Sir Kenneth Branagh’s cinematic and theatrical pedigree is made up of the kinds of performances and achievements that only a very select few actors and directors share. And although most of the population might recognize him from a couple of things – his face from Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, or his name from being the director of Thor – when he directs or acts in anything, it’s worth paying attention to. Case in point, Disney’s live-action Cinderella.
No matter your interest in fairy tales or Disney, you will learn a few intriguing things from the below conversation we had with the Oscar nominee and veteran thespian, specifically: how to successfully film action sequences with 500 extras, if Thor would have been different under the full control of the Disney umbrella and his thoughts on Disney-fying Shakespeare.
Screen Rant: What did you like about experiencing, you’ve done fairy tale-esque things in your career, but what was it about Cinderella that sold you?
Kenneth Branagh: Well you know I was aware when it came my way, as you mentioned anecdotally, I’ve heard from quite a few people, you sense that there is an ownership of this tale, it was so personal for so many people, so I was interested in trying to work out why that was. But I certainly felt the weight of that, I certainly felt expectations, but I looked at the 1950 animated film, I read a couple of editions of the fairy tale that I have in my house and all of it seemed to say that there was room for a version that delivered, in this story, which seems to invite a feeling in people, ‘Please let it be like it ought to be,’ and I think that is some version of a classical world. On the whole, natural instinct is not to want it to be in the modern world mostly that is the sense I have from people, it’s my sense, however, across all those versions it was clear that the 21st century was not very much in evidence, particularly in the character of Cinderella so it seemed, it felt actually as though it hadn’t been done for quite some time, not with the kind of lushness that we could do it with, with an absolute removal of the passivity of Cinderella and finding an amusing way, a lighthearted but significant way of making her proactive and not a girl who’s life is about waiting for a bloke.
SR: I’m so glad you like those women and put them in your movies.
KB: Yeah, so it was also for me a big surprise. I guess I’ve done a couple of boys-y movies and on the whole you get bracketed into things you’ve just done, so it was an imaginative surprise from my Disney family to pull me out of the hat, as it were.
SR: Even as I had so many expectations in wanting it to be as magical as the animated film, which it was, but just when they attached your name and Ms. Blanchett and Ms. Bonham-Carter I thought, ‘Well, I don’t care what they do onscreen,’ that will be fun to watch.
KB: [Laughs] Well it was important for those two to be in it because they’re kind of like the two pillars of the film and one of the things I noted about Cate Blanchett was her very positive lack of concern for how she turns out in is it. She is happy to be a villainess and very pleased to be encouraged as I did with her to reveal this backstory and feel as though this was very human, that this broken heart of hers, if you might regard it that way, would be visible, but she never played for sympathy and I really admired that about her, so she’s just there, she just is and uncompromisingly. She doesn’t go all soft and in fact the toughest thing we give her to do is to respond to Cinderella when she says at the end, ‘I forgive you,’ that’s the biggest attack on the stepmother’s power in the whole movie and by the same token, Helena Bonham-Carter’s delight and abandon in going for the what she said was this very good-hearted and enthusiastic fairy godmother but who definitely hasn’t done all the courses, definitely is an apprentice when it comes to the magic, didn’t do the pumpkin course, for sure.
SR: Did you get to make those calls in casting those talented women?
KB: Well actually Cate was already onboard, they’d had a conversation with Helly but she was not yet onboard. Cate was one of the reasons I wanted to do it and then Helly and I sat down to talk about it and she said, ‘I really want to do it but only one thing I insist on and that’s wings.’ She had to have wings and [costume designer] Sandy Powell didn’t want wings to begin with but had to be talked around, but that was fun.
SR: What is the difference or similarity in choreographing and shooting that glorious ballroom dance scene vs. action sequences?
KB: Curiously similar, they occupy quite a lot of your mental preparation because they come with two burdens, one is you know how important they are in the story, they’re sort set pieces. Everything is important, but there is a weight to these big or expected things and then there is the logistics of them and it’s trying to find, while you worry about for instance the ballroom scene, how do you get 500 people to go to the loo in corsets and don’t cost you an hour and how do you remember while you’re organizing all that to take a breath and say, ‘Well the scene is about all of that and it’s about his hand on the small of her back as well’ and we need time to do that properly as well. The same thing with action sequences, usually you have to find, two things are inter-linked, and you find the logistical way to present the best atmosphere of possibility to producing the best version of what you think the scene is about, so that often changes and in my case, surprises people on set with what we may start with. Because we might start with, even though there is a scene with hundreds of people, with a close-up because I want to spend a lot of time doing that and we almost laid down a marker saying, ‘The human reactions in this scene are just as important or maybe even more important than the fact that this camera is going to swoop down through 500 people who need to be choreographed in a certain way. It’s finding that because nobody is interested in how well you did the schedule, ‘You really handled seven camera crews really well I thought.’
SR: Ha. The camera crews are interested in that.
KB: [Laughs] Yeah. ‘The call sheet must have been incredible on that movie,’ ‘The catering must have been fascinating.’
SR: You mentioned getting 500 extras to the loo, how do you do that?
KB: Well, carefully. You have to know the moment when you’re going to have to ask them to stay a bit longer, you really do in those situations need to, catering becomes a factor as it does in all our lives. With people in corsets you need, an hour and a half in you have to give somebody something, you have to have those trays with a little bit of fruit going around or something because you get that blood sugar [dropping] thing, so it’s curious because that’s in your mind at the same time as you’re about to say, ‘I think it’s about the humanity and the depth of feeling and we need to feel her soul expand and by the way, more cheese for the people in the back.’ Basically you’re trying to work out all of the things that will produce that bit of extra magic in front of the camera.
SR: Was Disney involved in the production of Thor or was it just Paramount before the Disney/Marvel swap-over?
KB: No, that was just at that swap-over moment so Paramount distributed under the supervision of Disney, so I had contact with all of them. So for instance, all of the boys at Disney I was aware of, they saw cuts of ‘Thor’, so I had been involved with the Disney process.
SR: Gotcha. I was wondering if now having worked with Disney in this capacity if you had done Thor all under Disney’s umbrella if there would have been an extra scene or extra something in there? There were some nice Thor-and-Loki-as-brothers bonus scenes on the DVD that had your stamp all over it, but I was just curious if anything might have changed or been added?
KB: Ah, how interesting. That is an interesting question actually, but I think the truth is the Marvel fiefdom exists very independently inside the Disney world, inside the Disney universe. They’re not resistant to that kind of thing but they have their, you know there is a whole sort of machine energy and momentum that is the sort of creative drive behind the whole universe that has a big impact on the individual films. I’m glad those scenes got out there. And we’ve got a few interesting deleted scenes on this.
SR: Lastly, I’m delighted to hear you’re returning to Shakespeare with Richard and Lily in Romeo and Juliet, is there another fairytale in your future you might delight in Disney-fying or on the flip side, is there a Shakespearean play that could be Disney-fied?
KB: Interesting, interesting. Actually I think ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ could sit very very perfectly in the middle of a Disney world I think. Yeah, that’s an interesting thought and I haven’t really thought it out loud until right now, you asked me and that’s my instant reaction.
SR: Excellent. I’ll keep it in a little capsule and remind you the next time I see you.
KB: You, me and the few billion people who read what you’re about to write.
SR: Oh billion, that would be nice.
KB: I’m sure it is.
Directed by Academy Award® nominee Kenneth Branagh (“Thor,” “Hamlet”) and starring two-time Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine,” “Elizabeth”), Lily James (“Downton Abbey”), Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones”) and Academy Award nominee Helena Bonham Carter (“The King’s Speech,” “Alice in Wonderland”), “Cinderella” is produced by Simon Kinberg (“X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Elysium”), Allison Shearmur (“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1”) and David Barron (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1”) with Tim Lewis (“Edge of Tomorrow”) serving as executive producer. The screenplay is by Chris Weitz (“About a Boy,” “The Golden Compass”).
Cinderella opens in theaters March 13th.