Dialogue: Thor Director Kenneth Branagh on Stan Lee, Shakespeare and Satisfying Fanboys

Dialogue: Thor Director Kenneth Branagh on Stan Lee, Shakespeare and Satisfying Fanboys

May 06, 2011

Depending on how well you know the work of Kenneth Branagh, he’s either the first or last person you might think of at the helm of a big-screen adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Thor. But the acclaimed filmmaker responsible for some of the best Shakespeare adaptations of the last three decades did indeed take on the theatricality of the story of the Norse God of Thunder, and gave it a dimensionality that made men out of myths, and myths out of men. On Sunday, Movies.com sat down with Branagh at the Los Angeles press day for Thor, where the filmmaker explored this material’s connection to his previous work, and discussed the challenges of combining the supernatural world of Norse mythology with the mundane Americana of remote New Mexico.

You’ve discussed the Shakespearean underpinnings of Thor, but Shakespeare’s work is the foundation of virtually all modern drama. How much did you have to apply the veneer of his work, and how much of that was basically already there?

It seemed to me that Stan Lee had gone to the set of myths that Shakespeare hadn’t had a chance to get to. I was encouraged when I went to the Norse myths as this thing kicked off to be reminded how brief and concise they are; they really remind me of Aesop’s fables – they’re so sort of pithy, and that brevity and that economy is exactly what the comics used, and it’s often what Shakespeare used at its core. He wrote more words, he had a world that was begging for more poetry, if you like, but the basic story and character and dramatic structure, as you say he stole, or let’s say he was influenced by, we’re influenced by, Stan was influenced by, and we’re still trying to find our way through those six or seven yarns, reinvent them, make them original, dress them up in different ways, but we want that core connection with human experience, in this instance, fathers and sons.

When you’re literally worldbuilding, both for yourself and for the audience, do you have to sort of tacitly accept the existence of these different planes of reality?

No, we very much didn’t I suppose. We assumed that even amongst fanboys that somehow we had to set up our own rules and we had to let the audience know what they were within this first origin film, if that’s what it is to be. So in a way we had a very fine balance to walk between letting them know that, but not overexplaining. So it was that question of tone – how much to say, in what way to say it, and being kind of humorous throughout the film but not debunking the film, not trying to kind of mock ourselves but have kind of a lively questioning comic reaction in it. It was a Day One conversation and it was a Last Day conversation as well.

How tough was it to maintain the theatricality of this material, and also to humanize it? The movie takes a little bit of the stuffing out of Thor, but you obviously didn’t want to undermine the gravitas of this otherworldly universe.

Well, the tonal issue was under constant debate – how do we not go too broad and debunk or devalue a genuine family drama if we felt like that was valuable on one side of the picture? And how do you when you’re up in the world of Asgard from a visual point of view keep it non-camp, non-kitschy? So it was how does that regal language sound, how clean can we make it, and how clean can we make the delivery, but still have them feel separate – an aristocratic race, a warrior race, with a different way of speaking to the other earth characters. For two reasons: so that he can butt up against it and it can be funny when he does, but also so that they were sufficiently separate – that they had a separate quality. It was a constant refining process, with many, many drafts, lots of rehearsal - just trial and error.

How did you make sure that the romantic relationship wasn’t slighted but it didn’t overwhelm the rest of the film, or feel like a perfunctory inclusion in this bigger piece of entertainment?

I think it was partly the quality of the playing between the two of them, that they keep it quite simple. The scene on the roof between the two of them when they sort of have a strong kind of connection, it’s very simply done – we’re not straining for effect – and I think that’s in the writing, it was in the simplicity of the way we shot it, and it was very much in the simplicity of the way they played it. We tried not to overburden it, not to strain too much, and somehow let it find its place, particularly with [Natalie] leading the charge in trying to help create this relative reality of a superhero movie. I think it’s crucial that she quotes Arthur C. Clarke: “magic is just science we don’t understand.” [Stellan Skarsgard] says, “he was a science fiction writer,” and she says, “a precursor to scientific fact” – which is true, and she just reminds us, hey, just because we don’t believe it doesn’t mean it’s not out there. With that there, somehow that was the grit in the eye of that relationship that stopped her from being too soft and fuzzy, and gave us everything –Natalie’s intelligence and passion allowed it to sort of stay simple and not strain to be Gone With the Wind.

How did you decide how you wanted the film to look, and then why did you use those canted angles?

I was looking for with the disparate nature of the tones, the fantastical world plus the sort of grittier world, to unite them so Puente Antigua was definitely heightened reality, so I insisted we build it, we don’t find a real town in New Mexico. We don’t need that naturalism, we want heightened reality – realism not naturalism – and allow us to choose that furniture, make those reds nice and perky in that diner, make it feel like heightened Americana – sort of an idealized place in the same way as [Asgard] is for the gods. A small place where people know each other - kind of a symbolic thing for Earth I wanted to get, and then frame both places the same way but make them as different as possible inside those frames. And maybe they belong to the same movie, but you celebrate their distinctiveness.

Were there any comic book-based images that inspired you?

Constantly. If you look at the sequence where the townies are trying to pick up the hammer, we definitely went to the comics for those. Every way we framed the hammer came from a comic book image, because we learned that although people say it’s a wonderful, iconic thing, you try to photograph a hammer interestingly. It’s tough. So go back to all of the people who broke the rules with wide-angle lenses and lower shots and moving shots and the dynamism of how it’s presented in the comics is great. We learned a lot from that because it can look so ordinary so quickly, so particularly in the townies scene, that was something from a relatively recent run of the comics that we were happy to be borrowing from.

What was your process of vetting all of the mythology and storytelling to ensure that there were some logical motivations for everything that happens, such as Loki’s behavior?

When you come out of a superhero movie or a big popular movie, any movie, you hear people go immediately, “oh, I couldn’t believe they did that thing – how would he possibly know?” Certain kinds of questions, we didn’t think we could wrap everything up in a pink bow, or even as you mention with Loki, that it was necessary to – positive questions are good. But we wanted to get into the detail of it wherever we could, and frankly that was part of the fun. Like in the bar scene with Thor and Selvig, at the beginning of it we were playing pool, and I just wanted to lay out only nine balls because there are nine realms, and I wanted to put them colorwise and in a position that was like a piece of ancient art I’d seen of Yggdrasil and the nine realms from a previous bit of art. And I enjoyed that – I enjoyed any either visual little underscores of something or believing that it all kind of ultimately adds up to something richer for the audience.

In terms of those almost subliminal sorts of cues, did you think about this film having a deeper metatextual or subtextual resonance or maintaining a connection to other forms of art, storytelling or media?

I think it could take it. For me it’s a conversation with Natalie Portman about Rosalind Franklin, one of the scientists caught up in the discovery of DNA who in the end did not get credited, and there was a great scandal because she didn’t win the Nobel prize. But her life, her biography as a scientist was most interesting, and it came out of Natalie talking about the character of Jane as a kind of poet-scientist who saw beauty and poetry in numbers and beauty and poetry in physics. Many scientists do, and there are many people on the fringes who have that – math as music – these things are all connected. And I don’t expect anybody to get a whiff of that in what we’ve done, but I believe that there is a layer of intuitive meaning in what she does that has to do with connecting to that kind of character. However economically we may have drawn Jane Foster, that is valuable, and that seemed to be absolutely natural.

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