He’s done Shakespeare (many times), he’s done Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and he’s done the Norse myths by way of Marvel Comics (Thor), so it makes sense in many ways for director Kenneth Branagh to tackle one of our most beloved and recognizable fairy tales. And that’s just what he’s accomplished with Cinderella, the new Disney live-action version of the classic folk story which originated as far back as 1634 but which most people nowadays fondly remember from Disney’s 1950 animated film.
Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz, rather than attempting to awkwardly modernize the tale, present it in a sweet, straightforward, earnest style while also providing it with more emotional power, thanks to lovely performances from Lily James as Ella, Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine, and Richard Madden as the Prince. The iconic elements of the story – Ella’s debasement at the hands of Lady Tremaine and her daughters, her gentle manner and love for the mice and birds around her, and her transformation into a princess thanks to her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) – are all intact. But the characters are richer and the visuals a joyously colorful confection, providing fare for more than just a young audience.
Den of Geek got to sit down recently in Los Angeles with Branagh to discuss the film, as well as his continuing fascination with primal stories, Shakespeare, the end of his acclaimed crime TV series Wallander and whether he’d be up for directing Thor: Ragnarok after sitting out Thor: The Dark World.
If someone says Cinderella to you, what are the first thoughts that come to your head?
Kenneth Branagh: That it’s unusual. A surprise to ask me about it and a good surprise. I thought, “Oh this must be really a woman’s story,” even in a modern version, and I felt as I hadn’t quite made that film, as it were. I wanted to make a film with a woman really and women who are really front and center. And it seemed that the myth was probably long overdue for a kind of revisit. So I was excited. I was intrigued and that got my juices flowing.
The challenge is you’re bringing a classic, very old fashioned and very earnest tale to audiences that see other things through an ironic or modern filter.
I mean, you just try to make the tale as authentically as you can. So to some extent you’re not trying to second guess what a certain kind of audience will have. You’re just trying to say, “Well, what is it in itself,” and I felt myself as a filmmaker that I liked the idea of a classical framework in which I could deliver the things that I would want to see if I was seeing a modern Cinderella. I wanted to see a heightened world, an idealized world, a bright world, a world — as Cinderella puts it — that’s not as it is but as it could be. So I was happily, as a sort of romantic or a dreamer or semi-idealist, ready to do that. I acknowledge that, as snarky as I can be with the best of them, I am not in that post-modernist permanently ironic groove as it were when it comes to my filmmaking.
So I felt the spirit of Cinderella, the character, was a perfect one in which to allow for a more supported idea of why she is so kind, why she is so good. We started with the idea of presenting her background, her childhood, her family, her mother and father and that which makes her who she is. And in doing so, we tried to let the film reveal itself rather than say, hey let’s try and get the guys or let’s try and get the post-ironic, post-modern kind of folk. I felt the more radical thing to do was to take Chris Weitz’s script at its word and have courage and be kind.
What do you think makes fairy tales so resonant that they can carry over that way from generation to generation?
Well I think they’re deceptively simple and are often stories containing tales of dysfunctional families. Many of us live in dysfunctional families and so even if it’s in a fairy tale, or perhaps because it’s in a fairy tale, we have a chance to look at that side of our reflected lives differently. Often they just provide the sheer entertainment value of, in this case, empathizing with an underdog. Is she going to win? Can she triumph? If she does, maybe we can.
I think that sort of basic human recognition is part of it. And I think we are affectionate for them because they appear not to be dressed up too much in morality. They are, but they have the virtue of appearing very simple — and some people might feel even simplistic — but they always catch us by surprise with their emotional power.
I read an interview where you said the same thing about Shakespeare’s works — they’re harder to do than they may look because they’re deceptively simple, straightforward storytelling but there’s so much more going on.
Yeah, yeah. I think that Shakespeare himself raided fairy tales and chronicle writers and he always looked to people who worked in the mythic genres, whether it was folk tales or popular novels. He was looking for the great primal story and he would take it and then usually the depth was provided by the level of human insight that he gave it. But still, I mean, the last part of his career you could argue he was only writing fairy tales.
The romances that are the last part of Shakespeare’s maturity — exactly at the point where you’re thinking he’s at the height of his powers, he starts writing plays like The Winter’s Tale, which critics have so often dismissed for being too whimsical, too fairy tale-like, too magical, too silly. Too many silly things happen. And yet I think there’s something interesting to be considered in the idea of a great writer deciding that’s the form where he wanted to place his energies at a point in his career when he could have done anything.
People say the same thing about the comic book films too, that they’re silly or there are too many crazy things happening. No one thought Thor could come to the screen and make it work and here we are. And that also taps into the idea of the primal storytelling, I think.
I think we love the escapism of something like Cinderella and I think we do with Thor. And as long as we can believe that there is a connection between us and a bunch of guys riding on horses across a rainbow bridge in space and somehow connected to the Norse myths, we get the adventure, we get the escape, we get the immersion in another world that’s different from ours so we’re really happy to go to a big darkened room to see that. And with Cinderella, I felt that that invitation to be immersed in a vibrant, glamorous, highly colored world was really important as a sensory experience. A feast for the senses, but at the middle of it, people we can sort of see in the mirror.
Did you look at the animated film again?
I watched it once again, enough to establish that we were in such different territory. I mean perhaps we’re faithful to the spirit of much of what it was trying to do but we were going to be significantly different at times. And I think, you know, often people talk to me about the original animated film as if they saw it yesterday. But, in fact, it is 65 years old and I expect most people saw it a bit longer ago than yesterday and they’ll find that it sits very much in its time. We depart significantly but I think necessarily from where it sits.
[Related: New Cinderella Trailer is Here]
Was it difficult to find your Cinderella?
Inevitably it was and yet when she appeared in the vision of Lily James it seemed not difficult at all because there she was. But we took a long time to evolve what was on the page, the character that we wanted and this heroine, this example of non-violent resistance, who could be lively, appealing, active, intelligent, sexy and funny to a modern audience. And that needed real skill and lightness of touch in the playing, a real sense of fun, which I think Lily James has. And she has this dazzling but still approachable beauty that I think is also very winning.
When she is scrubbed up for the ball she’s still the same girl, you know, she doesn’t become a sort of a parody of who she might otherwise be. She’s not over made up. She not suddenly in some sort of crazy hairdo. It’s still the girl from the forest and the ability to convey that from the inside was something that Lily had in a unique way.
Was it important for Cate and for you to have a little bit more background for the wicked stepmother?
I think so. We just felt that we could have the double experience of her relish of being a screen villainess and the match to these extraordinarily stylish costumes by Sandy Powell in this rich, vivid world. And even though Cate in the doing of it did not plead for sympathy, people will understand a bit of why this woman has arrived at this place.
A 10-year-old girl was heard going out (of a screening) the other night, “See daddy, that’s why stepmom did what she did, because she’s so sad.” And so even a 10-year-old was picking up on the why of it. Not necessarily forgiving. but maybe considering forgiving.
What’s next for you? Have you finished Wallander now?
Just before I started promoting this movie we finished the final film of these 12 we’ve done over these seven years. So the last three include two that tell the story of the final novel, The Troubled Man, and one of a previous novel, The White Lioness, set in South Africa. And that’s the end of the series because we decided that we will do only the novels and the short stories that were written in the Swedish versions of the series.
Now if the phone rings and it’s Kevin Feige and he says, “Hey, Thor 3’s going next year. Are you around? What are you doing?” Have you seen more of the movies since then and would you consider going back to that?
I have seen more of the movies and as I’ve said before I had a good time there. It was a really sort of pivotal moment to me doing Thor and I like them. I like Kevin very much. You know, you never say never. I think I couldn’t begin to speak for the complications of their interweaving of this ever-expanding universe, which are totally fascinating to behold.
But I think they’re masters of their own destiny. They know what they want and we all got on terribly well, so I’m sure if they felt there was a spot for me somewhere in there they’d give me a shout. And of course I’d listen, but it’s not something I’m actively seeking or looking for, although I am actively enjoying and seeking out the movies every time they come out. So I’m definitely a fan of the world.
[Related: Kenneth Branagh Reflects on Directing Thor]
Would you like to get back to Shakespeare as well?
I’d love to, yes. I would love to. Shakespeare’s always on my dance card if it can be. I’m enjoying my life right now, but it would be nice if a bit of Shakespeare was involved in it too.
Cinderella is out in theaters Friday (March 13).