In the same way that Carl Sagan brought his love of science to the masses, Kenneth Branagh popularizes Shakespeare through his films of the Bard;s work -- e.g., Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet. So it's not surprising that in his latest effort, Love's Labour's Lost, Branagh has gone to great lengths to make a less-than-well-known, 400-year old play as accessible to contemporary audiences as possible.
Director/actor Branagh has turned Love's Labour's Lost into a peculiar hybrid of the original play and a lush Hollywood musical circa 1939, complete with songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, and Jerome Kern. As if that wasn't brash enough, Branagh has cast the film with actors who, for the most part, are not known as singers or dancers. The film opened to mixed reviews and, indeed, it's an endeavor about which many questions might be asked. So we asked them of Branagh himself in a recent interview.
The first thing we wanted to know was, what prompted him to undertake a project as chancy as this? "It took a long time to convince myself that it might work," admitted Branagh. "The play doesn't get done much, and musicals don't seem to have worked on film, so you spend a lot of time asking yourself if it will work.
"I've been in the play," Branagh continued. "It plays more winningly than it reads. It's tough to read, because it's very dense. In the theater, it's an audience-pleaser. They like it and find it silly and charming, and they go with the change of tone at the end, which makes it quite poignant. I like the fact that the evening can contain both of those things: silliness, and then something quite heartbreaking and thought provoking. I knew that I liked musicals, and I love entertainment that is superficially about one thing and surprises you with what else it does."
Of course, using great old songs to make a film musical has been done before; the most recent example is Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, a modest critical and commercial success. Branagh says he was most impressed by that film's final sequence: "A glamorous city [Paris] at night. Moonlight. Lush orchestrations. Woody's in a tux, Goldie Hawn is in a beautiful gown, and she flies! All of these things were at their most extreme in terms of musical film, most romantic, glamourized, and heightened. The audience seemed to feel at ease with that, even more than the earlier part of the film. It encouraged me to feel that this is a world people are happy to return to."
Having essentially played Woody (complete with his speech patterns) in Celebrity, Branagh discussed his movie musical project with Allen, and "he told me that he encouraged no preparation in terms of vocal stuff." Branagh didn't quite want to go that route, even though he was also hiring mostly non-singers and non-dancers. In addition to himself, the cast of Love's Labour's Lost includes Alicia Silverstone, Timothy Spall, Matthew Lillard, Natascha McElhone, and -- for your musical comedy pleasure -- Nathan Lane. "Despite mixed abilities in our group," Branagh explained, "we did try very hard to make everybody have singing and dancing coaching in advance of rehearsals. I told everyone, 'Look, character informing the singing and dancing is the most important thing, but I also want you to try and do it your very best. I'm going to buy whatever roughness and raw edges come out as long as your character and your whole being is absolutely behind it. I think that that will end up being charming.'"
Branagh was well aware, in advance of the opening, that he'd taken a crazy gamble on this movie. "It's a strange balance," he admitted. "I'm not apologizing for it, but I'm suggesting that the Mickey and Judy, we-can-put-the-show-on quality is what we wanted. If we take a few hits, that's fine by me, because I think our primary responsibility is to the Shakespeare play."
As is often the case with Branagh's Shakespeare on screen, the casting of Love's Labour's Lost appears to be all over the place: Shakespearean actors with long pedigrees perform right alongside American actors who wouldn't know iambic pentameter if their tongues tripped over it. And not only do the actors have to speak the speech, they have to sing and dance, as well. What was Branagh ultimately looking for when he cast the film? "My instinct was that the people had to have the right approach to the Shakespeare," he said, "and that I needed people who were totally committed to doing it. I didn't want anybody in the movie who was doing me a favor. They had to really want to be there. There were too many chances to mess up, to look stupid, so attitude becomes terribly important. There's not much money and not much time, and you have to work very hard."
As for the musical sequences, "I didn't want too much technique taking over when the characters suddenly started singing. I didn't want the experience to suddenly go in to the admiration of a beautiful tone. For example, when I recorded 'They Can't Take That Away From Me' for the end of the movie, I sang it more musically the first time we did it. From a vanity point of view, I was rather pleased with it. Then we sat down and listened, and it just seemed to me that it wasn't my character (Berowne) singing; it was me having got a bit pleased with my voice. Still not Pavarotti, I hasten to add, but it somehow took me away from the character. So we recorded it again: not with a deliberate attempt to roughen it up, but just playing it more directly as Berowne singing goodbye to Rosalind, the woman he loves and might never see again. So what's in the picture is less musically correct -- I waver a bit here and I'm flat there -- but it's got life and heart in it. That's what I was asking everybody else to do.'
To turn a lengthy play into a 95-minute musical extravaganza required a great deal of cutting of the original text; perhaps 30 percent of the original play remains, but Branagh was adamant about avoiding any updating. "I wasn't going to change those words. We changed scenes around a bit, turned a male character into a female, and added newsreel footage," he said with a laugh. "But, that aside, I didn't want to contemporize it in a more direct way.
"We did try to write some new songs," Branagh revealed. "The real problem was lyrics. It was just very hard, if you're retaining the Shakespeare, to come up with original lyrics that didn't look pretty silly next to them. It took a braver man than me to try and do that! It seemed to need these classic songs, but it took quite a long time to wade through all the possible material. After that, we had to find moments where you thought characters might legitimately burst into song -- where you could believe that words were no longer enough, that there was enough passion, frustration, whatever to encourage something more to happen."
Love's Labour's Lost is being "presented" by Stanley Donen and Martin Scorsese, and we asked Branagh what that's all about. "Right at the end, the Harvemeister [Miramax's Harvey Weinstein] decided we should show the film to some people with the view of getting final thoughts," Branagh related. "So he invited Martin Scorsese and Stanley Donen, who were both extremely helpful and gave a lot of their time. Captain Harvey thought, if they liked it so much -- which they did -- perhaps they would endorse it. God knows, they didn't have to. I think they were very sensitive to the fact that, in its small way, it's an ambitious film and a tough sell. So we're very proud to have them connected with it."