Shakespeare's greatest modern benefactor talks about turning 'Love's Labour's Lost' into a song-and-dance spectacular
Is this what it's like having a table at Spago? Three minutes into interviewing Kenneth Branagh about his musical adaptation of Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost," his recent cartoon co-star Kevin Kline burst into the director's Ritz Carlton hotel room for a quick round of back-patting hugs and gentle ribbing.
"You're not in this one!" Branagh busts out laughing.
"We really must work together," Kline cracks before dashing right back out of the room as quickly as he arrived.
"Who was he?" Branagh grins while sitting back down at the table, then ads only slightly more seriously, "We (just) did this cartoon that took most of our lives. It took about four years to do, 'The Road to El Dorado.'"
Before the amusing interruption, the writer, director, and co-star of this Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers style take on Shakespeare's first romantic comedy had been talking about the film's premiere at the Cannes film festival, which took place the previous week.
"Cannes was intense and mad. 'Love's Labour's' had this huge gala screening (as part of) this benefit, this bizarre fashion show. I had never been to a fashion show before. It was just extraordinary. A Victoria's Secret thing," Branagh says, speaking a mile a minute, but with an diametrical calmness in his voice. "Then we had this bizarre auction afterwards. I found myself stripped half-naked on a grand piano being massaged by (supermodel) Heidi Klum in front of 850 close friends. I found it rather embarrassing! Probably not as embarrassing as she found it. Anyway, they raised lots of money so that's all right."
And how was this movie received at the notoriously snobby art film fest?
"Great. (But) people were genuinely surprised the moment the first number began. People would look around and you'd have this little, 'My God, they're starting to sing!'" Branagh laughs. "Well, we told you it was a f***ing musical!"
Yes, it was a little startling to hear the F-word coming so casually from the mouth of the world's most recognized Shakespearean. But then Branagh has never been the conservative, scholarly type traditionally associated with old school productions of The Bard's works. Dressed in black jeans, a black Armani pull-over and brown-checked blazer, Branagh's sandy hair is gelled into a spiky, youthful, decidedly anti-establishment style that seems like an extension of his revolution-from-within approach to modern Shakespeare. He doesn't look like someone who would have anything in common with the likes of Lawrence Olivier.
But this man, single-handedly responsible for the current popularity of filmed Shakespeare after directing and/or appearing in five other Bard-adapted films in the last decade ("Henry V," "Much Ado About Nothing," "Othello," "Looking for Richard," and "Hamlet") is old-fashioned in other ways -- something anyone would inherently understand after seeing his "Love's Labour's Lost."
The film stars Alessandro Nivola ("Mansfield Park") as a capricious young king who swears off feminine distraction to pursue academic betterment along with three of his lords (Branagh, Matthew Lillard and Adrian Lester). But their pledge crumbles with the arrival of a beautiful, effervescent French princess (Alicia Silverstone) on a diplomatic mission with a trio of lovely ladies-in-waiting (Natascha McElhone, Carmen Ejogo and Emily Mortimer) in tow. Branagh reinvents the buoyant romantic comedy as a classy, corny, 1930s movie musical, complete with uplifting dance numbers and a catalog of big band favorites (Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out Of You," Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek") sung with great enthusiasm -- if not great skill -- by this cast of cheerful actors who are clearly having the time of their lives.
Branagh didn't chose his players for their song-and-dance ability, however. "I only really cast people who were dying to be in it, whose talent I believed in and who were dead ready to do the work that was necessary. Then I hoped that all the singing and dancing would come out of (their) characters."
"(I'm a good) example, actually. I sung a bit and danced a bit in drama school, (but I'm) not a natural at either, so I worked on it to get (myself) up to some sort of standard. Then Pat Doyle (who did the film's score) came up to me and said, 'You actually have sung it quite well. The problem is that it just isn't Berowne (Branagh's character) singing. Kenneth Branagh's ego's taken over.'"
So the director Kenneth Branagh told the actor Kenneth Branagh to take it down a notch. "I was prepared to eschew slickness for some kind of reality. (For instance), if I wanted to look like a better dancer, I wouldn't have put Adrian Lester in the movie -- and I wouldn't have given him a two-minute solo.
Lester, a classically trained dancer and actor, gets the movie's big Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly moment, dancing on tables and chairs in a castle library. It's one of several scenes that firmly establishes "LLL" in a genre of joyous, lightweight musical that hasn't been tapped in more than 50 years. Some might think such an unabashedly quaint and oldfangled picture couldn't survive the cynicism of modern audiences -- that is until they see this film.
"There was never any desire to parody or to be post-modern or ironic. Our hearts were on our sleeves," Branagh says when asked why he made this adaptation a musical. "When I came to do 'Love's Labour's Lost,' it shared many of characteristics (with '30s musicals) -- so vibrant and escapist and glamorous and full of these graceful people who were always involved doing silly things. Those films are mainly about romance, and 'Love's Labour's Lost' is also. (They're) very silly (with) very thin plots where the plot actually is secondary to the main pleasure -- if it works -- which is the execution, the flourish. It seemed to me like it could be a good marriage."
Wanting to site a example of how well the play lent itself to song, Branagh adds, "(In one scene) Berowne gets to the end of that speech about the transforming power of love, and finishing up with talking about heaven. It seemed natural to go into (sings) 'Heaven, I'm in heaven...' (from 'Cheek to Cheek')."
The director then smiles to himself.
"There was an abandon in those films, a carefree quality. A lack of cynicism. And I think that's true of the play. For all its sharpness and satire, it's still quite innocent."