Opening up this weekend is the remake of “Sleuth,” and it’s been written by Harold Pinter and directed by Kenneth Branagh. And while it’s a remake and the plot is quite well known, Sony has asked for journalists to keep plot points brief when writing about the movie… so… the movie stars Jude Law as an unemployed actor who runs off with the wife of a millionaire detective novelist, played by Michael Caine, and the film is a deadly match of wits between the two people.
If you want to know more… search online.
So rather than focus on the plot, I’m going to talk about the roundtable interview I got to participate in with Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh. While the two of them are legendary actors and ones that command respect, what I took away from the interview was just how funny Michael Caine is. He had the room laughing as he told some classic stories and it was a great 20 minute conversation. If you’re a fan of Michael and you know his work, you’ll love what’s below.
As always, you can either read the transcript of the roundtable interview below or you can download the audio as an MP3 by clicking here.
Finally, if you’d like to watch 5 movie clips from “Sleuth” go here.
Once again, “Sleuth” opens this Friday.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about returning to the material but in a different role this time around?
Michael Caine: Yes. The material is completely different. I don’t regard it as a re-make. None of the lines are the same anyway. It’s original Pinter. All he did was take the plot and that’s the only reason I did it. I wouldn’t have remade Tony’s version of it because I think Joe and Larry and Tony and I made a good enough version of it and not had to be re-made. I think you should remake flops and then you come out great, you know? What attracted me to this was the Pinter script on different levels because when I was a very young actor he was a young actor called David Barron and he said he was going to write a play and use his own name and I said what’s your real name and he said Harold Pinter. Then he wrote a one act play called The Room which I did at the Royal Court. Then for the next 50 years he wrote brilliant stuff and won Nobel Prizes and became the most performed writer in the world and I never got another script, so I was kind of ticked off, you know? Then Jude came to me with this and I went right—now I’ve got a Pinter script and one I want to do and I loved the script. I thought it was great.
Q: Does this parallel your own class journey in any way?
Michael Caine: I suppose so. It might do, yeah. For instance, let me give you the classic—the original one was very class conscious. It was constructed with very much me as a working class company yo-bo and he was a very upper crust writer in the vein of old England--Agatha Christie, the gentleman sleuth he was writing about you know? You don’t deal with real common working class policemen because we’re so much smarter. All Agatha Christie’s people—even little old ladies are smarter than policemen. You know Miss Marple who goes and solves everything. So there’s this incredible snobbery that goes on and that did impart itself to the original movie in the script. Out of the script it did because everybody, the papers said Michael Caine working class Alfie, he’s going to have to work with Lord Olivier. Boy is he gonna get showed a lesson, this little scum-bag who’s going to come and do this, you know? And even Larry wrote me a letter saying “you may be wondering how to address me when we meet” because he was a Lord. I hadn’t wondered for one moment how to address him when we meet. He very kindly said “you must call me Larry the moment we meet and for the rest of our relationship”, so that was...there was that class thing there if you can cut forward to our one there is much less—hardly anything to do with class in the movie—our movie. And also it would be quite preposterous. I am Sir Michael Caine and Jude isn’t, you know? So can you image me writing a letter to Jude saying you maybe wondering how to address me when we meet? So it no longer applies you see. And in my head back-story on this writer, Andrew Wyke in this, is that he is working class who has gone to university, changed and gotten rid of any thick accent of wherever he came from, but he’s still tough enough. If you look at Larry, there’s a couple of things. If you look at Larry you know that Milo, me, could take him on in a fight. If you look at Jude and me you wonder just even though Jude’s younger, I look a bit tougher than Larry does. Also, you go into the technology of it. None of this computer, CC to the camera—whatever. None of it was invented in 1972. Even if you come to Larry’s character and Larry’s Andrew Wyke and said I’ve got this computer thing let me show you. He’d go oh no I can’t do anything like that. But my character is a specialist in it. He knows how to do everything. He’s a complete and utter control freak. But I always saw him as having a tough working class background.
Kenneth Branagh: There more of a sort of mirror aren’t they in this one? Jude’s character it’s as if you get a sense of Michael’s character dragged himself up by the bootstraps in all of this conspicuous wealth that the house has. All the technical stuff and all the art and everything is that which has been acquired and that Jude comes up as someone possibly just as capable if he can negotiate it or threaten it out of him he might actually take it from him. So in that sense there’s a mirror thing going on that makes them in a way equals in a different way.
Michael Caine: They’re more equal. The most snobbish thing I ever heard said remember that Alan Clark he was a great snob, and he was talking about someone and he said the man’s a fraud. I understand he bought his own furniture. It hadn’t been handed down for 400 years and this man was beyond the pale and you couldn’t speak to him because he bought his own furniture. You can’t speak to people who do that. I thought that was the most…there was another man who’s house I went into the Duke of something or other, on the walls was like Ruben’s and Van Dyke’s and everything. I said it’s a wonderful collection of paintings. I didn’t know they existed in this big house he had. He said oh yes, we’ve got a lot of kit here. A lot of kit. I thought oh, okay. Anyway, back to Sleuth.
Q: Well, that’s something I wanted to inquire. The space used in the film is just amazing. How long did it take to put that together and was it fun for you guys to utilize all aspects of the set?
Kenneth Branagh: We had to I think because we…Harold’s inspiration was the idea that the outside of the house was period and the inside was modern. Then the invitation about how to do that was entirely up to us so we’re trying to find this world that would unsettle the audience, you know. We try to do that with both with the way it looked and the way we shot it. We stayed away from the faces of the actors for 10-15 minutes and I remember day 4 the call came through I was expecting it from 2 producers. Very nice people, but I knew they would panic, and they said I can’t believe…I haven’t seen Michael Caine’s face, I haven’t seen Jude Law’s face, I’m seeing them I said sir they’re in the distance, he said they’re not in the fucking distance are they, they’re just in the back of the room. I’m seeing the room, the room is fine. It’s weird but the room is fine. He said “when am I going to see…” I said “you’re going to Michael’s face on Monday afternoon about half past two and he’s going to sit down and do a close-up and he’s going to sit and do a close-up and say I understand you’re fucking my wife”. That’s when the close ups start. But before then we tried to stay wide and we tried to make sure that everything every object, everything seemed that it could have a significance you know from a whiskey glass already poured before the question of whether you want a drink is asked and before the choice is made, so you’re already thinking is this color, is this object, is this spatial relationship, is this shot in this monitor, is it…what is real about it? Is there somebody else watching it? Is she watching it? Has he recorded this? All of those things promoted that kind of inquiry when I read Harold Pinter’s script and it was part of trying to absolutely embrace the cinema of it because all of our people have said to us “oh theater into film” Harold…you know…Michael’s has 90 odd films maybe more. Jude’s done all these movies. Harold’s made 23 screenplays. I mean…The Servant, Accident, Quillam Memorandum, The Go Between. This is not a man who does this lightly. This is a man who as bare as it appears to be it was always for the cinema. But for me the ultimate challenge was doing it with these sort of bare essentials. But what bare essentials! His script, these two and the story of 2 men fighting in a room about a woman we never see. That was really rub your hands together time.
Speaking of your two characters—how did you work together? Did you rehearse?
Michael Caine: Yes, we rehearsed for 3 weeks. Very, very intensely. By the way the timings were vastly different on the 2 pictures. We rehearsed very intensely for 3 weeks on this and shot the movie in 4 weeks. On the first Sleuth, we rehearsed sort of mucking about for 5 days and shot the movie in 16 weeks. So the experience was completely different, completely.
And what is Jude like as an actor? Did he surprise you as an actor?
Michael Caine: No, I expected him to be great and he was. I wouldn’t have done the movie with him. You’ve got a 2 handed movie, I’m not going to do it with a bad actor. I’ve always been a great admirer of Jude as an actor. I don’t think he’s got a great rap from critics actually for what he does. I think he’s so pretty that it pisses people off. It pisses me off sometimes. But he’s a wonderful actor and I think this picture is the best thing he’s ever done.
Speaking about Jude Law, this may be a stupid question but how did it feel to see him play the role…I know the film is different of course…because it’s a different screenplay, but how did you feel to see him play the role you played 25 years ago?
Michael Caine: Alfie? Oh in Sleuth? Well, it wasn’t you see because I couldn’t look at Jude in a scene and say I said that line better than he did because there are no lines there that I said ever. They’re all different lines. I can’t impress upon you how much it was like just like doing a movie with no reference to Sleuth whatsoever. There was nothing. I haven’t seen Sleuth for 30 years. Pinter never ever saw the movie or the play. He just stole the plot and wrote his own thing. That’s what he did because he doesn’t like doing plots. He hates it. He’s not very good at it actually. He nicked this plot and just everything else is Pinter.
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Will this go onstage too?
Kenneth Branagh: Who knows?
Michael Caine: Well, this version? That’s interesting. I never thought of that.
Kenneth Branagh: I bet Harold would be thrilled if it did.
Michael Caine: I think it would go very well onstage, yeah. Yeah, I think so. I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to do stage again. No.
Why is that?
Michael Caine: Well I like to go out in the evenings. I like to go out to the theatre.
You’ve know Jude prior to this, I mean you’ve been friends for awhile.
Michael Caine: Oh yeah, since the Academy Awards. I met him at the Academy Awards. What year was it…I’m up for Cider House Rules and he lost.
Kenneth Branagh: As pretty as he was.
Michael Caine: As pretty as he was he lost.
What do you have in common with him and do you see a little bit of yourself at that age?
Michael Caine: Yes I do. Yeah, yeah. I see a young actor from a dodgy background. He’s not judged fairly in his abilities. I remember I read a review of his work. He’s very good and he got slaughtered by this critic and I thought back to this…the very first review I read of Alfie I was almost suicidal. It said this is a brilliant play transformed to the screen and destroyed by the performance of Michael Caine in the central character. That’s the first review I read, I swear to you on my daughter’s life I swear, that’s a direct quote. I thought my life is over. My career is over. I’m crap, you know? Then the next couple weren’t that great either, you know? And then suddenly someone said something then someone else because there’s always a kind of personal thing. There’s this company upstart they come along here thinking he’s going to pull the wool over our eyes. He’s not going to do that and then there’s an envy barrier. I remember I went through all this for a long time and I was very good friends with David Lean and I was talking to him about him. I never did a picture with David otherwise we wouldn’t have been good friends. I said I never get this terrible press anymore that I used to get. I went to America and became a success and left England behind and all this. You have no idea what the British press are like. He said, “yes you’re all right now, Michael. He said you’ve gone through the envy barrier”. And it’s true. And I said “what does that mean?” He said “well, nobody envies anybody who’s old. They only envy the young.”
So you are back working with Pinter now. How is that compared to when you were young?
Michael Caine: What do you want me to say?
Kenneth Branagh: Yes, I’m reading something into that.
Michael Caine: He’s starting to go through the envy barrier.
Is he intimidating in any way?
Kenneth Branagh: Is he intimidating? Oh Christ, yes. I mean, he was intimidating when I was 15 and I got my copy of The Caretaker and on the back of this blue rimmed thing—this little biography and this picture of him like this…I mean he looks at me and it was so the classic tortured artist. It was thrilling. I thought I hope I grow up to be that angst ridden.
And did you?
Kenneth Branagh: In some ways I did but thankfully I’ve gone through that barrier at least. No, but meeting him how can you not I mean having then spent the subsequent 30 years watching these plays and screenplays and you know and then he gets his Nobel Prize and also struggles against very, very severe serious illness and is still fighting away and then comes into our rehearsal room and the first thing he says is ‘I like this. I like this soundstage. I shot The Servant here and I shot Accident and I shot The Go Between” and you’re aware with him and Michael and just the vast…
Michael Caine: Hey, I shot on that soundstage…I shot Zulu and Alfie on that same soundstage.
Kenneth Branagh: Made me and Jude Law feel a bit funny for awhile I can tell you.
Michael Caine: They didn’t shoot anything.
Kenneth Branagh: The odd voice over here and there. No, but he like all great artists like this gentleman on my right here, once you start working with them it all falls away. You are working with them. They approach things in a very youthful way. I think that great artists have a kind of youthfulness of spirit. There is a childlike quality and a great desire for and aptitude for camaraderie. We enjoy it and we work very, very hard and we also played very hard. We enjoyed that so they…
Michael Caine: And of course we drank very hard.
Kenneth Branagh: We drank very hard. So it was intimidating in prospect, but in practice is was absolutely delightful.
I, of course, have to ask the question have you wrapped on the new Batman movie?
Michael Caine: I have but they wrapped this week in Hong Kong. At last, they started in April. Yeah, yeah, they’ve finished. The great surprise of that will be the thing we thought…you know it’s like life…the thing we thought was gonna be the biggest problem is we’re doing a movie about The Joker and Jack Nickelson has already done it superbly and quite extraordinarily and along comes Heath Ledger and does it completely differently and absolutely terrifying fantastic.
What was the experience like going back to the franchise? Was it…?
Michael Caine: Well it’s like going home will all your old friends. I hadn’t been very far away because I was with Christopher Noland and Christian Bale in The Prestige, you know? So we’re sort of like a family there and so the makeup’s the same, the hair is the same and everything so it was a bit like going home and it was Chicago again. It’s always Chicago which I know so well now. I feel I live there in Chicago. But I thought and I can say this because I’m only the butler, that the 1st Batman was the best one I’d ever seen and I think the 2nd one will be better than that. I’m not saying that for publicity reasons, it just is. Wait ‘til you see it. You’ll see.
I wanted to ask you about Kenneth as a director.
Kenneth Branagh: Oh, do ask.
Michael Caine: Wait until he’s gone, wait until he’s gone! No, Kenneth’s a director because he’s an actor so he knows exactly how you feel and what’s going on with you and he can see and what he does is he never belittles you like some directors, you know they’re being the big I am and that sort of the governor. He will whisper and he will whisper quietly what he wants done and the way he does it you wind up thinking it was your idea and also he gives you a break. If you’ve got a 9 minute take and you fluff after 8 ¾ minutes, he doesn’t like a lot of director’s say “cut, back to the beginning and do it again” he says keep going, keep going, keep going. We’re going to shoot it from all different angles. He gives you complete relaxation and that’s what I like because my basis for all my acting which is especially handy for films but I started in theatre in Stanislavski, the line that I took from Stanislavski’s book was that before the rehearsal is the work. The performance is the relaxation—which if you can think of a camera can spot tension instantly, you know? If you can just relax into just working in front of a camera that’s what all the…it’s a whole load of hard work trying to look like you’re not doing anything. I figure that’s why we’re all nuts.