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“Love’s Labour’s Lost”: Kenneth Branagh Interview

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., May 22, 2000 — Every generation needs its Shakespeare. The last year alone has seen new adaptations of “Hamlet,” “The Taming of the Shrew” (in the form of “10 Things I Hate About You”) and “Titus Andronicus” (as the Anthony Hopkins starrer “Titus”).

So it’s fitting that Kenneth Branagh should throw his hat into the ring again. Branagh, who was born in Belfast, Ireland, and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, was forever bound to the Bard when he became the youngest Henry V in the history of the Royal Shakespeare Company, at age 23.

In fact, Branagh chose “Henry V” as his first film directorial debut in 1989. The film garnered Oscar nominations for Best Director and Actor (also Branagh) and established Branagh as a triple threat (he would go on to adapt/direct/star in “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Hamlet”) and Hollywood’s Shakespearean go-to guy for more than a decade.

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His latest such effort is “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” a romantic comedy centering on a young king (Alessandro Nivola) who forms a pact with his three friends (Branagh, Matthew Lillard and Adrian Lester) to swear off women while they study philosophy. But when a princess (Alicia Silverstone) and her three attendants (Natascha McElhone, Emily Mortimer and Carmen Ejogo) visit, their plan is thrown into disarray.

Branagh takes Shakespeare’s text and transplants it into 1930s Hollywood, filmed as a classic musical complete with Cole Porter, dance numbers and synchronized swimmers. The film also stars Nathan Lane and Timothy Spall.

On the day of famed British actor (and a legendary Hamlet himself) John Gielgud’s death, Branagh chatted with Hollywood.com about the death, going Fred Astaire, getting his films made and the little girl who taught him how to direct Shakespeare films.

Hollywood.com: It’s Shakespeare, and it’s a musical. Any trepidation from studio execs?

Kenneth Branagh: The first conversations went like this: “Well, why ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’? Tell me a little bit atbout it.” “Well, of all of Shakespeare’s plays, it was the one that was unperformed for 200 years after his death.” And inevitably, they say “Why?” And I said, “Well, don’t worry about that, because I’m gonna make it work. I’m gonna do it as a musical.” And they said, “Oh, I see, the film genre that hasn’t worked for 40 years. That’s a great comfort.”

Hollywood.com: And you pulled off filming an obscure play with no A listers in the cast?

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Branagh: They wanted me to start with something allegedly commercial or popular. But this was the one my heart was behind in the first instance, so they went with it. In the end they know that’s what you have to go with, the filmmaker’s passion for it. Despite suspicions people may have about Shakespeare, you can’t cast it commercially. We know how brilliant Mel Gibson was in ‘Hamlet,’ and he was. But of course, he won’t bring his ‘Lethal Weapon’ audience to that film. He’d perhaps bring more people than if he’d not been in it. But the commercial considerations of casting don’t become nearly that important as whether the filmmaker thinks it is a great idea.

Hollywood.com: You’re taking chances with the actors, most of whom have little or no singing/dancing experience, including Alicia Silverstone. When did you know they could do it?

Branagh: Two weeks into the rehearsal. We rehearsed for three and a half weeks. And in that period, we’d gone through all this very hard work, we were singing and dancing for hours as a group each morning … long days. And at the end of the second week … they weren’t very happy, but I persuaded them to do a complete run-through of the piece live, in front of the crew, on a soundstage — live singing, live dancing and all the text learned.

My view is, given how out-of-sequence everything would be, that it’s a very good way of trying to create a condition under which the parts can play the actor a bit, and you can see how Shakespeare lifts the actor. You don’t want to control Shakespeare, in a way, you want to be the vessel through which these marvelous words come. And when it works well, suddenly surprising things happen. During that run-through, [Silverstone] absolutely blossomed, along with the rest of the actors. It was the first time we thought, “This will work. This will work. It’s legitimate to do this.”
Hollywood.com: Usually in Shakespeare films you’re measured against the actors who played the role before you. This time, since the film features showtunes, did you feel you were being measured against Fred Astaire?

Branagh: I didn’t feel that. I showed the entire cast ‘Top Hat’ on the first day. And I said, “Look, here’s what we can’t do. We just can’t do this.” Nevertheless, we can be inspired by what’s behind it. One of the things I wanted to do was suggest that this comedy, which is about, if you like, the celebration of the ludicrousness, the silliness of romantic love … I want to make that very recognizable because in our own lives, when we’re subject to that kind of emotion, I think we sometimes long for an orchestra to be playing.

We sometimes romanticize the moment where she knocks over the glass and she looked around and the look on her face made me fall in love with her that minute. … I wanted them to see the superhuman quality that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had. I wanted … it to be rough around the edges. … That roughness around the edges would be something that would be part of the charm of the piece. That’s us up there, as it were, in what we’d love to be in, the great outfit, the long eyelashes, the fantastic top hat and tails, the grooming that you’d like on that marvelous date with whoever it is, the orchestra that you’d like to be playing when you tell her whatever it is.

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Hollywood.com: What’s the challenge in making Shakespeare accessible?

Branagh: I showed this film to three little friends of mine. One’s 7, one’s 10, one’s 13. The 7-year-old sat and watched it, was completely rapt all the way through … she turned to me in the middle of that and said, “Do you like her earrings?” But she … does not bring to it, “Oh, I’m not sure if I’ve read this minor Shakespearean comedy” or “I don’t know how it sits alongside ‘Titus Andronicus.'” None of that. Just, “Is it entertaining? Do I understand it? Am I amused?”

Which is not to say “let’s only make films for 7-year-olds,” but let’s make films assuming that in the doing of it, we can set the example of coming to it without the fear and intimidation. Without … producing in the audience the sense that there’s something they’re not getting … with doing Shakespeare, you work very, very hard to be completely, textually faithful, articulate, verbally dextrous, and yet drop all that, let that be the art that hides the art of simply being real people in a real situation.

Hollywood.com: What about those who don’t want to sit through another Shakespeare movie?

Branagh: Doesn’t matter how many films I make, there’s still gonna be billions of people who think it’s boring. Now that may in fact be completely legitimate for them, but I’d love it to be a conclusion they come to having seen films that they cannot argue are movies. And not involving some sort of understood pompous position about it being good for them. … If you get a reaction like the 7-year-old, or you get as I do, letters from colleges and schools where, like, 30 kids have all written their essay on ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ … but it’s suddenly becoming part of their cultural life in a way that’s natural and makes them feel better … if in the end they don’t like it, it’s fine. But at least it’s an informed decision. And all of that starts with what we do, which is not to love yourself in it. It is not ‘We do Shakespeare, these are better films.’ They’re not. They are what they are. (chuckles) And here endeth the lesson.

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