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Sleuth - Kenneth Branagh interview

Kenneth Branagh, director of Sleuth

Interview by Rob Carnevale

KENNETH Branagh talks about directing Sir Michael Caine and Jude Law in Sleuth and why remakes aren’t always a bad idea or a sign of a lack of creativity.

How nervous was Jude Law about stepping into Sir Michael’s footsteps?
Kenneth Branagh: Jude had been working on it for about three years and he’d already got past what he happily concedes was the first big scary moment – talking to Harold Pinter, giving him notes and suggesting ways in which it might develop. Then I think that once Sir Michael had read Harold’s version everybody knew it was going to be very different. Just to have them [Harold Pinter and Michael Caine] on board and for it to become real started to relax Jude.

He was a hands-on producer, so for him I think the most nerve-wracking moment was when he had to take the producer’s hat off and say: “Christ, I’m in this!” I did see some of that in him. A day or two into early rehearsals, he came to me and said: “Christ, I’m really going to have to put the producing to one side…” He’d just seen Michael at it for two days and realised that you don’t want to give Michael two days start! After that he wasn’t really nervous, more inspired by what Michael was doing.

Were you ever put off by the idea that Sleuth was a remake?
Kenneth Branagh: Well, I sometimes wonder why people get so worked up about them. There’s the implication sometimes that there’s a dearth of imagination and that remake is a dirty word – that it means people weren’t clever enough to think about something new. But in fact Jude and I are about to start work on the fifth remake of Hamlet that I’ve been involved with!

If it’s a shot by shot remake, if you’re literally reproducing something like Psycho a few years ago, then why bother? Whereas it’s certainly been my experience with the Shakespeare’s that no one has been more grateful to me for doing the Shakespeare films than other people who’ve made them because of the DVD sales! The first Get Carter, for instance, will have been celebrated by increased DVD sales and you’re making more people aware of it.

Was there ever a thought that given the differences in the two screenplays for Sleuth you could have changed the names of the characters and even name of the film itself to distance it further?
Kenneth Branagh: Well, I still think that you needn’t walk away from what the central idea is – two guys in a room, a deadly game about a woman that we don’t see, and that’s the dirty little central conceit. So, I think that’s what you’re looking at from a completely different angle. You’re shining a different kind of light on it. I think there’s one line in the screenplay that may be the same but everything else is through Harold’s view of that same delicious idea.

The subject matter is also completely different. The original version was a lot to do with class. Olivier definitely was a writer who wrote about aristocratic detectives whereas in this version, he’s a self-made man recognising someone much more like him. Instead of class, the central issue between them becomes age I suppose. It’s the only thing that separates them with their wealth and success and all the rest of it.

Do you prefer directing to acting?
Kenneth Branagh: No, I don’t find I end up making that judgement. I was so involved with the acting in this and my interest in performance is very, very intense but I do enjoy watching it and seeing how people approach it in very different ways. It’s a real privilege to be on something that was this sort of chamber piece – very small and requiring lots of fine brushwork from everyone.

Also, to have a really fine director and actor in Harold [Pinter] himself, who’d also been in plenty of Agatha Christie’s as an actor in the late ’50s, who was very interested in thrillers, and so whose expertise was there. I also learned an enormous amount from Michael about the difference between what you might call an inventive actor and a creative actor. He’s unquestionably a creative actor in addition to being an inventive actor. But the acting comes from the old cliches of being and behaviour, rather than actually laying something on.

During rehearsals it was fascinating to see that stripped away, so that it became more and more the essence of something whilst still adhering to the other challenge in this piece of delivering technically Pinter’s heightened dialogue. So, you needed two things: you needed that to be crispy and clear and then for it to have a kind of reality about it. So being involved in watching that develop between Michael and Jude was utterly fascinating. It really got my acting juices going actually.

What were some of your favourite moments to observe?
Kenneth Branagh: I remember there’s a moment at the end of the first act where Michael’s got this very primal line where – after a great deal of sophistication – there’s just this very primal line: “My wife is mine, she belongs to me and I’m her husband.” It’s a sort of chest-beating thing. I remember in rehearsal saying to Michael that I thought it felt like a big moment, so maybe add some heat to it. He then said: “Well, let’s run the scene – shall I put a little flame under it today?” [Laughs] I remember him doing it and thinking: “Woah, back off, back off!” But he was only giving it 70% and he almost winked at me and said: “We’ll leave that now cooking, that’ll simmer for a bit, leave it with me and we’ll return to that on the day. There’s no need now to go back to it and work it to death in rehearsal.”

How well did Harold Pinter take to you telling him you’d tweaked one of his lines?
Kenneth Branagh: Well, you don’t tell Harold that you tweaked one of his lines [laughs] – you creep up, you get down on two knees and… No, part of the rehearsal process was us working on it and allowing actors’ instincts or some sense of whether it felt false or not to creep in. Then we’d stack it up and invite Harold back and ask him what he thought.

How do you choose your own roles when it comes to acting? Do you like blockbusters as well?
Kenneth Branagh: I’m quite a quick script reader – I don’t hang about. Basically, if I can’t put it down and keep turning the page then I’m very intrigued. It’s a different kind of excitement. I was in one of the Harry Potter films and whereas we might have had 60 people on the crew for Sleuth, you look at the crew list for Harry Potter and it’s 1,500 names. It’s an enormous machine – there’s a whole props factory alongside a whole school alongside a whole make-up and effects department. So, it’s pretty exciting to be at the cutting edge of technology and seeing CGI work. Also, I ask myself whether it’s a character I can’t not play.

Are you still involved with Shardlake?
Kenneth Branagh: Shardlake is a character in a book called Dissolution and two others. He’s a hunchback Medieval detective and lawyer. It’s not a thousand miles away from The Name Of The Rose… I was reading it for pleasure and it’s all in the mix at the moment. But in that case, it was the character [that appealed]. He’s a guy who is basically dismissed by society but not by Cromwell because he’s one of the most brilliant criminal minds of his day. And he has an advantage over people because they disregard him because his physical appearance seems to suggest that he’s not a threat. So that kind of character, that unlikely hero, is a very interesting one to play – he’s a smart man but he’s an outsider. I hope it happens but it’s a work in progress.

b>Read our review of Sleuth