Kenneth Branagh on Supplying ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ With An Authentic Backbone

By  · Published on January 18th, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit isn’t an action movie. Sir Kenneth Branagh’s reboot of the Tom Clancy-based franchise is a straight-up thriller, and that’s an important distinction to make. The film may have a globetrotting story, which goes from New York to Moscow, but Branagh’s set pieces are all contained, even the motorcycle chase at the very end. If you counted the amount of bullets fired in this movie, it would be drastically less than most spy thrillers.

That fact likely spoke to Branagh, who was more invested in Jack Ryan’s quick thinking than the character’s skills in combat. If you asked him about Thor a few years ago, he would’ve expressed more interest in the themes of brotherhood than Thor swinging his hammer around. Branagh has always been a character-driven filmmaker. When you make a juicy four-hour version of Hamlet, you have to be. Everything from that Shakespeare adaptation to even Peter’s Friends seems to play a part in Branagh’s blockbuster filmmaking.

The director and co-star (he plays the Russian villain, Viktor) recently discussed his progression towards tentpole filmmaking with us, along with the excitement and education that comes with it.

When you started directing, especially directing yourself, how did that inform or impact you as an actor?

I think it definitely tells you how to place yourself. For instance, I discovered in the last six or seven years that I found it helpful for myself and other actors to begin the day or scene with the close-ups, which is generally the reverse of what other people would do. You’d usually start with a wide-shot and move in closer, in relatively conventional coverage, and then you’d end up with, maybe, the close-ups at seven o’clock that evening. I find it produces the results, but some would argue the actor is well warmed up by that stage. I, in particular for Jack Ryan, wanted to capture the quick thinking energy of our hero, so I felt an edge was helpful in the performances with the camera style.

I remember on the first day with Kevin Costner we were cross-shooting with a camera on him and a camera on Chris. I said, “You’ll be called onto the set at 10:00 and we’ll start shooting at 10:01. It’ll all be on film.” He thought I was joking, but I said he’d be ready to go with it, and he was. You know, you catch everybody raw, but energized. Everybody knows that shot is important – that it’s going to be in the movie. I have learned that as a director, and it has been beneficial to my performance.

You also don’t cut every two seconds in dialogue-driven scenes, unlike most action movies. You use a long single take for the introduction of Viktor, for example.

We felt there was so much plot and context to get across in the film, so the antagonist has to be formidable. You have a great hero, so you really need a threat to that hero. They’re not going to be on screen so long, since it’s our hero’s story, so you need that entrance into the movie to be strong and intriguing. Essentially, with Viktor, you’re seeing what’s the problem with him in his opening scene and this latent violence. He’s not a man that raises his voice, but he has a short fuse and he’s just dangerous. He’s a man that is not going to waste time. On the one hand the audience discovers how dangerous he is, then later on they see how he looks, which isn’t as important as showing how potentially dangerous he is.

As you said, this a plot-heavy film. When you have this amount of exposition, is it a simple case of just hiring good actors to make it work?

It’s important that people can try not to think of it as exposition. You try to bring character to the unraveling of the story. For instance, when Jack Ryan returns from Moscow and there’s a discovery about Viktor’s son, you see Ryan as a man who is quick thinking, lateral thinking, and energized by intellectual curiosity. Instead of my view of, “Wow, look at all this. This happened and that happened,” you’re into the character. Jack was recruited because he’s a great analyst, and you see it in that scene. It’s information that we may think is hard to follow or, in some cases, some people see as too simple, but whatever, that’s when a really terrific actor suspends disbelief in any of the other artifices about how you’re trying to put this thing together. You go with their energy and emotion.

Your thrillers, in terms of pacing, have always been your most efficient films. When working in this genre, do you find yourself scaling down to the barest essentials?

With the exception of the fact that we have Viktor listen to music, this felt like it wanted to be lean, mean, and economic. I think it is true of these kinds of thrillers, with the exception in Dead Again, which is a subject matter with the composer at the heart of it, leading us into a musical direction. I like the sharp tautness of a well-paced thriller. It’s something I aspire for, even if I don’t always get it right.

Even within this genre, from Dead Again to Sleuth to Jack Ryan, they’re all very different films. As a filmmaker, have you always been interesting in trying new things?

I am stimulated by the variety, I must say. You end up seeing certain common links, like why you may be attracted to certain kinds of material and the themes across them. For me, I enjoy the variety. Coming into the superhero world of Thor and the sharp contemporary world of Jack Ryan, it was a very good change of pace. You are almost operating in a different style, because you do think about how to operate the camera differently. From this to Cinderella, by contrast, is a very different look, style, and approach. The rhythm of the shooting days were very different, because we were very hectic on Jack Ryan, but there was an elegance to the way the schedule on Cinderella wanted to unfold itself. I was very, very grateful for the difference and the change up.

Working under time constraints, can that limited time ever help you as a filmmaker?

In this case, yes. I felt we had some of the qualities of the story. When we were in Moscow we were there for a brief time, immediately after our time in New York. We finished in New York and literally got on a plane to Moscow, shooting that night when we arrived. There was a breathless quality to our schedule, putting us in Jack’s rhythm which, I think, was helpful to the rhythm of the movie. I wanted the audience to barely keep up with the frenetic pace of Jack’s life in this particular episode.

Speaking of the audience, when you’re making a film that a mass audience needs to see, like Jack Ryan or Thor, does that make you more audience conscious as a filmmaker than you would be on, say, Hamlet?

It’s an interesting question. You are aware in some ways because, especially on a superhero movie, there’s a certain amount of chatter on the Internet, especially about how people might be approaching it. You can’t let hat lead you, I think, because you can’t make 100,000 different films that each of those 100,000 people might be wanting to make. You’re aware there’s a different level of interest going in. To quote from Hamlet, “To thine own self be true,” because you have to mark your own score card. You’ve been employed for your own particular view, so I keep listening to that, rather than getting into the world of second-guessing, where you’re not going to come up with something that has an authentic backbone in it. I try to listen to my own instinct as much as possible.

Would you apply that to acting as well, to not second-guess yourself?

Yes. Ultimately, you’re searching for truth. When you’re trying to connect with an audience, you want the least amount of artifice to be visible, even if you are very artful in how you present things. You’re trying to find an honest way to approach it. In both cases, it’s weird, there’s a contrary thing: you often have to prepare very intensely and technically to get to a point where you can be as intuitive as possible, from a position of strength, knowledge, depth, technical ability, and control. Sometimes the two things seem at odds, but you’re always trying to listen to that slow, still silent invoice inside for directing and acting. You try to be as direct and clear and as honest as you can.

In that case, it must help when you’re directing another director, Kevin Costner.

Very much so. He’s a generous actor. He’s very kind, compassionate and understanding on set. He’s very sharp and understood, in a way that others didn’t, with what was going on and the dynamics of a shot or a scene. He was very aware of how things were technically being put together. He was always generous, especially when it came to the issue of directing yourself. He was very keen to remind me regularly to always take enough time for yourself. The first thing actor-directors do is shortchange themselves, because they feel a bit guilty and have to get on. Sometimes the time for their performance is the first thing to be snipped in the intensity of production. I think, from some bitter experience of his own, which I share, he was determined, and as was I, not to shortchange myself.

Is it still a challenge directing yourself or is it always different?

It’s always different and challenging, in a good way. It’s an interesting moment for me, in my career, because I have a lot of experience but also enough energy and appetite to make it feel new every time. I just pleasantly get surprised by understanding I’m familiar with some parts of it, and that’s of great comfort. The newness and the excitement of a story means the degree of anxiety remains the same, maybe even intensifies, because you know how hard it is to get something really right. That needn’t put you off, but it’s a factor. It keeps you very alive. The moment where you think, “Oh, I know how to do this! It’s an old hat and stuff,” then you probably shouldn’t be doing it. It needs to still excite you. Not scare you, but excite you.

Has that played a part in your recent foray into directing blockbusters? Is that what’s keeping you excited?

I think it does, because I get to work on a scale I haven’t quite worked on so consistently before, which means you’re on the edge of expanding technology, when it comes to visual effects, digital, or everything technical about a film. You get a very broad education. Also, you have the potential to reach a bigger audience, while working on themes or subject matter from previous movies. The resource, opportunity, and practice at this scale of filmmaking is all a very interesting moment for me in my creative life right now.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.