From Hamlet to Hammer Time
An interview with Thor director Kenneth Branagh
There’s little doubt that 2011 will be known as the Summer of the Superhero. The epic Marvel Comics / Paramount Pictures adaptation of Thor started it off with a mighty THWAK-A-BOOM!, pulling in nearly $66 million on its opening weekend. Still to come on this summer’s comic book front are X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger. We took the opportunity to call up Thor’s famed director, Shakespeare-loving Brit Kenneth Branagh, and discuss our mutual love for men in tights.
Alex J. Berliner/ABImages
What motivated you to shoot Thor here in New Mexico?
I was in New Mexico about 10 or so years previously making a movie—which didn’t turn out to be very successful in the end—called Wild Wild West. I spent about a month down in New Mexico, and I loved the place. Absolutely loved the place. I had a lot of time off when I was shooting Wild Wild West, and so I did quite a bit of traveling. To Albuquerque, to Santa Fe, up to Taos. I just loved it. I loved the land and the big sky. I loved the changeability of the weather. I loved the drama of the skies and the vastness. I like the mysticism and spirituality of the place. I loved the kind of bohemian vibe. All of it was very, very captivating to me. I mean this genuinely, not just because I’m talking to you.
And so, when it came to where we might bring our portion of the story of Thor that’s set on Earth, it was a suggestion of mine upfront. Frankly, Marvel was delighted as well by the very creative and incentivizing tax breaks that the state of New Mexico has been quite pioneering with. So that also made things attractive to them. It was the one and only place we wanted to be. And storywise we felt—with everything that sometimes is attached to what people think about New Mexico in terms of UFOs and the ancient peoples of the area—it was just perfect for us.
The film is unlike anything that’s been on your résumé previously. What made you want to sign on the dotted line for this?
Well, partly because—in fact, you’re absolutely right—it’s not like anything that’s been on my résumé previously. And that was exciting. I've always tried to surprise myself. I’ve always been interested, sometimes, in working in the kinds of pictures that I watch, but people don’t imagine that I would be in or direct particularly. It happened many years ago, with a picture called Dead Again, which I shot in Hollywood. It was very much an American genre picture. I go and see a lot of summer movies and event movies and comic book movies, and I like lots of them.
I think, two or three years ago, I’d got to a point where I’d seen so many of them, and I’d made so many pictures as an actor and as a director, I thought that I might have the right kind of experience to really take advantage of how I might be able to tell the story. Particularly, on this new scale—this newfound, frankly gargantuan, scale—that this story presented. [I felt] that the world of CGI and VFX and 3D would be very illuminating and a kind of story tool I’ve never had a chance to use. And although it was—in prospect and turned out in execution to be—phenomenally demanding, it was also extremely exciting. So it was for all of those challenges allied to this particular subject matter, Thor—which I knew and which I was excited by—it just seemed I would be very lucky to have the chance.
Were you familiar with comic books in general growing up?
Not really, to be perfectly honest. Not comic books in general. But English comics, I liked. The Victor and The Hotspur. And humorous comics like The Beano and The Dandy. And the occasional American comic. Mainly Thor, to be honest. I wasn’t hooked in with all the American urban comics. And I didn’t like anything too fantastical. But the epic dimension of Thor kept it grounded for me, even though the world of the gods and space travel comes into his life. There’s also a primitive thing that I liked. He always seemed as though he was hewn out of rock himself. I loved his epic, Mount Rushmore massivity. He appealed strongly to me as a kid.
Throughout your career, you’ve dealt mostly with what would be considered high literature—Shakespeare. And now you’re in a genre—comic books—which could be considered the polar opposite. Do you see any connections between the two?
I’ve always resisted great demarcation lines between alleged “high” and alleged “low” art. I think that any art well done is illuminating and works. I always bear in mind—when it comes to the way people these days appropriate the genius of Shakespeare—he was a working actor, he was a working playwright, he was a working producer. He was a shareholder in his theater. He worked in a popular theater. If the plays weren’t popular, he was absolutely led by the box office. He had all sorts of commercial imperatives. And he wrote slightly towards it. He dealt with issues of the time. He often did it very cleverly, but he did so in ways he thought could appeal to all and sundry.
I think that comic books appeal to a wide range of people. They, like the Norse myths themselves, can be wonderfully compact, wonderfully rich tales, which go to sort of classical archetypes with which human beings find themselves in sympathy, where they recognize characters. I think, to that extent, Shakespeare and Marvel have some connection in their attempts to entertain on a very broad level.
I grew up on comic books myself. I've always thought that, of all the work Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did, their “cosmic” characters—Thor, The Silver Surfer, Galactus, all that—were some of their most interesting creations. It was unlike any other costumed superhero stuff. It was incredibly outsized, it had that mock-Shakespearean dialogue, it had this fantastical architecture. Was that something you were aiming to replicate?
We wanted very much to celebrate exactly what you put so well about its distinctiveness. It didn't look like anything else. We wanted the film to look like nothing else, but somehow try and stay away from being too campy or kitschy or too broad. For instance, as that applied to the language, we did not want to play the kind of regular, too florid, Shakespeare-like dialogue. We leaned it down quite a bit, we trimmed it back, made it more direct, and left that kind of “I say thee, Nay!” duff for perhaps some sort of future incarnation. We wanted a very relatable hero. And we felt that [sort of dialogue] was probably, in a film, going too far. But we wanted that distinctive look. We wanted those echoes of Kirby. We wanted the Shakespearian relish of the size of the passions, of the high stakes. The universe is at stake when the Odin royal family is in trouble. That's the kind of thing we wanted to feel, the distinctive quality in these comics of Thor—that they are gods, and they're responsible for vast numbers of realms and vast numbers of people.
Joss Whedon is in Albuquerque now, in your wake, shooting The Avengers. Did you have any advice for him in carrying on the storyline?
We talked particularly about the way our movie was shaping up, and we had Joss see it pretty early on in post-production. I think that affected both the way he presented Thor in Avengers and also Loki’s involvement in that story as well. He also spoke to me about the whole “Marvel Universe” and the whole atmosphere before he joined, anyway. So it’s actually a pretty nice, collegiate atmosphere between these Marvel directors. I think everybody’s very sympathetic with everyone else. And if you can help out, you try to. I got a very nice card from Jon Favreau [director of the Iron Man films] yesterday wishing me luck for our premiere in Hollywood. That’s been pretty typical of the generosity between the directors.
That’s got to be fun, playing in the same universe as other directors you know.
I certainly found it’s nice to share a few war stories. I would walk out of my 3D shot reviews during post-production for Thor, and I’d run into Joe Johnston [director of the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger], and it was always nice to have a chat with him. And also to know—in ways I can't really reveal the full details of—ways in which our story might potentially have some kind of payoff in Captain America and, indeed, in The Avengers. That was fun, because that’s part of what, as a viewer, I very much enjoy about this unique Marvel film universe. And I think the other boys do as well.