Kenneth Branagh interview: Cinderella, audiences, Statham

Kenneth Branagh chats to us about directing Cinderella, Cate Blanchett, Patrick Doyle and his favourite Jason Statham film.

With an opening weekend that topped $70m in the US, Kenneth Branagh may have the hit of his movie directing career on his hands with his live action Cinderella take. It’s a strong film too, that finally makes it to the UK this week. And ahead of its release, he spared us some time for a natter about it…

I think I’ve worked out what you’re up to. I’ve worked out your ruse. You do Thor, Cinderella and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Three different juggernauts, aimed at three different segments of the market, opening your work up to an audience that may otherwise not be familiar with it.

This is all about selling DVDs of Peter’s Friends, isn’t it?

[Laughs] That would be a lovely by-product.

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Were you consciously looking for different audience subsets, though?

Well, having an audience is a big consideration. In the previous three movies I did, all of which I was very proud of, we did a bold, conceptual rethink of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, setting it in a Japanese setting. Then we did Mozart’s The Magic Flute. And then Harold Pinter did the screenplay for Sleuth.

For me, they were all very exciting, adventurous pieces of work. But very low audiences, and frustrating not to be able to get that work out to larger audiences. Now it might just be that the films essentially didn’t work for larger groups of people. So I think I was just a little frustrated.

I did want – and my enjoyments and passions remain the same, you can see patterns and connections between the kind of things I like to do and the films I make – I was very keen to reach a larger audience and just be in the cinemas for longer. And also to be part of a landscape of what I was watching. I go to the cinema a lot. The work is completed by… it’s a relationship with the audience, and I wanted to get out there and be in kinds of forms that would be seen by people.

That was a motivation behind switching into some of this kind of work.

I think we’re in a golden era here for family movies in particular that explore loneliness in a way that’s accessible to a young audience.

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Interesting…

I think you see it a lot in animation. I think the movies more than any other medium are talking to a young audience about this better than anyone.

A really interesting thought.

Was the theme of solitude then something that was key in your mind, appreciating that your Cinderella was going to be seen by such a young audience?

It was a big factor in what drew me to this script. That Chris Weitz [screenwriter] was interested in… one element of a Disney tradition is loss of parents. I think that it’s an example of how life lessons and moral reflection is available in these stories. That audiences may be being introduced to these issues for the first time. I was very conscious of that.

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I thought the fidelity with which it could be addressed, with the loss of [spoilers redacted, although we’d be staggered if you didn’t know them] could be this issue of how personal happiness can be achieved in the face of profound loss. Or how personal happiness can be reclaimed in the face of profound loss, and the loss can still be experienced. Not denied or avoided, but experienced, and in a way, understood and accepted. That seemed to be an enormously important part of why I wanted to make the film.

That, and it was something that was fair enough to be out there, if handled with the appropriate sensitivity, for children.

It’s a film with significant deaths in, but faced by a character with a relentless positivity. I find that quite rare in a big movie. To have a central character so lacking in cynicism, who has such a core of goodness about them. Were you ever tempted to toy with that, though? Cinderella is a story with a very pure heart to it, but a lot of darkness going on around it.

Yes, indeed.

Yet your film is quite light. There are other ways you clearly could have gone there, not least in the current blockbuster climate.

Yeah. I think I didn’t want to step outside the genre and sort of poke fun at it. I wanted to see how lightness of heart and lightness of spirit dominates the film. I’ve always been interested in the portrayal of goodness in movies, because I think it’s so hard, and so hard to do.

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I’ve mentioned this before, but a performance I particularly love in movies is from the 1966 film of A Man For All Seasons. It’s Paul Scofield playing Sir Thomas More. I think that’s an active, sexy, proactive presentation of goodness, and crucially of intelligence, thoughtfulness and consideration. I think that Cinderella, subtlely, can do this in a way that still maintains a sense of fun, and you could argue a sense of the absurd, that there’s a sweet daftness… but it’s all in the context of being the same person. Not stepping out and winking at the audience.

I wanted the audience and us to be in tandem throughout, and not to create another constituency which is all of us laughing at the film, and laughing at us coming to watch a film like this. That was key for me.

It was something that seems so natural. I said right at the beginning, I believe in having courage and being kind. I think it’s very difficult. It’s deceptively simple. It’s easy to say and hard to do. And it need not render you naive, unsophisticated, silly or stupid. I wanted to make a film that laid that out. It isn’t even tubthumping its way, and ramming it down people’s throats. I wanted to take away saintliness, and self-righteousness, and priggishness from [Cinderella]. And also to have her character be evolving. This is a character that’s not fully formed at the beginning of the movie. None of them are, they all go through some kind of development. Usually through profound shock, as all human development usually takes place in the receipt of.

So it seemed to be that there was quite a lot to do there. It would have been an example of nerves and fear to step out and poke fun. Because in a sense, we had that in the centre of the movie anyway. There are three representatives in the film doing it all the day, sneering and making fun of Cinderella. With snarky, often quite funny remarks. I didn’t want us to join that group.

Whenever I look to classic adaptations, I always come back to A Christmas Carol. I can tell I’m in a bad adaptation of A Christmas Carol if I’m at the end of the first spirit’s visit, and I’ve realised there are two more to come.

[Laughs]

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Such is the familiarity of the story! I really liked your Cinderella, and you’ve said in interviews before for it that your job is to get out of the way and tell the story. But still: you’ve got a familiar story, a near two-hour running time to tell it, and the second an audience member is sat there thinking ‘ah well, they’ve got to get the slipper next’, you’ve kind of lost them. Can you take us into your edit a little? How do you combat that sort of thing, and make sure you always had our attention?

I think that we knew to some extent, by virtue of giving people a sense of Ella’s childhood, that we were already starting in a different place. Not only were we giving them something different that the animated film didn’t, if that is most people’s reference, but it also has a longer term value in terms of what we carry away with us of the characters. Of mother and father. There’s a sort of soulful character that moves on into the film that makes us receive everything else differently as well. We’re not only resting on story, we actually have an emotional dimension and fabric to it, that has us differently connected to the story.

That’s maintained and carried – triumphantly I think – by Lily James, whose ability to convey this sense of simplicity and generosity of heart… it might seem at times fragility, yet it retains this strength. Because of I think the subtlety and the impact of the performance, it means that everything that is familiar, we receive in a different way.

Also, I think when you deliver the familiar with gusto, and when you have Dante Ferretti [production designer] bringing you to the ball, and Sandy Powell dealing with your footwear, I think you also have that quality.

I’ve mentioned before you know, that the lights go down, the first preview, kids go down, I was crucially aware that everybody from five to 95 knew what was going to happen next. And so the issue became how is it going to happen next.

It sounds paradoxical, but there’s a three dimensional simplicity to what you’ve done with this film.

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I think there is a paradox in the movie as well, that although it’s a fantastical and magical world, the magic is contained mostly in a single appearance of the fairy godmother. Mostly to allow other transformations to happen inside a human individual rather than through a supernatural agent.

You’ve talked about the film being contained, that it felt, sitting watching it, like Cinderella was your most ‘outdoors’ film since Much Ado About Nothing. I love Much Ado, and loved how it ate up the Tuscany landscape. The sense that people had been allowed to run around in the garden and have fun with it. I got that sense here too. Obviously, when Disney gives you the budget to make a Cinderella film, you get a degree of scale with that. But were you consciously going outdoors as much? Was that important to you?

Yeah it was, actually. It was to give initially the breath of a summer’s day. But also to feel sunshine, to bring sunshine into the movie. To be part of therefore a visual landscape that was in very strong contrasts. Darkness of character versus lightness. We weren’t also trying to rely entirely on the visual impact of the ball. But early on the construction of a summer’s day was valuable.

It was a balancing thing, so we understood from a character point of view, that although Cinderella might love the idea of going to this ball and dressing up, we know that she appreciated – and so did we – the glories of a summer day. That was equally glamorous, attractive and magnificent. We needed to feel that the rest of the world was so vivid, so that the philosophical balance wasn’t saying that the world is only better when you live in a palace.

I’ve just finished reading Anjelica Huston’s recent memoir, and she talks in there about appearing in an earlier Cinderella adaptation, Ever After. She played the stepmother in that one, and wrote that there’s finally a chance to make a case for her. She also talked about the “extreme necessities of seeing her daughters married” and imagined the character as a bad-tempered Mrs Bennet from Pride & Prejudice.

Oh, interesting.

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So when you come to discuss the character with Cate Blanchett, can you talk about the balance you went for? That you clearly wanted to flesh the character out, but not at the expense of the sinister edge.

Well Cate had a great physical and energetic arrival onto the set and into the movie. She had great relish for playing it. Her and Sandy were as one over the clothes, which were an enormous part of it, and that Cate wears with incredible style and vivacity. You could feel someone stepping into the ring, the relish for the role, for the woman who was going to come in and own the movie, own the house, own the ballroom. I thought that was wonderful.

What I wanted to help with was letting that sit in the landscape of the other performances which were, although in a heightened fairytale world, very realistic. And trying to strike the same balance between trying to occupy the colour, the clothes and the scale, but feeling very human.

One of the scenes I enjoyed working with her on most was the one in the attic, where she confronts Cinderella with [spoiler redacted]. And she reveals this backstory, and this history, and this loss. Or maybe just disappointment. But I knew I wanted it to be as felt as she brings to the scene. But she shouldn’t plead for sympathy. We were very clear about that.

Although, as Anjelica points out, the sense of giving her a backstory and the desperation in relation to the daughters – which you may consider loving, in its own strange and perhaps misjudged way – was also indicative to a complicated inner-life. But it’s human. And because it’s human, it’s more dangerous. The movie that is the secret life of the bourgeoisie, as presented by the stepmother, was something we talked about. At the same time as coming into the movie like Bette Davis!

I figure everyone who follows me into the room to interview you today will want to ask you about costumes and Thor 3. So if it’s okay with you, I want to talk about Patrick Doyle and Jason Statham.

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Excellent, excellent!

Patrick Doyle’s score to Much Ado About Nothing is one of my favourites. It got me through a lot of exam revision. IMDB has this wonderful way of trying to pigeonhole everything, and it lists your sole director trademark as Works With Patrick Doyle.

[Laughs] [A lot].

His Cinderella score is excellent. On the album, you have songs at the end of the disc, but only one gets near the film. I got the sense watching the film that there were one or two areas where you could have gone musical. So how did you approach this? How did you work with Patrick Doyle on it?

Early, early. That was the key.

That’s different to most.

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It is. There’s usually a year of work between us before he gets anywhere near a recording stage. But here, we also had to come up with the music for the waltz really early on. It isn’t just he shows up with the waltz and that’s it, there’s a back and forth with me and him, and then it’s a back and forth with the studio. Then the choreographer. Then how is it going to be arranged.

We were aiming, as we were with the film, for an economy and simplicity that nonetheless is resonant. We shared music as we went too, and we did with Dante and Sandy, so that any time Pat came up with something ahead of time, we shared it with everyone else, the actors too. It was part of saying this is the movie now, this is the movie appearing before our ears. He’s the master of the great melody and the great tune. He’s romantic, a man of strings, a man of classical orchestra, but very adventurous also in what he would regard as his ongoing musical education.

I think he and I are both capable of dropping cynicism and being pure of heart about the way we may approach the core of a scene. That discrete, subtle, poignant, tender, restrained romanticism… but still it is there. And I suppose compassion. I feel the voice of compassion in the music, and inclusiveness. But also when required, a great sense of fun. It’s very indicative of Patrick’s character. He’s a very, very caring individual, and I felt that Patrick Doyle loved the character of Cinderella, as I do. We admire her. We feel in this version she is re-formed in a way that is potentially very important and inspirational to kids and to us.

It was always going to be with the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom he now has this very good rapport. And where you really can feel, on the day… we go out and we talk to them about every cue before what’s happening, and they’re very good at taking really a lot of directorial advice about how to play it. Aside from the tunes, there is always an additional factor which is the live playing. Of course we can technically cover ourselves, but nine times out of ten, we use single takes of big, in the moment responses to the music and pictures.

That vibration underneath Patrick’s score is also particular. Whether it’s contained or beautiful or tender or poignant, or the fun of the slipper montage, or the swell of the end cue.

[Words here can’t do much justice to how enthused Mr Branagh got talking about the music. But he did. Very.]

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My final question. Last time I interviewed you, I got into trouble for not asking you this question. But we ask most of our interviewees this: what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?

Er…

I’ve never asked this question to British royalty before. Although I don’t get the vision of you sitting there at night with a Jason Statham boxset in truth.

I want to say… I hope I’ve got this right… The Transporter. The first one! There are three aren’t there?

There are indeed. You have chosen wisely. Sir Kenneth Branagh, thank you very much!

Cinderella is released in UK cinemas this Friday.

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