Kenneth Branagh is an actor/director who is best known for his screen adaptations of William Shakespeare’s plays. The Irish-born Branagh has always dabbled in the Hollywood pool however, first directing the Hitchcockian thriller Dead Again in 1991 and then bringing a big-budget version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the screen in 1994. He began to focus on acting, taking on varied roles like that of the Scandinavian detective Wallander in the BBC television series and a supporting role as Laurence Oliver in My Week with Marilyn.
Recent years have seen him return to directing in a big way, first launching the Thor franchise for Marvel Studios and now working with Paramount Pictures on laying the groundwork for a whole new set of Jack Ryan adventures – based on the popular character created by Tom Clancy – beginning with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Branagh not only directs the movie, but he also stars alongside Chris Pine, Kevin Costner and Kiera Knightley.
I chatted with Kenneth Branagh on the London set of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit where he discussed the pressures of bringing a big-budget thriller to the screen and his inspirations for rebooting the Jack Ryan franchise in a post-911 (and post Jason Bourne) world.
What made you want to make this?
I guess the script arrived and it was unputdownable and I knew the previous films, I’d read some of the books and simple as that. It came out of the blue. I was going to be making another movie, it went away, and this one came to me, and I read it and responded very strongly as a kind of film I go to see. It’s the kind of film that the world of the film has the antecedent of ’70s movies, of great style that I very much admired. All the President’s Men, Parallax View, things like this—quite extreme espionage thrillers with slightly distorted worlds.
No Dutch camera angles, no worry. (laughter) It’s me and Haris Zambarloukos again but we found a spirit level on the camera (chuckles). I don’t know if you spoke to Chris, he’s very eloquent about this but I liked Bond and I liked Bourne and I liked Mission: Impossible and this is distinct from all those because he’s not a paid assassin. He’s not a man coming up from program. We don’t have the flamboyance of say Bond and we don’t have the extremity of something like Mission: Impossible as far as the technology and things that go on. In a weird way, even though Jack Ryan is the brightest and the best, he’s sort of an analyst with the great skillful, intellectual mind, he’s also in relative terms, he’s kind of an everyman. He doesn’t have the range of skills that Liam Neeson and I have a very particular set. He doesn’t have that particular set of talents, but he’s got his brain and he’s got a desire to do something, to serve in some way and so all of that. It’s rich stuff.
With something like Thor, the human dimension inside a world full of fantastical elements and many disparate elements often felt like you were making lots of different films and with this, there’s also that element which for me, if you can get it right, leads to an interesting experience for the audience. You get surprised, there’s unexpected turns, and at the center of it, in both cases and certainly here, is this human element. It’s much more… the script engaged me because it was a page-turner but this big personal story that you’re invested in at the heart of it.
How do you balance the drama with the action?
It’s constant question between what you can take? We’re very blessed with the actors, so Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley and a ton of other people who are really strong. We had people like David Paymer in the other day for just a small section of the film. He’s brilliant in it. These are people who once you get into a close-up, if you have story working for you, how they think is very, very striking and so definitely, the landscape of the close-up, the orchestration of that, versus bits of action like we’re doing today, so it’s about a sleight of hand as he gets from one vehicle into another. He’s being followed. He’s in the headquarters of the man who may appear to be his nemesis, and so this is all about multiple camera angles and lots and lots of coverage so we can really pace it up and confuse and then sometimes, it’s just what you hope is just the well-composed frame into which a very interesting character, played by a very interesting actor, walks and thinks for a bit, and it seems to me that it would be a very fascinating post-production process to try and orchestrate between the two things.
I hope we have plenty of both. I think we’ve all been surprised—Lorenzo, Mace. We had much more action than we thought we’d have, but we have the other dimension, the thinking man part of it and the thinking woman part of it, because Keira Knightley’s role is extremely central to how the story plays out. We have the resources to orchestrate both I think in a gripping way.
At one point did you decide you wanted to play a villain role as well and what’s your approach to that character?
It came to me as a director but it became clear to me that Paramount were very interested in me playing Cherevin, and I said, “Well, let’s just put that on the sideburner. Let me talk to Chris and see our relationship is and let’s see how we can cast the next important character to cast, Cathy his wife then Keira came along and we were very lucky to get Kevin as well. And then by that stage, as I saw all those people sitting in the middle of the movie and by now, Chris and I had talked about some of the larger thematic strands in it, so it’s partly old vs. new, old empire vs. new empire in a strange paradox where you might say that America is strangely the old empire and new money is Russia post-Glastnost and everything else is a new empire and that’s a swing from previous historical versions. It’s East and West in cultural attitudes and then it’s a personal kind of serious of opposites of Jack and Cherevin in relation to what it takes to be a patriot.
If there was a subtitle at the moment for the ever-evolving story of what’s the film about, it would be at least partly that. “What it takes to be a patriot?” How do you make a contribution that is not to do with nationalism but is to do with this very interesting subject of what love of country may mean when that’s a concept people sometimes can understand but really, whether in the military or sometimes in politics, our more ordinary smaller lives, you might say, we’re mostly interpreting that through interaction with people, with individuals, and how you relate to your fellow soldier or your fellow worker or your partner in life. We were so full of these things springing out of this we hope very good yarn that I thought that now I have a handle on how to give the other side of that, to make that side of the story as personal as possible, to try to answer your question.
So how do you approach it? Like make it as personal a story, not a cardboard villain. I’ve never used the word villain in relation to him because if you play it, I don’t think you can see it that way. There’s this fellow called (puts on Russian accent) Victor Cherevin, who is a very powerful guy and he has a very particular grudge and a pain that is in his system and that he wants to do something about, and he has the imagination to go with it and take on America, the CIA and Jack Ryan all at once. All of those clashes I hope makes for good drama.
Can you talk about wanting to shoot this in London rather than anywhere else?
Well, it’s a good question. Initially, there had been ideas of shooting in all sorts of different places and sometimes, it can seem as if the constituent parts could be changed, it could be any international city, but the plot might suggest, because it’s a global economy and an economic crisis, a disaster, a catastrophe in fact that’s linked to the center of this, but I felt that the initial instincts of the script and what I received from David Koepp very much meant that Russia in the East and America in the West were important to be distinct in terms of the internal character of the individuals and the sort of cultural strands coming out of the story. It didn’t strain. It was getting good rich stuff.
Actually, shooting in these places got complicated and complex, so for instance, Moscow is an amazing city but it’s a challenge to work in because it’s so big and so spread out, so some of what we wanted, which is the brilliantly noisy architecture of Moscow. Lots of buildings going up and the sense of the city being transformed. We felt that we could get in some parts of the city of London and get the scale and some visual effects, which will also allow us to create some of what we had to do ourselves. Victor Cheverin’s building is going to be an adaptation of what you see here, and so we felt as though… we needed a place where perhaps, frankly, we could benefit from the tax rebates and we were pointed in all sorts of directions.
You make a film nowadays and of course everybody is going to knock on your door, from New Orleans to Montreal to wherever, the Isle of Man. There are advantageous conditions here plus London has big city DNA, big city architecture, and that was important for us, and we were able to also go to Liverpool and find some old imperian… Liverpool was once the most important city in the world for a short time when it was the center of the shipping industry and various trades, some notorious, so that was able to provide us with some old imperial Moscow that frankly is gone. We felt as if we could get the big landscape by moving around and adding some visual FX back here and get our lovely tax rebate as well.
You did an accent as Sir Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn which was quite comical. Have you refined that a bit so this is not as broad?
Well, that was more of a Ruritanian kind of Prisoner of Zenda kind of accent that he adopted for The Sleeping Prince. Here, we’ve got a couple Russian friends of ours now who daily listen to me. I have to speak some real Russian and they try to keep me on the straight and narrow. I love doing it. It’s a fantastic, fantastic language. It’s a great thing and the accent is also making it very distinct, but very easy for it to go too far in the other way. One of the things we tried to do with all the performances and Kevin’s giving a sensational performance, so are Keira and Chris are the key to them, so I’m watching and learning from the three of them who are masters, I must say, all masters of this screen acting lark. It’s all very fascinating to watch. They are simple and simple is hard to do, simple is so hard to do, and I think they do it after a lot of practice of being complex, etc, so I’m trying to be simple with an accent and natural and naturalistic, that’s our cunning plan. Please excuse me, I have to go. It’s nice to see you all.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit opens in theUS on January 17 and the UK on January 24.