I traveled to Belfast in late 2007 to interview Kenneth Branagh for InDublin about his mainstream directorial comeback Sleuth which was about to hit cinemas. Here then is the full transcript of Kenneth Branagh on Sleuth, Pinter, Caine and more…
Is it fair to say that the words ‘Screenplay by Harold Pinter’ were the main attraction of Sleuth?
It is absolutely fair to say that. I mean, it really arrested me. The call came through and they said ‘a new version of’ which is a better way of saying ‘remake’ cos I thought ‘oh dear no’, I know that original film very well and I’d seen the play not long before but then they said ‘Jude Law is producing it, Michael Caine is in it but the screenplay is by Harold Pinter’ and I’d always, always wanted to work with him. I couldn’t believe really that I hadn’t been in a Pinter play. I did my audition speeches for drama schools, the modern ones anyway, from Pinter plays, and, I don’t know, I’ve seen so many of the plays that somehow I felt I ought to have been. And also you know he’s such a modern classic, done so regularly, and I having spent some you know a lot of time, ahem, working with dead authors, I was very excited about the idea perhaps as I’d been led to believe he would be involved, that he had been very heavily involved with the development process and worked with Jude Law as producer on a number of drafts of the screenplay, that he would be in the room; and I knew that he was a very good actor and a very good director himself, it just seemed – that’s how it was incredibly attractive.
Your shooting style on Sleuth seems different. Your films have been characterised by a very mobile camera, following the actors around, creating a lot of energy on screen, whereas this film has a lot of fixed camera set-ups. Was that a response to Pinter’s style? Creating an apparent surface calm to focus people on the subtext which crackles?
Yeah, it was trying to find the style. It was much influenced by films that I like a lot, French cinema actually, recently seen films that I’ve liked a lot like Cache (Hidden), Thirteen, Lemming, those kinds of movies where the camera doesn’t move much, where the action unfolds in long takes, where the frame is very carefully constructed, so one of the things that I enjoyed doing was, for instance, when the two men come into the house for the first time and in this sort of little dance of conversational niceties that precedes the sort of meat of it, you get 10 minutes of this sort of dance and then Michael Caine sits down into what is the first close-up to say ‘I understand you’re fucking my wife’. That in the second shot, where we bring them into the house, that we’re looking at the level of a drinks table, we’re looking thru two glasses – one is already poured with a whiskey: Caine’s character hasn’t asked Jude whether he wants one yet, he hasn’t asked him what it is, and he hasn’t chosen, and yet the idea of providing the provocation with the way the frame is set, suggesting to the audience from very early on that everything could mean something; the colour of the whiskey, the placement of the glass, the fact that he’s walking towards us the glass of a green bottle, that we don’t see their heads then, that their body language might be just as key – the way they hold the glass, all of that. I enjoyed trying to find a spare, and yet loaded, style cos that’s what I felt about his dialogue.
I think, because they give the award so late in a career, that this is the first time a Nobel Laureate has worked on a film since Bernard Shaw’s screenplay for Pygmalion. Was he an intimidating presence? Did he stand behind your shoulder muttering ‘I wrote three dots, he’s only giving me two’?
No, he wasn’t. I mean there was a bit of kerfufflage before we started that, where – I think maybe it was to do with Harold’s 75 th birthday, maybe that was it, a number of extremely important celebrations of his work, one of which involved a documentary for Channel 4 in which I think he rather bridled against the kind of popular myth of the orchestration of the pauses in his work, his ultra-precision and deliberation and insistence upon absolute adherence to his pre-planned structure, but I found him to be a very JOLLY collaborator, I found him I found him to be somebody who as he said explicitly on our first meeting ‘I like being part of a team’ and that seemed to be a typical remark of a writer, but also in his case, a man of the theatre – someone who started out as an actor and also a very fine director. So he’s very much in tune with the creative process. He, and Michael Caine, their ages seemed to drop once in the rehearsal room. They had that enthusiasm, I’ve seen it in other people, Robert Altman’s another example of somebody who – I worked with him when he was in his late 70s, when I saw him by the camera he seemed to be – 25, and so it was with these two. So Harold did not carry the aura of his…beatification.
So he was happy to let you be the one in charge of interpreting his ambiguities?
He left a lot of space. We did ask questions and he was happy to answer them, where he felt it was pertinent to do so. Sometimes. But, to give you an example of where, as it were the Pinter question mark, that I think is a very positive part of this entertainment, was there. I remember in rehearsals saying to him, ‘So, uh, Harold can I ask, it may seem banal, when Maggie rings up at the end of the movie, [during the very intense scene between the two men], she calls twice, I mean what is she saying?’ and he said ‘Well, who says it’s Maggie?’ ‘What? But I mean he’s talking to her!’ ‘We hear him talking. He appears to be talking to someone. It may appear to be Maggie. But he could easily have contrived for the call to have occurred. There may be no-one there. I don’t know is the answer. There It Is…’ I understood actually that once he said that actually, once we worried less about offering Jude some literal off-screen responses or scripted piece for Maggie it began to be quite interesting – about the way, particularly about the way in which in that third act, we were unsure as to whether Michael’s character was providing a provocative but phony suggestion that he was gay and wished to share his life with Milo, and whether Milo was responding in kind, appearing to indulge it, be surprised by it, and then sort of meet it halfway but in fact was involved in an even more super-subtle attempt to humiliate the other so for me, when he did choose to speak to add further ambiguity it was always interesting.
Michael Caine has said that he played his character as suffering from morbid jealousy. Could you talk a bit about that?
Yeah. We had to have, what you might call a sort of playing centre, some basic position that on the surface of it might simply be a jealous or revengeful husband. But when I discovered this condition, and numerous and specific examples of what in this very grotesque, intensified version of jealously were clearly true, .i.e. the specific notion that this condition would encourage someone to pursue the ultimate revenge, of trying to have an affair with the lover of the adulterous partner, a tremendously sort of twisted and destructive act, and sort of very calculating and unbalanced and unsettling, at least sort of rather surprising and unusual. It seemed to release Michael, it seemed to just – there was plenty to read about, medical experts to support, ‘oh no, this is’ – if you want to put it crudely it’s jealousy really at the max. It seemed to allow all sorts of things to happen, .i.e. for him to be ABSOLUTELY cool, calm and collected – because its manifestations often involved the ability to wear masks, you know sort of social and public masks that were incredibly convincing. So it allowed him to be even more naturalistic, even more throwaway, even more kind and gentle where he was supposed to be, even funnier where he was supposed to be, knowing that he could reach with an intensity that he gives full value to at the end of that first act where he says ‘I’ve always wanted to have a conversation with a hairdresser. A hairdresser that’s fucking my wife. My wife is mine – She Belongs To Me’, and he seems to then reveal that morbidly jealous side which practically shows him as a kind of caveman, and so that, it seemed to open us access to both superficial ways of playing things and also a sort of central feeling of an atavistic rather primitive individual.
It also moves it away from Olivier’s dangerous eccentric, that this film is not a playful gun game of plot twists it’s a full on Comedy of Menace. I mean I almost cheered when you started with a Pinter pause at the start when they first meet, because it indicates this is the real deal, this is full on Pinter – two men battling for control.
I remember the first time we previewed it and we got a laugh on that first moment of just, and it was a nervous laugh, at the end of it – is there a mistake? Did something just happen? It almost felt live. ‘I’m Milo Tindle’ long pause ‘Oh yes’. But much longer than that.
Michael Caine is having something of a late career resurgence with Children of Men, The Prestige, Batman Begins and this. Is he enjoying acting more than ever now?
He talks about a period about 10 years ago where he really said he was going to give up. He was going to give up and he wasn’t enjoying it anymore, he didn’t feel the parts were interesting enough. He was at, as it were he didn’t get the girl anymore so that part of him that as the leading man movie-star hadn’t quite morphed into the really fascinating career parts quite yet. Even though to some extent he’s always had a character career as well as his unusual but brilliant leading man career. So, he said for about two to three years, as he puts it, he ‘fucked about in the restaurant trade’. And then, I think it was Bob Rafelson with a picture with Nicholson was singular event- Days of Wine and Roses? Can’t quite remember, must be more than 10 years ago. Anyway he said that was something of a – he enjoyed it so much he got back in the swing of it and I think he now only does exactly that which he fancies and he really did fancy this. And he had to work very hard for this, long takes, lots of dialogue to remember, great big leading man role and I think he seemed to be enjoying it hugely. And this was particularly one where his particular brand of experience means for particular moments – and one that I would cite at the end of the first act where he fires the gun and looks at where Jude Law’s character is and we hold a close-up for, I know it to be literally 24 seconds, in profile – just him watching where he’s fired the gun which I think is a wonderful movie moment, its rather like the one you were alluding to at the beginning, it takes a long time – there’s no music – and it’s just Michael Caine reacting and I think it’s a riveting moment and very much sort of an example in a very, very subtle way of how a lifetime of experience can be channelled into something that is a piece of fine brushwork, that is wonderfully apt for that point in the picture.
To talk about your own acting career, the critics were ridiculously hostile to Love’s Labour’s Lost, which I adored I thought it was a wonderful 30s musical interpretation of the piece. But it was slated and having killed off the directing career they pointed to the performances in Conspiracy and Shackleton and Rabbit-Proof Fence and said ‘See what we made him go do instead? Good for us critics!’ Do you think that they’re wrong, that it is possible to build up a good body of work as a director AND as an actor in other people’s films?
Yes, I think so. I think it’s impossible to make prescriptive rules to cover what is quite sort of an unusual career-path, not many people get a chance to do it or perhaps even choose to pursue it when the opportunities come up. To be honest I don’t fully understand – I would have said that my experience of the moments in one’s career where one’s REALLY been dumped on across the board tend to be the ones that do turn around. So Frankenstein, it was as vitriolic but perhaps greater in volume because it was a bigger picture, the reaction to that – and yet since it started appearing on television or DVD or video I’ve never seen a bad review for it, I’ve only seen very, very positive things, certainly is the case with the Hamlet DVD that’s just come out. Love’s Labour’s Lost, I’m hoping that will find its place at some point, I think it hasn’t quite had that sort of reassessment but I supposed I don’t understand it – people say to me occasionally ‘It’s about time you understood, don’t be too clever for your own good’ or something and I really don’t understand what that means – do they want me to be stupider, than your own good? Or, what I believe now, I absolutely of course understand with some work, everyone of course is entitled to their opinion and it may be very particular and it may not be very positive about a film, but I think it’s manifestly untrue to suggest in the cleverness argument that one is, the suggestion that one infers is that that kind of work – with its so called ‘cleverness’ – is an attempt to condescend or patronise or to advertise what somehow I am suggesting subtly is a superior intelligence, I would say that is manifestly untrue and in fact is the opposite in the sense that it is ABSOLUTELY assuming intelligence, pre-eminent intelligence, not an intelligence which requires some sort of academic track record, but simply intelligence, imagination, invention, curiosity, receptivity. Do I assume all of those things? Yes. Beyond that people like the film – they may or may not. But somehow the judgement that that kind of condescension might be at work, I simply disagree with it.
When can we expect to see The Magic Flute and As You Like It?
Magic Flute will be here in January, and will travel around, and As You Like It will be here also and doing the kind of – the truth is with both those pictures – not actually in both cases all the time but they’re tending to do, As You Like It in particular, two or three nights at an art-house cinema. Magic Flute will certainly open here in January, Belfast and Dublin, and play in various places for at least a week and I hope beyond that. The release for Magic Flute actually is pleasingly and surprisingly wide, I’ve been delighted to find out.  Yeah, and I do recommend that they see it in a cinema because the sound mix is really great, usually these pictures being the specialist tings they are they end up being in rather good cinemas that really maximise the amount of trouble we took to try and, particularly in the case of Magic Flute, get a sort of real experience not just only of the music but the soundtrack and effects within the movie and that in itself is an unusual thing with an opera, you’ll not hear it very often in that way. Some friends I showed it to last week were commenting on what an unusual and pleasing things that was. So I hope it has a good long life in the cinema.
Just as a sort of parting shot question, do you have any plans to re-release Henry V in 2015 for the 600th Anniversary of Agincourt?
Well what an interesting idea. I had been hoping to try and twist somebody’s eyes about, twist somebody’s arm rather, about 2009 for just the 20th anniversary of when it was released here but you’ve now put another idea in my head so thank you for that. You’re welcome, thanks.  Thanks ever so much, appreciate it