As a rising young talent in British theater—first with the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company and then with his own (and David Parfitt's) Renaissance Company—Kenneth Branagh was viewed by many critics as Laurence Olivier's heir apparent. The label stuck once he entered the film world with 1989's Henry V, a spirited and audacious debut that earned Academy Award nominations for his direction and lead performance. In the decade since, Branagh has alternated Shakespeare adaptations such as Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet with a range of projects, some for Hollywood (Dead Again, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) and others made independently (Peter's Friends, A Midwinter's Tale). His latest is a colorful attempt to stage Shakespeare's romantic comedy Love's Labour's Lost as a musical, using standards by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers & Hammerstein. Branagh stars as one of four aristocratic young men (Adrian Lester, Matthew Lillard, and Alessandro Nivola are the others) determined to remain chaste and study philosophy for three years despite their attraction to four beautiful young women (Alicia Silverstone, Natascha McElhone, Emily Mortimer, and Carmen Ejogo). Branagh recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about Shakespeare, John Gielgud, and working for other directors.
The Onion: What inspired you to associate Love's Labour's Lost with musicals?
Kenneth Branagh: The play really ties into the particular feelings for romantic love that suddenly popped into songs of the '20s, '30s, and '40s. Love's Labour's Lost is so much about people acting foolish, in particular this young, aristocratic set who are rather pleased with themselves. They mock people like Don Armado and Costard [a pair of lower-class, clownish foils played by Timothy Spall and Nathan Lane, respectively], though Shakespeare actually gives the most direct line about love to Armado, who is perhaps the most mocked character in the play. He actually says to Jaquenetta [played by Stefania Rocca], "I love you," whereas Berowne [Branagh's character], the King, and everybody find it impossible to come up with a direct way to say how they really feel, so concerned are they with image and what they think and how they're perceived. I did Love's Labour's Lost in the theater and found it to be riotously funny. Audiences were by and large unfamiliar with the play, so the story—albeit thin—was something they didn't know, yet they were surprised and arrested by it. So when I thought about all the musicals I liked growing up, the same sort of silliness prevails in those stories that does in Love's Labour's Lost. Of course, there's the usual boy-meets-girl—or, in this case, four-boys-meet-four-girls—scenario. You're surrounded by a gallery of comic characters and there's a lot of slapstick, a lot of bad jokes and rodent jokes. And then it surprises you by being rather touching. Given that there's been quite a history in the theater of a marriage between music and Shakespeare, I thought it could work onscreen. Because Shakespeare is rhythmic; he is musical in the sense that he likes poetry, and he's musical because he constantly refers to settings where there's singing and dancing. The problem for us, then, was to find a structure where the music could emerge naturally, so it didn't look like a play with songs stuck on haphazardly.
O: The segues from Shakespeare into the old standards aren't that forced.
KB: I didn't want to do the film until we were certain we could find a way to pull that off. In order to do that, you had to feel that the characters could reach the intensity of pitch and feeling that brought them to a point where words were no longer enough, and they had to express their emotions in some other fashion. And I think there are plenty of moments built into the play that allowed us to get away with the song and dance.
O: The musical sequences obviously evoke the backstage musicals of the '30s, but the bright colors and widescreen images seem taken from much later, like the '50s. What were you thinking in terms of the look of the film?
KB: We were thinking of blurring everything, really, because the songs jump around so much in time. "There's No Business Like Show Business" is from the '50s. "I'd Rather Charleston" is a '20s song. Then there's our version of "Let's Face The Music And Dance," which we do a bit more down-and-dirty, replacing a large section of sexually punning language in the play. So we give this moment of acknowledging that the characters also fancy the pants off each other, aside from being charmed by each other. That decision was more influenced by Bob Fosse or by the nightclub sequence in Singin' In The Rain. Originally, I thought about doing black and white, but then I didn't want to make it look as though we were copying Astaire and others, because we would just look foolish. Also, it would be distancing, like a dry exercise. I wanted to engage and delight people, so I chose to go with the '50s look. The [Stanley] Donen look in particular—the saturated color, the super-Technicolor, the vivid primary colors—seemed to be the way to go. I knew, for instance, that I wanted to color-code the couples, because I thought it would be easier to follow. Often, they're not onscreen together, so you want to have an idea of how they pair up. We had a lot of fun creating a world we hoped would make the audience feel comfortable with the idea of characters bursting into song.
O: Is that the only way it can be accepted now? With certain revisionist exceptions, the musical hasn't really been viable for 30 years. Is this kind of heavily retro approach the only way to get audiences to accept people bursting into song?
KB: I truly don't know. I know there was much discussion about it in the planning stages for this film. Some felt that people only want music videos, and it's no accident that it's been a real struggle to get the big hit Broadway musicals of the '80s onto the screen. It troubles me slightly, because I think we've done something interesting and different here, and I'd prefer it not be seen as totally based on nostalgia or retro gestures. I hope we've done something new, but I do wonder what can be done with the genre. I'm interested to see Lars von Trier's film [the 2000 Palme D'Or winner Dancer In The Dark], which premiered at Cannes to some controversy, because it sounds like it takes some interesting risks with the genre. But it's a good question, and I don't really know the answer. We tried to write original songs for Love's Labour's Lost, but we couldn't find lyrics that could stack up next to Shakespeare. We would have been very embarrassed. [Laughs.]
O: Was your decision to use old standards and have the actors use their own singing voices inspired by Everyone Says I Love You?
KB: A little. To me, the most pleasing part of Everyone Says I Love You was the end section [with Woody Allen and Goldie Hawn] on the banks of the Seine. All the romantic film vocabulary is there: moonlight, glamorous city, he's in a tux, she's in a gown, she flies, the orchestration is lush, and so on. I will say that I didn't want my film to be too slick in its choreography, because I wasn't going to find Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, and I knew I would never be given the months it would take to coax even the most seasoned performers into bringing something off like that. For me, this film starts with the play, so I had to believe foremost that the cast could be comfortable with Shakespeare on a technical level and then perform it with feeling. Then, I wanted the dancing to suit what the actors themselves could make distinct, be it the flourish of a great dancer like Adrian Lester or a certain pizzazz from Nathan Lane, or a human dimension from others in the cast. That said, we worked our tails off to do it right, because it wasn't a parody and we weren't pretending we couldn't do it quite as well as we could.
O: That sort of puts you in a difficult spot, doesn't it? With a movie like Everyone Says I Love You, the singing and dancing are often deliberately clumsy.
KB: Yeah, I think I read something where Woody Allen told people not to work on their voices. He didn't want anyone to practice, because he didn't want them to entirely know what they were doing. I sort of know what he means by that, because there was one moment when I was singing that sounded good musically and then felt empty when we put it against picture. So I re-recorded it with more feeling, worrying less about singing, and it was much better for the film.
O: Would you call yourself a Shakespeare traditionalist by and large? This film sort of refutes that idea, because the play is so broken up.
KB: I aspire to the classical, which I would define as embracing both the traditional and the contemporary. Specifically, how it breaks down for me in relation to Shakespeare is that I like the words. I don't mind if they're cut to some degree, but I like to hear them and I like not to change them. The language is central to me, yet in having this privilege of adapting his plays in another medium that is visual, it's very difficult to retain the words that are so essential in a language-based medium while justifying their translation to a visual one. As far as I'm concerned, almost anything goes. I don't see myself as having a purist streak, though I do have a preference for the retention of well-spoken language, and by well-spoken, I mean naturally spoken. I don't mind how it's done or in what accent or what cultural position, or whatever. I just want to get the language right. After that, the more invention and creativity with which it's presented, the better.
O: Was there a point, say, in your unabridged Hamlet, where you were in the editing room and said, "Gee, I'd really like to cut here"?
KB: Well, I know what you mean. We had gone into making that film for the daring of it. I've always wanted to be daring, and whether I've succeeded or failed miserably is up to you. The daring there was to see if we could sustain the full version of the play and make it work in a way that was meaningful and cinematic. But, yes, occasionally I did have those thoughts. When I had them, sometimes I did other things like make transitional changes, so the play wasn't in exactly the order that some would argue is the precise order. I changed things to fit what I regarded as cinematic logic. I did everything I could short of cutting. But I had always gone into that project with the experimental idea of seeing what I could do with [the unabridged play], and I especially liked shooting it in 70mm. God knows plenty of people wanted me to start cutting once we got going. There is a two-hour version that played around the world on airplanes and such, but I couldn't watch it. I gave the cuts bit-by-bit, but I couldn't watch the whole thing. Too painful.
O: I was sad to hear of John Gielgud's death.
KB: Well, it's amazing that he lived to be 96. But it's not surprising, either, because he was so clued in to everything that was going on. Only two months ago, I heard he had gone to see a matinee of The Lion King in London, so he was still very wired and interested. And funny, too: I remember an acquaintance of mine asking him if he'd like to come to dinner, and he said, "Oh, yes, that would be lovely, because all my real friends are dead."
O: What was his impact on the craft of acting?
KB: He was unjustly criticized, in theater anyway. [Critic] Kenneth Tynan once famously said, "Sir John Gielgud is the finest actor in England from the neck up," because he felt he was all voice and didn't have the kind of animal magnetism that someone like Olivier had. But he did have this wonderful lyrical quality and he did have a feeling for poetry that he managed to convey through his voice. For instance, on a recording called "The Ages Of Man," which he performed as a one-man show, he really shows you how Shakespeare's words can sing and soar. Contrary to the unfair criticism that he performed to excess or was too theatrical, he did it with a great deal of naturalism. You can see it in the film of Julius Caesar, where he plays Cassius and he's fantastically virile and real, despite these charges that he has no animal magnetism. I think he was much to be envied and admired, and he had a big influence on the people who followed him. I think he was a much more natural speaker of Shakespeare than Olivier. And he was an underrated comedian, too, although it's a little ironic that he's so well remembered for that performance [as Dudley Moore's butler] in Arthur, in which he was hysterical. But he did spend so much of his time in the theater. I think his example—having stuck at that—has been inspiring to many of his fellow actors. I had the pleasure of working with him four times, once as a filmmaker [on 1996's Hamlet]. And he always wanted direction, which was difficult, because for all that I've said, I was scared shitless of him. Not because he was fierce, but because he carried with him a symbolic status as a man who strewed the century, met everybody… My favorite experience was when I asked him, "Who did you miss, Sir John? Who didn't you see?" And, of course, he had met Churchill and Roosevelt and Aldous Huxley and all the Hollywood moguls and stars. He said, [affecting Gielgud's accent] "D.H. Lawrence. I was once due to go to tea with D.H. Lawrence in 1928, and I had to cancel. I was terribly sorry about that." And I thought, "Christ, I'm talking to a man who could have had tea with D.H. Lawrence, who had died in 1930." [Laughs.] There was something about that that was very awe-inspiring. I'll miss him.
O: Could you contrast your experiences working as an actor with Robert Altman and Woody Allen? Their styles seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum.
KB: Oh, definitely. Both sets contrasted sharply. Woody is quiet to the point of silence and Robert is really gregarious, yet both command their sets effortlessly. Robert encourages and demands a relationship with his actors, whereas Woody absolutely insists on distance from the actors and does not want to interfere. Woody, with a reputation for improvisation, is a stickler for detail next to Robert, who is truly improvisational, but with a real genius for it. It's not indulgent or wanky, but very disciplined in how it works into a particular scene and the film as a whole. With Woody, the improvisation is more like 10% of what I call "conversational waffle" around a written scene, like fill-in stuff. Both are highly intelligent. Both are economic in their dealings with actors, which is something I learned from them. They just don't speak until they have something useful to say in a way that will be helpful to the actor. Both are fascinating men. Woody was loquacious on every subject except the movie we were shooting. I could talk to him about sports and politics and films he loved, but he didn't want to talk about a character, which I think led to some confusion. In contrast, Robert is there insisting everyone come to dailies, asking everybody from the caterer to his actors what they thought of a particular scene, taking advice from everyone whilst remaining strong in his convictions, baking bread. Robert used to bake bread in his trailer and give it out to people, which fed into this mad-inventor quality of his. But I was pretty fascinated by both of them.
O: Do you find that your own instincts or ideas as a director ever intrude on projects you're working on strictly as an actor?
KB: I certainly hope they don't. I don't have any ego problem with wanting to appear a particular way, because I'm happy to do my job and get behind the director. The director needs to be in command on set, because everything crumbles if that's not the case. Having been a director myself, I'm very aware of how unhelpful it can be if you've got the wrong dynamic going on. Even if you have the occasional moment when you don't think something is right—and I do, because I'm human—you banish that thought very quickly for a number of reasons. First, it's not helpful. Second, it's not your job. And, third, what the fuck do you know? You haven't spent eight months to a year planning everything out. There are still times when you have some input and other times when you're asked, but essentially, you have to go in without thinking you have any responsibilities but to give the director the best performance you can. Leave all the rest of the crap—where to put the wardrobe truck or how to get the extras to the toilet—to someone else. I remember a fucking production meeting on Hamlet when we spent a whole evening discussing how to get 350 extras we had for one day on the opening court scene to the toilet and back in their seats in time for the shooting. We had to get them touched up with make-up and hair, and make sure they were fed. But then they'd go missing. You have this scene where the continuity was hidebound and, suddenly, some guy is bored and just goes home for the rest of the afternoon. Those are the things I'm so glad not to be discussing when I'm just acting in somebody else's film.