IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Kenneth Branagh Talks ‘Cinderella’

Monday, 09 March 2015 20:47 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Kenneth Branagh Talks ‘Cinderella’

In the past few years, actor/director Kenneth Branagh has taken what he learned over decades of adapting William Shakespeare plays for the big screen and has applied it to reinventing some of Hollywood’s most beloved film franchises.  

Branagh is best know for directing such popular Shakespeare film adaptations as Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love’s Labour’s Lost, and As You Like It. He also directed Dead Again, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the remake of Sleuth, as well as appearing in such high profile movies as Wild Wild West, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Valkyrie, Pirate Radio, and My Week with Marilyn, which earned him an Academy Award-nomination for Best Supporting Actor. But in recent years the actor/filmmaker has surprisingly directed such fan-favorite projects as the film adaptation of the Marvel comic book Thor, a reboot of the Tom Clancy series called Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and now a live-action version of the classic Disney animated movie Cinderella, which opens in theaters on March 13th. 

The new film is a reinvention of the classic fairy tale and was written by Academy Award-nominee Chris Weitz (About a Boy). In Cinderella, when her father (Ben Chaplin) unexpectedly passes away, young Ella (Lily James) finds herself at the mercy of her cruel stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and her daughters. Never one to give up hope, Ella's fortunes begins to change after meeting a dashing stranger in the woods, who turns out to be the Prince (Richard Madden). In addition, the film also features performances from Nonso Anozie (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), Stellan Skarsgard (Nymphomaniac: Vol. I), Hayley Atwell (The Sweeney), and Helena Bonham Carter (Fight Club) as the Fairy Godmother. 

I recently had the absolute honor of sitting down with the great Kenneth Branagh to talk about his work on Cinderella. The extremely accomplished actor and filmmaker discussed his latest movie, how adapting Shakespeare plays prepared him for his current work, sifting through years of mythology to find the best story, redefining Cinderella for a new generation, casting Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter as the Stepmother and Fairy Godmother respectively, finding the right actress to play the title role, and why he decided to include the mice from the animated film in his live-action adaptation. 

Here is what Kenneth Branagh had to say about Cinderella:

IAR: To begin with, you began your career directing adaptations of Shakespeare plays but recently have directed Hollywood franchises like Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and now Cinderella. What did you learn from making those earlier films that prepared you to direct these big Hollywood franchises?

Kenneth Branagh: I had a belief in trusting in story. In all cases I had strong relationships with the writers and usually with the main writer, even though it's a process where different people often write different drafts. My background teaches me to as best I can respect story and structure. I remember Craig Kyle, who was a co-producer on Thor and a smart guy, said to me once, “Your creativity is very mathematical.” I said for what it's worth, this is what I bring you here. I try to bring some kind of order in here to fifty years of Thor comics in infinite varieties. How many characters do we use? What story line do you want? It could be anything. But I'm going to start with Thor. That's the character that I would make a picture about. So let's start with this character. I think that was born of a close understanding of the plays of Shakespeare that I've worked on how a master dramatist who broke all sorts of rules did the same thing. You go with what you know is there. A great theater director named Peter Brook once called it the "uninformed hunch." So you're trying to listen to that little voice inside you that is why you came to the project. With Thor, it brought back the seven-year old boy in me who was on the way home from Sunday school and walked into a news agents to see on the stool spinning magazines with all these colors. One was a guy with shocker blonde hair and a hammer. When they asked me about it, I went right back to that boom snapshot clear of Polaroid high fidelity image with the landscape, mountains, lightening, all of that was there at the same time with the concentration of this guy. Perhaps what I'm being asked to do with some of these movies, and what seems to be where I come at it, is this human story at the center of what can be a chaotic universe. Audiences want adventure and fun and all the rest of it, but they'd really like to care about the characters. I've been good at wrangling, or at least I've tried to wrangle these often scattered and various kinds of processes.

Thor, Jack Ryan, and Cinderella are all mythology heavy projects. Is it difficult sifting through decades of a property’s history to find the best story to tell?

Branagh: Yes. That's what studios are saying. They say, “We can choose 52 of these, but choose one and we'll advise all the rest of it but you need to direct.”

With Cinderella, it seems like you decided to tell a story where she is not waiting for her Prince Charming to save her, and her own “super power” is her kindness. Why did you decide that was the Cinderella story that you wanted to tell?

Branagh: It seemed to be that that was quietly revolutionary. That this is not a victim. That this is not a woman waiting, but this is a proactive individual who I think could be an incredibly inspiring example to other kids and girls. She could make goodness seem cool, exciting and fun in complicated and complex ways and still be a playful, powerful, and a strong heroine who rides horses, dances well, runs away from palaces effectively and eventually stands up to her stepmother. I felt that this was going to be something really that would spin the story on its head and stay away from anything too saccharin, sappy or in a strange way a guy's idea of girly.

You cast veteran actresses Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter to play Cinderella’s Stepmother and Fairy Godmother, respectively. When watching the movie, it dawned on me that either actress could have easily played the other role. Did you ever consider putting them in the opposite roles when you were casting the film?

Branagh: It did once strike me that if we ever took it on tour, it would be one of those times when you could say, “On Tuesdays and Wednesdays Ms. Blanchett will play the stepmother, and on Thursdays and Fridays Ms. Bonham Carter will play the stepmother,” and change it around like that. I think what was important was that these two actresses of such stature were opposite each other and also surrounded these younger people. You could feel that they were equally powerful forces for good and for bad, and you were convinced of that because these were two wonderful actresses. So they both occupied their space with total authority in their different ways. It was absolutely important that you needed two people at the top of their game in those parts for sure.

I would imagine that similar to casting an actor to play Thor or a young Jack Ryan, that casting an actress to play Cinderella was pivotal to making this film work. Can you talk about the process of finding Lily James and why you thought she was the right actress to take on the title role?

Branagh: You've got to stay patient and you sometimes you have to understand that lightening isn't necessarily going to strike. Sometimes you just get a feeling about it. Sometimes work has to go on. You also have to bear in mind with actors coming in for a part like this, they kind of know as casual as they may try to be, this part is going to change their life potentially. Sometimes you've got to talk them off the ledge a little bit. They see that this is something that would be transformative in their own lives. You learn that you've got to be patient. I loved the sound of Lily James's voice when I heard it. I heard it just before I saw her because I put in a DVD, turned around and it started. I went, who's that? So I knew that was a good sign. I think that it would be fair to say that across the audition process she had to both retain this very gentle, delightful and youthful quality that she has, but she also had to come out of her shell a little bit, and not be afraid of owning the part. She did that, but not going so far as to suddenly be too confident. A key thing I was mentioning earlier was that she maintained her equilibrium over this process, which I've seen many other people shake. It's tough. You leave the room, you want to know what happened and the truth is I'd love to tell them sometimes, but I have to have a conversation with ten other people before there's another conversation to be had. Her patience and her good sense of humor about that long process was very valuable and really a strong indicator that she would handle the burden of the role. 

Finally, I understand that you felt a lot of pressure to include the mice and other animal characters from the classic animated version of Cinderella. Can you talk about the challenges of adding those characters in a way that fits with the story you were trying to tell?

Branagh: You have to really trust your own sense of humor as well as screenwriter Chris Weitz's sense of humor. We scripted an entire journey for the mice. So there's an entire mouse script with everything they say. 

Cinderella opens in theaters on March 13th.

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