Known for his Shakespearean and theater background, Kenneth Branagh takes on yet another directorial challenge with Marvel's action-adventure, Thor. He sat down with Buzzine and explained the comparison of Norse mythology to Shakespeare's ideas, and talked about casting the perfect gods, and the immense undertaking of this high-effects, 3D movie.
Emmanuel Itier: When the news was announced that you were directing the film, there was some discussion that you felt like perhaps a less likely choice. I’m wondering if, during filming, you ever felt like a less likely choice to direct your film.
Kenneth Branagh: [Laughs] The scale of the undertaking couldn’t help but make you feel occasionally that it was very, very challenging, but that was part of what was attractive. And people sometimes ask me, “How did you do it?” And I say, “Have you seen the credits at the end? There’s seven minutes of ‘em. You see all of those names? That’s how I did it.” I’m surrounded by four lads who were crucial to it. And frankly, when you walked on day one and there are frost giants and there’s green screen, and there’s real mist and rain, and there are six principals in their new costumes for the first time and all of that, and four camera crews and hundreds of people, frankly, these are the kinds of people you go and squeeze and say, “What do I do next?” [Laughs] In fact, I’ll tell you, this is what Kevin [Feige]...I think day one, I fell in his office in Beverly Hills I said, “So what should I do first?" You know, the first day at school. "Should I go to visual effects? Should I go to 3D, all the places I don’t know?" And actually, he said, “The one thing you need to do right now and until it’s finished is cast Thor. That’s it. Just cast Thor.” And every time I watch the movie and I see Tad Asano later in the movie responding to a bit of the story and he goes [whispers], "We must find Thor! We must find Thor!” And I remember that was day one: “Find Thor!” [Laughs] So we did.
EI: What inspired you to cast Tadanobu Asano, while you can cast a Asian-American or a British-American -- I mean an Asian-British actor instead?
KB: I had just seen the history of the character in the comics. I saw Tad in Mongol and I just thought, “Amazing actor.”
EI: This is now the fourth film in the Marvel cannon line, I suppose, but for this film, did you feel limited in any way? Or because it was the first story for this character, did you feel free?
KB: Absolutely, because Kevin and the rest of my colleagues at Marvel were completely...and, to me, invisibly, being the architects of the larger universe. And I always felt, whether it was simply because that’s all I was capable of...and I feel as though that’s true -- that Thor, for one film, is all I have to do is try. And boy, that’s enough. How do you introduce this character? And then the process by which it may affect other things. For my money, it was smooth. Also, as a viewer, I am intrigued by the interweaving of the way things happen in the Marvel universe. So I was so excited by the opportunities to maybe relate to that in some way. But it’s actually a collaboration partnership. We talk, you do it. The freedom-smeedom at all really doesn’t come into it -- you’re just making a film.
EI: Do you think your experience in other effects movies, like Potter, for example, as an actor -- did that make you a little bit more comfortable in terms of yourself as a director, now that you’re making this big effects-laden film?
KB: Yes, although my experience was that the quality of the technology changes. The advances in the technology change so much that it really always, on a daily basis, is advancing. So I did the Harry Potter quite some time ago, and as brilliant as they are, I think Marvel is on the cutting edge of things, I’m pleased to say so. The whole of the process from day one through to the end was an expanding possibility with visual effects. So it was a bit of preparation, but frankly, it was new opportunities every day.
EI: How challenging was it for you to direct the movie based on the comics compared with Shakespeare film? Which one is harder?
KB: It’s the scale thing that is tricky.
EI: It’s very Shakespearian, in a way, this family. Did all of your work with Shakespeare help you with that? And also, is there an origin story where he finds the mallet and he becomes Thor for the first time? And I wonder why you didn’t choose to do that...
KB: To answer the first one, we’d just seen about two billion people watch a royal family at work. So I would say it is Shakespearian, but it’s just global, I suppose. That we’re interested in what goes on in the corridors of power, whether it’s the White House or whether it’s Buckingham Palace or... So Shakespeare was interested in the lives of the medieval royal families, but he also raided the Roman myths and the Greek myths for the same purpose. And I think Stan Lee went to the myths that Shakespeare hadn’t used -- all of them recognizing that they contain briefly told, very condensed stories of that I think are very universal in their application. I think the connection, if there is one, is that the stakes are high. So in something like Henry IV or Henry V, where the young prince...how a reckless man falls into bad company, could that prince be the king? Is he the right man for the job? It's that kind of story. Our flawed hero who must earn the right to be king is in our piece, but I think what’s key is the stakes. There, it’s Europe and England in power, and here it’s the universe. It’s when that family has problems, everybody else is affected, so if Thor throws a fit and is yelling at his father and is banished, suddenly the worlds are unstable. And what it means is if the actors take those stakes seriously, it is passionate, and it is very intense. I suppose that kind of a observation of ordinary humans -- although they’re gods -- frailties in people in positions of power is an obsession of great storytellers, including Shakespeare and including the Marvel universe.
EI: You spoke earlier about the magnitude of casting your Thor. Can you walk us through the casting process a little bit more? And then, once you were on set, what Anthony [Hopkins] and Chris [Hemsworth]’s relationship was like?
KB: Finding that character arc for Thor was key, and we were doing that all the way through the early process of finding Thor. So it’s true to say that Chris Hemsworth came in early on, and I think we weren’t fully on the page with what we were developing for him. We weren’t as clear... We became pretty ambitious with what was clearly going to be a character journey -- somebody who definitely changed from the beginning of the movie to the end. So the more we’d realize that, the more we realized it wouldn’t only rely on brawn; it would need some sort of acting brains and some emotion and some fun, and that the character could take it, and the story seemed to want it. So really a lot tied up in bundle. And then, at some point, we said, “Well, we should go back and meet that very handsome Australian lad who came in when our story wasn’t really on the page. And when he came back and he did a number of things, he read and he did workshops and he read with actors, with actresses. And then, one day when he kind of nailed it, he told a story of Thor’s deeds like a warrior retelling some story of a great battle, and the mixture of a kind of arrogance that he needed to have still was done with such charm that it seemed to be that absolutely...nailed it. Additionally, this required quality of an innate, charming confidence that did not spill over into arrogance or overconfidence that meant that he would stand up in a scene with Tony Hopkins. And he couldn’t, as the prince of Asgard, shy away from it, so it was really a privilege to see how he embodied all of that. And then ultimately, of course, when he takes his shirt off, there’s also a wow factor that cannot be denied. [Laughs] As Louis D’Esposito, co-president of Marvel, said when we looked at it a few weeks ago when we were finishing it off, he said, “My god, he looks good in 3D!” [Laughs]
EI: Was there any effort to be eco-friendly at all on the set, to reduce, reuse, recycle any materials or waste and reduce energy waste, anything like that? I know it’s a big action movie, but...
KB: Well, we tried where we could, to be perfectly honest, led by Natalie Portman, who resisted the use of plastic bottles. So she was an influence. In the action sequences, in terms of smoke, energy we used, no it was a factor. I think it is woven into what we do. So it is an action movie and you’re gonna spill some water every now and again, but I think we attended to it, and we did the best we could.
EI: Could you talk about discovering Thor in the comics as a young person or a teen, and what was it about that that you thought, “He’s a cool guy”?
KB: For me, it was this primitive quality. I liked his wild quality. I like the Viking at the center of it -- that’s what I saw when I saw those images on a comic book. He was volatile. I thought that would be dangerous in telling a movie, that he’s not too smooth. He’s not too slick. And one of the things we were trying to achieve in the telling of the story was that it could feel in the moment. That there could be some kind of genuine danger.
EI: Aside from The Avengers, will we be seeing Thor return in maybe some sequels? Do you have a trilogy planned? And will you be returning to direct as well?
KB: Kevin and I share, from my point of view, a sort of deep Irish Celtic superstition of taking anything for granted, so we and the Marvel world is a world of non-assumption. When I first started in the film business -- but please forgive the language I’m about to use -- a producer said to me, “Young man, assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups.” [Laughs] So we are assuming nothing. We are offering the film out to the world, and we shall listen to what will happen.
EI: I would imagine the casting of Loki was tough, because that character has got to be so passive-aggressive. Could you talk about casting Tom [Hittleston] for that?
KB: Certainly from the performance point of view, we needed somebody who was complex and could remain intelligent. And for me, I think there was a constant conversation between us all about can we, should we, is it a good thing to keep the question mark over Loki’s character throughout? Is he bad? Does he have a plan? Does he love his brother? Does he hate his brother, hate his father? Is this happening before our very eyes? How does he truly react to the secrets and lies that emerge in the course of the story? So you needed someone who could be adept at putting on all those masks and make it seem seamless so that you were in the scene with the other character who...for instance, when he visits Thor on Earth and really does something quite appalling in terms of what he passes on. It’s a beautiful scene, I think, and acted very well by the pair of them. I think that level of shocking skill in an actor in life was what we were after from the performance. Tom I’d worked with in England in the UK on television and theater, and I knew that he was energized, bright, adroit, quick-thinking. That’s what we wanted from the performance.
Paramount Pictures' 'Thor' is released on May 6, 2011.