When Marvel Studios announced Kenneth Branagh as the director of “Thor,” it just seemed to fit. An accomplished actor and director, Branagh brings a weight to the film it wouldn’t have otherwise. While this is his first time directing an action film, his experience bringing Shakespeare’s greatest plays, from “Hamlet” to “Henry V,” to the silver screen should prove helpful in grounding the human drama of “Thor” in a very believable way.
We met Branagh on the set of the movie and he came across as a gentle and sensitive type of man. But “Thor” certainly isn’t a gentle movie. When asked about the choice of Branagh to helm the adaptation of Marvel’s Asgardian hero from comic boo to silver screen, Co-Producer Craig Kyle had the following to say:
“Ken came in with a vision. We had other people come in with ideas that scared the hell out of us. Stuff so ethereal and weird, like someone describing colors to you you’ve never heard of before. Then you had guys who took one look at the books and said it was this and we’d respond with, ‘Well, yeah, we have all that, but what are you going to do?’ Ken had that vision. The Shakespearean side works for the family drama, which is the heart of this story about brothers and their father. The human story comes in with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and that’s his direct connection to earth and why we’re special. As much as this is a family drama, it’s also a celebration of humanity. Odin sends his son here, because his son is a monster in many respects, but he grows to become a man and then a hero. This story is perfect for Ken.”
You’ve directed works of Shakespeare like “Hamlet” previously. How does “Thor” compare in scale to that work of yours?
Kenneth Branagh: It’s a huge scale. But you can see the set, the hydraulics, everything around us. It took months and months, actually years of planning. This is actually my eighteenth, nineteenth month on the project and I’m enjoying it hugely. It’s massive and what it contains, actually, that has a parallel to what the comics have, is a combination of very personal stories that we recognize. You know, fathers and sons and siblings, but they’re amongst families of enormous power and consequence, so when they have an argument, the rest of the universe suffers. And so that personal, epic kind of thing, is, I think, very enjoyable. From very intimate scenes with this challenge to try and find a way of talking that fulfills what I think people love about the comics, which is this sort of differentness and distinctiveness. You believe that they’re gods, they’re non-human. But, I don’t want them sounding Shakespearean and I don’t want them sounding in any way non-human. In a strange way, the blur of the comics is always to make them feel at one, while at the same time they’re gods and they’re just like us. So far, I think we’ve captured that well. We’re blessed with the actors. We have an amazing group of people who’ve been very excited, very motivated. They all came with incredible passion for the characters, for the comics, for the stories. You’ve probably spoken to some of them. Jaimie Alexander absolutely knows chapter and verse on set.
Stan Lee and I had lunch a year ago, starting to talk about this. He was around yesterday. He has incredible passion for it all. We’ve been involved with other key people who are part of the Marvel World. We’re trying to find that balance that is in touch with what I believe is sort of learning from the past. It’s not an accident that Marvel is here now, the comics are here, that Joe Straczynski’s version of the comics is doing a fantastically imaginative treatment of the character and the landscapes of Asgard and contemporary Earth. What I’ve really enjoyed is the collaboration of all of that. My job is to guide and direct and move things along a bit, but it’s trying to select from a vast amount of talent that are around who know these stories so well. These people have an incredible knowledge and incredible enthusiasm.
Around Marvel, this project is kind of awash with passion for its distinctiveness. People enjoy the challenges of it. There are lots of ways to get it wrong and lots of pitfalls to avoid. That makes it very interesting and very difficult, but really thrilling when you think you’ve got somewhere near it. But, you know, we’ve got miles to go and promises to keep and all sorts of things that we need to get right. It’s been really huge, huge fun and challenging and continues to be so. I’m having a ball and just trying to do my best with it.
This is your first foray into science fiction. Until today, a lot of us didn’t realize just how sci-fi “Thor” was going to be. Did your background doing period historical epics, like “Henry V,” help you suspend your disbelief and get you on board for understanding the scale of this world?
â€¨Certainly, I’m excited by epic subjects. It doesn’t particularly frighten me. And I like that moment of going into the dark with 2,000 people and a big screen, that you’re ready to accept larger than life things. You’re ready to accept a kind of heightened reality that is a kind of a cathartic release that you enjoy, vicariously, these much greater problems than you’ll ever face – unless you’re trying to run nine realms across the cosmos – but nevertheless, there’s still central human problems that remain.
The size of things is one of the things that is really attractive here. How do you make that attractive to people? We’re always interested in the lives of great people and what goes on behind closed doors, like “The West Wing” and the total devotee of a series like that to what happens in the corridors of power and how as, it were, “normal people” are there in the middle of these epic things like an inauguration or a coronation and how that human and larger dynamic works. So, I’m practiced in it, which doesn’t make it any easier, but I find it fun. It’s part of the escapism that this offers, and I mean that in the sense of, it’s truly cathartic. It truly is fun to be in a world where those things can be discussed in a way that maybe offers insight, but, bottom line, offers entertainment. I’m making a really entertaining film that doesn’t insult the audience, but isn’t trying to be a secret art film or anything. It’s just a big-hearted kind of account of these incredible characters who have lasted across the several thousand years of Norse mythology and the last 50 years of Marvel, who raided this mythology so brilliantly, with such imagination, that you’re really aware of a fantastic amount of talent behind you. Which you can go and be inspired by and borrow from and ask questions about.
You know, one of the problems with Shakespeare is that you can never give him a ring. I’ve tried so many times! He never calls. Here, you can talk to Stan Lee. You can talk to Walt Simonson. You can talk to Joe Michael Straczynski. You can talk to [long time Marvel editor] Ralph Macchio. There’s a lot of people that are key to all of this. And then you’ve got the feverish enthusiasm of the guys here. You do feel as though they want to make these movies, they’re passionate and enthusiastic about it. And it’s that which we talk about. We don’t talk about bottom lines or whatever.
[Branagh receives a sign that he’s needed elsewhere.]â€¨
What they do talk about, however, is that I need to turn over 40 visual effects shots by the end of today. That’s what I now have to go and do. So I’m going to look at things that will turn into extraordinary, fantastical things, but I have to choose them now, so that they can go off and be in the edited version of my film when I show my cut in a wee while. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and do that. Thank you. I appreciate you being interested. Thanks so much for coming. Thanks a lot.
“Thor” arrives in theaters May 6, 2011.