CS Interview: Kenneth Branagh on Orient Express, Thor & more!
20th Century Fox provided ComingSoon.net the privilege of speaking 1:1 with Sir Kenneth Branagh, the director of this weekend’s film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s acclaimed mystery Murder on the Orient Express, as well as playing the lead of Belgian Detective Hercule Poirot. We had a fun chat with Branagh about creating a new version of the iconic detective and shooting on 65mm film, as well as his thoughts on Thor: Ragnarok and a fun anecdote about auditioning for David Lynch’s 1984 sci-fi film Dune!
What starts out as a lavish train ride through Europe quickly unfolds into one of the most stylish, suspenseful and thrilling mysteries ever told. From the novel by best-selling author Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express tells the tale of thirteen strangers stranded on a train, where everyone’s a suspect. One man must race against time to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.
In addition to directing Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh, a five-time Academy Award nominee, stars as detective Hercule Poirot. Academy Award winner Penelope Cruz plays Pilar Estravados, Academy Award nominee Willem Dafoe is Gerhard Hardman, Academy Award winner Judi Dench portrays Princess Dragomiroff, Academy Award nominee Johnny Depp plays Ratchett, Josh Gad appears as Hector MacQueen, Derek Jacobi is Edward Masterman, “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr. plays Dr. Arbuthnot, Academy Award nominee Michelle Pfeiffer portrays Mrs. Hubbard, and Daisy Ridley plays Mary Debenham.
Ridley Scott (The Martian), Simon Kinberg (The Martian, X-Men: Days of Future Past), Mark Gordon (Steve Jobs) and Branagh produced the film. Michael Schaefer, Aditya Sood and Judy Hofflund also produce. Michael Green (Blade Runner 2) wrote the screenplay, with James Prichard and Hilary Strong, both of Agatha Christie Ltd., executive producing.
ComingSoon.net: Poirot has always been a very fastidious and eccentric character, but in this movie his OCD is very pronounced. Why was emphasizing that important to you?
Kenneth Branagh: He doesn’t mind putting his foot in donkey sh*t, the problem was the other foot wasn’t in there. The problem was that imbalance, that need to order, to make even in the chaos. It makes him “Rain Man”-ian in terms of the distress it might cause him. Therefore, you set a relationship with the crime that will make it very personal for him. He’s gonna feel it a bit more than you would expect from Poirot, and it makes him less a prissy, hand sanitizer kind of guy and more just someone who has a desire for the universe to be in balance… even though he KNOWS the chances of that are minimal, and he’s about to encounter a deep example of how an apparently civilized person can turn into a primitive who will avenge with violence.
CS: He has to confront a morally grey situation.
Branagh: Yeah. He says at the beginning of the show, “There’s right, there’s wrong, there is nothing in between.” He clings to the idea that there has to be some sort of moral absolutism about this, but once you introduce that great variable of drama, the human being, that space in between involves hurt and suffering with people for whom he may be forced to consider some sympathy. I think Michael Green’s screenplay gives Poirot quite the arc of development in terms of a man hoping to live through the control and exercise of his brain who’s gonna have to now intuitively respond to the involuntary movement of his heart.
CS: What was the significance of Katherine, the woman in the photo that he holds dear?
Branagh: In the books he has a love interest called Vera Rossakoff, who’s a Russian countess. He says of her, “She had one green eye and one blue eye. I could not look at her, I could not look away.” I think he likes the idea of almost a lost love scenario. The idea that he’s longing for what Katherine may portray could come into further possible movies if there were any. Let us reveal a little more of the Poirot who’s ended up as a lone individual, who’s drawn from case to case not having holidays because they keep getting interrupted, and not having that companionship. You feel the ache of it. He loves his companionship with Bouc, but you feel as though this Poirot is drawn to the ladies and to a chivalrous, courtly… almost like an old fashioned knight, like a Don Quixote or something. Tilting at windmills sometimes. It just felt like a romantic longing in that man’s soul would be a very melancholic element to his loneliness and isolation.
CS: You mentioned other possible movies, and in this film you tease “Death on the Nile” as the next entry. Could you see yourself portraying the character again not just in movies but also television? The way Peter Ustinov did both?
Branagh: First of all, the idea of making more is very appealing. I so, so loved making this a big screen adventure. I loved using 65mm and being able to set up The Last Supper and do a 12-shot where Penelope Cruz was as sharp and beautifully lit as Josh Gad at the other end. Feeling the visceral experience of these Agatha Christie trademarks. Exotic locales, in our case Jerusalem and Istanbul and the alps. For right now that’s appointment cinema, and that’s where I prefer to remain. I love the fact that she travels the globe, and there’s certain kind of stories and characters that allow for that treatment. It’s also been done brilliantly on television, I think, but there’s room for cinema treatment that I think is distinct.
CS: It was really to fun watch it projected in 70mm with all the crackles and energy of watching film, but besides the nostalgia factor, I know you also shot “Hamlet” in 70mm. What appeals to you about these grand, old school formats?
Branagh: Because that’s how I started seeing movies when I was a kid, and I still go to the movies. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I go to the movies far more than I watch television. It’s a choice. I like the communal experience, I like the size of the image, I like the immersion. I like the escape of it. I like the experience of it. I was lucky enough to be in “Dunkirk,” and although a very different picture, to see that IMAX 70mm version, I saw it with that picture in both formats, was unforgettably transporting in terms of entertainment. There’s a departure point that’s different, that I particularly embrace. For certain subjects it’s a great timeless treat, and the fact that you have to make a different commitment for the experience event-izes it.
CS: There have been a lot of portrayals of this character, with Ustinov and David Suchet and Albert Finney. Which one spoke to you the most before you decided to do this movie?
Branagh: I like them all, and of course coming from the classical theater tradition you’re always following the footsteps of tremendous people who will be the ideal version of that character for somebody else. So you know you won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but there’s a wonderful masculinity about Albert Finney, a kind of blustering certainty about him. There’s a more eccentric, far away quality in Ustinov, and there’s a beautiful delicacy to Suchet. They all have wonderful responses to Poirot, but Christie definitely has so many colors to him across these 33 novels and 50 short stories that you can go and find your own Poirot. Ours is a little more melancholy, slightly more romantic. You mentioned Katherine… Also, he’s differently lunatic, a man who enjoys his Dickens like he does or his puddings like he does. His military background is a bit more evident, he’s a tiny bit more agile perhaps.
CS: More dashing.
Branagh: Yeah. He has a different kind of flamboyance. He’s a bit more bloodhound-y, leans forward. Once the scent of a crime is there there’s nothing he can do about it, and if he has to fight someone then he will and he has no physical fear. If he has to walk on top of the train he’ll walk on top of the train. He doesn’t get over-fussy about that. What he gets manically obsessed about is the size of eggs, or even numbers.
CS: Someone interrupting his reading makes him furious, but getting shot in the arm not so much!
Branagh: Not so much! It has to do with his own attempt to control the raging concerns in his own mind of what he refers to as “imbalance.” I think a lot of people, whether or not it’s a modern condition, respond or identify with that in some way. Many of us have our own rituals. We try to find a way to put one foot in front of the other in a very noisy and chaotic world. Poirot is a somewhat touching example or representative of our own paranoias.
CS: Out of curiosity have you seen “Thor: Ragnarok”?
Branagh: No, but I look forward to it very much. Really look forward to the fact that it’s clearly so different in tone, although Kevin Feige was in touch recently very sweetly, to say they use a bit of Patrick Doyle’s theme from the first movie and it’s quite a touching moment at the end of a great fun space adventure that sort of let’s you know the roots from which it came. They all sort of join up. I’m very pleased it seems so releasing for Chris that the character’s been re-energized. Taika’s a terrific director, and a sense of fun and adventure with the character is also very pleasing to see. I’m proud to have been a small part of that universe and to have dealt with that subject tonally at a time when we were all pretty sweaty about whether we could make it work on its own, let alone as part of the great edifice that is now the MCU!
CS: You were the perfect guy to usher it in because you brought a layer of gravitas to it that people needed to make it seem less outlandish, but now they can go full-farce. They can also do more blatantly Jack Kirby-esque designs and that sort of thing.
Branagh: Yeah yeah! There were a lot of things for us to consider at the time, but this was a lot of people’s work forging the way for Thor to find himself, for a character like Loki to really land as Tom did, and to feel as though you had this kind of gravitas that Hopkins and Rene Russo brought to it. There was something very useful about that, because other pictures can… The genius of the first “Iron Man” was you all that wit, but Downey’s such a marvelous actor and Favreau has such a great touch with it, but when it needs to be serious even for a bit it can be. That’s a very useful piece of contrast.
CS: Something I’ve always been curious about is I know for “Thor” you were referencing David Lynch’s “Dune” a lot for the look and feel of Asgard. There’s a director attached to that property currently, but is there a part of you that ever wanted to adapt Frank Herbert’s “Dune?”
Branagh: I personally don’t. I’m a big David Lynch fan, so as far as I’m concerned he nailed it, in my view. I think he’s a wonderful director, I love his stuff. With someone like that it’s so personal. I love the design and the look and feel of it. I have a soft spot for it because it’s one of the many many films as a young actor I auditioned for and didn’t get anywhere near. I remember when I was a 21-year-old actor meeting with the not-very-much-older David Lynch for “Dune” way back in 1980 or something like that. He was so nice and so kind and I was nobody, there was no reason to be as gentlemanly and civil and interested as he was. He was looking for actors, I suppose, and he had a vested interest to do so, but he was a really good example to me early on how you might comport yourself in this business. It was a very memorable meeting, because he had just done — and I was in awe of — “Elephant Man,” which is a magnificent movie. Magnificent. So he’s a big hero of mine.
CS: I doubt it was anything due to you not getting that part. Based on casting Kyle MacLachlan, I think Lynch was looking for someone who looked like him.
CS: And clearly became his muse later.
Branagh: And did a wonderful job and is a fine actor.
CS: My last question is, having been aware of you since “Henry V” when everyone was heralding you as the second coming of Laurence Olivier and all this stuff. How do you feel about the evolution of your career going from that perception to now you’re the guy who does big blockbuster movies?
Branagh: No one more surprised than I, to be perfectly honest. Also, there’s that famous Samuel Beckett quote, “Fail, fail again, fail better.” You stand up, you fall down. I’ve had a few sort of incarnations. In some way it seems sort of disparate and unusual, and at the same time even I can see a bit of unity in the subject matter and the interest, and the style of filmmaking, a sort of refinement. Every time you walk on a film set now you’re so unbelievably thrilled and grateful. When we made “Henry V” and for the following dozen movies you would think, “Are we gonna make another movie?” I always remembered Scorsese saying, “You hope your movie makes enough money to allow you to make the next one,” and coming from the independent movies knowing whether you were gonna shoot or not was a few days out from principal photography. You still wouldn’t know. A guy in Luxembourg had to sign something, there was a tranche of money coming from some weird place. There was a fantastic instability that frankly, in response to what you’re saying, of course you’re amazed that you’re still making films. You think, “Christ, we’re thirty years in and I’m lucky to be following through with my particular preoccupations about what makes human beings tick, and they’re as present underneath “Murder on the Orient Express” as they were back then with Shakespeare’s masterpiece.
CS: Has the business changing also been a factor? Back in the day it seems it was easier for a studio to finance a film they knew wasn’t going to make $300 million bucks. It was like having a nice piece of art in their lobby or something. But nowadays the goalpost has moved.
Branagh: Yeah, it’s never been more challenging or volatile, and we’ve lived across this digital revolution. I’m a dinosaur who came out of a pre-internet age to this thing your holding [iPhone] being something we can make half-a-dozen movies on. The volatility means something like “Murder” shot on 70mm becomes quite a big and important decision, a scary risky one. It’s quite an important one as a statement that, “It’s still possible to make movies!” And it’s still possible to invite audiences to a cinema to see one, at least for now. You never knew you were gonna be saying that out loud 30 years ago, but who knew that piece of plastic you have there was going to transform our lives? It has, and it’s still an evolving and exciting story.
Murder on the Orient Express is now playing in theaters everywhere.