By Iain Blair
Five-time Oscar-nominee Ken Branagh might be the biggest Shakespeare fan in the business. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that the actor/director/producer/screenwriter largely owes his fame and fortune to the Bard. For the past 30 years he’s directed (and often starred in) dozens of theatrical productions, as well as feature film adaptations of Shakespeare’s works, starting with 1989’s Henry V. That film won him two Oscar nominations: Best Actor and Best Director. He followed that with Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Hamlet (which won him a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nod), Love’s Labour’s Lost and As You Like It.
So it was probably only a matter of time before the Irish star jumped at the chance to play Shakespeare himself in the new film All Is True, a fictionalized look at the final years of the playwright. Set in 1613, Shakespeare is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age, but disaster strikes when his renowned Globe Theatre burns to the ground. Devastated, Shakespeare returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family — wife Anne (Judi Dench) and two daughters, Susanna (Lydia Wilson) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder). The large ensemble cast also includes Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton.
I sat down with Branagh — whose credits include directing such non-Shakespeare movies as Thor, Cinderella and Murder on the Orient Express and acting in Dunkirk and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets — to talk about about making the film and his workflow.
You’ve played many of Shakespeare’s characters in film or on stage. Was it a dream come true to finally play the man himself, or was it intimidating?
It was a dream come true, as I feel like he’s been a guide and mentor since I discovered him at school. And, rather like a dog, he’s given me unconditional love ever since. So I was happy to return some. It’s easy to forget that he was just a guy. He was amazing and a genius, but first and foremost he was a human being.
What kind of film did you hope to make?
A chamber piece, a character piece that took him out of his normal environment. I didn’t want it to be the predictable romp inside a theater, full of backstage bitching and all that sort of theatricality. I wanted to take him away from that and put him back in the place he was from, and I also wanted to load the front part of the movie with silence instead of tons of dialogue.
How close do you feel it gets to the reality of his final years?
I think it’s very truthful about Stratford. It was a very litigious society, and some of the scenes — like the one where John Lane stands up in church and makes very public accusations — all happened. His son Hamnet’s death was unexplained, and Shakespeare did seem to be very insecure in some areas. He wanted money and success and he lived in a very volatile world. If he was supposed to be this returning hero coming back to the big house and a warm welcome from his family, whom he hadn’t seen much of the past two decades, it didn’t quite happen that way. No, he was this absentee dad and husband, and the town had an ambivalent relationship with him; it wasn’t a peaceful retirement at all.
The film is visually gorgeous, and all the candlelit scenes reminded me of Barry Lyndon.
I’m so glad you said that as DP Zac Nicholson and I were partly inspired by that film and that look, and we used only candlelight and no additional lights for those scenes. Painters, like Vermeer and Rembrandt, were our inspiration for all the day and night scenes, respectively.
Clint Eastwood told me, “Don’t ever direct and star in a movie unless you’re a sucker for punishment — it’s just too hard.” So how hard was it?
(Laughs) He’s right. It is very hard, and a lot of work, but it’s also a big privilege. But I had a lot of great help — the crew and people like Judi and Ian. They had great suggestions and you listen to every tidbit they have to offer. I don’t know how Clint does it, but I do a lot of listening and stealing. The directing and acting are so interlinked to me, and I love directing as I get to watch Ian and Judi work, and they’re such hard workers. Judi literally gets to the set before anyone else, and she’s pacing up and down and getting ready to defend Anne Hathaway. She has this huge empathy for her characters which you feel so much, and here she was giving voice to a woman who could not read or write.
Where did you post?
We were based at Longcross Studios, where we did Murder on the Orient Express and the upcoming Artemis Fowl. We did most of it there, and then we ended up at The Post Republic, which has places in London and Berlin, to do the final finishing. Then we did all the final mixing at Twickenham with the great re-recording mixer Andy Nelson and his team. It was my second picture with Andy Nelson as the rerecording mixer. I am completely present throughout and I am completely involved in the final mix.
Do you like the post process?
I love it. It’s the place where I understood, right from my first film, that it could make — in terms of performance — a good one bad, a good one great, a bad one much better. The power of change in post is just amazing to me, and realizing that anything is possible if you have the imagination. So the way you juxtapose the images you’ve collected — and the way a scene from the third act might actually work better in the first act — is so huge in post. That fluidity was a revelation to me, and you can have these tremendous eureka moments in post that can be beautiful and so inspiring.
Can you talk about working with editor Una Ni Dhongaile, who cut The Crown and won a BAFTA for Three Girls?
She’s terrific. She wasn’t on the set but we talked a lot during the shoot. I like her because she really has an opinion. She’s definitely not a “yes” person, but she’s also very sensitive. She also gets very involved with the characters and protects you as a director. She won’t let you cut too soon or too deep, and she encourages you to take a moment to think about stuff. She’s one of those editors who has this special kind of intuition about what the film needs, in addition to all her technical skills and intellectual understanding of what’s going on.
What were the big editing challenges?
After doing a lot of very long takes we used the very best, and despite using a very painterly style we didn’t make the film feel too static. We didn’t want to falsely or artificially cut to just affect the pace, but allow it to flow naturally so every minute was earned. We also didn’t want to feel afraid of holding a particular shot for a long time. We definitely needed pauses and rests, and Shakespeare is musical in his poetry and the way he juxtaposes fast and slow moments. So all those decisions were critical and needed mulling as well as executing.
Talk about the importance of sound and music, as it’s a very quiet film.
It’s absolutely critical in a world like this where light and sound play huge roles and are so utterly different to our own modern understanding of it. The aural and audio space you can offer an audience for this was a big chance to adventure back in time, when the world was far more sparsely populated. Especially in a little place like Stratford; silence played a big role as well. You’re offering a hint of the outside world and the aural landscape is really the bedrock for all the introspection and thoughtfulness this movie deals with.
Patrick Doyle’s music has this gossamer approach — that was the word we used. It was like a breath, so that the whole sound experience invited the audience into the meditative world of Shakespeare. We wanted them to feel the seasons pass, the wind in the trees, and how much more was going on than just the man thinking about his past. It was the experience of returning home and being with this family again, so you’d hear a creak of a chair and it would interrupt his thoughts. So we worked hard on every little detail like that.
Where did you do the grading and coloring?
Post Republic in their North London facility, and again, I’m involved every step of the way.
Did making this film change your views about Shakespeare the man?
Yes, and it was an evolving thing. I’ve always been drawn to his flawed humanity, so it seemed real to be placing this man in normal situations and have him be right out of his comfort zone at the start of the film. So you have this acclaimed, feted and busy playwright, actor, producer and stage manager suddenly back on the dark side of the moon, which Stratford was back then. It was a small town, a three-day trip from London, and it must have been a shock. It was candlelight and recrimination. But I think he was a man without pomp. His colleagues most often described him as modest and gentle, so I felt a vulnerability that surprised me. I think that’s authentic to the man.
What’s next for you?
Disney’s Artemis Fowl, the fantasy-adventure based on the books, which will be released on May 29, and then I start directing Death on the Nile for Fox, which starts shooting late summer.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.