Kenneth Branagh is a man who needs very little introduction, and that’s probably because he could soliloquise his own if he needed to. A renowned Shakespearian performer who has brought to screen no fewer than five adaptations of Bard plays like Henry V, Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost, he’s also just as familiar to younger audiences through roles as Gilderoy Lockheart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and as Dr. Arliss Loveless in 1999’s rather infamous Wild Wild West. With three directorial projects arriving in UK cinemas this year, Rotten Tomatoes sat down with Branagh to discuss Sleuth, a reimagining of the classic play of the same name and starring Jude Law and Michael Caine with a script by Harold Pinter.
I don’t know whether it’s just the UK release schedule, but you seem to have been busy – you have three films coming out within the space of a few months…
Kenneth Branagh: That’s right; As You Like It came out in September, and then here in the UK Sleuth is 23rd November and The Magic Flute is the 30th November. But they were shot over the previous three years! It’s a bit like buses; you wait for one and then three come along at the same time. You’re so grateful that the films get made, but I’ve never been in this situation before so it’ll be interesting to see how it may affect the business in terms of how many people go and see them by perhaps their proximity. Maybe that’ll be a positive thing.
I should imagine you’ve felt it most keenly on the promotional trail these last few months.
KB: Absolutely, moreso than I’ve been for a long time. As you’ll know as well as I, it’s a brutally competitive market out there, particularly since all three films probably fall into the category of specialist film given the sort of divide that seems to be the case in the movie market these days. So you do have to – and thank you for being interested to talk about it – go out and bang the drum and that’s a very honourable tradition. It’s about sharing your enthusiasm and passion for the films and hopefully showing to people that in this great plethora of choice we now have that these might be ones that they could enjoy.
You rather unusually joined the project quite late, after the script had been written and Jude Law and Michael Caine had already been cast.
KB: That’s right; I came probably three or four years into a process initiated by Jude as a producer who had elected Harold Pinter as screenwriter. Both of them, I think, knew that the world’s best casting in the older part would be Michael Caine. I think not just in a knee-jerk, “Hey, he was in the 1972 film as the younger man,” sense, but that his natural aptitude for the cadences and rhythm for Harold Pinter’s sort of loaded, sinister and menacing dialogue would be a perfect marriage.
So to be able to read the screenplay, which I did when they first approached me, knowing that it was Harold’s and that those two men were already involved was very exciting. It probably took me ten seconds to say yes, I think.
It’s certainly possible to worry that Caine’s involvement is a gimmick, but the involvement of Pinter and Law must be exciting enough on its own.
KB: Absolutely, and I hope that’ll be enough on its own for people to take a risk on it. There’s something neat when you watch the film about seeing Michael and, if you know the other film, thinking about him the younger man role. But with its leaner, darker and frankly more brutal tone in Harold’s hands, and with this particularly combination of these two in a more modernist world wherein the game-playing of the previous film and the play is replaced by a deadlier game involving modern gadgetry and the soulless arena of Andrew’s house – this palace of wealth and modern art but no love, no soul, no home – these things I think absolutely get away from the idea of some neat remake idea.
And it’s a funny thing with remakes. I, myself, find shot-by-shot remakes a little hard to understand although I do realise that a new generation may simply be unfamiliar with the previous and excellent piece of work and a remake in that way might work for them. But this was more a reimagining of the great central idea; two guys, an older and a younger, trapped in a house arguing over a woman we don’t see and playing a deadly and eventually murderous game.
With such an enclosed setting the film really relies on the performances; do you find that with your experience as an actor you have something of a shorthand when it comes to directing performers?
KB: I think it does help but I don’t think it’s necessarily any more of an advantage than a very talented director who has come from a different avenue, perhaps a man who’s come through cameras, or script or whatever. In a way it’s only about the quality of the communication you have with the actors.
I think I do have a way of predicting – not always accurately – what is a nerve-wracking day for actors, what may be a difficult scene or a difficult moment, how small – and it may be down to one line – a thing may be that is upsetting or undermining a performance.
And I do feel as though I know how to rehearse inasmuch as I know what can be valuable for film which is not to do with setting things, angles, lights or anything but quite the opposite, it’s to do with releasing the actors on the day to feel as absolutely spontaneous as possible. And that’s a practice developed over many moons and it’s still developing organically I hope.
And if it’s not an advantage I think it’s something actors respond to. I think they feel more comfortable in that environment.