He’s tackled Shakespeare numerous times and even ventured into the world of Thor, but director Kenneth Branagh had never thought about tackling a classic fairy tale until the script for Cinderella came his way. With it, he tells the story of the beautiful Ella (Lily James), a young woman who, through it all, believes that kindness and courage will help her overcome anything.
At the film’s press day, director Kenneth Branagh spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how tricky it was to find the right balance of classic fairy tale with a modern feel, the need to find the perfect actress for Cinderella, that it’s equally intimidating to tackle popular and beloved texts, whether it’s Shakespeare or comic books or fairy tales, that there will be a handful of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray, and why he wanted to tackle Romeo & Juliet for the stage in the West End, with Lily James and Richard Madden (aka Prince Charming) in the title roles.
Collider: Was it tricky to find the right balance of classic fairy tale with a modern feel?
KENNETH BRANAGH: It was, and we’re very pleased that the movie seems to be playing well with people and striking those kinds of chords, and that’s possible when these big cultural artifacts and myths are there. It’s no accident that Cinderella has been in the culture for thousands of years, and in cross cultures. I’ve traveled a bit recently, and in Russia, they completely believe they own this tale. And in Italy, they feel it absolutely is part of who they are. There is a timeless web to it. Somehow, it’s been getting under our skin. It’s our identification with the underdog and our hope that she represents our own success in life. It’s a fairy tale with very familiar dynamics. It’s family dynamics with sisters and a stepmother. It’s very close to us. It’s not men on horses riding across rainbow bridges. There’s some magic in it, but a lot of it is things that are fairly close to us. That’s what drove us to try to find the balance that we found.
At a time when everyone is making fairy tales darker, this story has something as simple as a heroine who thinks you just need to be kind. Why did you decide to take that route with this telling of the Cinderella story?
BRANAGH: Yeah, and I remember saying, at the beginning, “I’m not starting this conversation, ‘I see it as very dark. I think, this time, it should be very dark.’” I feel as though that absolutely prefaces almost every approach to a classic subject, these days. Sometimes I don’t see the evidence of it, in the finished product. I just thought here that there was a real opportunity to do the opposite. I think that was largely down to (screenwriter) Chris Weitz understanding that was the case, and me feeling very motivated to do it. I felt very enlivened by that. I felt very positive about it. I meditate a lot, and have done so for the last 14 years or so, and because I’m interested in it, I’ve noticed that the world does now, too. For all the cynicism that the world contains, people are a little more open to those things that maybe are to do with returning you to some kind of simpler, happier state. I feel like this is a tiny contribution, in that regard, even though it includes the forces of darkness, in the shape of the Stepmother and stepsisters.
That succeeding must have heavily relied on finding the perfect actress.
BRANAGH: Totally. I remember, on Thor, there was a moment where we were getting close to casting a certain actor and I said to Kevin [Feige], “If you want this to go on, like I know you want it to go on, this won’t work. It has to be perfect casting, and we’ll know it. We’ll test all the things we can test, but we’ll know it when we see it. There will be some magical element to it. I don’t think you should make the film unless you can really feel that.” Particularly, what we were asking for on this was, in a way, invisible acting. You’re asking for things that just come for free and that are lightly done. The last thing we needed was earnest or self-righteous. We needed somebody who seemed fun, who seemed like good company, and who you’d want to sit down and have a cup of tea and hang out with. It was absolutely crucial to find that person, and Lilly [James] was that person.
As a filmmaker, is it more intimidating to tackle Shakespeare, beloved comic book characters, or iconic fairy tales?
BRANAGH: 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.
How long was your first cut of Cinderella, and are there a lot of deleted scenes that we’ll see on the Blu-ray?
BRANAGH: You’ll see probably half a dozen deleted scenes. We were probably at two and a half hours, with the assembly cut, but that was just everything. Most of that was really to do with additional traveling and things. There were some very interesting scenes, but this was not one where you feel like you’re killing your darlings, as they say. It was more of a refinement of the various flavors in the piece. The editing process was really natural. We didn’t do any additional photography on this movie, which is highly unusual for something like this. I’m not saying that there was any perfect world going on, but simply that it had a natural, clear momentum that was understood fairly well on the page and understood pretty well in execution, and that seemed to follow relatively directly, in post-production.
What made you want to team up with Lily James and Richard Madden again, to do Romeo & Juliet on the stage in the West End?
BRANAGH: I guess just ‘cause I’m used to it, I find it more exciting than daunting. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to do new material with them, or indeed for myself. But, they have this incredible chemistry. As I discovered from working with each of them, they have an intelligence and skill that, with this amount of work done together, we have a chance of getting a little further down the road with these unknowable classics. You never get to the end of them. We have a working knowledge, rapport and history now that potentially that work could be very fruitful. It’s the first Shakespeare play I directed 30 years ago, and I didn’t do a very good job of it, and I’d really like to do a better job of it with two people that I think are just right for it.
Was that something you’d been wanting to tackle again, at some point, or was it these actors that inspired you to do it?
BRANAGH: Both, actually. I’ve often thought about doing it again. But frankly, with these big parts and these big plays, you don’t commit to it, unless you feel you have the people. You don’t do it just because you have an idea. Much like Cinderella and Thor, you do it when you find the person. So, I felt as though I’d found my Romeo and Juliet.
Are you going to try to tackle another movie before that?
BRANAGH: It seems as though I have some time off, which I’ll enjoy. At the moment, I’m reading things, but I made a decision to just get to the end of this movie and enjoy it as well as possible. During the last picture I made, I was prepping the next one, and I didn’t want to do that this time.
Cinderella is now playing in theaters.