Features and Columns

6 Filmmaking Tips from Kenneth Branagh

To be or not to be a director is not the question so much as how to do it well.
Kenneth Branagh On The Orient Express
Twentieth Century Fox
By  · Published on November 8th, 2017

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Kenneth Branagh.

It didn’t take very long for Kenneth Branagh to jump from acting to directing. He began both for the stage and became known for his work on productions of Shakespeare. Despite being linked with the Bard, he’s only helmed five movies based on Shakespeare works, and the last was over a decade ago. In recent years, he’s been more associated with Marvel superheroes, Disney princess, spy movie reboots, and now an Agatha Christie adaptation. All the while continuing his other career as an actor, sometimes appearing in his own films.

For the amount of time as he’s been in the business of filmmaking, he should have a lot of tips to directly dole out to fledgling directors. But he doesn’t seem to do much of that. Fortunately, we’ve been able to dig the usual six pieces of advice from various interviews over the last 24 years. We begin, of course, with one borrowed from “Hamlet”:

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Kenneth Branagh

1. Readiness is All

In Shakespeare’s play, the phrase “readiness is all” is quite morbid. It’s about being ready to die. For Branagh, it can also be applied to filmmaking as a simple rule of being on time and being prepared for the job. During a visit to the UK’s National Film and Television School this year, he told students when asked for advice:

“A quote from ‘Hamlet’ sums it up for me, ‘Readiness is all!’ Show up on time. Early is on time and on time is late, it’s that simple and can guarantee you a career as you’re the one that got there. If you’re late, you have to be Fellini, better than your peers! You need to be ready to honor and respect your talent. Follow and trust your instinct and know it’s welcome. You are your greatest asset. Do your research and above all, enjoy yourself!”

What do you need to be prepared with, though? Branagh says your instinct for storytelling is more important than technical expertise. Here’s a video interview from 2011 where he tells MakingOf’s “Reel Life, Real Stories” what he had to bring to the job of directing when he started out:

2. Watch Like a Detective

Between his roles in the British TV series Wallander and his new movie Murder on the Orient Express, in which he plays the iconic character Hercule Poirot, Branagh has begun to realize similarities between being a detective and being a director. From a 2017 interview by Emmanuel Levy about the making of Murder on the Orient Express:

“There’s something about directing that seemed to have a parallel in conversations that I have had with real detectives while doing ‘Wallander’ and I ended up having quite a number of conversations with policemen and see how they interview people.  And as a director and also sort of in a crime interview, there’s a kind of parallel gaze that you have.  As a director, you have to offer suggestions very clearly, and you need to listen very, very carefully.  And so partly what you don’t hide behind but what you have learned, I remember when we first rehearsed with Derek [Jacobi], he said Christ, that’s an incredible stare you have.  And in fact I was listening as carefully as Poirot did to the nearest nuance, but I also as a director needed to be able to offer something back up to Derek.  But while I am doing that, he can’t necessarily know what I am thinking.  So you become this sort of this weird kind of positive, neutral, listening thing.  So your curiosity in a way becomes a protection.  And I think that maybe as a person, I have quite a lot of that myself.”

3. Lead from the Front

Another one of Branagh’s tips relates morbidly to Shakespeare by way of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech in “Henry V.” In a 1994 appearance on Charlie Rose, he’s led by Rose to liken directing to leading an outnumbered and hopeless army into battle. Here he talks of rallying his band of brothers and sisters on a movie set to charge through his singular vision:

“I think you’ve got to inspire people. You’ve got to get people behind you. You’ve got to, you’ve got to create the conditions where they want to do it, and where they feel part of it, and where they would really give their, their last ounce of, of energy for you. And you, I think, have to know that you do that for them ahead of the game. And I lead from the front, you know, when doing something like this because it’s the on– it’s the best way, by example, is to, is to you know, lead them.”

Watch this segment of the interview below and continue through Branagh relaying his discussion with Robert De Niro (who starred in his movie Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein) about the importance of a director creating a happy and socially comfortable atmosphere on a set:

4. Don’t Forget the Audience

Branagh isn’t the best example of an auteur, as he mostly works with other people’s material. But he is still an artist with a vision, as noted in the previous tip involving him leading a team toward his singular goal. But in a 1993 appearance on Charlie Rose he explains how doing anything just for yourself is not ideal.

Sometimes people make films, they make art and essentially they’re doing it for themselves and there’s an argument that says well, that’s what you should do. But, I think that of course you have to be satisfied artistically yourself but you have to want it to reach people. It’s only completed as a piece of work when somebody watches it. You have to somehow be aware of that. Now, if you know that the work you’re working on already has this kind of intimidation factor in this body then you’ll do everything you can to get that out of the way.”

5. Don’t Set Out to Make a Classic

On the other hand, you shouldn’t be too concerned with the audience, either. Especially when it consists of fans and experts of Shakespeare, Disney fairytales, Marvel comics, mystery novels, etc. You won’t please them all or always please enough of them to achieve classic status. From a 2015 Collider interview answering which fandom is most intimidating:

“I’d say it’s equally intimidating. The ferocity of passion that is engendered by people when they don’t like what you’ve done is really tremendous. It’s intense. But my feeling is always that the original work is there, at the end of it, or whatever people might deem as the traditional way of doing things. But, I always think that’s a myth. Particularly with Shakespeare, they weren’t there in the 1600s, so it’s usually an idea, in our own heads, of what’s right and proper, or just what you prefer. Sometimes when it’s wrapped up in classics, there’s this great proprietorial quality. If you do something that is honest to your vision of how you’ve re-imagined the classic and it still isn’t liked, that debate keeps everything alive. It rediscovers it a little bit and makes people look in that other direction that they think it ought to be done in. It’s all valid and valuable. The thing to bear in mind, when you’re actually making it, is that you can’t set out to make a classic. If it turns out to be regarded in that way, great. You’re just trying to find this moment to tell this story, at this time.”

And here’s a quote from a discussion on audience expectations, especially with Shakespeare works, from a 2015 interview at the Jacob Burns Film Center:

“I choose not to feel that kind of pressure. It’s best if you mark your own scorecard and with Shakespeare, you never get to the end of what’s possible. You can’t realize the potential of something that has such a level of richness. So your goal is not so much to be led by a series of outside expectations, although of course you’re thrilled and delighted if people enjoy it, it’s more about how far you get with the work itself. How honestly, directly, simply, clearly were those words spoken? Can you do better next time? The goal each time is to see if you can, rigorously from a technical point of view but also joyously from a creative point of view, go further into the work. Like great music or great poetry, these master works have a power even beyond one’s own conscious understanding of them – they sing of their own volition. You’re constantly motivated by trying to get further in that direction, rather than being intimidated by the notion that you might disappoint. Shakespeare is so good and always works so well that it’s hard to mess up what he does. Its important to get out of his way. He then makes you look good, so I’m a great beneficiary of the talent of somebody who went long before me.”

In a video interview promoting Cinderella in 2016 [since disappeared], Branagh again noted that the Shakespeare crowd is actually tougher than the Marvel and Disney fans when it comes to expectations.

6. Don’t Shortchange Yourself

Branagh often appears in his own movies. While that would seem like a great convenience, it also poses a challenge for both of his jobs. Does the director Branagh get enough from the actor Branagh, and vice versa? He explains the issue, with help from a tip he learned from his Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit co-star Kevin Costner, in a 2014 Nerdist interview:

“I usually have somebody who has learned my lines that I can line up with, and I have discussed and planned my shots with someone else so we know exactly what we’re going to be doing. Usually weeks and weeks beforehand, I’ve already rehearsed it. I’ve done lots of work on the accent for this film, often on a daily basis. I would often automatically make sure that my shots were at the end of the day so that we could take as long as we liked without keeping anybody else waiting and not feel guilty about taking time for me. One of the things that Kevin Costner pointed out is that when you’re directing yourself, you tend to always have an eye on everything else, so you wind up shortchanging yourself. You do fewer takes, you can be a little quicker than is necessarily good for the work.”

Here he continues in that interview and brings back the importance of being prepared:

“To counter that, I had an acting coach, in this case a fellow named Jimmy Yuill, an old time colleague of mine and an excellent actor in his own right, and he would watch only me and offer comments and suggestions. Frankly, when I was doing scenes with Chris and with Keira, you don’t wind up talking about the scenes afterwards anyway. You’re kind of all directing it, so the key thing was once we said, ‘Action!,’ was to just enjoy playing the part. It was a nice release from all the questions you’re going to be asked as a director. It would be insane to not try and enjoy it because you both shortchange the film and you’re denying yourself an amazing opportunity. Behind all of that, the key element is you have to get as much rest as possible. If you get enough sleep, then you have a good time doing it. You get pragmatic, you try and protect yourself, and you try not to let anybody down, particularly your fellow actors. So, prepare, prepare, prepare.”

Speaking of Costner, his role in Jack Ryan proved interesting for Branagh in that he was also a director in addition to being an actor. From a 2016 interview with Tavis Smiley on his PBS show on the idea of directing directors:

“Well, you know what I found is that are very, very sensitive to what you’re going through. I think that they’re aware that the major time preoccupation you have is the logistics, you know. People need answers from you all the time. So they know that people are coming at you and that sometimes messes with your brain. His chief instruction on this was give yourself time. Most directors who act in things spend the least amount of time on their character and their performance because they’re aware of the logistics and the timetable. They need to move on and they can shortchange themselves. So Kevin was very keen about saying just take that extra take for you because, when you get to the editing room, you’re really gonna want it.”

As for what to do about other actors feeling shortchanged by the split of duties, Branagh told Cineaste in 1998 (Vol. 24, No. 1) that on his first movie as director and actor, Henry V, he had help from technical advisor Hugh Cruttwell, an expert on Shakespeare in all matters, including how the works should be performed. Branagh said of having Cruttwell on hand:

“Over such points and other issues of interpretation, he holds a strongly argued, passionate point of view. He also has very good taste in acting from take to take as we shoot, and he’s there to keep an eye on me, but also to offer up that kind of healthy critical assessment of both my performance and that of the other actors. It’s been very valuable for me, in doing both jobs, acting and directing, to have him there so that the other actors, if they feel remotely undernourished by their director because of my other responsibilities, can have another voice to listen to.”

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

As expected, Branagh is inspired by Shakespeare when it comes to making movies, and not just the ones based on the Bard’s plays. Also as expected, he has thoughts on the split of duties between acting and directing, helpful to other filmmakers interested in starring in their own films, plus good advice on working with actors that he’s learned from being an actor himself. And the most important traits for a filmmaker to have are readiness, great leadership and listening skills, and balancing your needs with the needs of the audience.

Additional research and reporting by Natalie Mokry.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.