Kenneth Branagh interview: Jack Ryan, In the Bleak Midwinter

We catch up with Kenneth Branagh to chat Jack Ryan, In The Bleak Midwinter and paying Joan Collins in postal orders.

It’s a very quiet, calm, polite and considered Kenneth Branagh we meet in the midst of a posh hotel in London. Outside the door of the allotted room there’s a buzz of activity. Behind it? There’s Branagh, hours away from the premiere of his latest movie, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, enjoying the simple pleasure of a cup of tea. Which is when we hit him with our bombshell…

I fear somebody didn’t give you the handover notes when doing a Jack Ryan movie and playing a Russian character. That you either have to approach it by getting in Sean Connery, and not bother with the accent at all, or you have to get in someone like the late Richard Marner from ‘Allo ‘Allo. He played a Russian at the start of The Sum Of All Fears if memory serves…

[Grins] Memory does serve. Well done, well done…

So my request to you would be to do the director’s commentary on the DVD in a Sean Connery accent please…

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[Laughs. I think he thinks I’m not serious. I move on]

I’ve been trying to wrack my brains and trying to think of the last time an actor-director took the antagonist role. And I was reading an interview that Ben Affleck gave too, when he talked about how the curse of the actor-director, at least in the early days, is that you don’t shoot enough coverage of yourself.

You’ve been doing this for longer, of course, but what changes? How does it evolve, directing your own performances? And what changes when you then play the antagonist?

It’s an interesting question. Kevin Costner reminded me on this one. We met in 1990 to talk about acting and directing. He was picking my brains. I’d just done Henry V, and he was about to do Dances With Wolves.

Much of it is to do with logistics. I think Ben Affleck has a point about that. One of the things that’s changed for me as I’ve been doing this is that I’m very practical and pragmatic about what I need by way of preparation. So I would rehearse way in advance of everyone else. I had an acting coach, an actor called Jimmy Yuill. Jimmy took the role taken by an old mentor of mine called Hugh Cruttwell who watched me, and was only watching for the first eight, nine movies I made as a director.

Jimmy in this case I’ve worked with a long time, and his job was to help me to build the character profile for Cherevin. So we felt that there was total history about where he was in the military, his time in Chechnya, his family, the tattoos, his time in prison, how much he earns, what he earns, how close he is to the Kremlin. As much detail, based on research into individuals, as possible.

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Then we had a Russian dialect coach who came in, and I said to her play me Russian radio, Russian TV, let me start drinking in that. Then let me learn what I have to say phonetically. All of that way in advance of sitting down with Chris [Pine]. I did all of that and then we brought Chris in for a week’s rehearsal just for him to do all his stuff.

What kind of stuff?

He met a compliance officer, we did a drop in a park with him near the American embassy, we took him to a Catholic priest. We did all of that ahead of time. And then practically, I would should my scenes at the end of the day, when the other actors had gone. I’d always let them know, and that they didn’t have to go. But sometimes, in order to keep them fresh, I would do that. Jimmy would sometimes read off for me. I would just make sure I had enough time. I often repeated scenes around them again and again.

So in the scene with Keira Knightley in the restaurant, we played that almost as one whole scene that’s broken into many different scenes. We did it many, many times. We would go over it again. We’d repeat lines. We’d improvise a bit. I would allow myself that chance to play, which I would offer the other actors as well. And, you know, I remembered that the first time I did this was Henry V, and we had no video assist. So my conversations were with the other actors, and the camera operator as to how a particular take had gone. So I’ve got practically more organised about it.

In this particular part, I acted when I felt at my freshest, when I had the least number of others things to think about. The least number of other people around. And then I did it as many times as I thought was right. And sometimes when I got it wrong, I would do it again.

It’s two slightly contrasting things there. You say when you’re at your freshest, and when there aren’t that many people around. But also that you’re doing your own stuff at the end of the day.

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Well, you know, that would be sometimes when you’ve got rid of a big scene. You feel fresher, you feel more ready for it when your brain’s a little less crowded.

The directing state of mind is that you’re on constant high alert, so many questions. You can get yourself into the zone at the right moment. Sometimes when I talk about being at your freshest – and the other actors were very sympathetic to this – I would often start with close-ups. So I would cross-shoot this scene [gestures to the two of us talking. I put my game face on]. I would shoot each of us at the same time, so that was a conversation with the DP.

Each actor would know they’re on, it’s their shot. Everything counts. None of that strange conservation that can happen when you’re off the camera for half the day then turn around and it’s on you. And we’d start with the close-ups at eight o’clock in the morning. Everybody knew it was a shot that was likely to be in the film. So we kept that kind of technique to keep the febrile energy that the movie needed.

I think it might have been the companion book to Hamlet, that it talked about back in the days of film, if you had some left in the can at the end of a scene, you’d just let people go off and try something completely different. That it was part of how you ran your days and ran your film sets. How’s that changed for you with digital, where the film in the can isn’t the limit. That you can build in the different takes automatically. How do you keep the spontaneity of that?

We shot this on film, with digital only for some of the night stuff, and the car stuff, where we were using available light. So we still had the atmosphere of film, which I like. I don’t feel a Luddite about it, but we’ve enjoyed it. We wanted a grainy, 70s thriller-style quality to this. In fact, we ended up futsing [sic] in the digital grade to the digital stuff to match what we did with the 35mm, to give that impact. So I think quite a lot of what you do as a director is try to come up with lots of other versions of that kind of trickery, that moment.

Joining up the scenes that Keira Knightly did in the restaurant, playing them as one small play, we ended up transitioning with made up lines each time. So we were always kind of improvising along the way. Chris is very open to this kind of thing.

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If you trust the atmosphere, you trust the director, you keep offering stuff up that is real and new and fresh. Whatever trick or stimulus has been produced, then that potentially is very helpful to the kind of atmosphere of a picture like this.

So the pursuit of that that will keep it alive in whatever form, digital or whatever, perhaps through doing the close-ups early. All of it is part and parcel of the same thing. How do you not get too set and stuck in your ways.

You talked about the restaurant scene. I’ve always really loved the Jack Ryan movies, because they’ve resisted being action movies. They’ve respected that these are thrillers. And that restaurant scene had an old-style thriller element to it for me.

But was this always a thriller? Because with a young lead like Chris Pine, was there pressure from up the chain to make this play a bit more action-y, a bit younger?

Well, I came on when it had been developed for four or five years, and they were stumped by those very questions. So they needed someone to come in and take a strong point of view about that.

Mine was that character and performance was going to be key. And in previews, and right across the reactions to the picture, the restaurant scene is one that’s been universally found to be a very enjoyable part of the film. It’s the territory you hope to enter when you go and see something like this I think.

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My problem with some thrillers is that they don’t show you the before, the during and the after of key scenes like that. They miss a detail. You talked about this key scene as a small play, and that’s how it worked for me. But it’s quite a lot of time in the middle of a film, when we’re in the blockbuster era where everything has to be fast, punchy…

And where spectacle, stimulation and even explosions need to happen, almost at the same pace as big gags. Seven, eleven minutes whatever it is between them.

One of the things I was impressed by with the script was the basic beat of the idea that Jack Ryan, in feigning a swift inebriation with medicine and red wine, would be able to take in a sharp Cherevin, who we also needed to be convinced would be distracted by a woman who talked about Lermontov. Chris plays the drunkenness well, and we establish enough about Cherevin’s goatish ego and romanticism. They were part of what individualised it and made it more thriller-y. Unashamed of a certain kind of literary reference, and feeling that that was character, and not just us trying to show off that we’d heard of some Russian novels.

So for my money it was always about getting that atmosphere. The films I always quoted when talking to the studio about it were – as ancient as they now seem – things like Three Days Of The Condor, or the atmosphere of the pictures of All The President’s Men, or The French Connection. That gritty world. Tight, character-led but still suspenseful. 70s pictures from the young masters of that time.

Before we run out of time, can we talk about one of your older films. Because I really, really love In The Bleak Midwinter [we wrote about it here]. And that leads me to two questions. It was obviously something very small, very personal, that seemed written for a group of friends but with really substance to it. Are you still interested in making those sorts of films as a director? And also, can you sort the DVD release out please?

Oh yeah, yeah. It would be good to do that. Both that and Hamlet got caught up in very complicated rights issues as to where they lived in the Castle Rock/Warner Bros family. But it’s a film that means a lot to a significant number of people. It’s been adapted for the stage in several countries, and regularly comes up as something that people want to do that with. I would like to make that kind of film again, and I suspect that I will.

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It was very personal. Personal to the point of having paid for it, and it was one of life’s great pleasures to sell it for a bit more than you paid. And at the cast and crew screening, as everybody came out, giving everybody a cheque.

In their hand on the day?

Yeah! Literally. You’ve never seen a more surprised woman than Joan Collins, walking out the back of one of the smaller cinemas in Leicester Square, and we were sitting there like people with notes in a brown envelope! Everybody was on the same money. So Joan Collins was on I think it was £400 a week at that time.

Could you have given her that in postal orders?

Maybe we did [Laughs]. But that gave me enormous pleasure. The opportunity for films like that to get made and distributed now is so intensely competitive. The room and the patience and the viewing habits of people are so different. I would like to, and I suspect that I will.

I think it’s my favourite Richard Briers performance too.

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Ah! [smiles] Yeah. It was a special thing with him. And lovely, lovely to see.

Still, it’s good to see you back on thrillers again. It feels you’ve come full circle now after Dead Again.

Yeah. That was my second film. I did it with Paramount, and I was making it on the next soundstage to The Hunt For Red October.

Were you doing a Sean Connery impression at the time?

[Laughs] I can’t do a Sean Connery impression!

Well, we’ll see about that on the DVD commentary. Kenneth Branagh, thank you very much.

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is out on the 24th January in the UK.

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