Interview: Kenneth Branagh talks going from Shakespeare to Tom Clancy
Director and actor Kenneth Branagh talks about the challenges of switching to big budget films, including "Thor" and the new "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit."
Kenneth Branagh was only 29 when he directed and starred in 1989’s “Henry V.” Though he’s frequently returned to the Bard — including a complete, four-hour “Hamlet” in 1996 — he’s directed, in addition to frequently acting in, all manner of genres: Hitchcockian thrillers (“Dead Again”), dramedies (“Peter’s Friends”), horror (“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein"). Still, it was odd to see his name on 2011’s “Thor,” as well as the new “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” a reboot of Tom Clancy's franchise with the CIA hero of “The Hunt for Red October,” “Patriot Games” and more. In addition to helming the massive, globe-trotting production, which stars Chris Pine and Kevin Costner as his mentor, Branagh plays the villain: Russian capitalist Viktor Cheverin, who wishes to take down the American dollar.
Were big budget franchise pictures something you consciously sought out? How did you get involved in this world at all?
It was in the morning of 2008 when an email came onto my desk, asking, “Would you ever be interested in directing ‘Thor?’ Do you even know what ‘Thor’ is about?” Of course, I know what you’re talking about. I read the comic as a kid. I was genuinely surprised and excited, not because it was going to be a huge franchise thing, but simply the fact that it was going to be “Thor.” To me it was about: How do we make the guy fly? How do we make the hammer? How do you put it in a contemporary world? How do you handle visual effects that would mean going into outer space and, as I recall, there’s a rainbow bridge thing? How on earth do you do that? All of those things I got caught up in.
Were you looking to do something of similar size right after?
I was not particularly looking to continue to do big movies. But once again it started with an idea, and the idea was the script coming through the door and I started reading it and I was hooked by it. The Jack Ryan character, he’s this everyman with a brilliant mind who gets out of his depths and drawn into covert operation. I loved those early ‘70s movies like “Three Days of the Condor,” “The French Connection,” “Dog Day Afternoon” — these gritty, atmospheric movies that combined great action with great actors.
Not all of your earlier films are small: “Hamlet” is quite large and in 70mm. What’s the appeal of this specific size and breed of filmmaking?
You have greater resources with a film like this. If you feel that the camera needs to move a lot, or if you need more cameras, more crew, more equipment — all of that comes to you much more readily than if you’re on an independent movie. The cliche of films is you never have enough time and there’s never enough money. Here you get a chance to have the resources to meet your visual vision. And for that I’m very, very grateful.
Do you feel like a kid in a toy store, getting to do whatever you want?
Well, it not whatever you want. [Laughs] It is amazing when you realize that if you would like to use a camera crane, at least once a day and maybe even three times, they will end up being there. Sometimes you turn around and look at the numbers on the set and think, “Christ, how did all these people get here?” Well, we asked them to be here, just in case you needed to move these enormous pieces of equipment. So it does often affect you, especially when you’ve made movies where you’re driving the cast and sometimes making this big pot of chili, which is the catering that day.
How do you handle being the person in control of so many people?
I think it was Bob Hoskins, the English actor who’s directed a couple of films — he described being a film director as being pecked apart by a thousand pigeons every day. [Laughs] There’s also this phrase the Italians have: “Well, you wanted a bicycle. Now peddle!” And so if you want to be a film director, then embrace all of it: the chaos, the great things, the not so great things, and the madness of it.
What’s your history with the Jack Ryan books and movies?
You know, I did my second movie at Paramount 20-some years ago, called “Dead Again.” While I was making that they were making “The Hunt for Red October.” I saw that when it came out and I really, really liked it. I liked the fact that [the Ryan movies] were real movies, entertainments, pictures I wanted to go see — mainstream movies that had something to say and had some detail. For me it was the sort of relative normality of Jack Ryan, and yet that brilliant mind. The clash of the ordinary with the extraordinary, the everyman in trouble, was I think great for fish-out-of-water action.
Chris Pine’s version of Ryan isn’t a slick superhero. When he’s fighting, he can be clumsy.
I like that, that’s a good word: clumsy. The books are full of detail that says, “Yeah, he’s a little like you and I.” You can imagine having dinner with him, you can imagine being his friend, you can imagine bumping into him at the supermarket. But you’d also be glad to be in a fix with him, because he has a dogged determination and a kind of transcendent decency. One of the things I liked about working with Chris Pine on this is he can do that and still be the sexy, charismatic movie star.
Did you get cast as Viktor Cheverin first or as the director?
[Laughs] I was cast as the director first, then worked on the screenplay. The Cherevin character developed alongside [the other characters]. I loved the idea of playing his stillness, his quiet, his threat, his hurt, his tragic melancholic quality and this romantic Russian thing that gets him into trouble. Suddenly in the moment of his greatest triumph he’s talking poetry with Jack’s wouldbe wife. I felt that was an interesting thing to try and make credible at the center of a movie like this.
How do you handle directing yourself, especially on a production this large?
Kevin was helpful. He said, “Don’t rush yourself. Do another take, but don’t feel bad because you’re directing as well.” The actors were very patient with me. I hadn’t done it for a long time — 10 or 12 years. It’s said we have a poor memory for pain, otherwise women wouldn’t have a second child. I had learned to forget to do the things that are the most painful. But in the end I was glad. It just felt right with this one.
Can you talk about the logistics of building an action scene?
That’s a good term: building an action scene. You do need an almost visual orchestration. We wanted to audiences to feel his heart pounding and to enjoy being in there with him. I loved working with Dick Armstrong. He’s our second unit director, and he was the second unit director on “Henry V” 25 years ago. I remember standing in a field in Shepperton talking about how to make the Battle of Agincourt work. And here we were, on the FDR highway in New York, talking about how to make Chris Pine safe on a motorcycle. For me it’s an ongoing education. You have to develop a real expertise for specific kinds of shots, specific kinds of angles, the length you need to hold things. I really enjoyed working on the car chases. I liked putting real Chris Pine in a real car on a real street at night, with him really doing the driving. His concern about driving as well as learning his lines and acting all comes across, and we et a very sweaty, visceral approach to the action. Not too slick but relentless.
You'll surely return to Shakespeare on film at some point.
I would love to make another Shakespeare film. But I’m very aware the way people watch such things are very different now. It’s very hard to get people out to the cinema to see something like a Shakespeare film, though new hybrid versions like the one I did [with a stage filming of “Macbeth” last year, which played in theaters worldwide]. But I personally would love to get back to Shakespeare in the cinema, and I hope to do so at some point soon.
Is there a particular one you’ve always wanted to film?
It comes and goes. You have a flirtatious relationship with them. “A Winter’s Tale” is a one I’ve wanted to do all of my life. And now I’m getting old enough to think about “King Lear” as well, a play I’ve been in many times. Times change and you respond to the times. And sometimes plays and their subject matter just scream out. I love getting that language out there.