Kenneth Branagh
Photo by Cindy Ord

Kenneth Branagh: “It’s not such a great leap”

Short Profile

Name: Sir Kenneth Charles Branagh
DOB: 10 December 1960
Place of birth: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Occupation: Film director, actor

Kenneth Branagh's new film, Artemis Fowl, is streaming now on Disney Plus.

Mr. Branagh, what have you learned as an actor that has helped you in your job as a director?

Thank God people are interested in working with me as an actor because I’ve learned a tremendous amount when I have worked with other directors. It’s such a privilege. Danny Boyle once said to me that he so envied me the possibility of, as an actor, watching other directors work and it is — it’s a great gift. Or even to be in close contact with them! We had Ridley Scott, who was a producer on Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express, and to have his feedback on my cut of Death on the Nile… It’s amazing to kind of have that contact wtih these greats, as I would call them. So yeah, long may it continue, I just need to stop directing and allow some time for acting.

You’re interested in acting more in the future?

Yes, my acting muscles are itching so I should try and scratch them. But of course, I started directing at a time where you never knew if you would get the money together for a film and I still always have the same feeling that for me, every single film is a miracle, it’s a miracle that you get it together. So I am loathe to give up the opportunity if it comes along. Of course I would like to act much more, but the commitment to directing is so much longer… The time consumption means that you are often unavailable.

“In the theater, you are working on stories that have magic.”

In the last several years, you seem to only make exceptions for acting when it comes to Christopher Nolan.

If I were directed by Christopher Nolan for the rest of time I would be happy! (Laughs) I’m involved with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, that was shot in IMAX on 65mm, as was our Death on the Nile. Both of them hope to come to cinemas later on this year. Those stories were made for big screen cinema and because they involve big imaginative leaps into other kinds of places around the world, they are absolutely designed with that communal, big screen experience in mind. But obviously with the current health crisis, it is impossible for us to understand what the ultimate long and lasting effects of this period will be.

It must be a fruitful time for you to be working with a streaming platform like Disney Plus.

I think it’s impossible to see disadvantages at the moment! With my film Artemis Fowl, we have this amazing privilege to work in entertainment with wonderful resources, and we have done our best to produce the best possible version of this film. We want it to be seen by people, I think that the sheer fun of the movie, the energy of the movie, the curious nature of the adventure, the sort of journey through Ireland and underneath Ireland, is all a sort of uplifting and exhilarating thing to pass onto people who are at this period. I think its value as a piece of entertainment suddenly has become greater and perhaps more valuable in terms of its meaningfulness for families in the current situation. I am really delighted that the movie has found this platform this time.

You’re best known for your Shakespearean productions — how do you explain the transition to these bigger CGI-centric works?

Yeah, it’s interesting. I suppose in the theater, particularly with Shakespeare, you are working on stories that have magic. Just before Murder on the Orient Express, Judi Dench and I had been in Shakespeare’s play A Winter’s Tale, which is full of magic, it’s a fairytale. Shakespeare often has ghosts, he always has magic, and in the theater, you find your way to express this in the staging and in the way the actors perform, and often there are magical moments, effects, and coup-d'états in the shows. But when you are dealing in stories concerning magic and film and you live in a digital age, that has exponentially increased the possibility of making images of our greatest fantasies. It’s a wonderful opportunity to do some of the things you couldn’t do in the theater. And so that release into a different version of the same territory has really interested me.

“For me it’s not such a great leap to move from Shakespeare in the theater to a great fantastical film.”

So it isn’t such a far stretch as you might think.

Right, it isn’t as inorganic as that! I mean, when I first started work on Cinderella, for instance, I remember one of the first research documents I read about it was actually a comparison between Cinderella and King Lear; King Lear being a man with three daughters, two of whom are villainous and one of whom is innocent. It took the Shakespeare play as a parable that reflected the story of Cinderella. The great writers that I have been fortunate enough to work with in the theater, they seize on timeless myths which often are very much folktales or fairy tales… They work very closely together. And so for me it’s not such a great leap to move from Shakespeare in the theater to a great fantastical film.

Martin Scorsese famously compared big blockbuster films to theme parks, claiming they are “not cinema.”

I understand and agree with anybody who resists things that aren’t well done. I like good art, whatever it is. But I would cite Martin actually as someone who constantly celebrates good work, and he’s been an inspiration to me as a great filmmaker. He’s wonderful celebrative of other people’s work, I know that he’s phenomenally protective of the film medium, so I think underneath that remark is not so much an attack on so-called blockbuster movies — but just across any element of art or entertainment, a call to arms for us all to make sure that whatever the genre, that we try and bring our best game to it, that we try and make these things the best that they can possibly be. And across the range of superhero movies, there are going to be some that are wonderful and some perhaps that haven’t been so good.

Does that concern you as a director in this genre?

I think sometimes people worry about their dominance, but I don’t worry about it so much. I think that talent wins out and the good work comes to the surface and the audience identifies it. They cannot be fooled by weak imitations. So, somehow, somewhere, this all sorts itself out, is my feeling.