You can download an abbreviated podcast of this interview by clicking here.
Matt: One of the reasons I love talking about movies is because I get opportunities like this. I’m speaking this morning with Kenneth Branagh, an Oscar nominated actor, writer and director. It was announced back in September 2008 that he’d be seated in the director’s chair for Thor and now after two and a half years of hard work we finally get to see the finished product. Mr Kenneth Branagh, good morning.
Kenneth: Good morning.
Matt: You’ve been in Australia for the world premiere of the film. How were we lucky enough to get that honour?
Kenneth: In the jockeying for position that the big film companies do for where their movies go, they were looking to put this picture at the beginning of the American summer, in front of everyone else’s summer.
But we were also trying to find where they had the most space to release it and it kind of fell into place for Australia. It seemed perfect given Chris Hemsworth’s attachment and given they also knew I loved Australia. The travel plans to get everyone around the globe together seemed to point towards Australia and so they’re lucky enough to be the first people to see the film.
Matt: Every time I hear your name I always think about Shakespeare – the films you’ve directed like Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet. I then heard you were directing a Marvel comic book. What is it we don’t know about you? How did you get interested in the project?
Kenneth: I love going to the pictures and I’d go a couple of times a week with my wife. We’ll see something obscure and then we’ll see something entirely popular. We like the “big movie” experience and I’d gotten to the stage where I’d seen so many of these films and I’d made a number myself. I wanted to put my experience of both together and when this project came up, my name was thrown into the ring.
It was a comic that I knew. It was a character that I knew from my youth and I loved the epic story at the centre of which was this wild, primitive man, barely in control of his very, very dangerous energy. He travels through space, he can be on earth, he can be in the home of the gods in Asgard and I thought this was amazing material to try to make a film of. It was very exciting.
Matt: These comics have been around for about 50 years ago. They would have changed a lot over time and there have been so many issues that would have been released. Where do you start? How do you make a movie out of all of that?
Kenneth: Good question. You throw yourself into the comics and you pull out, in broad terms, many different versions of the comics. The world is very psychedelic or very gothic or very space age. You then look back at the Norse myths themselves that Marvel successfully plundered to create their version of things.
You also look at modern influences and architecture such as images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Then you sit in a room with a designer, a visual effects supervisor and you start to try to put it together and work out how much time you want to spend on each location.
It’s trial and error. We tried to find something that combines the ancient with the modern. We had a primitively influenced society who were nevertheless technologically advanced and lived on as asteroid at the top of space. It adds up to some spectacular images – like six people on horseback riding across a rainbow bridge in outer space.
Matt: Comic book films have become so popular and trendy over the past decade. We seem to have a few of them released every year. Were you trying to distinguish your film in some way? To give it that Kenneth Branagh stamp?
Kenneth: We started already with a distinct difference because Thor is a god. Stan Lee, when he started working on the comic said that he’d gone as far as he could go with human beings.
In a way, we have a reverse journey. Most superheroes start in ordinary circumstances and then something extraordinary happens... like being bitten by a spider, they are given powers and the story begins.
Here, we have a hero who is a god with extraordinary powers and he goes through the opposite. The powers are taken away from him and he lives in an ordinary place. I liked that “switch around” where our hero has to learn humility. He has to learn more about how to be a leader by looking at examples from human beings. I thought it was a beautiful twist.
Matt: Do you feel pressure making a film like this with the huge budget and all the fans of the comic book with their expectations? Is it tougher than your normal film?
Kenneth: You’re certainly aware of an intense gaze, an intense level of interest. There was no decision that was made on the film, whether it be the casting or the colour of a helmet, that wasn’t the subject of vigorous, passionate debate. You have to take it all with a respectful pinch of salt and say “Hey, we’re making a film. We’re not making some documentary about the comic. We will try to find the essence and we will try to make it a film story.”
The pleasure so far in unveiling the picture is that comic book fans who have seen it have been very passionate. One told me he had a “nerd-gasm” and I’m taking that as being a positive reaction.
Matt: I know Stan Lee created the character back in 1962. Do you know if he’s seen the film yet?
Kenneth: He has not seen the film yet. There’s a tradition that he plays a cameo in his films and I cannot confirm or deny that he has a cameo in our film. Perhaps the tradition continues.
He was my first port of call. I had lunch with him at the beginning of the project and I was inspired by his energy at the age of 86. He was very supportive but he just said to get on with it. Excelsior!
Matt: You’ve got me curious now because I’ve seen the film and I can’t remember seeing Stan Lee so now I’ll have to see it again.
Kenneth: I could tell you but I would have to kill you. I promise you that if you revisit it with that question in mind, you would not be disappointed.
Matt: Did you think about putting yourself in there? I know you’ve done that before with some of the other films you’ve directed?
Kenneth: You asked earlier about the amount of pressure and I felt I didn’t want to extend that further by being it and so this time, I said “no, I have enough to do.”
Matt: I think you’ve got a pretty good cast anyway – Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Renner, Stellan Skarsgard. What was your pitch to these guys? How did you get them on board?
Kenneth: Anthony Hopkins looked at the part of Odin and he felt it was a wonderful opportunity to play the king of the universe and convey the kind of power and intelligence and danger that he can through saying very little. He only has one eye and yet he is still indelibly powerful.
As for Natalie, the invitation was to help us create a character that was not going to be some fluffy love interest. She was there to lend a scientific credibility to the relative reality of our superhero movie. Her genuine intellectual curiosity, in addition to her staggering beauty, was vital to sustaining the role.
That part was not well established when she first joined the film and I admire her tremendously for bringing that kind of commitment and taking that kind of risk. We stuck by our promise to make that character as unusual and as striking as she makes it.
Matt: I enjoyed the sense of humour that she brought to the film alongside Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings. I thought they worked really well off each.
Kenneth: Thank you for that. They worked really hard together. Stellan Skarsgard brings such authenticity to the role. He’s so utterly real with everything he does. Kat Dennings has such a brilliant comic gift and had such an effective rapport with the other two. You warm to that side of the picture enormously and it helps draw us in.
Matt: I have to mention the Aussie connection – Chris Hemsworth in the leading role. I know some here will remember him from Home & Away but I wouldn’t describe him as an international household name. It was a bit of a gamble for you taking him on. What won you over?
Kenneth: We did want to discover an actor in the role of Thor and this would be a way for the audience to enjoy the story, the film and the character without associating any actor with previous movie star baggage.
The joy was to try and find someone who was going to come up with the goods physically and be as magnificent as this god needed to look. Mr Hemsworth certainly does that. And then he needed to have the commitment to the acting range that’s required – to have the courage to be as arrogant as Thor is at the beginning of our story and yet still be charming and funny when he is a “fish out of water” on earth.
By the end of the film he has a directness, a sweetness and a straight forward honest quality that completes Thor’s changing journey before our very eyes. He had all of that and he’s also a natural in front of the camera.
We knew we needed someone who could carry the movie, as young as he was going to be, and Mr Hemsworth did that beautifully.
Matt: Kelly Higgins-Devine here at the ABC was very impressed with his abs and she wanted to know if they were digitally done or if they really were that good?
Kenneth: I can absolutely promise you that Mr Hemsworth’s body was untouched by the digital effects crew.
Matt: Talking about special effects, 3D is becoming more and more prevalent these days. Some films are taking advantage of the technique better than others. What made you decide to go down the 3D path with Thor?
Kenneth: To try to make a differently immersive film experience, especially with the possibility of travelling through space. I wanted to do so in a way that provided a smooth experience on the eye and wouldn’t give people headaches or restrict me in the way I moved the camera and so we didn’t shoot in 3D. We converted and rendered the 1,300 special effects shots in 3D so that we could be both subtle and bold depending on the scene.
Matt: I’ll finish up by asking the touristy question. Have you had a chance to see some of the sights here in Australia or have you been too busy promoting the film?
Kenneth: I’m in Sydney and I went running around the Botanical Gardens this morning and my wife and I believe we will try to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I was also in a boat on the harbour yesterday. I know Sydney fairly well and I’d love to get up your way but it may not be this trip.
Matt: I’m sure you’ve got plenty of other places to visit around the world in the next few weeks to help promote this film and I know it’s going to be doing big business at the box-office. Mr Kenneth Branagh, I love your work and thank you for joining us.
Kenneth: I appreciate it. It was nice to talk Matthew. Thank you.