‘Belfast’ writer/director Kenneth Branagh on ‘giving a hug to my younger self’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Kenneth Branagh just earned a trio of Oscar nominations for his work producing, directing and writing “Belfast.” The film is an homage to Branagh’s youth growing up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Branagh spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery in January, before the Oscar nominations, revealing what it was like to develop an original story, the decision to shoot in black and white and the importance of being part of the awards conversation. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: The film is inspired by your own experiences during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, so with something this personal. how do you decide where to draw directly from your own life experience and where to fictionalize for the sake of just telling the best story? 

Kenneth Branagh: Well, Daniel, it is a process that I suppose I’ve spent many decades considering, because I think the question you put is the hard one to answer. I felt, really, I couldn’t, in the end, make the film until I found the way that would connect with the most people. So in a way, I wanted it to get beyond the narrow confines of me and try and find out whatever was universal. So that meant on the way, listening to a lot of other people’s stories, particularly refugee stories, migrant stories, people who’ve had to leave and move from lives and homes that were very secure and important to them in times of great crisis. I began to see how the story fits, to some extent, into that world, and what I knew was the visceral experience of the sudden arrival of violence in the form of an on-street riot would be at the beginning and pivotal to launching the film in whatever degree the balance you hint at and ended up being, but that I would go directly to my experience for what it was like for a nine-year-old, as it were, in another beautiful day in the neighborhood to suddenly experience the arrival of catastrophic violence. That was the authentic starting point. 

GD: You as a filmmaker have written a number of adaptations, many Shakespearean adaptations, and this is an original script, of course, that hits close to home for you. Is it very creatively different to approach a story like this as opposed to other scripts? 

KB: Yes, it is, because as you hint at in your first question, you are exposing yourself, you are to some extent more vulnerable. With adapting Shakespeare, you are using all of your interpretive instincts. Often it’s with the experience of having seen how those plays play in the theater. So you know about certain moments that work for “Henry V” or certain laughs that “Much Ado About Nothing” would tend to get. Then you could bring that experience to how you shape the way a scene is edited or shot or in a movie version. With this, it’s a more naked and raw experience. You have those other skills, but the big thing is making sure you’re objective enough to be able to strike that balance between bringing everything that is valuable and authentic about the personal but making sure that your, as it were, savage artistic conscience doesn’t get all weak-kneed because it happens to be your story. I suppose one of the clearest examples of having to do that was that in a version of this film, older Buddy comes back to Belfast and I played older Buddy, as you might imagine, and I saw it in the movie and it didn’t work. So I cut myself out of the film, and did so without having to write that note, saying, “It wasn’t you, it was me.” So that sort of balancing act is a different scenario, I think, when it’s your own piece. 

GD: And another interesting aspect of this film, of course, is that it’s shot in black and white. How did you come to that decision and how did that affect your visual approach to the film, knowing that you’d be shooting it that way? 

KB: Well, one of the things that I gave myself permission to do here was to be as free with my instincts in this film as I possibly could. So when I more intuitively believed it should be in black and white, it was from the point of view of knowing that you could create tremendous variety by bringing the cinema sections into color and having the impact for the audience of what they had for me when I was a kid. Color blew my mind. The big wide screens of Technicolor charge of that really rocked my otherwise slightly monotone, granite-y, gray, northern skies visual. There was a lot of rain in Belfast growing up, and black and white, I intuitively felt gave it a kind of grandeur. There’s a terrific Carol Reed film called “Odd Man Out” set in Belfast. It’s from the late ’40s, early ‘50s, stars James Mason, and that was an inspiration, black and white, set in that city. And for me, it captures a certain masculinity that the city has, a sort of old-world masculinity. It was a big industrial city. It built the Titanic and it seemed to me that it also has a kind of poetic dimension as well, and I think for a boy, Buddy watching movies largely in black and white on television, it spoke of a kind of glamor, which is the way he saw his parents, all of which kind of seemed to fit into something that evoked period as a result. 

GD: And of course, in telling this story, you’re casting actors to play versions of yourself and your parents. What was that casting process like with Jude Hill and Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, to find these actors who would best portray these relationships so close to you, and, of course, yourself? 

KB: Well, perhaps the strangest of all was Jude Hill, because part of the journey of making the film for me was meeting again and recognizing and putting an arm around and giving a hug to my younger self, really, and in some ways saying, “Hey buddy, you did the best you could.” But I needed to go meet him again, and in a way, Jude Hill showed me how and in the gift of his real capacity for being present in scenes. He’s a great listener. So he’s a great example of film acting where you’re able to be compelled by, in this case, a young person simply listening. The story of the film is often written on his face while other people are speaking. Somehow, that’s very revealing. So he chose to give of himself. So he’s not a literal version of me, but I found the film version of me through him. It was an emotional experience to see that sort of reciprocity. When it came to my parents, I knew that Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe both had what I would call the fizzle that my parents had. It was a passionate relationship, it was a very active, physical relationship, I think, and stormy for sure. The Irish are quick to laugh and they’re quick to fight, and my parents shared some of those characteristics. I felt that Jamie and Caitríona had that edge. They have that sort of fire in the belly, and whilst not direct replicas, nobody’s parents are going to be as corkingly good-looking, I think, as Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan as they’re presented in this film. But they’re an idealized example of how Buddy saw them, and they had that kind of fiery spark that my own folks did. 

GD: You shot this film during this whole COVID pandemic. How does that affect on set, just the creative process and the way you collaborate with actors and other craftspeople and all that? 

KB: It creates a slower ritual, a sparer and sparser ritual. Various departments go in one by one to the sets, so the props guys will go in and they’ll set the props and they’ll leave, which they wouldn’t normally do. Then the electricians will go in and they’ll check the lights if there are any, and then they’ll leave, which they wouldn’t normally do. And then finally, the DP, the cinematographer and the focus puller would go in and I’d go in and the actors would go in, and it’d be a much, much smaller group. The script supervisor would be outside. Sound would be outside. There was greater silence at the beginning of the pandemic. Fewer planes in the air. I’ve never found as easy to record a dialogue picture as this one in the time of COVID. And then we had to have every door and every window we possibly could. We had to go to the set in a one-way fashion, mark our color zone. So by the time you got to the set, in a way, a sort of mystical prep had gone on, like a kind of incantation to the gods of creativity. So you arrive quieter and more prepared, or differently prepared anyway, than you might. So it made the space on set, I think, quite special, quite sacred in a way, and so much quieter. So the sense and feel, there was a concentration of energy, was very, very striking. And because of fewer people in the gaps that you have while you’re reloading or adjusting lighting, a lot of quite deep conversations went on. So I think some of the bonding that was necessarily, family-wise, occurred. So I witnessed a lot, seeing, for instance, the bond between Judi Dench and young Jude Hill just occur in these quiet moments, in this emptier set, in this more focused environment. It was very beautiful to witness and it had a big impact on the spirit of those performances. 

GD: And you mentioned how you start this film with that incredibly intense riot scene. How did you conceive of that going into it? You have that camera revolving around Buddy and just the feeling of movement and disorientation there. 

KB: Well, an image I had in my mind actually was the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz,” the tornado, that you needed to feel that this kid was swept up in an instant, which was going to leave his life just completely scattered on the streets around him, and he’d have to start putting it back together in the course of the film. So having him in the center of it and his eyes registering the impact of what was going on was key because what had happened to me, it was something where it took a long time to process. It felt as though it was a slow-motion experience. It was something where I knew I wanted to commit to having all the moving parts in place. So every single member of our crowd was in that shot. Every single member of the residents of the street was in that shot. Jude Hill was at the center of it and the violence would kick off during it. So it was going to be something that in shooting it had had quite a high adrenalized quality to it, which was very helpful for Jude. But also, I was concerned that he didn’t get too scared, and a real petrol bomb was flying and we have to be safe, crew and actors. So the idea was to create controlled pandemonium and then having gone for this spectacular lit fuse of a shot, that then the fireworks were in much smaller pieces. But in fact, it was the one day or two where we use multi-cameras. We had cameras in every doorway and window, and a lot of the action was all happening at the same time. So you did feel, which I wanted, that you were in a riot and you did feel — of course, this was not the case, we were safe — but it felt like everything was out of control. 

GD: And, of course, those scenes in the movie theater as well, showing how important the film was to Buddy and of course, have been to you in your life and career, how did you decide the films that you would include in those scenes and what significance they had? 

KB: Well, there were many other options as well. The first Beatles cartoon, “Yellow Submarine,” was a film that I remember being so psychedelically done and dazzling in my youthful imagination. “The Great Escape,” we had Steve McQueen in the movie for a while. There was something I really liked about having lots of movie stars from that time in the film. “The Sound of Music” was in the film at one stage as well. And in a way, they were all films about escape. They were all films about people leaving. I didn’t even realize that that train of connection was there. But in the end, it was about the kind of visceral impact they make. So Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion photography on those dinosaurs, sort of proto-“Jurassic Park” of “One Million Years B.C.,” combined with the kind of puberty-enhancing effect of Raquel Welch, and then the sort of color immersion of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” which again, literally took you to other places. A car flew over the mountains and then you end up in a version of Bavaria in King Ludwig’s castle. These were escape routes from Belfast that were colorful, widescreen, massive images of massive vistas. They were so important to presenting the ladder away from that experience. And although I didn’t know it at the time, that’s what it was. The one decision I chose not to make because it just felt stylistically not right was to present in color the “Thor” comic that Buddy reads on the pavement outside the betting shop, and his father’s making a bet, which had the same effect. This transformative power of narrative, whether it be in comics or films of TV or briefly in the theater, all hit me in color. So I needed and wanted to make this very clear difference to how all of those things struck this kid as being separate from his normal everyday experiences of his life. 

GD: And the film has been in the awards conversation this season. It’s been getting a lot of attention. You yourself have been nominated for five Oscars, all in different categories. If you get in for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay this year, that will be seven categories, which will be a new record. How do you feel about that kind of recognition and how your career has been so versatile that you have been recognized in so many different areas? 

KB: Well, I feel the intense privilege of it. I certainly feel that, a deep, deep sense of privilege that I’ve been allowed to continue working. And as far as “Belfast” goes, I think this is an amazing year for films, fantastic quality of films this year. I haven’t seen a bad film this year. I have loved so many and I’ve gone to the movies a lot and whenever I can, I will do that, as opposed to watching at home. So I feel very honored that we’re included in that way. I also feel very grateful. It’s never been more important that film festivals, critics, the awards conversation, it’s never been more important than now to the lifeblood of film, particularly film in cinemas. The attention brought to “Belfast” because of being part of this conversation is what still keeps it in cinemas right now, albeit in a small number, but there it is. It’s been going since November 12th. It’s still hanging on in cinemas. It will continue to. I think we open in the U.K. on the 21st and internationally, and that wouldn’t have been possible without these kinds of conversations. So I’ve never felt more strongly and passionately about the value of the joined-up conversation of the entire community of film because in a way, it doesn’t matter what the opinion is, if there is an opinion. Sometimes passionate dislike will send people to a movie because you’re sure you’ll disagree with whoever it was that said they didn’t like this film, or they did like this film. So I feel grateful for the opportunity, honored to be among the great group of films and even being considered in that way, and thankful that we are in a business that has a community that takes the trouble, yes, to criticize, but often, and thank God, to celebrate and for that, I’m profoundly grateful. 

GD: I can definitely relate to that. I have seen negative reviews that made me want to see movies more than the positive ones (laughs).

KB: A strong point of view means something has got under the skin of that person, and it doesn’t make the film right and the person wrong, but I want to feel alive like that, even if it’s because I’m pulling my hair out. So I think it’s a treat to have anybody give you the time to give you their opinion, frankly. That is the lifeblood of creators. It ain’t finished till somebody sees it. It doesn’t exist till somebody sees it. And having been around for 40 years, I’ve got broad enough shoulders to take the rough with the smooth and just be grateful to be in the game. 

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