Tag Archives: Shakespeare

All Is True director Kenneth Branagh

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.

Ken Branagh and Iain Blair

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.

Creating the sonic world of ‘Macbeth’

By Jennifer Walden

On December 4, we will all have the opportunity to hail Michael Fassbender as he plays Macbeth in director Justin Kurzel’s film adaption of the classic Shakespeare play. And while Macbeth is considered to be the Bard’s darkest tragedy, audiences at the Cannes Film Festival premiere felt there was nothing tragic about Kurzel’s fresh take on it.

As evidenced in his debut film, The Snowton Murders, Kurzel’s passion for dark imagery fits The Weinstein Co’s Macbeth like a custom-fitted suit of armor. “The Snowtown Murders was brutal, beautiful, uncompromising and original, and I felt sure Justin would approach Macbeth with the same vision,” says freelance supervising sound editor Steve Single. “He’s a great motivator and demanded more of the team than almost any director I’ve worked with, but we always felt that we were an important part of the process. We all put more of ourselves into this film, not only for professional pride, but to make sure we were true to Justin’s expectations and vision.”

Single, who was also the re-recording mixer on the dialogue/music, worked with London-based sound designers Markus Stemler and Alastair Sirkett to translate Kurzel’s abstract and esoteric ideas — like imagining the sound of mist — and place them in the reality of Macbeth’s world. Whether it was the sound of sword clashes or chimes for the witches, Kurzel looked beyond traditional sound devices. “He wanted the design team to continually look at what elements they were adding from a very different perspective,” explains Single.

L-R: Gilbert Lake, Steve Single and Alastair Sirkett.

L-R: Gilbert Lake, Steve Single and Alastair Sirkett.

Sirkett notes that Kurzel’s bold cinematic style — immediately apparent by the slow-motion-laced battle sequence in the opening — led him and Stemler to make equally bold choices in sound. Adds Stemler, “I love it when films have a strong aesthetic, and it was the same with the sound design. Justin certainly pushed all of us to go for the rather unconventional route here and there.  In terms of the creative process, I think that’s a truly wonderful situation.”

Gathering, Creating Sounds
Stemler and Sirkett split up the sound design work by different worlds, as Kurzel referred to them, to ensure that each world sounded distinctly different, with its own, unique sonic fingerprint. Stemler focused on the world of the battles, the witches and the village of Inverness. “The theme of the world of the witches was certainly a challenge. Chimes had always been a key element in Justin’s vision,” says Stemler, whose approach to sound design often begins with a Schoeps mic and a Sound Devices recorder.

As he started to collect and record a variety of chimes, rainmakers and tiny bells, Stemler realized that just shaking them wasn’t going to give him the atmospheric layer he was looking for. “It needed to be way softer and smoother. In the process I found some nacre chimes (think mother-of-pearl shells) that had a really nice resonance, but the ‘clonk’ sound just didn’t fit. So I spent ages trying to kind of pet the chimes so I would only get their special resonance. That was quite a patience game.”

By having distinct sonic themes for each “world,” re-recording mixers Single and Gilbert Lake (who handled the effects/Foley/backgrounds) were able to transition back and forth between those sonic themes, diving into the next ‘world’ without fully leaving the previous one.

There’s the “gritty reality of the situation Macbeth appears to be forging, the supernatural world of the witches whose prophecy has set out his path for him, the deterioration of Macbeth’s mental state, and how Macbeth’s actions resonate with the landscape,” says Lake, explaining the contrast between the different worlds. “It was a case of us finding those worlds together and then being conscious about how they relate to one another, sometimes contrasting and sometimes blending.”

Skirett notes that the sonic themes were particularly important when crafting Macbeth’s craziness. “Justin wanted to use sound to help with Macbeth’s deterioration into paranoia and madness, whether it be using the sound of the witches, harking back to the prophecy or the initial battle and the violence that had occurred there. Weaving that into the scenes as we moved forward was alMACBETHways going to be a tricky balancing act, but I think with the sounds that we created, the fantastic music from composer Jed Kurzel, and with Steve [Single] and Gilly [Lake] mixing, we’ve achieved something quite amazing.”

Sirkett details a moment of Macbeth’s madness in which he recalls the memory of war. “I spent a lot of time finding elements from the opening battle — whether it be swords, clashes or screams — that worked well once they were processed to feel as though they were drifting in and out of his mind without the audience being able to quite grasp what they were hearing, but hopefully sensing what they were and the implication of the violence that had occurred.”

Sirkett used Audio Ease’s Altiverb 7 XL in conjunction with a surround panning tool called Spanner by The Cargo Cult “to get some great sounds and move them accurately around the theatre to help give a sense of unease for those moments that Justin wanted to heighten Macbeth’s state of mind.”

The Foley, Score, Mix
The Foley team on Macbeth included Foley mixer Adam Mendez and Foley artist Ricky Butt from London’s Twickenham Studios. Additional Foley for the armies and special sounds for the witches was provided by Foley artist Carsten Richter and Foley mixer Marcus Sujata at Tonstudio Hanse Warns in Berlin, Germany. Sirkett points out that the sonic details related to the costumes that Macbeth and Banquo (Paddy Considine) wore for the opening battle. “Their costumes look huge, heavy and bloodied by the end of the opening battle. When they were moving about or removing items, you felt the weight, blood and sweat that was in them and how it was almost sticking to their bodies,” he says.

Composer Jed Kurzel’s score often interweaves with the sound design, at times melting into the soundscape and at other times taking the lead. Stemler notes the quiet church scene in which Lady Macbeth sits in the chapel of an abandoned village. Dust particles gently descend to the sound of delicate bells twinkling in the background. “They prepare for the moment where the score is sneaking in almost like an element of the wind.  It took us some time in the mix to find that perfect balance between the score and our sound elements. We had great fun with that kind of dance between the elements.”

MACBETHDuring the funeral of Macbeth’s child in the opening of the film, Jed Kurzel’s score (the director’s brother) emotes a gentle mournfulness as it blends with the lashing wind and rain sound effects. Single feels the score is almost like another character. “Bold and unexpected, it was an absolute pleasure to bring each cue into the mix. From the rolling reverse percussion of the opening credits to the sublime theme for Lady Macbeth’s decline into madness, he crafted a score that is really very special.”

Single and Lake mixed Macbeth in 5.1 at Warner Bros.’ De Lane Lea studio in London, using an AMS Neve DFC console. On Lake’s side of the board, he loved mixing the final showdown between Macbeth and Macduff — a beautifully edited sequence where the rhythm of the fighting perfectly plays against Jed Kurzel’s score.

“We wanted the action to feel like Macbeth and Macduff were wrenching their weapons from the earth and bringing the full weight of their ambitions down on one another,” says Lake. “Markus [Stemler] steered clear of traditional sword hits and shings and I tried to be as dynamic as possible and to accentuate the weight and movement of their actions.”

To create original sword sounds, Stemler took the biggest screw wrench he could find and recorded himself banging on every big piece of metal available in their studio’s warehouse. “I hit old heaters, metal staircases, stands and pipes. I definitely left a lot of damage,” he jokes. After a bit of processing, those sounds became major elements in the sword sounds.

Director Kurzel wanted the battle sequences to immerse the audience in the reality of war, and to show how deeply it affects Macbeth to be in the middle of all that violence. “I think the balance between “real” action and the slo-mo gives you a chance to take in the horror unfolding,” says Lake. “Jed’s music is very textural and it was about finding the right sounds to work with it and knowing when to back off with the effects and let it become more about the score. It was one of those rare and fortunate events where everyone is pulling in the same direction without stepping on each other’s toes!”

L-R Alastair Sirkett, Steve Single and Gilbert Lake.

L-R Alastair Sirkett, Steve Single and Gilbert Lake.

To paraphrase the famous quote, “Copy is King” holds true for any project, in a Shakespeare adaptation, the copy is as untouchable as Vito Corleone in The Godfather. “You have in Macbeth some of the most beautiful and insightful language ever written and you have to respect that,” says Single. His challenge was to make every piece of poetic verse intelligible while still keeping the intimacy that director Kurzel and the actors had worked for on-set, which Single notes, was not an easy task. “The film was shot entirely on location, during the worst storms in the UK for the past 100 years. Add to this an abundance of smoke machines and heavy Scottish accents and it soon became apparent that no matter how good production sound mixer Stuart Wilson’s recordings were — he did a great job under very tough conditions — there was going to be a lot of cleaning to do and some difficult decisions about ADR.”

Even though there was a good bit of ADR recorded, in the end Single found he was able to restore and polish much of the original recordings, always making sure that in the process of achieving clarity the actors’ performances were maintained. In the mix, Single says it was about placing the verse in each scene first and then building up the soundtrack around that. “This was made especially easy by having such a good effects mixer in Gilly Lake,” he concludes.

Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer and audio engineer.