Hollywood’s Best Film Directors


Kenneth Branagh

In "Hollywood's Best Film Directors," we go behind-the-scenes with some of Hollywood's biggest names. They talk about their lives and work, explaining what makes them so successful. The series includes heavy-hitters Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and M. Night Shyamalan, among others.

AIRED: May 04, 2020 | 0:25:58



And action! Got it!

Man: Done!

[ Clapboard clacks ]

Narrator: This great Hollywood director

comes from an Irish working-class family

and became the youngest actor ever to play Henry V

for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

He later made his first movie from the play

and was nominated for an Academy Award

and received the BAFTA Award for Best Director.

He then successfully pursued an acting

and directing career with such movies

as "Peter's Friends,"

"Frankenstein" with Robert De Niro,

and "Much Ado About Nothing"

with Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves.

His four-hour film version of "Hamlet,"

led by an impressive cast, was a tremendous success,

nominated for four Academy Awards

and became a reference for how to turn

Shakespearean plays into films.

He's also had massive hits with action and fantasy movies,

such as "Jack Ryan" "Cinderella," and "Thor."

Hi I'm Kenneth Branagh, and you're watching

"Hollywood's Best Film Directors."

We're talking here in the Pressburger mixing theater

in Pinewood Studios just outside London England.

And I've made my last two pictures here,

which "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit"

and "Cinderella."

And I also shot, as an actor, a movie called

"My Week with Marilyn" here,

which was also based in the studio.

So it was exciting to walk around here

and remember which famous film was made,

there are so legions of them.

So being at Pinewood is -- just being on the lot

is being part of the British film industry.

I was born in Belfast

in Northern Ireland, working-class family.

My father was a joiner, he apprenticed as a joiner.

I had an older brother, younger sister,

and both my parents came from large families,

so my mum, there were like 11 siblings there, so...

And with my dad, it was five.

So a lot of our childhood was spent visiting

and being in large rooms for family gatherings,

and because there wasn't much money about,

quite a lot of the entertainment went on there

and then, so people sang or did poetry or told jokes

or anecdotes, family anecdotes, or all sorts of funny stories

going on about Belfast at that time.

Action. I had this strong sense

when I was growing up there -- I lived there till I was nine --

of a real sense of who I was.

Absolute identity, and in a culture

that loved words, loved performing,

but not officially -- nobody was in show business.

All were hardworking working-class folk

who made their their own entertainment.

When I was in Belfast, I didn't do any acting,

but when I came to Reading, when my family

moved in May of 1970, I went to a primary school

called Whiteknights Primary and Reading,

and from a pretty formal education system

back in Belfast.

It felt like coming to a sort of spa resort.

I went to this place that was very much more laissez-faire.

And that was where I think I did my first performing.

So there was a television program

called "The Magic Roundabout,"

which was narrated famously by a man called

Eric Thompson, who was the father of a woman --

little did I know -- I would meet later on and marry.

And a very central character in it was Dougal the dog.

Us 10-year-olds took this adapted version

of "The Magic Roundabout" by our form teacher, Miss Levitt.

We all played each of the six or seven central characters,

and I wore a a sort of brown blanket

cut up into strips to suggest -- not very convincingly -- Dougal.

And it was my first experience of being on the stage

in other people's schools and on tour.

That's what I need to see.

I had several teachers when I was at school

who were very encouraging during this class

where this guy was just standing in.

He started on this speech that I didn't quite understand

where it was going, but he said, "All right, all of you,

I know you're a bit bored with this class.

I tell you one thing you should do, you should all come

and see this play, 'Oh! What a Lovely War,'

and I'll tell you why -- because there's a lad in that show

who is gonna go on to become a very, very famous actor."

And I found myself leaning forward going,

"Really? Christ, who's that then?"

And it wasn't until afterwards

that I realized he was talking about me.

[ Indistinct conversation ]

I had a fantastic time at RADA.

RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art

was everything that I wanted to be.

It was a bashed-up old building with a ton of history.

It had a brilliant principal.

It was for a kid from the country.

I felt very much up from the country.

I felt like Pip

in Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations,"

going up to the city and being changed.

When I left, I hadn't got a job, but in the last term at RADA,

I'd seen a poster on the wall in the bar at RADA for a play

called "Another Country."

And I saw a few names in it.

I reckoned Rupert Everett was in it.

And two months out of RADA, I discovered

that they were taking this play to the West End.

One of the two of the actors were leaving,

and I got the part, and I was living in a flat

with my girlfriend, tiny room in a tiny flat.

Rainy Sunday, I'd just come back from the launderette.

And this parcel arrived, and it was the play,

and I opened it, and first of all, I said --

I looked through and saw how many times my --

as all actors do -- how many times my character was in it.

I thought, Christ, he's in it all the way through.

So I was astonished to find myself in a fantastic role

in a very, very brilliant play.

And that March, three months after we left,

suddenly we opened, and we ran for six months.

And then, as we were leaving,

I remember saying to Rupert, "Shall we go and see the cast

that are taking over? They're doing a dress rehearsal

this afternoon before our last performance --

do you want to come and see them?"

He said, "No, I don't want to see them."

He said, "Anyway, who's in it?"

I said, "The guys taking over, one's called Daniel Day-Lewis,

and the other guy's called Colin Firth.

So I've never heard of them, but should we go and see them?"

He said no. I did go and see them.

And I thought, "Well, I think we'll probably hear

about these guys."

[ Speaks indistinctly ]

There was this show in Australia that I loved doing

and I put it into a one-man show --

Tennyson's monodrama, "Maud" or "The Madness."

And I did it for two weeks at a little theater in Waterloo,

and for the first week, no one came.

I mean, no one came.

That was an interesting experience --

do 1,400 lines of Tennyson on your own every night.

And then there was a revue

at the beginning of the second week.

It was a great revue and it was packed the second week.

Into that production came the Royal Shakespeare Company

and its casting directors, and so they asked me to audition

for Stratford season the following season.

And they wanted to do "Henry V." Adrian Noble was directing

and they wanted to go with a young Henry V,

so I came away a sort of convert to Shakespeare

in big spaces, and little did I know,

they were going to ring me shortly to tell me

I'd got the part and was indeed the youngest.

I was the youngest guy to play it there at 23.

And it was great because ignorance is bliss.

Then I'll give the boys a nod, and off Keanu goes, okay?

When I appeared as an actor

in the production of "Henry V" at Stratford

and then in London -- so I guess I played it

100 times or something, maybe more --

and I noticed

the way the performances deepened across that time,

which seems to happen with these great writers.

You can't get to the end of it, if you can be better,

it will be better, it's richer and richer.

And it was exciting to see that happen and...

However, I felt as though I wanted to see this story

in pictures.

A man called Stephen Evans, who was a freelance stockbroker

who began very generously supporting

our renaissance theater company, was interested

in getting into film, and he said,

"Do you have anything? And I said, "Yeah.

I have this feeling that that there could be a wonderful

new movie to be made of "Henry V."

"Well, how do you know you can do it?"

It was just...

a passionate instinct and intuition

based on not quite a lot. By that stage, I had --

Although I was only 27 when I directed it,

I could never have done if I hadn't been given this chance

by this equally mad and maverick man, Stephen,

who persuaded other people it would all work out.

But everybody involved with that took a huge gamble on me.

I remember, at one stage, David Putnam,

and he pulled out of it, eventually, graciously

and with a very, you know, with lots of notice

and beautifully written note,

in which he said, "I have to tell you

that this film, 'Henry V,'

it will collapse either two weeks

before or two weeks after principal photography begins,

and your international film career will be over."

He also wrote very nice card after he saw the movie

at Cannes the following spring and said --

which went something like, "Well, what do I know?"

At the time that "Henry V" was released, we were,

in our theater company, getting ready to do a tour

of "King Lear," "A Midsummer Night's Dream,"

and we were gonna be on the road for a year,

so I had not planned to be a film director

who was suddenly going to be going to my next project.

I didn't know if there ever would be one.

We had no idea of the fate of the movie.




And action! Got it!

Man: Done!

[ Clapboard clacks ]

A very unusual experience for me in Hollywood,

I think it's only happened once, was I've had --

I'd made "Frankenstein,"

and I was proud of the film, but it had a critical mauling,

and one of the things I'm more proud of in my career

is that I just -- I just took it on the chin

and I went out and promoted it

and went round the world while everybody was saying,

"Isn't it terrible, this film?" or "How's it feel to have

all these terrible reviews?" and everything.

And at the end of that period, I was very pleased

when people still wanted to meet and say hello.

And Martin Shafer at Castle Rock met me,

and I was in Los Angeles briefly with Oliver Parker,

who'd brought this project with Luc Roeg

of Shakespeare's "Othello."

And we met on the Monday, flew in on the Sunday night,

and on the Monday afternoon, we met

with Laurence Fishburne, the three of us,

and I said to Laurence, "Would you like to play Othello?"

And he said yes. He shook on it that afternoon.

The next morning at 10 o'clock,

my phone rang. It was my agent in America

saying "Othello" is green lit. I said, "What do you mean?"

He said, "The movie's green lit, you're making the film."

I said, "I didn't even pitch it."

[ Shouting ]

That partnership with Castle Rock

allowed me then to work with him on "In the Bleak Midwinter,"

or "A Midwinter's Tale," as it was called in America,

which was my little black-and-white comedy.

And across that period a couple of years

working with him, to say, "Hey, what about 'Hamlet'?"

And action.

So "Hamlets" can be about Oedipus,

it can be about the ghost

it can be about Hamlet being mad.

"What is your Hamlet about?" I'd say, "It's about 4 hours."

Boom boom, thank you very much.

And but we open on Christmas Day of '96

and it was a thrill.

Friends of mine called me

to say the queue is stretching around the block

of the Paris Theater in New York.

And for people on Christmas Day to go

and see four hours a "Hamlet," it was very exciting.

I think we got the right height. Yes? Lovely.

I've always been pretty eclectic in my tastes,

and I enjoy going to the cinema. I've always, always enjoyed it.

Never feels like a busman's holiday.

It's fun. It might even have been --

This is how long ago it was or how primitive I am.

It feels like it was a fax, but I guess it must have been

an e-mail overnight from my agent,

my new agent, my directing agent, Robert Newman.

And he said, "Would you ever be interested

in directing 'Thor'?"

I said, "Well, so what do you mean? What does it mean?"

He said, "Well, it's Marvel Pictures

and it's part of this thing. Did you see Iron Man?"

"Yes, I did." And "You know what they're doing?

They're try to do this sort of interwoven universe,

and this is one of the sort of four pillars

of their initial strategy."

I wrote the first five pages of a screenplay just --

And I remember, at the meeting, I read it to them.

I said, "Here's how I think it could --

If it doesn't open like this,

it should open something like this."

And then I went away and I didn't hear anything

for another six weeks or so. I was in the theater in London

and I was I was committed to doing some other things.

And I thought it had gone away,

and then, suddenly, they decided

that they were going to give me the job.



Uh, he said it was Thor.


There are a number of things to do with actors

in films that I enjoyed.

One is that sitting with Frank Mancuso Jr.

and David Kirkpatrick in the front office

at Paramount in 1990,

saying, "Listen, you know, you're going to think

this is just a load of old baloney

'cause I'm going to try and persuade you to cast my wife

as the as the actress opposite me in this film, 'Dead Again.'

So forget she's my wife and instead think of her

as an actress called Emma Thompson."

I said, "All I can tell you is that she is going to be

an enormously important actor."

Thank you very much.

We had quite a few adventures

in casting for "Hamlet" that didn't work out.

People got frightened in the end.

They didn't want to look foolish in Shakespeare.

I remember saying to Emma a couple of years later...

We met this girl for "Frankenstein"

to play a supporting role in it,

and I said, "She's not right for the role,"

and I did it three times, which I rarely do.

And there was just something niggling away.

I couldn't work out what it was.

I'd never seen someone so self-possessed

I'd never seen someone who, when reading it,

would be so charismatic.

I'd never seen anybody so -- I absolutely knew,

from the first meeting, the person

that walked out of the room was a star,

was a copperbottom star.

Never met them before in my life,

but I knew it from the tip of my toes to the top of my head.

And by the end of the third meeting,

I said, "Listen, you're terrific.

What is your age?" And she said, "I'm 17."

I said, "That's it. That's it.

You seem you seem very youthful, but you seem much older.

You seem, you know..." I said, "Look, you know,

we're not gonna cast you in this,

but believe me, we'll work with you again,

and you're going to have a marvelous career.

Thank you very much for coming in."

And I remember being able to say to Emma,

when she was casting "Sense and Sensibility,"

I said, "You are going to meet a young girl

and you will cast her, and her name is Kate Winslet."

♪ To be or not to be

♪ That is the question

You know, we we had every sort of ethnic type in in the piece.

And essentially, we just cast everybody we thought

was going to be great,

but we wanted, with the character Reynaldo,

for instance, a man who travels far and wide across Europe

spying on Polonius' son, Laertes,

it seemed legitimate to cast a European actor,

and Gérard Depardieu had bought and dubbed my voice

in the French version of "Henry V."

And we thought he could be fantastically evocative

as Reynaldo, this seedy-seeming voyeur and spy.

We wanted a genuinely funny gravedigger or gravediggers,

and the Castle Rock kind of family included Billy Crystal.

And we were able to persuade Billy, who's --

I remember ringing him and saying, "Would you play it?"

And he said, "Just tell me one thing."

He said, "Can I score?" I said, "What you mean?"

"You know, can I make an --"

I said, "Of course you can make an impact."

He's funny and we'll allow you to be funny.

For Miss Rosemary Harris and Mr. Charlton Heston.

Charlton Heston was somebody whose presence

as the Player King was, you know, was immense.

He knew very well Rosemary Harris

had played the Player Queen,

they'd been in a play on Broadway in 1960.

There were all sorts of connections.

And then, of course, Derek Jacobi who I'd seen

play Hamlet as a young man.

Julie Christie, who I'd lusted and fantasized over

for my entire adult life.

We wanted it to be sort of global

and of a high, high standard. And it was it was a thrill

to see all these people together.

So, on the day, Chris, allow him to have his head

facing there so we get the line, you know,

whatever the line is --

"You're no match for the mighty injection.

Then face against the thing.

So much of what you plan for the film

is based around the personality of the actor,

what you think that actor is going to bring,

where they -- what the inflection of that thing is.

And you know that would apply to "Cinderella,

it would apply to "Jack Ryan,"

and it certainly applied to "Thor."

It was clear that we needed somebody to tick so many boxes.

They needed to be physically impressive,

and I guess we needed a movie star.

We needed somebody who also felt as though they would give you

a terrific whack with that hammer,

who's who's sort of physically also dexterous.

And somebody very charming.

I felt as though, for our script, we needed --

We knew we'd probably be going around the world

to meet people, and we did.

And early on in the process, Chris Hemsworth came in,

and I think he had a cold, and I don't think we'd given him

the scenes very long before he came in.

We didn't see the best of him, perhaps, but by the time

we'd then gone around for about three months

looking for other people, our casting director,

Randi Hiller, was very keen that we bring Chris back in.

And I was very open, very cheerful, very game,

and he really, you know, he really went for it.

An across an auditioning process

where we got him to do some "Henry V," he read Shakespeare.

Terrific -- Little did we know, but we found out quickly,

a terrific movie star, as well as a terrific actor.

Increasingly I try and get out of the way of actors

and say less if I can.

I don't know that I'm very successful at that,

but I try and say less.

With "Much Ado About Nothing," with Keanu,

I remember, rehearsing ahead of time,

and I remember he had a house then up near the Hollywood sign.

I was very impressed by that.

I could see the back of the Hollywood sign from his house.

With Denzel, we had a chance to speak in Los Angeles

before he came to Italy, but in both cases,

they came for a week before we started shooting,

and we rehearsed the whole thing for a week,

and at the end of that week, we ran the play

in one of the rooms in the villa in Tuscany

where we shot the movie.

And just even being there for a week

and soaking up that atmosphere and eating that food

and being part of that company of people, not just the actors

but the larger company in the film,

had a big impact on how everybody felt.

[ Reporters clamoring ]

Well, I --

It was interesting to work with Cate Blanchett

having just seen "Blue Jasmine."

But having seen, at the beginning of my career,

when we were doing "Hamlet," I remember being introduced

to her where our casting director

said, "There's this girl from Australia.

She's emerged, she's in this film, 'Oscar and Lucinda,'

with Ralph Fiennes, and you should see it."

And I did, and it was electric, and then, the ability

to hold a screen, the sort -- the confidence,

it was so sort of electric.

She's sort of an electric performer.

Sees the part, knows what to do with it,

and is ready to go to work, and I really enjoyed that.



And action! Got it!

Man: Done!

[ Clapboard clacks ]

I can't walk in there without thinking "Live and Let Die"

and two submarines and Roger Moore.

I think Pinewood is very much associated with with Bond,

but also I remember coming here when Kubrick was making

"Eyes Wide Shut" with Tom Cruise,

and they made a great big New York street.

And I remember the story being that,

because Kubrick didn't like to travel,

so he created his corner of New York on the lot

at Pinewood here just outside, and he stopped shooting one day

and called a friend of his in New York

and said, "Go to the corner of the street in New York" --

real New York -- "that we built our set around

and look at where the sun is, please."

So he rings, "Well, the sun is about halfway up the third glass

on the right hand side on the northwest corner."

He said, "Okay, we're stopping shooting.

The shoot's over. The sun's wrong."

"Well, Stanley, maybe we -- you know, maybe we could

not stick to that kind of level of detail."

"It's over." So I like that.

I like walking around places where Stanley Kubrick's

been explaining cinema like that.

Don't be worried about the crosses and positions

and all that for right now.

It was interesting to see that happen along a process

where, during the whole of that movie,

Kate was in a kind of dialogue with James Cameron

about the role in "Titanic."

As I recall, she was about to be in a straitjacket.

Maybe was in a straitjacket to do this scene

where Ophelia is locked up and mad,

and this messenger came in with a piece of paper.

And it was a note from her agent

or from Mr. Cameron or whatever, and she went, and she shrieked,

"I've got the part! I've got the part in 'Titanic.'"

I was looking at her at the same time,

I was thinking, you know, in 18 months' time,

your life will never be the same again.

And it felt like we were seeing absolutely the girl

who's just about to go off and become the woman,

the great movie star that she was and is.

And I felt as though we were getting her

at a very unusual moment.

It was an exciting moment to be around her career and her life.

Favorite films by other directors

are from from way back.

John Sturges, "The Great Escape."

I saw that in a huge movie theater in Belfast

when I was 7 or 8 and just thought Steve McQueen

was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

"Black Narcissus" by Powell and Pressburger

is an amazing film for its technical work.

Woody Allen's "Manhattan" is an amazing film, I think.

"Dog Day Afternoon" -- I've mentioned

Sidney Lumet's film and Al Pacino's performance.

Al Pacino's performance in "Scarface,"

as Brian De Palma, whose work I like very, very, very much.

Man: Scene 47, take one. A camera, B on end.

"Hamlet" is the film, I think, that has

the sort of most intense and consistent creative effort

across a whole range of disciplines,

including, obviously, performance at the center of it.

I'm proud of the end sequence

because it matters so much to me personally.

The scene between the Horatio and Hamlet

before Hamlet's visit

to the duel that will eventually kill him.

He's ready for death at this point -- "Let be."

I always think of "let be" as an answer to that famous question

in the middle of the film -- "To be or not to be."

"Let be."

I think it's not always helpful to get to looky backy.

Too nostalgic about films

or even try and impose a kind of order on them.

I think that I've always been somebody who moves on

and tries to stay right in the moment.

And in the moment of the work that you're doing now.

I've made 14, 15 movies.

You start to see a little pattern emerge.

Clearly, a third of them are Shakespeare films,

so there's one.

And then there are thrillers.

And then there are what you might call the sort of epics.

And I suppose themes that I see --

romance all the way through them,

I see a sort of romantic attitude towards the world.

I see an enjoyment of being scared.

There are things and ambitions that you have.

I'd love to make the great creepy movie.

I want to make the great scary, scary horror film.

And I'd love to do some more Shakespeare.

Thanks very much for those of you

who've supported my films over the years,

and I hope you'll come and see some more of them

if I get a chance to make them.

And without you, we wouldn't be making them.

In fact, the reason I make work is for an audience,

and you are that audience, so I thank you for being there.

I hope you and I can continue to make movies together.

Thanks for watching.





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