Thor - Kenneth Branagh interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
KENNETH Branagh talks about some of the challenges of directing Thor and remaining faithful to the Marvel universe.
He also talks the relish of taking himself out of his comfort zone to work in 3D and CGI, while also injecting some humour and keeping an eye on the forthcoming Avengers movie.
Q. How aware of Thor were you before you did this movie?
Kenneth Branagh: I was, as a kid, growing up in Belfast. I remember seeing this very colourful, very dynamic comic with… actually, some of the framing, some of the kind of dynamism in the way we tried to put the picture together in the movie. But I remember being struck by how colourful, vivid and massive it was. The first picture I ever saw of Thor – we never did this in the movie – was Thor’s arms yoked around a tree trunk with his arms thicker than the tree trunk and Loki behind in the classic pose on the throne.
Q. It sounds as though entering the world of Asgard meant fulfilling a childhood ambition?
Kenneth Branagh: In a way, it was a great surprise to be considered for it and then to go up for the job and try and get it… and to do something that I actually hadn’t done before, which was spend a couple of years in Hollywood. I’ve never done that before… I’ve flitted in and flitted out and been privileged to be asked to go and do things there. But the whole combination of some of the story elements that, you wouldn’t be surprised, interested me in terms of those big problems in royal families that have been in some of the rest of the work I’ve done…
But the great sort of mystery of visual effects, CGI and 3D, developing stories that are part of a great big film universe that are fiercely protected by the people who have worked so hard to create it across a long period of time, and keeping your energy and your focus on the job… that was quite something. So, I was in some familiar territory with great talent, and I was in some very unfamiliar territory. So, I sort of deliberately, once I had the joy of doing the job, was putting myself way out of my comfort zone, but it was a very thrillingly bumpy ride.
Q. And given the popularity of the comic books, did you feel under any pressure taking on this project?
Kenneth Branagh: It’s so thrilling to be making this picture and not be answering questions at this stage that begin with: “Why have you made a remake?” So, that’s exciting. The pressure, from purists, has always been there. But you know you can’t please everyone but you hope you can entertain everyone. I love the passion and the debate that’s attached to this material – to have that many people that interested in what you’re doing, it’s an absolute thrill, believe me. I’ve sometimes been trying to promote films where that hasn’t been the case… that’s a thrill, so I’m very happy.
Q. How was directing Anthony Hopkins in full God-like mode?
Kenneth Branagh: He told lots of great war stories about his time as a young actor, basically, because his first film performance was Lion in Winter, when he was about 30 and he was on-screen with Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole and Timothy Dalton and he was just talking about his first time in films. He loved seeing the boys at the beginning and these great careers that they’re about to have. So, that was exciting.
Q. Were you ever influenced by the fact that this is effectively part of a franchise? Were there marks you had to hit or plot lines you had to follow [with The Avengers in mind]?
Kenneth Branagh: I basically kept my head down and concentrated on Thor. Occasionally, I would see that the place name has changed, so why is that? And they’d say: “Oh, that’s fine. Let me tell you about this…” And they would explain something that’s going to happen… none of which I can tell you, obviously, otherwise I’d have to kill you! But they did it so subtle-y that I didn’t ever feel that we were being tugged in any particular direction. They were smart enough to know that, you know, they have Captain America coming up and The Avengers but they didn’t really plan ahead that much further – they have many hopes and dreams I’m sure.
But we all knew that unless we put all our eggs in this basket and really concentrated there’d be no point in worrying about how it fitted in with the rest of the universe. There are lots of little surprises in there, I think, but there were ones that I was told about and if there were some I was forced to do they did it so brilliantly that I didn’t even notice!
Q. What was your reaction to appearing at Comic-Con and how was your interaction with the fans? Did it inform the way you approached the film?
Kenneth Branagh: Well, when I went to Comic-Con in San Diego for my first experience of a comic convention I felt that a lot of people reminded me of what I was like when I was 16, 17, 18 and discovering that I loved being an actor and was travelling to Stratford-upon-Avon to watch plays and gain copies of a theatre magazine called Plays & Players, in which a young man called Tony Hopkins appeared for the first time, and making those connections. I was obsessive, fanatical, and I’ve retained some of that even now. So, none of the intensity of feeling threw me.
If we were to listen to every passionate fan about how to make the film, there would be thousands and thousands of different films. But you can spend quite a lot of time with a real fan talking about helmet, helmet length, type of helmet, type of horn, type of metal, which powers it has, which world it could survive in, which worlds it couldn’t survive in! We tried to address that in as much as it helps us to tell the story. So, we hope that there are lots of things in there for fans but honestly we also constantly wanted to have the film open to people who weren’t aware of these characters or the Marvel universe of anything – just coming hopefully to be entertained by a big summer movie.
Q. Did you seek advice from anyone like Jon Favreau about making the film? Or Joss Wheddon?
Kenneth Branagh: I did speak to Jon during prep and while Jon was doing Iron Man 2. I spoke to Robert Downey, who I’d worked with before and who is a very good friend. And I spoke to Joss, who also had spoken to me about Chris [Hemsworth], and also spoke to me before he joined the Marvel universe . But there’s not much you can do except pass on instincts and feelings. The particularities of each film are so separate and so distinct. What you share is a knowledge of the immensity of it and, in Jon’s case, a reminder to just take one step at a time… one thing at a time and concentrate on what you’re good at and, as I always try to do, surround yourself by talented people and try and keep up with them.
And that’s what you do with something like this and visual effects and everything that comes with it are new to you. So, if you feel your skills are there, all you have to do is try and direct and edit whatever people do. Jon said interestingly, though… I don’t know if this is true, he felt it was for him at that time, but he said: “Once you’ve done one of these it’s very hard to go back to a little movie.” And he was right in the middle of the maelstrom of Iron Man 2. But there was a collective feeling that it is an unusual job to do and so it’s good to talk to people who’ve done it as well.
Q. Norse mythology has a very great belief in higher beings being as fallible as the rest of us. What’s your take on that?
Kenneth Branagh: I think it’s part of the Norse myths and part of what humans like about them is to see human qualities paradoxically reflected in Gods. Somehow, it seems to be part of the fascination with the lives of the mighty and powerful, who are privileged and have, in this case, powers that we don’t have… so that ought to make them happy, shouldn’t it? It ought to be the kind of thing to aspire to. It often doesn’t.
And so in the heightened circumstances of their lives, where their mistake can cost lives, or it can mean that countries change hands or worlds explode, following their love affairs, their rivalries, their hatreds, their jealousies, their self-doubt, etc, I think is a sort of cathartic way to understand some of our own. And along the way, of course, you’re entertained because those lives are involved, in this case, in space travel and worlds of ice and gold and the comic clash between entitled princes of Asgard and very indifferent waitresses in New Mexican diners. So, we always thought that that basic tension between other worldly people, or privileged people, who suddenly seemed closer to us than we might understand, is illuminating.
Q. Do you think the increase in conventions such as Comic-Con and Kapow is down to technology or about Hollywood catching up to the fact that there is a generation of people who green-light projects that are aware of comics as an art form?
Kenneth Branagh: It’s an interesting question that’s difficult to answer. I think it’s a combination of those things where film technology means that the spectacular larger-than-life worlds of many of the stories that we’re talking about are possible to create on the big screen that are very distinct for these tent-pole movies and that you may want to go and see in the cinema rather than in your smaller home system. It’s a venue for a certain kind of story. But I think there is this tremendous of passionate and interested people who are ahead of the curve in terms of understanding that the word comic does not mean easy, simple or simplistic. It happens to be connected to what is often fiendishly clever plotting, fiendishly clever writing, fiendishly economic and allied with incredible visual artistry. So many exciting ideas are there. So, I think a number of those things start to explain that I guess.
Q. How important was the comedy running through it?
Kenneth Branagh: I think we all felt that it was crucial that there was a lightness of tone. We obviously, as you can tell, tried to take the job of producing this piece of entertainment as seriously as possible but we definitely wanted the film not to take itself too seriously. We wanted the film and the characters, in their way, to have a sort of twinkle in their eyes, but we didn’t want to mock them or second guess them. So, it was a very, very delicate thing to do. But it depended at all times on trying to reach this simplicity… it’s a sort of archetypal idea, Gods among men is a well-trodden path in terms of an idea that produces dramatic tension, comic tension and romantic tension if you produce a potential relationship between two people from different worlds and then break it up. So, it became the way to accept all of these different terms.
If you want a movie in which you hope people might be thrilled in the cinema by six warriors galloping on horses across a Rainbow Bridge in the middle of outer space, then you need at other points in the movie that we are celebrating that lovingly but we’re not necessarily saying that we absolutely think that that’s occurring even as we speak. But as Jane Foster says with passion and sometimes with humour, magic is just science we don’t understand yet. So, humour became essential to do all that.
Q. How important was it to nail the relationship between Thor and Loki?
Kenneth Branagh: Well, we felt that in terms of the approach, the approach was three-fold. It was to definitely be on a contemporary Earth… to bring this story to Earth and to bring humour to the story and then to both create characters and cast it with a kind of detail in the characterisations and in the execution that was as real as we could be. It’s a relative reality in a comic book movie but I think what works very well is when the boys, who’ve done wonderful jobs in it, I think, catch your breath by the intensity with which they feel things. So, when you’re rehearsing with the two of them and Anthony Hopkins and talking about that dynamic between two rival-some boys and a father who is demanding, and you’ve got some scenes that can take the intensity and passion that can spring from some of those challenges, it felt as though that would be part of what distinguished the film and make it a little different. We could do that in the drama depending on who we cast and how they did it, and I think they both did a fantastic job.
Q. This has been converted to 3D, so how did that knowledge – that it was going to be converted – affect how you made the film?
Kenneth Branagh: It’s an interesting question. We worked as hard as we could to prepare for what our knowledge of 3D could equip us with. We knew that we didn’t want to give people a headache with 3D. So, two reasons not to shoot in 3D but to convert and render the 1,300 odd visual effects in 3D were to have more time on set, because it’s pretty challenging for me I can tell you the maths of working out the parallax and retinal rivalry and the depth curves and all of that. But we also wanted to create a kind of depth script.
If you set up two 3D cameras and you work out the depth of one particular shot, which may be perfect for that, when you set it against other shots you may find that that factor in 3D, that can hurt your eyes sometimes, is quite significant. In conversion, across nine months or a year, we sat and watched it twice a week in the early days of just watching to see if a hammer comes at you, or snow comes at you, or the stars whizz by you, but then you’ve got a shot in the New Mexican desert, does it hurt? And we were able to smooth out that depth curve and kind of produce the best effects all the way through the movie in terms of how we wanted to tell the story.
It was definitely a learning process but we kept talking about it and that was part of what was fun because you had this sort of magic toy box that eventually would hopefully be something that people didn’t care about the technical details in the theatre, but had some enhanced value.
Q. How easy do you find it to mix your careers as an actor and as a director?
Kenneth Branagh: I try and follow my instinct, I try and listen when I have an opportunity to choose, which isn’t always, but when I do, I try and listen for the instinct of what I think will make me feel passionate and engage me and I follow that and work out… it’s not a question of ‘oh, I’ll direct’ or ‘now I’ll act’ because life doesn’t work like that, it’s just where does one’s sort of artistic instinct take one? And it’s still taking me to both places. Actually, as an actor one of the most exciting things is working with Chris and Tom and with the rest of our cast… that’s wonderful. There’s actually a great thrill in watching how other people do it. They always do it differently and it’s great to learn from these guys and I unquestionably have, and from the more established members of the cast like Tony and Natalie. As an actor, it’s a great privilege and it actually sends me back into acting with fantastic relish and ready to steal everything that I’ve learned from these guys.
Q. Looking back to when you started out, what was the best and worst advice you ever got from somebody else in the business?
Kenneth Branagh: Best piece of advice? Well, the best piece of advice sounds so corny but to try and follow your instinct. It’s easy to say, hard to do. Worst piece of advice… I usually give myself the worst piece of advice. It’s a funny thing about advice in this business, you don’t really want any, do you? Nobody does. It’s like: “I’ve got an important decision to make… I don’t know what to do…” That’s essentially a version of: “But enough about me, what did you think of my performance?” So, I’ve tended not to ask because I know I’m too stupid to take it!
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