Having been an English major, I studied a fair amount of Shakespeare in my college days. I’ve loved Kenneth Branagh since I first saw him as Henry V in King Henry V, as Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing, as Iago in Othello, as Hamlet, as Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, as director of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love's Labour's Lost, As You Like It, Thor—the list is practically endless.
As an actor and director, I’ve basically loved everything that Kenneth Branagh has ever been involved in, and Cinderella didn’t disappoint.
We sat down and chatted with Disney’s live-action Cinderella Director Kenneth Branagh about his work on the film, the casting process, the message of the fairytale, and the authenticity to animated classic by Disney. He’s a bit of a jokester and humble, yet knowledgeable and easy to talk with.
On the casting process
Kenneth: I had an idea of how Cinderella should be. In my experience, it was going to be like Thor, which took a long time to find the beautiful and sexy Chris Hemsworth, now officially the sexiest man in the world. I thought, ‘Well, I have good taste then clearly.’ No, no. We knew that it would take a while, and that you had to really feel the character. She had to be likable. You needed to want to spend those 90 minutes or whatever with her. Because of the way we were slightly reimagining the character’s personality, she needed to have a good sense of humor, an approachable beauty, a kindness, a passion, and strength that could stand up in a scene with Miss Blanchett or Miss Bonham Carter.
A sort of simplicity without being sappy. So it was going to take a long time. And I heard Lily James’ voice first. I thought, ‘God, that's a beautiful voice.’ And then she was a beautiful girl. And then she was very patient across a lot of auditions and things. And eventually it just became clear that she was the one.
On the most difficult scene to direct
Kenneth: I think probably the ballroom sequence because you knew that there would be so much expectation on it. Practically speaking you were going to have 500 people, half of whom were going to be in corsets, and that was going to be a bit tricky. You’re going to have 500 people to the loo, as well, during the course of the day, and then get them back on set before wasting too much time. I knew that the dancing, and the staging and the sense of our opulence and getting a sense of the glamour and the flamboyance of it was important.
I wanted to take people to the ball, but I also knew that for me the scene was just as much about his hand on the small of her back in the beginning of that dance. It was trying to keep that big large-scale ambitions with just wanting the human dynamic of the boy-meets-girl moment.
On being brought to the project and working on a fairytale
Kenneth: I think it was the surprise of being asked to do this specific one.
I hadn't long ago done Thor, and I did a film called Jack Ryan, and so a couple of quite boy-sy films. And being asked to do a fairytale and such a famous one. I remembered a couple of things from Cinderella. I loved the chase back from the palace at midnight. I really remember in the original animated film the stepmother coming out of the dark with two blazing green eyes at which she's lying in bed. Cinderella brings her some tea. I remember it being a bit scary but very exciting and fun.
Also, I was very aware if you do a Disney film, then you have a big responsibility. There's going to be a lot of kids seeing it for the first time. And they all know the story as well. I've never made a film where the lights go down and you realize that everybody from 5 to 95 knows what's going happen next. So it’s not about what happens next. It’s about how you do what happens next. So that was very exciting.
I think people feel an incredible ownership of the story. I think it’s very personal to a lot of people. I think that there's a relationship to the underdog or the outsider or however we chose to categorize her that seems to represent us, our hopes and dreams and aspirations.
And there was a chance to do that but sort of recalibrate them. So in the scene between the sisters and Cinderella, Cinderella says, ‘What about the prince? What do you think he’ll be like?' And they said, ‘Doesn’t matter what he's like. He's a prince. Um, and, anyway, all men are stupid.' The idea of working out whether it’s possible to present the Cinderella who may feel differently about that was important to break some of those stereotypes.
I think my experience even just making that ball scene—we had hundreds of extras, and we had hundreds of crew people and lots of people who had sort of been there and done that, were very jaded in the film business perhaps you might say who were extremely moved by this image of somebody who gets their shot, who gets a chance to be happy, who gets their trip to the ball, you know, whether that's literal or an image. To be involved in something as symbolically important to people, as simple as it appears to be, was very enticing.
On the mice and their sound bytes
Kenneth: We scripted the entire mice story through the movie. Chris Weitz and I sat down, and we wrote words, dialogue for all four of the mice in every scene in which they appeared. And then we recorded them with actors a couple of different ways. Sometimes we made the actors say it very, very, very slowly so that when we then speeded it up to be in sort of mice squeak mode, you could just get a half a hint of what they were saying.
So for instance Gus at the end when he finally is persuaded that he shouldn’t eat the cheese and maybe he should jump on the back of the other three so they can open the window and they can hear Cinderella singing. There is a secret mouse play and screenplay inside the movie.
On location selection
Kenneth: We almost always have a location manager to help out. But as being a small country, frankly, you end up knowing a few. And how I've done a few pictures with palaces, I have my contacts as it were, but essentially of course we built so much of it that we didn’t do too much inside real palaces. So the whole of that ballroom is an entire construction on the 007 Stage in Pinewood. The outside of Cinderella’s house was all built in a place called Black Park.
The forest where the Prince and Cinderella meet is in Windsor Great Park, which is essentially the Queen’s back garden. She lives in Windsor Castle part of the time, so part of that park involves that group of oak trees, which are over 600 years old. So it was very nice to be able to say to Lily and Richard, you're going to do this magical scene in a magical place, because these oak trees were here when Shakespeare was alive. It was really very sort of magical.
On the spirit of the animated classic
Kenneth: It’d be interesting now if you go back and look at the 1950 animated picture because you may be surprised at how far we depart in a strange way. I think we absolutely embrace the spirit of it. And in a couple of occasions we really sort of hint at a couple of shots. But I think the real sort of reinvention is the character of Cinderella and her kind of pro-activeness. You know, she doesn’t just wait around, but also this uncynical belief in the power of kindness and courage.
One of the things we really wanted to do was make sure that the kids were not being sort of lectured, it was done lightly enough from a character who seemed to embody it in a way that still allowed her to be happy and free and intelligent and smart—not suddenly be all self-righteous and pious and everything. I think that that was something we tried very hard to do. The hardest decision in the whole movie was, I know it’s a bit of a Disney cliché because they’ve been doing it since Bambi, was losing parents.
As you will have spotted, we've got three out of four of the parents of have died. I feel responsible for a kind of attack on the grown ups. It’s tough, but it’s beautiful. In the first 10 minutes where Mum goes, my God, you see the shoulders heave. If you sit at the back of the auditorium, you see a lot of arms go around small people, or vice versa. By the time the son loses dad the three-quarters of the way through the movie…This sort of responsibility you have if you get the privilege of making a Disney movie is there is a way to maybe just find a compassionate way to talk about things that includes some of the difficult things that life throws up. As long as it can be done lightly, and there's lots of entertainment and everything else.
About Ella's proactivity and being a role model to young girls
Kenneth: Perhaps the latest extreme example of cruelty, which is the renaming of her, we see a moment where she gets on that horse and she goes. I think a question anybody asks of a modern Cinderella, ‘Why doesn’t she leave?' Well, she may leave there. And she certainly has a passionate response to it and a passionate response to the prince that she encounters. But as she talks about later on, she stays there partly because she, in her view at this point, she honors her mother and father. And that's a positive and proactive decision I think to stay there.
We meet her reading a book, the old grown up Cinderella. We see a house that's full of curiosity. There are curious minds at work. I think she stays partly to try and understand it. I would say that's an example of proactivity. By the time she talks to the stepmother and stays, I mean the proactivity is the decision to stay in a way and say why? Why are you so cruel? A determination to ask it and understand this.
Rather than simply react against it. We always try to work out all the various scripts versions, how and when and under what circumstances might she leave. I think we found interesting alternates to that. But the challenge was to try and keep her there and keep her in the story but somehow find the way to express a strength that made us believe as we did going into it that this was a Cinderella who ultimately we believed would be fine if a prince didn't come along who was not searching for that.
But what's searching on one level just was searching for how you can be happy, and in this case, how you can be happy once what was your happiness, your happy family has been removed? So I think in those ways, I think that's how we go at it.
On his favorite iconic image
Kenneth: Sandy Powell and her amazing talent with the costumes and the determination to be very inventive about all of those things. So the kind of balance between finding it, this sort of classical approach. For instance, it sounds like a sort of simplistic question, but there was a big question about what color is that dress? You know, does it stay blue? The original was blue.
What kind of blue? Is it pink? Because the mother’s dress is pink. But should it stay pink in order to honor her mother? How much do we want to see a pink dress for that amount of time in the ballroom sequence? And what can we do with material? How magical can we make the material that is pink as opposed to blue or some other color? So those conversations were all had. It just becomes a stage-by-stage kind of process.
You felt quite a pressure with the slippers because you’ve got ruby slippers. And you got other slippers in film history, and it was going to be a big moment. So Sandy’s work with Swarovski to find this kind of multi-faceted thing, which also has a heaviness. It was incredibly heavy, the real thing. I think was really a stroke of genius. And when we saw it for the first time it was very gasp inducing when we saw the actual object on a plinth that she presented it on.
I guess Cinderella at the top of the stairs coming into the ball was a favorite moment of mine, or actually even just walking from the coach up the steps and into the palace I think the sort of moment where she comes into her own.
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CINDERELLA opens in theaters everywhere on March 13th!