From the set: Kenneth Branagh on bringing Artemis Fowl to life
It’s April 2018 and Sir Kenneth Branagh (as we are several times reminded) is in the middle of shooting the first big screen Artemis Fowl film. On a soundstage outside London he’s built the famed Fowl Manor and filled it with holes for Disney’s upcoming big screen outing. Though spring is just around the corner and many of the trees outside the manor (an actual mansion you can walk through built on a back lot) have retained their green leaves it is actually quite blustery and cold. Cold enough that when Sir Branagh the Artemis Family library he is wearing a down vest and flannel to protect from the chill air that follows even indoors.
KB: There’s certain Irish attitude to the weather we’ve benefited from. There’s a beat where we’re set in what appears to be a frozen Siberia which we were about to build which we were about to build an enormous set for and then the snow came and we simply went outside. Often even for a short time I think the spirit of the place, even for a few days if you’re in a different place, if you go to a shop or hear voices there’s a different sense of vibration. We went to Ho Chi Minh City to shoot at the beginning and I don’t know if you’ve been there – Ferdia and Nonso who came with us – they’d never seen it before and were both on mopeds traveling around the city SAFELY! No children were exposed to any form of safety hazard in that carefully orchestrated event. But it was an incredible culture shock with the noise and density of the traffic, the friendliness and curiosity of the people and all of that is an incredible injection into the beginning of the movie as is Ireland. I always think when I fly home there’s a green that there’s no other color like that Irish green. Sounds sentimental but if that’s in the movie I think it’s good. Having a nice day so far?
CS: Of course.
KB: Good, good, good. It’s usually a good day when you can walk past a set and there’s a big troll catapult outside. It never gets old. I’m very happy to answer what I can.
CS: What grabbed you about these books?
KB: The imagination, it felt original. I loved its Irishness as I’m originally from that country, and the sort of, the collision sometimes between, the proximity of very different worlds. I like that creativeness, it feels like a good, risky place to be. I had some experience with it making the film of Thor where I had a very contemporary world, still heightened feeling, of science is right next door to a world of magic. And that’s fascinating to me because it means you can be poetic. It means you can have a size that does invite an audience to go the movies and watch it on a big screen with a lot of other people. Because somehow the subject matter expands away from the norms. And the combination of terms in there, not just the looks and the textures and all the different kinds of visual techniques you might use, but just tonally often very, very funny and as I always find myself drawn to a balance between that and emotional content which we’ve chosen to emphasize from the books. So there’s a lot to learn, frankly. It’s been a very fantastic thing to do. The same with Thor, it’s an invitation to delve into something you don’t know, read and experience stuff that is new so that has been fantastically rewarding.
CS: The majority of the main cast is very young and two have been aged down to be very young so was that difficult to work with, with young actors who have the burden of this film? What was the decision to age them down?
KB: There was some, I was, there’s a great theater director Peter Brook who talks about the uniformed hunch. The uninformed hunch was that there was a very youthful quality across these stories that I thought would be really perhaps enjoyable in a way that people of the same age might relate to if there was that collegiate sort of camaraderie. And that maybe a sort of older sister or sort of teaching figure, Holly to Artemis, was differently sort of calibrated. Holly is by no means, it seems in the books, a Tinkerbell. You know she’s not small and fleet and miniature faire. She’s a very spirited woman, although she’s a fairy Eon plays beautifully with human characteristics and his own made up fairy characteristics. But the idea that we might see, without having to go into more films – the public will tell us if they want to see more – that if it works they can sort of grow up together. And I like the idea of that so that for me the sort of the blur that he explores is the one that I wanted where their fairiness or their humanity keeps being sort of muddled and the many times the sort of emotional quality I’ve touched on is had when you forget for a second that Holly Short is a fairy or that Commander Root is a fairy, because you’re not aware of their ears part of the time. And when you’re caught up in their sort of sometimes family dynamics or just social dynamics and sometimes it allows you play quite dramatic scenes or emotional scenes as if it were from any other kind of drama and you open a door and your into some other kind of crazy world and you go ‘wow! She can fly!’ ‘she’s got big ears!’ you’ve got magic, etc. Closer in age has just made it feel that Artemis is less isolated and we could fun with that age group.
CS: Did you want an unknown for Artemis from the start? Was that important?
KB: It felt probably that that was, given the age range, it was likely to be the case. Although there are some fantastic actors of that kind of age. But I guess we did feel it would probably be doing something for the movie if that actor really was Irish. We auditioned some 1200 boys, anyone in Ireland applied, but people from all over the world, and a tough one was people from other countries or backgrounds doing an Irish accent. It’s tough at the best of times as it is in any nation. There are a trillion accents and there isn’t a single one that is easy. But there is a sort of free cultural frisson that you get out of a kid – in his case he comes from Kilkinney and Laura McDonald who plays Holly Short who comes from a part of fairy world that appears to be underneath Ireland so she happens to be Irish. And that helped to locate something quite distinct to the movie, not the accent so much that we feel like we’re in another place. But ultimately known/unknown was less of an issue than that illusive thing in making anything creative. Does it seem or feel right, whatever right is.
CS: How villainous would you say Artemis is in this movie and how sympathetic?
KB: IT was always a big big challenge to see whether … the starting point in the book is that he is I might say a bit more disposed to be villainous. And we know how fast the world moves these days in terms of what seemed kind of normal at one point seeming very abnormal, the idea of master criminality being cool thing is somehow, something to have a look at again without trying to be revisionist. We try to find the center, the spirit of the book. I guess we’re the first movie, to try and answer your question, to offer up a journey from a relatively normality: we put Artemis more in a normal school, a regular school, we see him with other people. We suggest this beautiful, crazy, bonkers house is one full of imagination from Fowls added to it over the centuries out of imagination. That is less about the acquisition of land and things and more about looking out into the world of magic, the cosmos and astronomy. And that this kid when we see him in here hopefully invites our movie audience to come in here and be here with him in a place that’s crazy and warm but not exclusive. So to that extent he’s maybe not sympathetic but recognizable, a little more one of us. This first movie, if it is a first movie and definitely if it isn’t, becomes in the first an origin story and in the latter hopefully an account of how a guy who does not know about magic – or in this case the workings of his father, his secret business practices – and has to go through a story that puts to him the idea of does he think being villainous is good, does he think being a criminal is good? Does he start liking fairy gold? Does he like the power that’s acquired when you steal a neutrino handgun from Holly Short or you outface Commander Root or do all of these sort of grown up things that the story is forcing him to embrace. To be honest a story, please don’t take this too literally, but a story shape that I found interesting as we considered this – I always look at the masters, the great classics – is The Godfather. Where Michael Corleone in the beginning of the first film while part of a family he knows to involved in business is someone who’s been in the service, is not entirely aware of exactly what dad does but by the end of the picture he has to face up to ‘shall I do some of this as well? Do I believe in it? Am I behind it?’ I’m aware we’re in a world that offers a different kind of enjoyment and pace. One of the things that engages people I hope from the books, and I hope for us for the film, is that it will be very rapid. It’s a movie that will be, in my mind Touch wood! (and he does) it will be way under two hours. I have 90 minutes in mind; when I[m making films I always try and make classic movies of the past of any kind and genre at 90 minutes because I think that’s a terribly time period to do lots of things well. And yet as I go to the movies all the time and I set for the extra 20 minutes that I don’t think we usually need – and I’ve provided those 20 minutes on numerous occasions so I speak as a guilty party. So I don’t think, and it’s because people’s attention spans are necessarily shorter but it’s a miraculous and beautiful thing when something you might want out of an escapist entertainment which is to be involved and diverted and be entertained and have drama can all happen in a sort of breathlessly compact space. That’s what I’m aiming for. That’s what Eoin Colfer offers an invitation for as he does that in each of his books.
CS: Adding Judi Dench takes out the part of Holly’s story where she’s the first female officer – how did you deal with that?
KB: I think, you can imagine with Judi Dench we have a powerful female mentor discussing other ways in which Holly’s advancement and her particular position in the LEP RECON can be distinct and powerful and effective has a different kind of spin. We’ve retained a very strong interest in Holly’s independence and also the isolation the story puts her under with the legend about her so called notorious possible father. So we don’t make life any simpler for her in terms of progressive, there are plenty of obstacles, systemic and sometimes male, that get in her way. And that occurs to some extent for the character of Commander Root as well, so I think we try and inject with lightness and fun a bit of real politic into that. The world will get reflected in the way she goes through the story.
CS: Was Josh Gad in the back of your mind as you were making Murder on the Orient Express for this role?
KB: I try to start with a clean slate. What I knew was he was a joy to work with, as indeed is Judi Dench. It was a first time experience working with him, I’d met him before, but I knew that because it was Irish in sprit that a fringe of anarchy would be in the movie. Everyone is taking part in that whether it’s today where Mulch Diggums in a moment of enormous stress and tension and drama decides he can subdue a troll in an unusual way – and we had fun with that. IF that’s something, we work, we get on well with our Disney family. There was an understanding we were going to improvise quite a bit, not just Josh Gad but also Nonso Anonzie who’s wonderful actor I’ve had a chance to work with a number of times and even Dame Judi Dench. When faced with these prospects the other day as I said ‘that’s great, we’ve got exactly what’s scripted, now would you say this, this and this and then if anything else would you do that to which she replied ‘I’m not Josh Gad! He’s terribly, terribly clever!’ I said ‘do you want to do it?’ “Yes, I do, I love improve.’ It’s partly because it’s Irish and fairies and the speed and pace of this sort of siege movie so it’s volatile and you never know what’s going to happen. So we’ve tried to shake of anything too set away from the greater good. Even though I was lucky to be part of the untouchable Potter we’re here able to be part of something a little bit sort of mad, got a bit more Celtic you know.
CS: What went into casting Butler and his niece? They don’t look exactly related.
KB: Juliet who in the book is sister to Butler is in this case niece to Butler. We asked Eion up front ‘we’d like to be free to bring as much imagination to the casting as possible.’ So for instance he describes Butler in the book as Eurasian and in the context of the world he created it felt as though that could lead to a number of possibilities. But you certainly needed to get the sense that he was an effective bodyguard, whether he was very large or very small or whatever country he came from. I always wanted to have Nonso in the part, he really was someone I thought of from early on – I worked with him in films probably 15 years ago. That started that. With Artemis and Holly and Juliet we looked at literally hundreds, in fact thousands, of people to find what we thought was the right characteristics. We didn’t worry too much about absolutism of backgrounds. So she’s mixed race and we think that’s fine. My attitude to this goes back to the beginning of going to work and in Much Ado About Nothing and casting Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves as half-brothers. It’s a world where I think, part of the spirt of the movie is to say yes, this is the world we’re in. Judi Dench is not the male he is in the book but at the same time you can say the characters are Faerie. We asked Eion if we could have license to do that and he said yeah let’s do it, and then we followed our instincts about what we thought were talented people we thought were right for the part. It’s kind of my taste for eclecticism and pluralism in that way.