Director Kenneth Branagh Interview: Artemis Fowl Set Visit

The first trailer for Disney's Artemis Fowl is now available, giving fans their first look at the long-awaited adaptation of Eoin Colfer's children series. In it, audiences are shown just a taste of how the film mixes magical fantasy with high-tech gadgetry, promising a movie that will blur the lines between fantasy adventure and sci-fi thriller.

The film, like the books, tells the story of the 12-year old genius, Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw), descendant of a long line of criminal masterminds, and the hidden race of faeries with whom he must do battle if he hopes to discover any information about his father's mysterious disappearance. His search inevitably brings him in contact with the elf, Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), a captain in the LEPrecon - which is the the recon division of LEP or Lower Elements Police, the law enforcement of the faerie world - and Commander Root (Judi Dench), the hard-lined LEPrecon commander.

Related: Disney Confirms Artemis Fowl Cast & Crew as Filming Begins

Artemis Fowl is directed by Kenneth Branagh (Thor, Murder on the Orient Express), and when Screen Rant visited the London set of Fowl Manner earlier this year, Branagh spoke about striving for the right tone for the film and making sure they do justice by Colfer's original concept. He also discussed working with the younger actors - particularly keeping them focused on the task at hand and not letting the pressure of the film's potential success overwhelm them - and how he went about enlisting his long-time collaborator, Judi Dench, for a role that in the novel is actually a man.

The author, Eoin Colfer, at one point describes the books as a “Die-Hard with faeries.” Is that what you're going for with this?

Well, it's definitely a book with a--the first book with a siege at the heart of it and as you're probably aware, we’re starting that process today with a troll hammering its way into the house. In the beginnings of seeing whether the brilliant Artemis Fowl - who's able to translate faerie books through his intelligence and his imagination - can in combination with Holly Short stop it.

One of the things I think Eoin really did so well and one of the things I wanted to encapsulate--sometimes at the beginning of a process like this, my distinguished colleagues at Disney - who I get on very well with - will sort of invite you to say what’s your take on it, what's your great idea. And my great idea was to copy Eoin Colfer and to not get in the way. So, I hope, for instance, that the film like the book and books is very rapid, very, very punchy and pacey. I think one of the ways in which he manages to keep us very intrigued by a series of beautifully improbable things - unless we have a lot of people who believe in faeries here, maybe we have, clap your hands if you do - is that the... I think he moves at a pace which means that you just--even if, as it were, you disagree with the conception, you are thrilled by the execution.

And so I didn't at all disagree, who am I to say what’s out there or indeed under our feet in Ireland? But we move rapidly and I think both the humor and, as always in things that I'm drawn to, the humanity and the sort of emotion underneath it all, I think, moves very lightly. As I get older, I'm a fan of shorter and shorter movies. Maybe that's a bladder issue, I don't know. Having inflicted very, very long viewing experiences on people and having to answer questions people like you might have asked me years ago when I made a film of Hamlet. And they, journalists would say to me, 'This is yet one more Hamlet. What's yours about?’ And I'd say, ‘It's about four hours.’

I decided that after that, that I probably, that 90 minutes is--I don't know if you ever do this, there's some great list out there on the interweb of great 90-minute movies but I often, especially when making a movie like this, that's what I’ll try and do of an evening. I'll try and watch a 90-minute classic and see how master filmmakers did things swiftly. I think Eoin Colfer does so in the books and that's what we're trying to do. Not rushing, but simply celebrating the swiftness of thought which is characteristic of the Irish, of him, and indeed of his central character.

Did you consult Eoin Colfer much?

We’ve talked a little, not a lot, but very warmly and very happily. He was here this week, he was here a couple of weeks ago. It's wonderful to see his face when he walked into this place. It was, as you know, it’s taken a while - these things always do or often do. He’s been very good, we told him about, inevitably, in the spirit of the book, I believe, amended or changed a few things that are to do with the translation of a book into a film - especially for a first-time audience, as amazingly popular as they've been, it will be the first time a lot of people will see it. So we've born that in mind and we came up with a couple of things that the first thing he said was, ‘Gosh! I wish I'd thought of that.’ He said, 'I'd have put it in the book. I'll certainly put it into the reissue.' So he's been very collaborative like that.

Can you talk a little bit about how much the second book, Artemis Fowl: The Artic Incident, is influencing this first movie?

There's a little bit of it heading back in there, but we're trying to hold onto as much of the first book in its entirety as possible. We're trying to lay out what may be, y’know, skews on it, if there were future stories, but essentially we're trying to serve this first one with--I suppose a sort of anchoring, emotional pull that comes a bit from the second book, which is that Artemis' father is missing. And so, y’know, the search for a father, and the search for family, and reunion of family is--if there are only six or seven stories ever told, that's definitely one of them.

And so it provides a way, I think, for us to do what I feel is important in a first film, which is for us to - aside from admiring or being thrilled by his intelligence and his ability to think swiftly and imaginatively - we've also, I think, got to like him and have got to feel for him. And in a way this is a sort of, I suppose, who knows if we make another one, but if it's an origin story - we had this issue with Thor, when we did the first Thor movie, was just to try and find a way to offer a complete dish. That's all we were making, that's all we're making now. We can talk about other stories but the public will decide that. We know Eoin has done, but we're planning for this one and for this one to feel as though it has an emotional, sort of, satisfaction and delivery. So family becomes essential to that.

How did you go from Murder on the Orient Express to Artemis Fowl? What was the decision there?

Y’know, Artemis has been something I've been developing since--for three years now, actually. In fact, my nephews are here today and they were both reading Artemis Fowl four years ago. We were all on holiday together and they said, ‘You should have a look at this,’ and I did. And then about three weeks later, Sean Bailey rang up and said, ‘Have you ever heard of Artemis Fowl?’ And I said, ‘I just read the first book!’

So there had been some scripts and some versions up to that point and they said, ‘Would you be interested in taking it on?’ Everybody knew that although there's something really brilliant at the center of it that Eoin’s done, that translating it to film was challenging. So it's taken quite some time, it's taken quite some time to find the balance between humor and emotion and magic and the contemporary world.

For instance, you're in a room here in a house where it illuminates that kind of thing where--although it's attractive in the book to feel his difference, a little boy lives in a crazily, big, privileged house. It seemed to me you had to find a way to - and we have the brilliant people here who’ve done it, and you've met the other the others who've been doing it - of finding a place where, as it were, people around the world as they looked at it did not feel alienated or excluded by somebody leading an entirely, sort of, privileged life.

It's an imaginative place, it's a bonkers place. Fowls, generation after generation - you've seen them all painted in the portrait gallery, I'm sure - have brought all these additional ideas, but they’re ideas to do with imagination and invention, it’s not necessarily to do with the acquisition of land, monies and things, or the desire to be separate and distinct. We introduce our Artemis at a real school, like the school the kids who’ll be watching this film will be seeing. He’ll look like a kid who could be in their school - different, for sure, and we hope that when they come into this house--in this house, for instance, Artemis in one sequence travels on a one-wheel all the way around the upper floor here. Which is, it feels like that's the kind of level of fun and not disrespect but irreverence that we had. It took a long time to find a way to do what we believe was that tone.

So meantime, a train was at a station just across and there was this mustache lying on the table one morning, and we had the chance to do that. But we've been working on draft after draft after draft. What Eoin does is something that is very beautiful and very simple and that takes a long time to get to. It took him a long time to get to and it's taken us a long time.

Artemis Fowl Ferdia Shaw

Can you talk a little bit about the casting choices, especially for your central character that you have chosen out of what seems like the entire population of Ireland?

Well, it was just like Thor, I reckon we saw about as many people, y’know, and it took months and months and months. We wanted to find someone, if we could, who was Irish because we're trying to allow that to be a distinctive flavor here, just without effort, y’know, but with some reality. And then we needed to find somebody who was not going to be overwhelmed or intimidated, who could see it for the beautiful opportunity it is and the fun that it is.

I said to Ferdia a trillion times, 'We're just making this film. Don't get all worked up about stuff. It's all fine. We'll go to work today, we'll see what happens. I hope we make a good film. I hope it'll be a nice time. The making of the film is the here-and-now, don't worry about pressure, or every time somebody says to you about Harry Potter, or how it's going to change your life. There's no life to change, there's no Harry Potter. We're just, we’re making this film and it's all tickety-boo.’

Because it's important that they feel and can convey to an audience - and he can, as can Lara McDonnell, as can Tamara Smart - just a sense of what it's like being a kid here. A beautiful moment in the life of the movie was when I took him around the house for the first time. I came in here - imagine, a bit overwhelming - so I just came in with me and him, brought him up the stairs and he just went, ‘Bloody hell.’ And then we got into his room and he looked at the book shelf and said, ‘I've read all of these!’ I said, ‘I know you told us, that's why they're there.’ He had told [set decorator] Celia [Bobak], who put them by his bedside, so it already started. And there was a thing he had to do with a bit of Gaelic, and I said, ‘Well what would you say in Gaelic?’ Which he speaks. And I gave him a Post-It and well, ‘How would you write on the Post-it? Where would you put it?’ So he started to do that and immediately he started to move things around and do all of that, and suddenly, it's not, ‘Ooh, Harry Potter and stuff.’ It’s, ‘Oh, I’d have me book like this.’

He had the combination of that plus they’re being very, very resilient to a kind of acting boot camp that we put them through. Y’know, everyday we--so for instance, this morning you're talking to them about coming in quickly on cue. And you say, ‘Okay, how do you convey a quick-thinking individual?’ They go, ‘People either are quick-thinking or they aren't.’ But at the same time, we're not all geniuses, for sure - not on this crew we aren't - just to be able to technically say the lines swiftly together, not leave pauses, not leave thinking time - when required - can convey this energy that we need at the end of the movie, and the energy of his imagination.

They’ve been picking that up at the same time as, say, ‘Can you do all that, okay? And then you move here and you do that, there’s a mark there. You can't go over there because you'll be out of focus on that camera, it's very difficult for those people over there. Okay, and now speak louder because Josh can't hear here and we’re going to have the sound of a troll here. And stay natural. And relax!’ And so, y’know, he was one of the kids who could do all of that - aside from being, as they all are, attractive in the non-superficial sense. They're attractive because they're open and they’re kind and they're fun. And a part of our goal we feel very strongly - although all parents are fantastically involved and have been incredibly supportive - we feel we're in sort of in loco parentis while they're here and so it's important that we kind of help this be a fun experience, but also, it's a job and it's a practical discipline as well. And they've been terrific at dealing with that.

Disney Artemis Fowl Trailer Commander Root Judi Dench

Whose decision was it or where did the idea originate for Judi Dench to play the role of Root? In the book, the character is a man.

I've worked with her many times now and there was just--something that a great theater director, Peter Brook refers to as the “uninformed hunch.” And so the uninformed hunch is just the--whenever I ask Judy to do something, she says, ‘Is it different?’ And the other day she was having - and I pointed this out to Ferdia and Lara - people have little moments of confidence, and Judy looked a little bit, y’know, slightly trembly lip the other morning or whatever. And she said, ‘I don't know how to play this part.’ And I said, ‘Well, you'll crush it. You do a really good impression of knowing that you are.’ I said, ‘Maybe one of the things is that it sounds quite unlike anything you've ever done, you look quite unlike anyone you've ever looked like. I knew that would appeal to you.’

And when she first started, we pretend that we aren’t rehearsing, she doesn't like to suggest that there’s a rehearsal because it’s exam day. But nevertheless, we arranged a meeting, and we weren't going to rehearse but then I knew something was going to happen, and I said, ‘So, should we talk about the character?’ She went, [growls], and then she started walking around the room, she didn't say anything, she just threw the odd line out. A line that she loved from Root’s was, ‘Knock it off! Knock it off!’ So she just started doing this and then her hand went around behind her back, and I thought, ‘Christ! She looks like Napoleon! Or Churchill or somebody!’ And then, y’know, she turned into this 6-year-old and went, ‘Do you think that will be any good?’ I said, ‘That’ll be good, that will be really good! Keep that.’

And I reminded her about this the other day, I said, you know that line you liked? Well, we're going to do this scene, you’re going to still stand here, but this time you’re going to say, ‘Knock it off!’ You have eight faeries around you on the edge of this sea wall - you might have seen it out there - and you’re going to go, ‘Knock it off!’ and they’re all going to fall off the sea wall.’ It was eight stunt men and women who did it and she was tickled pink. So rehearsals are useful.

Kenneth Branagh THOR

You mentioned Thor before, what did that experience teach you about world-building and going into creating something that will live on past the first film?

Well, it’s exciting but it’s a little scary, y’know? But I think when it comes to something like this and we’re talking about the many, many kinds of faeries, elves, sprites, trolls, goblins that live under the Earth. And at the same time you’re looking to have a very, sort of, contemporary feeling, a modern world that embraces technology and embraces, sort of, potentially quite advanced technology. That experience allowed me to not feel so intimidated by it, although it continues to be a pleasant, creative, scary thing.

I think you are aware that somehow, somewhere you are out there with those sort of combinations. And we all feel it, I think we all feel it, cause it’s a huge, huge, huge, huge team effort, and it’s great you’ve met so many people who are so sort of critical to it - and everybody’s critical to it, whether they are preparing this, Celia finding our orrery, or Clive doing all the stuff, the computer programming, or these wonderful carpets, or the books, or the performance, or the kind of tone of it all. And sometimes it’s--what’s really exciting, and when I started to see some of it put together because we’re approaching the halfway mark, is to see that although it’s risky when these worlds can mix, it’s very exciting, it feels original, it feels--it just is, when it comes that way.

So Thor as an experience, once you’ve been in a world of Frost Giants and other planets and stuff like that. And, y’know, an enormous, blonde Australian person lands in New Mexico, takes his shirt off in front of a scientist, I don’t know, and everything else that is that kind of, sort of, conundrum, then it ain’t so weird to have your one-wheeling, 13-year-old, Irish boy summon up an ancient, Celtic spirits to potentially prevent a troll attack on your house. I mean, we’ve all been there, haven’t we? We’ve all done it. So, it was good grounding in embracing the different and the imaginative and the exciting and knowing that it’s creatively scary but that’s the only place to be.

Next: Disney's Artemis Fowl Movie Gets a Trailer

Key Release Dates
  • Artemis Fowl (2020) release date: May 29, 2020
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker makeup
Joker Loses Certified Fresh Rating On Rotten Tomatoes

More in Interviews