Kenneth Branagh on Thor and Learning to Love the Blockbuster
Despite his Oscar-nominee pedigree and Shakesperean theater training -- perhaps because of it, in fact -- Kenneth Branagh was not exactly the first name that came to most moviegoers' minds when Marvel Studios sought a director to adapt Thor for the big screen. But the stirring end results of that partnership say more about the limits of our imaginations than of Branagh's own.
The 50-year-old actor/director's first foray into tentpole filmmaking arrives in American theaters Friday, officially kicking off the summer blockbuster season with a dense, dramatic and roundly entertaining tale of the eponymous god and insolent heir to the throne (played by Chris Hemsworth) who is stripped of his powers and banished to Earth. Discovered by a lissome scientist (Natalie Portman) and her team in the New Mexico desert, Thor must regroup as a mortal while his brother (Tom Hiddleston) plots a hostile takeover of their father's (Sir Anthony Hokpins) kingdom and the government's top-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. operation investigates the strange celestial happenings that left a hammer wedged in a rock in the middle of the desert. Much heroism and CGI ensue.
But so does some considerably complex characterization and origin storytelling, for which Branagh's tastes, experience and talents behind the camera prove a more than compatible fit. He phoned up Movieline HQ recently to discuss what his past work has in common with the present, why auteurs are embracing blockbusters, and how he got this crazy job in the first place.
Thor's opening is right around the corner. At this stage of your career, do you get nervous about openings? Were you ever nervous?
I get excited and, in the delivery period -- which extends back two or three weeks -- it's a series of little moments. First is showing it to your coworkers as it's literally hot off the press; the final check print, as it were. That's a kind of emotional moment because you've been in it for a long time together with your D.P., your producer, etc. Then the next screening I had was for my friends and family. That was, I must say, very nerve-wracking, but ultimately very enjoyable. And then I had the experience of going halfway around the world having that feeling of excitement build simply because there's a consistency to responses -- thank God -- which indicates that we are giving people some pleasure and enjoyment.
So I would say at this stage that, while I'm taking nothing for granted, there's a mixture of excitement, some relief, and some nerves. But you have to have nerves in this game. Otherwise you don't stay sharp.
Did this project come to you or did you go to it?
A combination of the two. The project became free; my representation told me about that and suggested it to me -- would I be interested in this? I said, "Yes." Would Marvel be interested. Yes. But that was all just the beginning a conversation. I was definitely in line with a bunch of other directors. And it was the beginning of a conversation between me and Marvel about whether we wanted to make the same picture.
How did you see your vision commingling with that of Marvel?
Well, what I got from them was the sense that they knew what they were after in a "Marvel picture." What they wanted was a strong point of view about Thor. They'd been in development with it for four or five years at least. There'd been several versions of the script and... Oh, sorry to break this up, but you were asking if I was nervous or excited? I just drove by a bus shelter with a Thor poster on it, and my heart jumped. So there you go: I just saw Chris Hemsworth's face at a bus shelter and got very excited.
So, back to Marvel. They'd been with it for about four or five years. The Norse myths and the Marvel comics are so rich and varied. There were many, many ways one could go. They wanted someone to come in and say, "Here's how I would go" -- to provide the shape for it. I think that's been a feature of what Marvel's been up to. They essentially wanted me to come in and have a vision that they could argue with -- that they could knock back and forth. They wanted a strong point of view.
This story has distinctly Shakespearean themes -- the betrayal of fathers and brothers, star-crossed love, the frailty of royalty and royal families. Do you think it was just me reading too much into Thor because you directed it, or was this something you also read into it and sought to emphasize?
It's an interesting question. I know that Stan Lee sometimes evoked Shakespeare when he spoke of the transfer of Thor into the comics. He literally acknowledges stealing the character of Falstaff and turning him into Volstagg. And of all the characters, I think the character of Prince Hal in Henry IV -- who goes on to become Henry V -- the reckless young prince for whom the question is, "What kind of king would he make?", was the kind of Shakesperean element to this that interested me. It seems to me that for both stories of the Thor myths and stories of English kings and queens, the common feature is very high stakes: The behavior of Thor -- his fitness for rule -- directly affects the lives of thousands of other people. He may just be like any other headstrong young man, but the consequences of his action could change your life as well. And that Shakespearean connection -- his fascination with how the ordinary emotional and psychological problems of human beings in these roles and how royal families have sometimes catastrophic effects on others -- I think is present here.
So it's large stakes, epic worlds, the responsibilities of leadership -- the microscopic dissection of what it means to be a leader, a king, a human being combined. And in the case for Marvel, a god and a leader combined, and one who may have to exist in two worlds. These are things I think the Thor stories have in common with Shakespeare. And also, much more than people care remember, Shakespeare used magic and fantasy all the time. Whether it's a ghost driving the plot in Hamlet or witches in Macbeth or fairies traveling around the globe in 30 minutes in A Midsummer Night's Dream, he was never afraid to use the fantastical elements that the Thor universe also shares.
Numerous internationally respected filmmakers or auteurs have gone this route -- I'm thinking Chris Nolan, Bryan Singer, JJ Abrams. Sam Mendes is directing a James Bond film. Why this migration now?
Well, we know that our world is changing profoundly -- that the technological and media revolution of the last 15 years means that viewing habits change. The way people view movies changes. And that big-screen experience... I think the subject matter and the kind of technology that can deliver it in an exciting way are all provided by these kinds of pictures. For me, there are levels of interest both visual and intellectual -- and purely visceral -- in something like Thor that also allow me, on a scale such as this, to experiment and try and innovate a bit with technical developments, whether it's the way we use 3-D or whether it's the world of visual effects. What it offers is the chance for the larger-than-life cinematic experience to an audience that tends to concentrate on visiting the movies in that way. As we know, it's much tougher for the character pieces and the chamber pieces to exist out there in the mainstream movie world.
Yet it seems to me audiences are ever more sophisticated, ever more intelligent in terms of what they expect from what they view. They expect, in they case of Thor a big, summer, entertaining movie, but they expect it to be layered. They want it to be layered. They want great amounts of creative ambition, and the blistering example of this is Chris Nolan's Dark Knight. It is, I think, a deep and magnificent work, but also a great big entertaining blockbuster. So that's at least one conspicuous example of what that kind of tremendous filmmaker can bring to the changed expectations of modern cinema audiences.
So -- and let's be honest about this -- ultimately, if that's where the audience is, then that's where the money is, too, right?
Well, yes, but it's sometimes difficult to know which tail is wagging which dog. Of course commerce is a driving force through all of this, but in the end you can't pull the wool over the eyes of the audience. They're either getting added value out of this, or it's all sound and fury. Basically, I think it does reduce itself in the end to, "Are the pictures good? Are the stories good? Are the directors doing good work in them?" I think for the time being, there seems to be a trend toward that kind of work happening in this kind of landscape of what, for me, is closer than what people might imagine in terms of what we were talking about in the beginning of this conversation: the epic landscape of the Thor universe. Frankly, that will be the guide to how it plays out. Simply branding comic book characters or providing empty-storied, visual effects-heavy films has already been proven -- and continues to be proven -- to not have legs.
So in the end I think that movie companies, for whatever reason -- and of course commerce is right at the center of it -- have made a smart move: Get your Nolans and your Singers to come and be involved with what may be a happy intersection of their interests with the medium as it's currently most popular.
RELATED: Read Movieline's review of Thor here.
[Photo: Getty images]