At the recently concluded San Francisco International Film Festival, Kenneth Branagh was awarded the annual Founder’s Directing Award. Preceding a screening of the director’s 1991 film “Dead Again,” he spoke to Jonathan Moscone, Artistic Director of the the California Shakespeare Theater, about his career thus far. Accordingly, the plays of William Shakespeare and Branagh’s interpretations of those works became the anchor for the two men’s conversation throughout the evening.
While of course Branagh is well regarded for both his directing and acting talents, given that he was receiving a directing award, the focus lingered on the behind-the-camera aspect of his career. He's best known for making Shakespeare accessible to wider audiences, a goal he has long held since his days co-founding the Renaissance Theatre Company in London. When he started to become immersed in the world of Shakespeare, he saw the plays as being excessively limited to enjoyment by high society types. The director recalled, “In England, it almost sometimes represents a class division. There was some kind of entertainment you had to have. A sort of qualification for it, and it made me feel as though there was a way that it could be done and a way that you could get it to people and make it available to people like me and my family and my background, which was non-theatrical and non show business. I guess I got sort of passionate about that and it led to doing a theater company that was trying to do that. Make the ticket prices a little cheaper.”
The success of his theater company led to taking that same philosophy into the film world. Branagh’s 1989 version of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” ended up making a lasting impression for the director. In his mind it was an obvious next step, as he explained, the theater success, “…led to forming a film company and we tried to do it in a particular way that didn’t sound declamatory and off-putting and that made it feel as real and human as I saw it being in the great hands of masters. You couldn’t do that as an objective idea; you had to do it reactively because you felt it wasn’t being done somewhere else. It wasn’t always rational, it wasn’t always reasonable, it wasn’t always thought out particularly, it wasn’t always clever. But it at least had a fire in its belly.”
Through the ‘90s, Branagh had a run of films that were met with mostly positive critical feedback, including two more Shakespeare adaptations with “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Hamlet.” In 2000, he hit a bit of a bump with his “Love’s Labour’s Lost” adaptation, an experience that he found humbling, though not debilitating to his career. Branagh explained, “It would be hard to say what exactly is ‘authentic Shakespeare’, but people have an idea of what it might be and they sometimes get disturbed when a strong or dominating or even disruptive idea comes in like setting it as a Hollywood musical in 1939. There’s a lot of things imposed upon it you might say. And sometimes that can release the play and make it available to people and sometimes you put something a way that makes people go, ‘Is there something I have to get? Are you trying to be cleverer than I am or something?’ No is the answer to that one by the way.” Branagh keeps a sense of humor about his failures though, and legitimately sees them as a risk worth taking in order to approach creating something truly inspired. He recalls, “When you missed, you missed by a thousand miles. In terms of doing things like Shakespeare and going with a strong idea or passionately held belief. And not just in terms of Shakespeare, but some of the other films. Sometimes they’re a little crazy, a little mad, they’re eccentric, and they have personally passionately held points of view about things that- sometimes I’ve come to realize in the deafening silence with which they are greeted- that I’m alone in this feeling.”
More recently, Branagh has taken a turn towards larger scale films, with his 2011 feature “Thor” being a clear break from the types of films mostly associated with him. The path from Shakespeare in the theater to blockbuster comic book movie director may not seem very direct, but Branagh has long strived to reach the level of spectacle that he first fell in love with as a child. He remembered, “Having been brought up watching films and television — so that being a part of my vocabulary, my relationship to storytelling. Big pictures in epic films that one has seen from one’s youth. And also that big picture experience; big room, big screen, big sound. Everything to do with ‘Thor’ links back to the first time I saw big pictures then with my family at the cinema in Belfast. ‘The Great Escape,' 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,' 'The Sound of Music,' and then '1,000 Years B.C.' Very important meeting with Raquel Welch. She had a big impact on me. She advanced puberty for me by about five years.”
Branagh may be headed towards more commercially ignited films, but he did admit that he has his eye on another of Shakespeare’s plays. Due to the superstitions connected with uttering “Macbeth” in a theater and the event taking place in the Castro Theater, the director explained the best he could, “I would like to make some more Shakespeare films. The film that I would like to make next has a title that I cannot mention in this building. But it’s a play by Shakespeare about a Scottish king.” Hopefully the director’s caution will pay off.