Kenneth Branagh has had the most diverse of movie directing careers. From his early work with Henry V through Thor and now bringing to life the Disney animated classic Cinderella, his work is varied, but always brilliantly Branagh.
We caught up with Branagh to talk Cinderella for an exclusive chat where he let us in on what makes him accept a directing job. For instance, Cinderella could have been seen as a no-win situation. It is a beloved Disney classic. But, he saw something in the story that he could put his unique stamp on and a new Disney classic has been born.
Branagh also dishes why Lily James was the perfect Cinderella and even takes us back in time to reveal how he first encountered the classic Dead Again. His reaction to that script was the same he had for the fairy tale about a woman, a glass slipper and a prince. Yet this Cinderella, he also tells us, won’t find its heroine waiting for her rescue. She’ll be just fine on her own.
Movie Fanatic: What made you want to tackle Cinderella? It could have been a no-win situation.
Kenneth Branagh: You always have to go to the script and I always try to carefully read in a quiet place and listen to my reaction. I was really caught by it. I was also surprised to be asked. And I was surprised by its deceptive simplicity. I found that it punched above its weight emotionally. I was much moved by it. I wanted to do an update that observed the parts of the fairy tale that I wanted to still see. I wanted to see the set pieces and I wanted to take a classic approach. But, I felt this semi-revolutionary idea of being courageous and kind would be something that would be fun to put at the center of the film.
Movie Fanatic: One thing I enjoyed was that Cinderella would be just fine without that prince.
Kenneth Branagh: It was something that we spoke about from the word, “go,” was that we had to feel that was the case. Otherwise, we’d return to dangerously that she is passive. She waits to be rescued. She’s only reactive. She can turn out to be more than that and the performance proves it -- even though it was always going to be an un-showy thing. It’s funny sometimes to try to make movies about restraint. I love Age of Innocence, which was an inspiration for this film. It’s such a quiet film, but the explosive power is tremendous. We wanted to make a good person complex. Another, and it sounds like a strange thing to say, character in film that I drew on in inspiration was A Man for All Seasons with Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More. That play and that film presents as a pragmatic saint. Cinderella had some of those requirements in my view to make goodness or kindness a superpower. And make kindness and goodness sexy.
Movie Fanatic: One thing that impressed me talking to the actors like Cinderella herself, Lily James, was the realism of the massive sets and how those contributed to their importance. Why was it important to you to build these huge sets, like the ballroom, instead of doing them with CG?
Kenneth Branagh: It’s because you end up monopolizing much more of an imagination. Many times, when there’s a pre-existing or a pre-visualizing of a sequence, you take things away and you end up explaining how they fit into a specific or a pre-allotted vision. Suddenly, you’re bringing in all these excellent imaginations and they’re having to guess what it is that you want them to do instead of doing something unexpected that they bring that’s in a room that you don’t have to recreate. You see the difference in the performance. It was particularly important in the ballroom, that 360-degree world was something that just really created an atmosphere where the whole crew and every actor was going to the ball.
Movie Fanatic: Another rich aspect of this film besides the production design and performances is the costuming by Sandy Powell. What was it like for you to work with such a visionary?
Kenneth Branagh: I have several things that come to mind when I think of her. She’s always the first to arrive and the last to go, so there’s one element. But then again, if I was seeing it, technically I was the last to go [laughs]. But, she had that slow, methodical, practically and hard working application as well as a spontaneous, fervent imagination. She’d bring in references from contemporary magazines, fashion plates from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. We cross pollinated it. She was precise and methodical in terms of what I liked and did not like. What I saw was a master craftsman that knows how to cut, shape, collect, move and switch and get it up to a point where all the pieces were assembled, but then acknowledge that there was some area of inspiration after that. That was the case when it came to this three-dimensional aspect of having layers and layers and layers on the skirt in Cinderella’s dress or in the folds of Cate Blanchett’s skirts. She also is very interested to know and coordinate with me and our DP, what are the other color elements?
Movie Fanatic: It was probably a challenge to find Cinderella. What was it about Lily James that she was the girl? Because boy, oh boy, did she get it.
Kenneth Branagh: A combination of delicacy and strength. She’s a natural listener and very present. I thought that was going to make for a great chemistry for the man who plays opposite her. She’s very engaged. And she’s managing to be fully present in a process where she knows also the stakes are that she might get a job, she might not get a job. It’s not a natural state of affairs. Kindness in the voice and kindness in the spirit were the things that I really responded to. That was all very Cinderella-like. She had also come from an intense workshop that is Downton Abbey and in the company of some masters.
Movie Fanatic: What makes you want to direct something? You have such diversity on your helming resume, from Henry V to Frankenstein to Thor to Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to now Cinderella?
Kenneth Branagh: It’s a combination of things and also the immediate impact. I so love the first read of a script. I so often want to recall it in future moments of struggle where you can feel a bit stuck. It’s important to remember the impact the words and the images had on you. I love, love, love seeing the images. A classic example was Dead Again. I remember saying to my then Mrs., Emma Thompson, in a dressing room in Los Angeles, we were doing a play here -- we’d seen a lot of scripts come our way and they were often not good -- I said, “I’m going to start reading this script to you and I bet we’ll know in three pages whether we even need to continue.” I remember the beginning, it’s a prison sequence where a man’s hair is being cut and there’s a song being sung, Lush Life. As I say it, I’m already intrigued! I’m in the half shadow. You don’t see his eyes. He steps forward, he’s the one singing. As I read it, I felt myself leaning up in the chair. By the time I got to page three, I remember saying to Emma, “This is very good!” I look for that experience where I would just love to be in this world.