There's no denying that we edited (-----) we had to do that. In this case, we have a female Holofernes, who becomes Holofernia. Geraldine McEwan is Holofernia - she is very striking. She's the rather matronly head of a college whose aim is to tutor the boys in this academic enterprise. So we try and find--obviously it's a subjective judgement--the essence of what the story is in terms of character. It is also about the way we use or abuse language. But it is definitely an abridged version and we also respond with the songs and the dances to the language of the play which is very much about those things.

Granville-Barker wrote a wonderful preface to this play. He begins by saying that the best way to approach this play is through song and dance. Both things are referred to always in the play and it does have that quality to it, and it seems--thus far anyway--as though the piece is very much responding to that. And although the world of those movies is one in which, you can explore its bittersweet combination, and the whole idea of a world in which you can sing and dance, the whole idea of the film is a celebration of the transforming power of love, without a strong edge of cynicism as, say, the character of Benedick has in Much Ado About Nothing. None of the male characters in Love's Labour's Lost has the sort of same sort of set philosophical attitude towards marriage, towards relationships, they're much more disposed to embrace the idea of love.

MB: Except the only thing is, I mean you said boy meets girl, of course in this story boy doesn't get girl, boy again - I'm talking about the end of Love's Labour's Lost, at the end of this story Jack does not have Jill, it does defeat, doesn't it, those kind of romantic expectations.

KB: Well I think that ending is something that we respond to, I suppose, depending on our disposition and, it's undoubtedly the case that there's a question mark at the end of the play (-----). One way of responding to it is to see it as a kind of wonderfully heightened holiday romance where everything's very, very extreme. Again this sort of prewar setting seems to somehow to bring that, a time in which people realised that life had changed, and people may die, the world may turn upside down. They're ready to go with the romance of all of this, and yet at the end there is this problem where they may not be together. I think Shakespeare, in doing that, still leaves the door to one's own imagination to decide whether after a year (which is the time the girls set the boys to wait and a learn a little about constancy.) After all, they are the men who vowed solemnly for three years to study and not talk to women and they broke that vow inside of five minutes, so why should they believe them, as it were?

And so he leaves it beautifully ambiguous, I think. So the romantic can walk away and say, 'Well I think they will be together, he said he loved her, so they will be together,' and the cynic can say, 'Yeah, well, give it another five minutes, four more girls will show up and life will go on.' So in that way, there's a lovely sort of reality that goes in there.

MB: You made a statement that this is a film or story that needs a directorial inflection, and looking again at your three Shakespeare films, what struck me was the very strong idea in each of them of a controlling metaphor or concept, whatever word you want to use, that unlocks the film. Obviously, in Hamlet, it is the castle, this extraordinary Kafkaesque palace with its secret rooms. In Much Ado, it is obviously the metaphor of the use of the Tuscan countryside. Do you look, when you're planning a film, for something, a visual idea that is going to provide the key, if you like, to the film?

KB: Over a period of years, it turns out that it seems that the idea, as the film is somehow marinating, is to find key images or key moments that visually are consistent with a world, a visual world, a historical world in which you feel the play will unleash. And it's always a challenge, because, you know, the stronger the idea, the more specific the idea, then potentially the more dangerous it is in terms of what possibly is always a consequence and a casualty of adapting Shakespeare for the screen that some part of the play or some key idea or some key theme of the play will be eliminated by the power of the idea that may be illuminated, you know, a certain part of the play. So trying to find a world, and in my case, thus far, it seems to have been an impressionistic sense of period where you try and find a world, a period where you think the themes of the play can come alive. So, for instance, in Hamlet, the idea of the late 19th century (was) a period when European wars were happening all the time, and borders were changing and so you could believe that Fortinbras was a very vital and dangerous presence on the Danish border--and you still could believe the idea of sword-fighting and all of that. It was trying to find something that enriches the play cinematically but try(ing) not to cut off the play or be reductive to the power of the play. You try to find a way of releasing the play rather than sealing it inside a single directorial idea where, for every winning translation, you know, several other parts of the play which may be working wonderfully well and mysteriously for you, though great poetry are lost. And it's interesting in Love's Labour, where (there is) this balance between an impression of the 1930s and remaining unspecific enough not to confuse them, so they don't miss a bit of the play while they work out how clever I've been about evoking 1939. (It) is a constant sort of search, but yes, finding some overall, some "guiding" images: in Hamlet, isolate, the ice palace, the mirrors and conspiracy - and that was born out of a visit to Hampton Court many many moons ago. Perhaps the very first time I played Hamlet at RADA, we went there, and I was just astonished by the number of hidden doors and making sense of all of these rooms and the feeling that being regal at that time was to be, you know, very hard to be alone. (It's) a problem that Hamlet has in the play that we chose to explore, and the place, the physical place, we wanted to have the feeling that this is a place where the fate of nations is decided. It had that sort of sense of national weight, so we believed in what we had sensed--which is, it's not just a central domestic crisis of Hamlet's reaction to his father's death, the succession and then the notion through the intervention of the ghost that something supernatural might be behind it, but also that an entire nation was about to have its fate changed in a way that would profoundly affect millions of people's lives. So trying a find a way to let all of that come out is a challenge, yes.

MB: And I think the public dimension of the play is very strong. One device you use in your Shakespeare films, just to be very specific, which intrigues me, is this use of references to events that are talked about but which the audience would not normally see. Obviously in Henry V, it's the reference back to the Eastcheap Tavern, Falstaff, which is very understandable. In Hamlet, I mean, eventually you have subliminal scenes, don't you, Hamlet and Ophelia together in bed. You have that scene [where] we see Claudius actually pouring the leprous distillment, as it were, into the ear of Hamlet's father. I mean, is there a danger in some of those that you could pre-empt what the audience is going to deduce anyway?

KB: There is, and it's something that one constantly challenges. And it's the case with the ghost, that if you do it, the ambiguity whether the ghost is real or whether it's accurate or not is something that plays harmfully with the rest of the story. It's something that is potentially dangerous and I felt it was justified there (and ) anywhere I felt that there was an argument, a real sustainable screen argument, for going that much further in revealing what, as a group, actors etc, had come up with, in terms of their back story: in this case very firmly the idea that Ophelia and Hamlet had had a physical relationship. For us, it made tremendous sense of her descent into madness and the apparent, to us anyway, logic of this. In one month after the death of Hamlet's father, he's back in a particular kind of world where Gertrude--having clearly turned to Claudius rather than Hamlet, to grieve, something that had she done might well have prevented everything that followed--that isolates Ophelia. Isolated by the world she lives in, and her father (who) operated the way he did, (Ophelia) would very logically be thrown together with Hamlet, who, in the intensity of grieving and research tells us this is often the case, throws himself into this need to create life, physically create life. It's part of what people experience in grief and we felt strongly that we wanted to show it and to make the kind of sense of something that we felt that (a) cinema offers up, you know, you have these opportunities, and that makes sense of the rest of Ophelia's journey. You know, you have to make a choice at the time whether that, as I was referring to earlier on, does cut off a whole series of imaginative possibilities for the audience. But we also like to try and assume that, you know, people haven't necessarily seen the plays, necessarily. To cite an instance: in Much Ado About Nothing, where this tricky issue of the night before the wedding Claudio having seen Hero at the window with Borachio is something we chose to put on screen, partly to offer up a little more of what we decided was perhaps more acceptable logic in the here and now, which was not only Claudio seeing her, but reacting and being stopped. The kind of thing that in the wedding scene that follows you often (think) especially with Much Ado, why doesn't somebody say, you know, "Claudio, why didn't you say something at the time?" No-one challenges the information at this fantastic public humiliation that goes on. That's where, you know, Shakespeare's plotting just hangs by a tiny thread, God forgive us but we decided to try and help out there.

MB: I just find the casting of your films fascinating because you have these wonderful sort of collisions--not collisions, collusions maybe-- between Hollywood stars. (These) encounters between Hollywood actors and the veterans of British stage--you find Michael Keaton working alongside Richard Briers or Billy Crystal alongside someone like Simon Russell Beale. This element of--the Hollywood element--in the Shakespeare films, is that simply casting for the producers or casting for the money men, or is (it) that you definitely want those actors for those parts?

KB: Well, I do enjoy the difference that occurs in the room, in the rehearsal room when there are people from different cultures, different approaches and I do admire American film acting, very much, and so it is deliberate, if eclectic. I have no rule, there's no rule of thumb. I like to work with actors I admire, or in this particular instance have an appetite for the kind of work which is sort of exposing: where, you know, the actor, sometimes with limited experience, gets to grips with what I think is the challenge in our films. Where we are trying to find a marriage between something that is cinematic, but that also values words, where speaking of the Shakespeare observes very technical and linguistic demands, but also seems effortless. And of course to make that kind of thing seem effortless requires a great deal of effort, a great deal of energy and investigative work--you've got to work very hard, you've got to be fit for it. And so, I like to work with actors who are very excited by that kind of challenge. With Love's Labour's Lost, we had a rehearsal period of three and half weeks where we had four or five different rooms and if you weren't singing in one, you were dancing in another, or you were doing a text class with Professor Russell Jackson of the Shakespeare Institute who works with us, or you were doing a scene with me and, in a way, it was like going back to drama school. You know, trying to get people fit for this kind of thing. And not everyone wants to do it, people are scared or they don't, it's not something that appeals to them and in the end instinct goes for those people who are excited to do it beyond, you know, the sort of easy "grabs you by association" that people like me have sort of benefited from--much more attention paid because of association with Shakespeare than might otherwise have been the case. But you can't be doing it for that, otherwise you'll soon be found out. So it ends up in being an eclectic mix, but also I'd like to make more of these films. Commercial sensibility of some kind is important so that you make (it) an event, make it (------) combination of people in Hamlet with Derek Jacobi and Julie Christie and Robin Williams, for me it was exciting (------) working with good actors.

MB: How do you feel about people making films with a different Shakespearean tradition to yours - I suppose the classic example is the Baz Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet which obviously has this sort of impact, doesn't it, of a rock video, I mean do you find that anathema or what?

KB: No, no I think it's dazzling, dazzling.

MB: But it's a different kind of Shakespeare movie, isn't it?

KB: Um, it's different, it's different. Thus far, I haven't found a way to come right up to the present day without feeling uneasy about some of the anachronistic bits, but I think he covered that brilliantly with the opening moment where the swords become pistols. The way in which language is used, I don't think he has been given enough credit for the response to the heartbeat of the play, the sex and violence of the play. The real vividness of youthful love which is there, the sex and the danger is very real and compelling and (------).

MB: You, on the whole, preserve the integrity of the text as much as possible. Obviously for Baz Luhrmann is using the text as a springboard for some (------).

KB: Yeah, but I think it is more than that. I think it's a very important film, it was a very, quite frankly, enormous (------).

MB: One thing that does especially intrigue me is the switches you obviously do make - writing, producing, directing ventures amongst others, then you go back to being, as it were, an actor for hire. How difficult is it to make that adjustment? Having been captain of the ship and owner of a shipping line, then being the first painter as it were?

KB: No, though I felt I was in a sailing film there. Carry On Overboard. It turns out to be very, very exhausting to do the combination of jobs that I do. Normally when I finish a film that I've directed and acted in, I come up with some line like 'I will never ever ever do this again' and so I will happily then, if I'm asked, go and be an actor for hire, and let someone else do all the worrying, and then of course, the worry expands to fill the vacuum and you worry about your acting non-stop and you don't have that sometime luxury of being so taken up with anything else that's involved in making a film that you don't give yourself a chance for worry or angst about playing a part if you have all that to think about. But then I hug the director on day one and I hug the director the day after it's finished and I look at them and think about what they're going through. Bob Hoskins described being a director as being taken apart by a thousand pieces every day. It's a great privilege, but it's one of the hardest occupations. There's no doubt it's demanding, it's a lot of money, a lot of pressure; it's always intense, intense scenarios, so the emotion is quite, but I would hope now it's something that as a medium, with so many angles and so much exposure to many many different approaches to acting, that each time now I act in a film that I'm not involved with in any other way, it becomes very exciting to try and make some sort of application of this extraordinary access one has, the very process of filming and rehearsal and working with great actors. To me it's the chief joy of doing the whole of the kit and kaboodle--is seeing when acting takes off in some way. It's a mystery; the idea of trying to work out what the circumstances are under which that can happen as readily is an eternal and fascinating a challenge to me. And to have that happen with other movies, to see the kind of choices people make over a series of takes and how and why they may have come up with that kind of choice is very, very good. The confidence that they have is something that is (------).

MB: Can I just quickly cover a couple of examples of the acting challenges that you mention there? The Gingerbread Man with Robert Altman. What was he like? Is he an actor's director or not?

KB: Oh he adores actors. He loves actors. Um and uh, he loves crews. The crew would die for him. I've never seen such loyalty in a crew for a director, and everyone seems to have worked for him a million times, and he insists that everyone watches the dailies every day. We were on location and he got very annoyed if you didn't come - as far as he was concerned that was the movie. I mean, he's so--he's been around the block so many times, you know, that putting his eggs in a basket and watching them over the weekend and all type of thing and the whole nightmare of (------)action, especially if you work with the wrong kinds of partners and he's very worried, therefore, about making the film and all the dailies he produces--you wouldn't believe how many dailies--and he's an absolute maestro at organising chaos. You didn't know what was going on half the time.

There was a scene in a pet shop with the two kids, lovely kids--in a way they're actors, and we had one version of the scene and I think it was a plot point in it, rather important. We had this pet shop scene: the kids, and the owner of the pet shop, and the pet shop, and dialogue that tells us what might be important. And I turned up the day we were going to do it, and we were down on this riverfront location and there were 500 extras. An enormous riverfront carnival had been set up and a huge boat in the background and a massive camera rig. And I went up to Bob and said, 'I thought we were going to do the pet shop. What's all this?' And he said, 'Nah, boring, all that. So listen,' he said, 'What I want you to do is go all the way up, about 200 yards, down there. Just take the kids with you, walk towards the camera through the carnival and make stuff up.' ' What do you mean, make stuff up?' 'Just do something, stuff. It's a carnival. Lots of things to do along the way.' And so we did it and it was exciting.

There was a scene where I come back, the character comes back to a party, at this law firm, and it was the people with ties, with real lawyers, and he said, he said, 'You're gonna put on a bit of a show. They're gonna ask you legal stuff, you know, they're gonna ask you about trials and trial procedure.' And I'm like 'Wha-what? What am I gonna say?' And he said, 'Yeah, it's gonna be interesting to see you on the rack'. And then he did an extraordinary thing, he had a couple of cameras going at once and (------), his camera operators, and so he's weaving a spell as he does it and he won't shoot many takes and you never know when you're on, you just, you never know when you're on camera and (------), although in his defence, you know it's this big machine over there which is pointing at you.

But he's such a wonderful man and hes always supports you, he's very (open), sees what's going on and he has a much more fascinated approach to improvisation. He's much more ready to throw the script out than Woody is - Woody is, I think--he is first and foremost a writer, that's how he regards himself, but Altman would love to throw everything out and go for it; knowing, and certainly I would see this, it is only about being able to choreograph and direct what's happening before his very eyes. It's his greatest strength, and I guess Robert Duvall said it, he said, "On the floor, Bob is about 15 years old."

MB: How exciting.

Questions and Answers After the Interview

MB: I think its fair to invite questions from the audience now. We've got about 20 minutes left.

(audience member makes comments on In "The Bleak Midwinter" - how much she enjoyed it, how it shows a love of actors and acting, etc...)

KB: Well thank you very much (big grin). I'm glad you feel that. I don't know if everyone heard that, it was a story about In the Bleak Midwinter and attitudes to actors. I think I will say that then I was in a very romantic moment about acting at that time (laughter) but, er, the best part-- I talked earlier about, you know, being fascinated by watching actors work, and I am. It really, it's a thing that's just so mysterious and fascinating, especially when it's effortless. Apparently, especially when you can't see what's going on and you're utterly moved and compelled and all the rest of it, and--(it was) the best time that I've had exploring that in either theatre companies. What we've essentially done with the Shakespeare films, is essentially to recreate the same kind of thing, where there is a sort of loose ensemble and essentially the same kind of work - it's a combination of, you know, the company and new people, having the luxury and privilege of this *struggle* to just try and do something very well. The film kept trying to say 'I know it's not your intention but in it's own way' you know, (-----)

MB: Is that a film...I'll just interfere on that question if I may, is that a film in any way in a sort of Woody Allen mode - before you'd worked with Woody Allen?

KB: Oh, it's a shameless, shameless rip-off (much laughter). Shameless! Simply, a series of copycat shots (said with tongue firmly in cheek; more laughter from audience). Partly because there was no money for that film (-----) everyone on that movie got paid four hundred pounds per week, including Joan Collins, and the drivers and the caterers and everybody. It was a democratic process there. In fact we did sell it for a little more than it was made for and the cast and every single body on that crew got a cheque for a couple of pounds profit - I, what was your question? (laughter) I've just gone completely off! (laughter again)

MB: It was about Woody Allen, how did--

KB: (interjecting) Exactly! Woody Allen, yes! We had no money, right and so, (-----difficult to catch because he's now in full enthusiastic flow---) there were lots of sort of static camera shots and I love it when people go out of shot and come back in--and where it's all about the actors, and the internal pace of the scene is completely dictated by the actors. I love that, I love that! (laughter) But it's a shameless rip off (-----something further about nicking from Woody Allen---) (laughter).

MB: A question there. (question from audience) That's a good question. Do you have a desire to direct in the theatre again?

KB: At the moment, as I've mentioned earlier, a lot of what I love, loved about the theatre has been immediately and fantastically available to me in the work that we've done in the cinema. So for me, the problem, my problem with the theatre is, as opposed to what I'm doing at the moment, is one of economics. It's just that its kind of frustrating (-----) you work in the theatre and it's available to a relatively small number of people and with what we're trying to do I'm excited at the prospect of getting more people, and getting to them the same kind of challenging work (---fast talking!--) and because film is a little more financially accessible. So at the moment that's it in a nutshell, but I'm sure that I'll return.

Question from the audience.

MB: That's directing, what about acting in the theatre?

KB: Well, it's entirely the same answer of enjoying, obviously, the camaraderie that's being achieved with the kind of work we do on film and this question of accessibility. But I do miss the, and I don't mean this in the wrong kind of way, (stammering) there's a certain kind of importance that I can feel in my mailbag, and I don't mean that in a pretentious way, there's an importance in what we're doing, getting things out to people. But I do miss the live experience. As and when I get back, I hope it'll be touring, because that's what I'd like to do. We'd come to London as well, but I'd like to tour. I'm sure it'll happen sooner rather than later.

Question from the audience.

MB: I'm sure everyone heard that! Is it odd to have a retrospective (of your work) before you're forty? (laughter)

KB: The reason I'm here tonight is because of my sister who's also here tonight, because when she read about this she rang up to check I wasn't dead (laughter). So I came along to absolutely confirm that I was not retrospectivised and dead (laughter) But it's also very flattering, very humbling in fact. It's also very delightful for my mum and dad--- (laughter).

Question from the audience about how Ken seems fearless.

MB: I'll summarise your question which is about how do you put aside the fear and doubts that you're prey to?

KB: You certainly don't put it aside for a moment. (-----) about contacting Derek Jacobi way, way back in '88 when I asked him to direct for our theatre company Renaissance, it literally took two days of walking round the flat, rehearsing what I was going to say, then writing it out. And then, I'm sure he must have thought he had a stalker or something (laughter) I rang up several times and put the phone down! (laughter). I had a very shaky, shaky hand and er, (-----) I was petrified. It's a paradoxical thing. (-----) I have some kind of enjoyment of the gladatorial aspect of what we do.(-----)

MB: Does the panic and fear get less with time or not?

KB: No, it doesn't. One rarely speaks about it because you just think 'Oh shut up and get on with it, or do another job for chrissakes! (laughter). (puts on his best 'luvvy' voice) 'It's all so difficult you know. (laughter) I get terribly nervous and'... Of course you can do that, there was a case during LLL, you know, cueing the scene, dancing, you know-- except I'm not Fred Astaire I can tell you. (laughter) But, I love those films and I love singing and dancing, and I hope to take it to a higher level (laughter). (-----) It's important, because people take their looks from you and so you do have to be optimistic. But for sure, every single morning in rehearsals for that, every day [is] that terrible knot in the stomach and the fear that you'll be found out, that you won't be able to help people or you can't do a scene or you're CRAP (laughter). You can cut that out! (more laughter) (-----)

MB: People in the theatre obviously have days when they don't feel like doing it, don't feel up to it - that sort of thing. In film, there's some way of hiding that. If you've got a headache or just feel unwell then *lots of audience coughing obscuring the rest*

KB: *a bit more coughing, something about turning up without an idea* It's part of the challenge and sometimes the excitement of being a director *incomprehensible* God knows how many of the cast will have an idea so it's okay to say that you don't know. I mean, it's taken a long time for me to be able to do that (-----) the genuine moment when you say you don't have an idea.

Question from the audience - If a film performance is crap then you can always cut it out, is it an ultimate high then when on stage things fall into place and you produce an incredible performance?

KB: I don't know if it is often a high to me, although it's extraordinary when that happens; it's extraordinary when it happens amongst a company. We did a tour of King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1990, playing them over there for many months (-----) Alone, almost over 9 months, there was one performance which seemed [that way] to us. Something remarkable happened--you could feel the audience responding, a higher 'something' happened. There was heartbreak and emotion, and real excitement and passion. And for one night only. So those kind of moments (-----) [are inspiring and elusive] at the same time and still [thrill a stage actor.] (-----) [On film, as a director] I do rather like the side of trying to capture, if you like, separately, all those moments at that kind of rare excitement (----) [and present them] across a film. In fact, if you can produce [those moments] through some sense of confidence, through rehearsal and through the plan of the process, you can invest the whole film with that. I think it does transmit itself. In a way, making a film is theatrical, and in a sense what I'm trying to find is unusual in film. [Branagh's goal in investing each foot of film with these rare and memorable moments is expressed in his visual approachs on screen, and very much off screen as well: Keeping a real sense of theatre in working with his cast and crew, provding an environment similar to those of stage productions, creating a "family feel" on the set, right down to the banter, ribbing, and camp.--Ed.]

MB: ... the lady in the red sweater (Laura)...

LM: You seem to go for the straight comedies, which are beautiful and charming, but I wonder how you feel as an actor and director about the so-called "problem-plays" like Measure For Measure?

KB: Well for me, the process of getting to the point where I might think of doing one, is that sometimes I've done it in the theatre. It means a long relationship with the play, whatever that is, and reading and re-reading, seeing or listening to it on video or audio-cassette. I don't find myself currently in a kind of particularly meaningful relationship with, for instance, that piece of work. I'm very interested in Troilus and Cressida, I quite like that (-----) I think at various points in your life, different plays speak to you in different ways so perhaps I'll have a mid-life crisis and all the problem plays will be there (laughter). Question from the audience about the development of his relationship with music in films.

MB: What is your relationship with music and how has it changed?

KB: Well it does change. You may know I've done a lot of work with the composer Patrick Doyle who's composed many of the soundtracks for our films. It's something that he and I have talked about a lot and we probably have overdone it sometimes. So we're constantly trying to work on that. For Love's Labour's Lost which has the kind of structure for a musical (-----) where we get to the point where there is no longer a need to speak, there is a requirement to sing. Somehow the emotional point of the play requires you to sing. This play for me had those moments so that, er, some of the people in the 19th century said it was Mozartian. (-----) One moment he uses (-----) He [Berowne] talks about the nature of love, he talks about how:

(Here Ken quotes from Berowne's speech (Act 4, scene 3?) and his tone initially doesn't change, but somehow it becomes more intimate as he continues on and you are drawn in....)

A lover's eye will gaze an eagle blind.
A lover's ear will hear the lowest sound.
Love's tongue proves dainty Bacchus gross in taste.
Love's feeling is more soft and sensible
Than are the tender horns of cockled snails.
For valour, is not Love a Hercules,
Still climbing trees in Hesperides?
Subtle as Sphinx, as sweet and musical
As bright Apollo's lute, strung with his hair,
And when love speaks, the voice of all the gods
Make heaven drowsy with the harmony.
Heaven, I'm in heavennnnnn....(laughter and applause)

Question from audience...

MB: What gave you the guts to go out and make Henry V as your first film given the Olivier comparisons?

KB: One has to try to put aside the Oliver and any kind of futile competition. The compulsion was to make the film in the way that the play speaks today. Suddenly I didn't fully understand, but was in the grip of the passion. I assumed--had the hope--that with the theatrical history of that play, that at the time there were many interpretations of it available, as there are for all the plays. Different generations and historical moments. Certainly the idea of a different film of that kind [was] something totally different from a theatrical production. And I suppose I just tried not to think of it very much (laughter). His film was a long time ago and we're not doing it the same way. Were not quite as colourful and dandy (laughter). I just tried not to think about it essentially and because I also wholeheartedly admired the other film and so I didn't feel as though there were a competition. I felt it would be important to have the repectful but not reverential attitude towards previous productions of the play that one has in the theatre, and not sort of assume because a film was made of that play it's off-limits, even a great one by someone like Olivier.

Question from Isabel.

EO: First of all congratulations because I think that your work is terrifically good. We want to know something more about your next projects - - with Shakespeare plays and not Shakespeare. Thanks.

KB: Errrrrrm, ah, the next film I'm appearing in is Celebrity and after that a film which is released here in August called Wild Wild West directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline, in which I play the brilliant and diabolical Dr Loveless (laughter) whose er, taking over the world. (beat) Big stretch for me there. (much laughter) And then we hope very much to make our next project Shakespeare's Scottish play, the name of which I'm not going to say in here. Forgive me for being a wussy old superstitious thing.

MB: You could call it 'The Scottish play'!

(Incomprehensible reply with much laughter)

MB: All your Shakespeare films hitherto have, they've always seen you prepare in the theatre. This is the first one you haven't.

KB: I haven't, I haven't.

Question from audience about the setting for Love's Labour's Lost.

KB: Well it's an interesting issue. I mean, I hope, I suppose, that what we're doing with this film and the passion for doing it comes from a passion for the film musicals of the 30's, 40's and 50's. Enthusiasm about the [feel for that ageless era] the smile on your face, the lightness of touch, the charm etcetera, the brilliance that is something that was a wonderful world to be part of. I'm on the side of enthusiasm for something which talks about the same subject matter, but in a different way, making it easier in a different way, in a different medium, in Love's Labours Lost. And yet both, to my mind anyway, equally brilliant (-----) a massive, massive, amount of heart. (-----)[Bringing together the conventions of] song and dance with the play. It's certainly been an ambition to do that.

Question from audience.

MB: Can I paraphrase quickly, have literary critics been of help and influenced you as you prepare your films?

KB: I think they're marvellous (laughter). Marvellous job you do. (-----) Mysterious thing, about the plays themselves (-----) The Scottish play contains a lot about witchcraft. I've been reading about the context in which the play was performed and how it related to, say, the Gunpowder plot (-----) Indeed, the whole Shakespeare film thing has thrown up quite a lot of literature now about the plays and is, I think, always helpful, so I get it anywhere I can.

MB: We have to end it there but just before we depart, I think you've got a little surprise in store. I think you've got, have you not, a clip from the all-singing, all-dancing version of Love's Labour's Lost (loud gasps from audience)

KB: (Inaudible joke and laughter). It's what we call work in progress. This is a number from the play. It precedes a moment in the play where the boys and girls have met. This has literally just come from Shepperton, this reel, and so we haven't had time to practise, so I hope it's in synch and everything okay. So, but anyway, so it's a moment which precedes one where Berowne and Rosaline meet for the first time with the rest of the boys and girls. And he says 'did I not dance with you in Brabant once?' and she says 'did I not dance with you in Brabant once?' and he says 'I know you did!' and so she says 'how needless then was it to ask the question' (laughter) but not only does she say that but she goes on to sing the response...

MB: Just before we see the clip, can I thank Kenneth Branagh on your behalf for giving us an absolutely smashing evening. (prolonged applause)

Start of clip and end of interview.

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