What is Christopher Nolan‘s Tenet actually about? What the hell is time inversion? Is this movie actually going to debut in theaters just over a month from now? These are all questions barely anyone on Earth can answer right this moment, but Kenneth Branagh—who may or may not be playing the antagonist in Tenet—knows more than most. When Collider’s Steven Weintraub sat down with the actor to discuss his directing efforts on Disney+ film Artemis Fowl, we also picked Branagh’s brain about the attention Tenet is receiving as the first major blockbuster to (maybe!) hit theaters amid the COVID shutdown.
Here’s what Branagh had to say:
“The pandemic and our movement toward this latest development…is symbolized by the return of large numbers of people to all be at a distance but still [take part in a] group communal experience of a piece of entertainment. That’s a big deal right now in our world, it’s important. It would seem to go with what I can tell you is a movie that is worth the public’s attention, that can be a great thing. All other movie companies are looking at it with real interest, to say the least, because it also uniquely combines with [Nolan’s] unusual brand. An auteur filmmaker who knows how to make a blockbuster. So if he’s on form, then the movie business gets a lovely kick back into the direction of somewhere near normal.”
“Blockbuster auteur” is a pretty accurate choice of words for the way Nolan’s most loyal fans see the Inception filmmaker. But Branagh, obviously a filmmaker himself, is also in the unique position of seeing Nolan work up close.
“[Nolan] seems to be able to manipulate time. Not only does he obsess about doing it in the stories of his movies, in the making of them he seems to stop time to address difficult things. I never felt, as I sometimes do in lesser hands, you get rushed when big effects moments in movies overpower, and the crane, and the action, and the equipment, and the vehicles are all happening and suddenly the actors are panicked. Because it needs to happen now. Chris Nolan seems to be able to stop that, sort of Matrix pause, come and direct you as if there isn’t a care in the world. You could take all day to rehearse the scene if you want. And then he goes back to unleashing the monster of chaos that will surround you. [He makes] the two things marry up. It’s like seeing a painter at work. It’s fascinating to watch.”
With the whole world’s attention on Tenet and its seemingly impenetrable logline, Branagh—along with castmates like John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, and Elizabeth Debicki—have been forced lately to perform remarkable feats of verbal linguistics to not spoil anything about the twisty plot. According to Branagh, that’s less NDA-influenced and more a loyalty to Nolan and the charmingly old-school way he treats his crew.
“With Christopher Nolan, in a very old-fashioned way, it’s like a handshake. I’ll tell you how I got the script. The door knocked, I opened the door and standing at the door was an international film director called Chris Nolan. He had an envelope under his arm and he said ‘I’ve come to deliver the script to you.’ It doesn’t get more personal then that. And then [I asked], ‘how will we talk about this?’ [Nolan said], “24 hours from now, sir, I will give you a telephone call and we will discuss it.” It’s as simple as that. He says, “it’d be nice if we maybe kept this to ourselves”…nobody signs anything. It’s a handshake and a level of trust.
It’s a loaded thing. When there are new scripts, I run to Chris’ associate producer, Andy [Thompson], who will take from me either my script or replace the pages that are changed. But I don’t ever want to have a script that isn’t locked in my bag. Like on an airplane, if you’re traveling to location and you’re reading it…frankly, on a Nolan fim, you think about that before your passport. It’ll be fine if they don’t let me into Estonia, but if they do let me into Estonia and I don’t have the script for Tenet, I’m done. It’s over.”
Be on the lookout for the rest of our conversation with Branagh over the next week. Artemis Fowl arrives on Disney+ on Friday, June 12. For more on Tenet, here is the latest trailer.