There’s an air of greatness to Kenneth Branagh, certainly for me encountering him as a fellow Brit. His body of work is extraordinary both behind the camera and in front of the camera. As President of RADA (Royal Academy of Drama and Arts) he has brought Shakespeare to life on the West End Stage in productions that leave you reveling in his performance and his talent.
It’s the end of the day. Branagh is at the Hollywood Roosevelt in town for a few days to talk about the two films he’s done this year. Whether it’s working with Nolan and watching a master at work, or talking about Michelle Pfeiffer’s glamorous entrance at a train station, he breaks it all down with intricate detail. His descriptions can whisk you from the tense beaches of Dunkirk to the luxurious Orient Express with such enthusiasm and passion. He is a consummate filmmaker whose eye pulls you in and whose intelligence keeps you riveted.
We talk about how he was first introduced to Agatha Christie as a teenager. Branagh says he was drawn to the idea that every scene had a new visual clue for the audience to find while trying to solve the famous whodunnit. The setting is so authentic, you can feel the steam coming off the train as it roars through the cold snowy mountains.
In the magnificent Dunkirk from director Christopher Nolan, Branagh plays Commander Bolton, a composite character who represents unfaltering British leadership. Light on dialogue but weighty with profound tension, Nolan’s masterpiece zooms in close on Branagh, capturing the trace of a tear as he first sees civilian ships coming to rescue the stranded soldiers. His steadfast and indomitable performance embodies the bravery of Britain.
“He could have said he was making a film about the telephone directory and he could have asked if I wanted to be a yellow page and I would have said yes.” Branagh says of Nolan telling him about Dunkirk. Nolan had come to see Branagh in a production of A Winter’s Tale. Growing up, he’d heard about the “Dunkirk spirit,” but it wasn’t until he was down on the real mole that he would comprehend the full size of the operation and the scale, Nolan had real planes flying overhead with the actors out there in the elements.
Consider Kenneth Branagh.
What made you want to take on the great Agatha Christie?
That’s a good way of putting it because you do take on because you do take on a lot of things. Sometimes people might be over familiar with it, but it’s not an accident that she is the third most read writer after The Bible and Shakespeare. She has this unique capacity to grab people by the scruff of the throat with her writing.
I find it an incredibly glamorous title, the idea of the train and that nighttime ride through Europe. It makes me excited. It did when I saw the book on my mum’s table when I was a teenager. She got into crime fiction then and it started a lifetime of it for me. I just knew that the world excited me. That number of characters kept alive in a story invited me. The snow, the winter, and the train of it all. It was also a thing where you could take the audience with you on a train. You could invite an immersive experience where you could put them on the train and make them one of the passengers in a way and have them enjoy this puzzle and sensory experience of Istanbul and Jerusalem.
Agatha Christie locations are always exotic. She herself traveled widely and wildly. She was a pioneer and had the spunky independence courage of the Michelle Pfeiffer meets the Daisy Ridley character and I wanted to get that in there.
I guess fundamentally on re-reading the story, the excitement, and exhilaration value. I felt myself moved by the center of the story, this idea of loss at the heart of the piece being something that drives a civilized person to do something primitive. Where they are seized at a very passionate level by the idea of revenge and where violence is the only option for emotional closure. It’s something I found very moving because it was morally ambiguous. You understood where it came from and yet how could one possibly approve it.
Through the version of Poirot that we present we had the chance to do that and grab people and move them, but also engage them in this moral conundrum. He says at the beginning, “There’s right, there’s wrong and there’s nothing in between.” I think Agatha Christie suggests there might be quite a bit in between and for someone like Poirot who is desperate to control the world and bring order finds almost painful to consider but has to on a human level. For me, you get entertainment with all those possibilities, it’s just irresistible.
The way you shot it stimulates all five of our senses. As you say, you took us on board.
Well, thank you. I enjoyed seeing the guys measure how far the cutlery was from the edge of the table. This insane pursuit of the experience and the ting of the crystal glass. One of the first things I did was go on a location scout on the train with the writer, and that was a luxury.
You got the sense of excitement as the train was coming into the station and I had to get that in the movie.I had to get what was happening in my heart in the movie and it produced one of the most pleasing shots in the film which was to introduce the train and then the actors in one continuous Steadicam shot that took us all the way back down the train again.
I loved that anticipation of waiting for the train. I actually wondered how you were going to do that and then you give it to us and it’s delicious as you reveal it. I enjoyed the way you shot the actors with from the outside looking in.
We often tried to mix it up. Her structure is formal. There’s an event and there are twelve people, twelve accounts, and then a summation. Every opportunity to introduce a character with these wonderful actors gives you a moment in screentime that you know they will exploit and they will score whether it’s Penelope Cruz, this knee-trembling beauty with this smashing potential pickpocket and potential for violence with that individual.
To present Michelle Pfeiffer on the other side of the glass, this is a character who has layers of performance that are to be revealed during the course of the story. So the idea of being behind glass and also coming on as if she was crossing the stage. Also, she’s crossing by the piano. Music is playing under her entrance and she finishes her entrance by the kitchen with Poirot where flambées are going off. Somehow you’re inviting the audience to think: is she what she is? She describes herself as a possible husband hunter and has been self-conscious with that arrival, or is something else going to happen? With each successive scene, she reveals a layer. Anywhere we could that where there was this visual corollary for anything that might add up was the joy of doing Agatha Christie. In a thriller like this, potentially the audience comes in anticipating that everything might mean something, every prop, every declaration of an apparent fact could be a red herring and I could feel the audience leaning forward as we did that.
Let’s talk about Dunkirk. What did Christopher Nolan tell you about it?
He didn’t have to say much to be honest. I’ve admired him for years and he is a brand in his own right associated with this level of quality and experience with his films. He came to see me in The Winter’s Tale which has at its center the death of a child interestingly enough. He talked about how moved he was by the story and how youth and the possibility of youth and the loss of innocence are at the heart of Dunkirk. He was struck by how young they all were. He was very aware of the preciousness of time. He talked about The Winter’s Tale which was also about the preciousness of time and the abuse of time. His playfulness of time is a feature of his work.
He could have said he was making a film about the telephone directory and he could have asked if I wanted to be a yellow page and I would have said yes.
As it was, you could see that a real passionate interest in the event itself and the subject matter was met by a very human and emotional response to the human story at the center of it all. He seemed to want to make an epic but as if it were a personal student film where he had as much freedom as possible. That’s what it turned out to be when we made it. He came with reams of preparation. On set with him where he encouraged many live things to happen, thousands of people as soldiers, big boats and planes flying around you and near the mole, inside that he could respond to circumstance. I was really amazed, that for a man so prepared with this careful epic in mind could really play with it on the day, ready to embrace the new. It speaks about what a strong point of view he had.
From my point of view to play a part that was so key both in letting the audience know the facts about what was going on, but also was one of the more mature characters. He had probably gone through the previous war, “The war to end all wars.” I felt there was a slightly intimidating quality because you were trying to embody and provide a certain kind of Britishness. Qualities at our best we might think ourselves to exhibit, a stoicism, a dignity and a determination never to give up and an absolute resistance to showing off. In itself aggrandizement, self-sacrifice. Of course, you’ll stay at the end for the French. It doesn’t matter if you’re the last man standing at the end. It’s our duty to embody that and also be involved in this history-branding moment. When those people on the beaches knew those 800 small boats had come for them, it’s such a massively moving moment.
I didn’t know so much about the campaign growing up. I knew the reference to the “Dunkirk spirit.” It seems a very British thing and what I admire what Nolan did was there’s hardly any mention of Germany in the movie in the sense it’s a universal story of what can happen when you’re under extreme duress but somehow a communal response can be a miraculous deliverance is a pretty powerful thing to express.
Aside from the campaign, what else did you learn about Dunkirk?
I didn’t realize it was over more days and weeks. It was brief deliverance but for those weeks and those days it was so intense. Also, the scale of things surprised me. I walked up that beach and the set. We walked across this vast piece of land that felt that it was the side of France. It was the bit of France facing us. When you see Tom Hardy gliding down in what seems like the longest time, you certainly could because the beach would never run out. To be there and to understand the scale of it, the whole of the British Army was there. You could see it. In the there and then was the living visual proof that the fate of Britain could be decided. Home was over there. The scale of the conflict, where we live and this impossible situation was realized. In that sense, Dunkirk was such an extraordinary moment in the life of the nation where things could have happened in different ways.
You shot out on the mole and in the elements, which added to the viewer’s authenticity, but what was that like for you?
We were as immersed in an evocation of the time as you could be. You get hot, you get cold, and you get wet and you get hungry. It’s a bitter wind when it blows. The disorientation it provides and that long exposure, we were out there for twelve hours, but it’s nothing compared to the real thing. It’s something and Chris Nolan does not underestimate the way in which that the personal contact with those performing with the authentic experience. He didn’t have to worry about the weather because that was taken care of by God because He was in his usual form.
What did you learn as a filmmaker from watching Nolan up close and personal at work? He does everything big and grand.
He does. I learned that you could, as he did find necessarily the means by which you can be the still and silent center of that storm. He made me feel that the noise of everything fell away. His focus was such that he was only about this moment, the next moment would be captured on film and anything to do with the rest of the frame and things that were blowing up or were behind you, he’d take care of, just concentrate on this. He had that joy.
I saw a restless, prowling presence. He never sits down. He is always looking to help maintain momentum. There are much smaller shots between scenes. There was no time to hang about and that was great given with all the variables happening all the time. It was fascinating as a director to see him use that energy to orchestrate it. He had the capacity to laugh at all of that. He could find the moment to be in the moment. I really had the feeling, looking at him sometimes, in terms of how I saw it and how he seemed, that I was watching an artist in front of a canvas. The focus was incredible. The quality of his gaze at a staging or performance or a piece of action or a group of boats, it’s fascinating when you’re watching anybody do their job, no matter what they’re doing, when you see someone so absorbed in something that they’re good at and they really like, it’s infectious and it’s meditative. It was a beautiful thing to see artist and subject at one as well as things to steal by ways of his working method. That thing of being in the middle of what he was doing with joy and concentration was a very tangible and beautiful thing to witness.