Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit - Kenneth Branagh interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
KENNETH Branagh talks about some of the challenges and pleasures of filming Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and why he enjoyed setting a breakneck pace during the production.
He also discusses the logistics of directing himself on-screen, the intrigue of Russian oligarchs and reflects on his own career, from his early days to moving to blockbusters and reuniting with Kevin Costner. He was speaking at a UK press conference…
Q. What was it that marked this script out as special for you?
Kenneth Branagh: I just couldn’t put the script down, it was as simple as that. When David Koepp’s screenplay came along I knew that Chris [Pine] was involved and I thought that was exciting. I thought that was a great piece of casting. And I did know the previous films and some of the novels and I love thrillers, so it was a chance to do what the producers were saying- to put Jack Ryan and the things that made him compelling for an audience… that character, as created by Tom Clancy, into the 21st Century and see if him and that new world collided in a strong, entertaining way.
Q. How did you recreate Moscow so realistically in Liverpool and Manchester?
Kenneth Branagh: Well, we did go to Moscow actually. I won’t tell you how many days but we were there briefly. And one of the things that we did do was – because it was early in the shoot – establish a breathless pace that the film often has. So, I remember we got off the plane from New York that morning, went to reccy the first place in Moscow and that afternoon Chris was on a hotel roof with us saying: “We’ve got 40 minutes, the sun’s going, we have three pages of dialogue, do you mind doing it all in one? We’ve only got half an hour…” And moving around in Moscow was a bit like that, so when we came back to some of the cheated Moscow in Liverpool and Manchester and parts of London we adopted the same kind of hit the ground running approach. But we were there for long enough, I thought, to get the sense of vibrancy that the new Moscow has.
Q. All those years ago when you were starting out directing with films like Peter’s Friends and Henry V, did you ever think that you’d have this kind of directing career? And was it ever an aspiration for you to do the big Hollywood-style movies?
Kenneth Branagh: Frankly, it was astonishing to think I’d be having a film career of any kind when I started out. Before Henry V we had a very, very doldrum-y period within the British film industry. Films weren’t being made. It was really… I remember having a conversation with fellow actors wondering whether if we would ever be in a film, so that’s already a surprise. Yeah, it’s astonishing really, except that I like to see picture like this. They’re hard to make. They appear simple… you hope that if they work, actually, they appear simple and yet they’re very, very interesting to try and put together. But in terms of a moment where you wonder why and how you’re doing it, that is bypassed because you’re essentially trying to always follow your instincts as best you can.
For me, the moment when you read the script is the key one. I’ve tried to make that a very special moment and set plenty of time aside to see what it does to you and if it really grabs you, then you know that you have a chance that maybe over the two year cycle that that might be that it can stimulate you. I was very lucky to work with my producers and these great actors, people who were going to be fun to work with. So, in the end, that becomes your experience and it’s only in moments like these where you have even a sense of objective. Otherwise, you’re just trying to do work that you believe in, so I’ve kept just trying to follow that regardless of scale.
Q. Did you have to sleep with the director to get the acting role? And how did that duality come about? How do you direct yourself objectively?
Kenneth Branagh: Well, way back when we started the first one we didn’t have monitors. When we made Henry V we didn’t have any kind of monitors so your judgement of performance was based on a conversation with your fellow actors and a camera operator and then you had a guess 24 or 48 hours later when you saw the dailies about whether you were right. I do think that allows you to tap into a certain kind of instinct. But we did a number of things. From my point of view, you just prepare as much as you can and you try and be ahead of the game with the accent and everything. We arrived at a sort of consensus about how we might do things, which put us all on the same page. Both Chris from the get-go and Keira when she came in as well were very good about… we ended up shooting quite soon each day. We often started shooting with close-ups, we didn’t rehearse much, we talked quite a bit, but we jumped straight in so the idea was we sort of played with each. For instance, we did that scene at the dinner table, which is a number of different scenes, where I remember saying to my actors: “Would you mind if we did this as an entire scene, which would be many pages of dialogue but we’ll run it as one?” And to make that the case we often improvised a bit between the word divisions of the scenes.
Chris was doing it from the word go. So, there was a sort of sense of play about that. So, one thing I wanted with this movie was to feel that the character work and the reality of the acting all had that sort of edge underneath it which is part of Jack’s journey and part of the rhythm of the film and part of the little naturalistic edge that I enjoy doing with my fellow actors. So, really that was a goal for the atmosphere of the scene rather than me necessarily having to hit acting beat x, y or z. I prepared for that as best I could but I wanted it all to feel as relatively raw as possible so we weren’t too slick or too smooth. So, I had a great time acting with these people.
Q. How easy is it to sell a film like this to the Russian contingent so that they welcome you with open arms to film in their country, especially as they are the villain of the piece again?
Kenneth Branagh: My sense was that people understood that this was a drama and that, in a way, and without copping out but being quite specific our intention was to tell the story of one fictional Russian oligarch with a very specific kind of personal biography and history that was not trying to, at a stroke, say ‘here are what all wealthy Russians are like’. I think people understand that anymore than having just played Macbeth in the theatre – the Scots are up in arms at being portrayed as murderers and regicides… one has to take it in the context of that. In a sense, for us what was really fairly interesting in the Clancy DNA, these books are set in the Cold War period and feature this old enemy, this old rivalry between Russia and America. It’s very clearly there right now. And in the person of this unusual modern creation, the oligarch, the wealthy, sometimes we don’t know what they own, what the state owns, they’re blurrily linked to government. But they’re formidable individuals. So, the possibility of using that as a legitimate dramatic investigation was in keeping with the tradition of such things. So, I think they took it in that spirit. And the Russians are great storytellers. We don’t make the Americans whiter than white. We tried to be complex and I hope they respected that. Anyway, we managed to leave in one piece! And in fact the movie right now is No.1 in Russia.
Q. Every year we see two or three British actresses among the Oscar nominees. What’s the secret?
Kenneth Branagh: Um, I don’t know. It’s very hard to say what captures the eye and the imagination. I know in the independent sector where very different and interesting work in film is often done – and a lot of that work often ends up on television – the way films are financed means a lot of it comes over this way. So, sometimes we’re just a little closer to it. There’s just some great English actresses and Keira is one of them and should have got a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Anna Karenina, which is the truth as far as I’m concerned, but is also one of a number of people who are there when there are good roles to take, thank God. It’s probably no more mysterious than that – which is, we’re lucky!
Q. What do you like about collaborating with Patrick Doyle collaboration?
Kenneth Branagh: Well, what I like is that we never assume that we’re going to do it together. So, Patrick is very realistic about that. He maintains enthusiasm and excitement. He always visits the set early on. So, he started to talk about the score based on watching the three actors and started asking about what they were doing. So, he’s already tried to come from a human dimension for that. And then he got excited about how a Russian influence could be effective in the score. I loved the fact that… it’s the first time I’ve managed to do it with Paramount and Skydance… they were kind enough to lose their logo music so that we could play Pat’s score over that, which was the beginning of just starting the atmosphere which is so particular in a thriller. He’s fantastic with pace. Although we have the story and the performances as well, I read something the other day that said: “If you were listening to three minutes of this score and were just waiting for a bus you’d be terrified by the end of it.” So, I think it’s a tribute to Patrick that he knows how to get under your skin.
Q. How was working with Kevin Costner?
Kenneth Branagh: For me, it was a little like sort of coming full circle. When I first went to Hollywood it was to be in two plays… we were on tour with two Shakespeare plays and I got a call one day saying that there was a guy called Kevin Costner who’d like to take me out to lunch. This was in 1990, so I was very excited and said ‘thank you very much’ and I went out and he wanted to ask me what it was like to act and direct a movie at the same time because I’d just completed doing Henry V and he was getting ready to do a film called Dances With Wolves. We had a long boozy lunch, sharing war stories about the madness and fun of all of that. So, it was the beginning of a friendship that’s lasted right across that time and in fact he was very, very helpful about the same process 25 years later. So, having him there was very nice. It felt like the conversation was ongoing from that generous act in the first instance and, indeed, it was very generous of him to be in the picture.