He’s tackled both Marvel and Shakespeare, and now Kenneth Branagh has turned his director’s eye to the fairy-tale realm, whipping up a colorful, live-action version of Cinderella. The heroes are dewy (including Lily James as Cinderella and Richard Madden as her Prince), the women are coiffed and costumed within an inch of their lives (like Cate Blanchett’s wicked stepmother and Helena Bonham Carter’s daffy fairy godmother), and each frame is suffused with gentle magic (and sequins). Branagh recently rang up Vulture to discuss how he brought the whole thing off, his surprising influences, and how “Hellie” helped create her fairy-godmother character.
Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter are wonderful in their roles, but it struck me while watching that they both could have easily played each other’s part, too.
You’re right! If we were doing a theatrical tour of this, it might be one of those things where you get the actors [to] change parts. I think that’s a good idea. Do you mind if I steal it?
It’s all yours! They’re both very juicy parts to play.
You know, we were going to have this young couple at the center of the film, so the idea that these very strong female characters should be on either side of them is something we thought a lot about. We needed the kind of confidence they came in with. In each case, when they enter the movie, they do so with such aplomb: Cate with that cat on a leash and the biggest hat in the world, and later, literally from the sky descends Helena Bonham Carter. In one case, with Cate, you get a woman who’s able to deliver this screen villainess with relish but can also give us the backstory in human detail, and in the other case, you’ve got the abandon that Helena brings to the humor and lunacy of the fairy godmother. She’s a delicious amateur who clearly hasn’t done the pumpkin course at the magic academy.
It’s interesting that so many of our A-list actresses are playing the villainess in these fairy-tale films. You’ve got Cate in Cinderella, Angelina Jolie embodying Maleficent, Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman … does that say something about these parts as primal, larger-than-life roles for women?
I think they are that, for sure. But they require a lot of negotiation to find the balance between their size, their exotic power, and underneath them, the beating heart of the real person. It provides an interesting challenge and an acting invitation that those girls who are capable of the big stuff and the small stuff can really respond to.
When you take out the songs and the talking animals, the only magical interlude left in Cinderella is the fairy-godmother sequence. Did you feel like you had to subtly work on other portions of the story so that when magic entered the picture at the midpoint, it would feel all of a piece with the rest of the film?
It’s an interesting question. We did have to bear that in mind. One factor behind that midpoint position for Helena’s appearance was to try to allow a story to emerge where the music wasn’t only external and where we’re not necessarily encouraging our sometimes-young audience to believe that there will always be a fairy godmother — that there may be a way instead to internally provide some of the magic in your life. In terms of the adjustments to the rest of it, it was to paradoxically go for as much reality as we could in this heightened fairy-tale world. We tried to provide a strong backstory for Cinderella so we could see where this buoyant, spiritually able creature came from. And I remember that when Cate Blanchett came to the movie, she said she was very interested in the particular kinds of female cruelty between women that can be explored in a different kind of way.
You want the costumes to be faithful, in a way, to the iconic looks from the Disney film, but they also need to be updated and made to stand on their own. How did you and the costume designer, Sandy Powell, arrive at the right place?
With Sandy, you’ve got an artist who know how to walk that fine line. In terms of clothes, the blur that one can achieve across centuries meant that by the time Cate arrives — and particularly by the end of the movie — we could really present a look that was almost a timeless ‘30s and ‘40s look. Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, those shoulders, those pearls, those silks. The sharpness of silhouette is something we found a live-action equivalent for, against rich backdrops and rich props. Our inspirations were Visconti’s The Leopard, Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, and in a curious way, a film like Amélie. We knew that within the Cinderella iconography, we would end up producing something distinct unto itself. I wonder how many people will go back and see the 1950 animated film as a result of being prompted by this, and whether they may be surprised by how much we in fact departed from it.
How did you and Helena and Sandy come to build the look of the fairy godmother?
Hellie had an enormous amount of influence on the part before she said yes. She said, “I will only do this part if I can have wings. I have promised my daughter that wings will be had.” Sandy didn’t want to do wings, so there was a bit of a conversation to be had there before they came up with some gorgeous wings. Yeah, Hellie had a very bold idea of it, and so did Carol Hemming, who designed our hair and makeup. They wanted to evoke this sort of maverick Marie Antoinette, cast a few centuries into the future. And there was a hint of Jean Harlow, too. Complementary to the stepmother, she’s pro-glamour.
You’re reteaming your stars, Richard and Lily, for a stage production of Romeo and Juliet. I’m curious how that came about … was it born out of their chemistry on set, or did it come together in a different way?
It was very much due to the sheer enjoyment of working with them and understanding that they were committed and professional and exciting. They knew the play well, and both felt like they wanted the opportunity to do it while they were still relatively young. It’s a play that was my first directorial effort with Shakespeare 30 years ago, and I’ve always wanted to go back and attend to all the things that I didn’t understand then or couldn’t get to. I think we have a few ideas that will take us away from a traditional reading of the material, but it’s early days. The great thing is that we’re on the road together and talking about it, so it’s evolving with a lot of input from the two of them.