Combustible Celluloid

Kenneth Branagh

Love's Labour's Lost - An Interview

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

By now most people have become used to cartoon characters bursting out into song. A few others have become used to hearing people speak Shakespearean dialogue. Now Kenneth Branagh is hoping that he can get a few of those people together with his new musical version of Love's Labour's Lost.

39-year-old Branagh is bouncy and happy today as we meet at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in San Francisco. He talks quickly and excitedly. (He barely misses his stride when pal Kevin Kline, also in town, pokes his head in the room for a quick hello.) "I met Kevin in New York. We had lots in common, and then we did this cartoon, The Road to El Dorado, together for most of our lives," he jokes. "It took about four years to do."

I bring up two more celebrities, the names Stanley Donen and Martin Scorsese, two living legend film directors who act as "presenters" of Love's Labour's Lost. (Donen has directed no less than what is considered to be the greatest movie musical of all time, Singin' in the Rain.) Branagh says, "Harvey Weinstein, in his infinite wisdom, had this screening in New York. And he invited Scorsese, who I knew and had known for some years, and Stanley Donen, who I didn't know, but obviously admired. He was something of an influence on this film, anyway. And they both hung around afterwards and gave us their opinions. They were very, very supportive. They both said, 'don't change anything,' for a start. And Harvey--as only Harvey can--decided that their endorsement, that their support in literal terms, would be very helpful."

"I was impressed!" he adds. "I was awe-struck."

Branagh is something of a legend himself. Having published his autobiography at age 28 and directed and starred in his first film, Henry V (1989) at age 29 (with double Oscar nominations to show for it), he's become quite well respected. He's been involved with Shakespeare for almost his whole life, working on a half-dozen Shakespeare-themed films and Lord only knows how many more stage productions. He talks about why he chose the relatively obscure Love's Labour's Lost for his new film.

"I was intrigued by introducing a play to people that they weren't necessarily aware of. Shakespeare hoped people wouldn't know what was going to happen next. [With] Hamlet, they're at least aware of the classic images. They know a bloke with a skull will emerge at some point, and somebody will say, 'to be or not to be.' And it's true of a number of other plays as well. So the newness of Love's Labour's Lost [was intriguing]. For all its sharpness and satire, it's still quite innocent. Shakespeare's writing seems very exuberant. He doesn't really care how many clashing styles there are in it. He's got low comedy and high comedy and romance and grotesque subplots and he changes the tone of the play right at the end. It seems as though he doesn't mind. It's wonderfully undisciplined. It feels like a young man's play. It feels untypical of the other comedies."

Some say that Branagh's work alone is responsible for the popularity of Shakespeare films in the last ten years. One thing the actor/director has done particularly well in his career is make Shakespeare acceptable to the moviegoing public at large. The reason for his success is that Branagh is aware of what he calls the "tune-in period." "The first five minutes of these kinds of pictures is so important. For Much Ado About Nothing (1993) we did it a different way. We put words on the screen with someone speaking them, quite slowly, to just literally tune people in. To say, 'you're reading it, you're hearing it. It's all fine, isn't it? Nobody died...' It's not just true of audiences--it's true of actors coming to it as well."

For Love's Labour's Lost, Branagh presents a large cast of wildly different talents. Branagh himself plays Berowne, one of the king's cronies, while Alessandro Nivola (1999's Mansfield Park) plays the king. Alicia Silverstone (1995's Clueless) plays the princess. The rest of the cast includes Natasha McElhone (1998's The Truman Show), Matthew Lillard (1996's Scream), Adrian Lester (1998's Primary Colors), Nathan Lane (1996's The Birdcage), Timothy Spall (1996's Secrets & Lies), and Stefania Rocca (1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley). Many of these talents hadn't played Shakespeare before, and certainly not as a musical.

Branagh says, "I only really cast people who are desperate to be in it--who were dying to be in it, whose talent I believed in and were dead ready to do the work that was necessary. So it wasn't just a question of turning up [and saying] 'isn't it marvelous we're all in a Shakespeare film.'" According to Branagh, the reality is that "they get very, very nervous. And sometimes they don't want to rehearse. They want to avoid it. And I always make them do it. I always make them regularly say it out loud, as soon as possible. At the end of the second week, we did an entire run-through of the entire thing on a sound stage in front of the crew. All the singing lines, all the dancing lines, everybody off the book, lines learned."

"There is some mysterious thing that goes on whereby, in the process of playing Shakespeare continuously, actors are surprised by the way the language actually acts on them. And it's that unforeseen dimension that needs to be experienced. You can't intellectually control it. You can't plan it or fix it in the rehearsal. It just happens, if it's going well. And then it gives you a freedom and a trust."

Nathan Lane in particular seems at home in the film. "I wanted to celebrate Nathan Lane having this wonderful Broadway quality," Branagh says, "so that he can sing "There's No Business Like Show Business" in such a moving fashion. It's very touching, because he's got that sort of sad clown's face. I was watching, and thinking, 'you really believe in this, don't you? You really believe in this show business being the cure of all ills.'"

Making a movie of Love's Labour's Lost is one thing, but turning it into a musical is another thing entirely. "I watched a lot of musicals growing up," Branagh says. "They seemed to be an absolute staple on British television in the late 60's and early 70's. Those films are mainly about romance, and also very silly. A very thin plot, where the plot actually is secondary to the main pleasure, the execution of it. When I came to do Love's Labour's Lost, it shared many of the same characteristics."

Branagh's vision was similar to that of Woody Allen on Everyone Says I Love You (1996), trying more for honesty than skill. "We all had singing lessons. I sung a bit and danced a bit in drama school. Not a natural at either, but I enjoy both, and I worked on it to get it up to some sort of standard. So when we recorded songs, I did the end song, which I sing the first bit of--"They Can't Take That Away from Me". And we had been working very hard with this man Ian Adam, who's a terrific singing teacher, and actually I sang it rather well! When I was in front of that microphone, I was so desperate to sound like a terrific singer. And so we put it on the CD and Pat Doyle (who did the score) came up to me and said, 'I'll tell you what the problem is. You actually have sung it quite well. But the problem is that it just isn't Berowne singing. It's now Kenneth Branagh's ego's taken over. I think you should go back and sing it as Berowne. Really sing it, from the point of view of the situation where you're saying goodbye and you may never see them again.'" So we went back and did that. And so it's a little crackier. It just is what it is."

Besides memorizing Shakespeare and taking singing lessons, the actors had to contend with dance lessons. As a result, Branagh became a strict taskmaster. "It was a bit like drama school because of the intensity of rehearsals. An hour of dancing and singing every morning with everybody together. They used to hate me for it. I'm a terrible stickler for discipline. So people couldn't be late. I couldn't deal with all this, 'there's a problem with the traffic.' Boring! I usually give a little talk on day one about how personally I'll take that. I'll say, 'I find I don't take you seriously if you do that.' Obviously if your Granny dies, etc. life can take over. And I'll give you a couple of 'traffic was out of control.' But after that, you're not taking it seriously."

If the rehearsal schedule was grueling, the actual shoot was terrifying. "With most of the numbers, we were shooting it all in one [take]. We were using the style of those [old] movies, exposing things. But if you get 2 1/2 minutes in to one of those things and something goes wrong, the whole thing's not usable. So there was a great bond of fear. There was twenty, twenty-five of us. At the beginning of a number, we'd all get into a huddle. And then after everybody separated, [they'd be] terrified that they would be the one person to mess up three minutes into the number, just as we were about to finish it. When you do those things, you've probably got about 15 takes. 7 or 8 of them will be messed up technically in some way. And then of the remaining 8, actors will mess up probably 3 or 4. And of the remaining 4, there might be 1 that's good that has everything you need. So it's sort of nerve-wracking but very bonding."

Apparently the bonding worked because the film has been getting very good audience response at test screenings. "From the very first screening, as soon as [the characters] start singing you could feel you've either lost them or you've got them. Usually you've got them completely by the time Tim Spall falls out of the plane. We're there. I think you have to work hard to resist it."

Branagh has been working steadily for years now without much of a break. He says he'd like to go back and do a play. "You know, I haven't been in a play for seven years. I can't believe it. I think I will soon. I haven't yet found the right thing to do. But I think I will." As for his next film, it's still up in the air. "I think that sometimes people assume I'm going to do all of these plays. I don't know if I have enough time! You work with the ones that you have a strong feeling about."

May 24, 2000

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