What Kenneth Branagh has done with Murder on the Orient Express is make the kind of movie we really don’t see anymore, which is a weird thing to say about a movie that’s also a remake. But there are no superheroes (not that Branagh is a stranger to that, after directing the first Thor) and very little traditional action. The film adapts Agatha Christie’s 1934 book and, filmed in 70 mm, makes it feel grand. By going back, it feels unique.
I met Branagh at an office building, in a very large conference room, in Midtown Manhattan. He’s had a busy year, not only directing and starring as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, but also starring in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. (Who Branagh refers to as “the master” when it comes to filmmaking). And, yes, the two talked a lot about directing and the use of film over digital; Branagh shares some of their conversations ahead.
Branagh also shares some stories about directing the first Thor film. He’s incredibly excited to see the third chapter, but remembers a time when nerves were on edge, because if Thor hadn’t worked, it could have threatened the whole idea of the MCU.
So where should I sit?
You can be the chairman of the board.
No, I believe you’re the chairman…
We’re joint chairmen.
I cannot take any of your chairmanship.
Stop it. You’re on.
It’s weird to say because it’s a remake, but I haven’t watched a movie like this in a theater in some time. Does that make sense?
It does make sense. Well I really, really remember my first times at movie theaters with my parents. The late ’60s – I remember particularly when I was eight years old – my birthday treat was being taken to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is great.
It’s a great big, super colorful, with great songs, a car goes over cliffs. You’re with a vehicle and it goes through Europe, goes through Bavaria. And so, the escapism of that was just in every sense – not that I would have understood it consciously then, I just knew that it was a fantastically vivid experience that definitely was about going to the cinema.
Is that why you shot Murder on the Orient Express in 70mm?
Yes, it is. It is.
Have you always shot on film?
All of it’s been in film. I’ve worked with digital in television.
Do you take Christopher Nolan’s stance? Are you opposed to digital?
No, I just prefer it. And I’ve been brought up on the rich look, what it does to the working method of the day on a set in terms of a little what Jack Lemmon used to call “magic time,” when you’re changing the mags on the camera. We baked in, I would say, a human quality that also is a lovely counterpoint to just the massivity of saying, “Yes, I’ve got 12 people at the end and I want to create the Last Supper and I want to see Penelope Cruz as sharp and beautifully lit at one end as Josh Gad at the other end and feel that format can take it.”
I’ve never heard the phrase “Josh Gad beautifully lit” before.
[Laughs.] It’s what he insists on. It’s a rider in his contract and we all have to put up with it.
Something tells me on the set of Dunkirk that you and Christopher Nolan had many discussions about this.
Well, I certainly ask a ton of questions, but it was mostly watching the master at work…
Well, that could be said about your work as well.
Well, for me it was definitely the foot was on the other shoe, or whatever. But watching somebody who was clearly so, so prepared when he came and talked to me about the script – he was fantastically impressive about the sort of mathematical way in which he laid out what he was doing. And that was not surprising given the sort of scientific kind of rigor to what he does, and in subject matter we know he leans that way. But then to arrive on the set, and with this massive amount of logistics to deal with, then seeing him essentially doing a lot of improvising, it was very pleasing to see that. So it wasn’t just a head operation, his heart and his instincts were at it. And you really felt, as I’ve done with few directors, that you were watching an artist at work, especially as he was still center in a chaos. My section of the movie involved being there every day on that great mole, as they call it…
Right, I had to learn what a mole meant. I didn’t know…
Neither did I until he sat down and told me about it. But around it were real boats, and then beyond that were the real boats of the here and now, trying to get in and out of Dunkirk. So we’re constantly coping with all of that. What I also loved in this format is just, and a big screen, is just the size of the image, the size of the close-up.
It feels like an event.
Michelle Pfeiffer, as she sat down at the Royal Albert Hall, she said, “Jesus, that’s big.” She said, “Nobody wants to be that big.” I said, “You’re going to be fine.” But of course, when we started this conversation, that’s what I remember. I remember it being that big. But from that point of view it was an incredibly sort of cathartic, therapeutic invitation. I did go to other worlds and feel as though I tasted it, and it was kind of all-embracing like that incredible soundtrack to Dunkirk.
Did you ever consider changing the twist? Or changing who is murdered?
Well, I guess we did consider all those things. For me, like the central kind of lure was filling the kind of primitive revenge passion that comes out of it that plays differently in this movie to previous versions. And I thought, well, you know, in a thriller, everybody thinks everything can mean something, and that’s true. So if you do begin the movie differently and if you have new characters – like Penelope Cruz’s Pilar Estravados, from another Poirot novel – and if by way of plugging into what you might call that emotional quality, then I think what you do offer is a sort of moral twist. A moral code of, now, if we know all of those things, what do we do about it? What does Poirot do about it?
And it’s been long enough since the last adaptation, and I think there’s a lot of people who don’t know the twist.
I agree with that and that’s the sense I have anecdotally. Or even if people who’ve seen it who just can’t remember, especially if you have diverted them along the way so that you’ve sucked them in and now they’re looking at other things. And again, if you’re giving them the big screen experience, there is something that’s to do with the whole experience that perhaps isn’t applying their own Sherlock Holmes concentration in quite the same way. We buy a bit of time.
And there’s that beautiful long shot where you and Michelle Pfeiffer are walking through the train…
It was such fun to do that…
How do you do that while directing, too?
Those kind of days you’ve got no neck because your shoulders are so far up above your ears with concern. You start rehearsing on that day. You know what you want. You want to put people in the swirl of it all.
But you can’t see the shot.
It is difficult, and you get to develop a kind of instinct about these things that is almost a sort of choreographic instinct.
Are there cuts or was it all one shot?
No, it’s all one.
I didn’t know if that was movie magic…
No, no movie magic, no stitching things together. But days like that, they’re very stressful because you’re not really shooting that shot until 2 o’clock in the afternoon because it takes so long to rehearse. There are so many things, you’ve got to light the thing, fatigue makes mistakes happen. Everything goes right and then a supporting artist in the background is suddenly picking his nose…
And audiences don’t want to see a nose pick in the middle of this shot.
It was Gad, wasn’t it?
[Laughs.] Gad and that nose picking. I wish he would not, but it’s like a sickness with him, you know?
It’s in his rider as well. He’s allowed to do that in shots.
Exactly. It’s the lighting and that he’s allowed to pick his nose wherever he wants.
I’m curious, have you seen or are you going to see Thor: Ragnarok? Do you still care about Thor?
I am most certainly going to see Thor, and I do care about it, and I’m thrilled that they’re making a third one and I love that director.
You were tasked with the impossible: to make a movie about Thor, because on paper, that’s a really hard character.
Remember, there were only two pictures in the Marvel Universe. Iron Man, genius, the first one. Hulk hadn’t worked as they’d hoped.
And then Thor was the third character.
And then number three, it was sink or swim before Captain America and then suddenly, oh, it was fine after that. We make Iron Man 2 and Avengers and everything’s tickety-boo. But everybody who was there knows that that was an incredibly sweaty time.
So if Thor doesn’t work, the whole operation might be off?
That’s certainly how they felt. No question that Kevin Feige used to say to me, “This is the single most difficult tonal challenge for us, to make this movie work in itself and fit into this large universe.” In fact, I think Thor, and in Chris Hemsworth’s performance, becomes an absolutely integral part.
And Chris Hemsworth winds up being naturally very funny.
No, he was always, always funny. Always funny. But we also would definitely try to anchor some family drama in that first one, and you try to establish the mythology and the fish-out-of-water thing as well when he comes to Earth. So I think we laid out quite a lot of places from which the story could develop. And I’m personally really looking forward to what Taika’s done with it. I’m very pleased that they’re not just making the same movie each time. They’re being ballsy.
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