The director of CINDERELLA talks about bringing the classic story to life
KENNETH BRANAGH is one of the world’s most consistently-acclaimed filmmakers and actors. As an actor and director, Branagh’s work is trademarked by quality, truth and passion. He most recently directed the newest installment of Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” franchise for Paramount, which he also starred in alongside Chris Pine and Keira Knightley.
Tell us what attracted you to CINDERELLA? I reread the fairy tale when Disney first approached me about the project and was reminded of what an amazingly powerful story it is. It’s a classic piece of storytelling where the central character goes on a journey that we can really identify with, so the texture and landscape of a great story was wonderful to play with as a director. I thought it was an excellent script by Chris Weitz, who had a real feel for the delicacy at the heart of the story, and the thing that I found most interesting was that he made Cinderella’s spirit different in a contemporary way in that it made her goodness very strong, warm and witty. The film partly deals with the loss of parents, and that’s such an important thing and a difficult and sensitive issue to handle inside a film like this, but this was a chance to do that with compassion, some complexity and with some layered performances, and so that humane element was one of the things that attracted me as well.
From a different point of view, I liked the challenge of working with these great actors to bring as much detail and fun – and humanity – to their fairy tale characters as possible. I was excited to have the chance to retell a classic story in a way which would be both appealing and have meaning for modern audiences, and to have the support of Disney and some of the world’s most creative filmmaking talents.
What is it about the story of CINDERELLA that makes it so appealing?
When people would ask me what I was working on, I’d rarely encountered as much genuine excitement from the public as I did when I was making this film, and it wasn’t just from little girls or even older girls, but from boys as well. This particular story has magic in it, there’s a sort of a wish fulfillment, a belief and a hope that in a story like “Cinderella” you can be encouraged to believe that life can be rather a good thing. “Cinderella” is about seeing life as it could be, and realizing that we can enjoy life in both the simple and the complicated ways.
What does Cate Blanchett bring to the role of the stepmother?
With a truly great actress like Cate Blanchett, we get to see dimension in the stepmother; a complex and detailed humanity. Her entrance into this film, the first time she turns around into her first close-up, evokes images of great movie stars of the past like Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford. She carries herself with such aplomb and she’s so beautiful and there’s so much going on behind her eyes. Cate’s stepmother is scary, passionate and intelligent, and she’s dangerous. But the character has genuine and reasonable goals as well. For instance, wanting to have a life that was taken care of from a financial point of view and a happy future for her daughters, even if the way she goes about it is unusual and excessive. Cate has wit and emotion and is full-blooded in her execution, but she is able to give us little nuances as to the tragedy of the character within. Being able to provide her character with these kind of back stories and to have it played with such lightness and effortless ease by someone like Cate is one of the ways this film distinguishes itself from other versions of similar fairy tales, and I think modern audiences will appreciate that.
Tell us why Lily James is the perfect Cinderella.
It was extremely difficult to find someone who could be witty and smart, sharp but not cruel, has a twinkle in her eye and who has an inner beauty as well as a physical beauty, but Lily James’ Cinderella encapsulates all of those qualities. You have to root for Cinderella, you have to like her, you have to be on her side, and so an innate likeability was important. Lily brought all that the first time she came into read for the part. She’s a very beautiful girl, and her warmth also allows it to be a very approachable beauty, and somehow we feel that she could be our friend as dazzling as she is. And we needed an actor who is very free and very in touch with the youthfulness and playfulness in her own personality, which Lily is. But we also needed someone with a maturity as well as a freshness and someone who wouldn’t be daunted by playing opposite screen legends like Cate Blanchett or Helena Bonham Carter. Her Cinderella is a real worthy adversary for the stepmother. She is not a pushover. She’s someone who sticks up for herself but does so with compassion and intelligence.
Tell us about the character Richard Madden plays in the film, the Prince.
We’ve given our Prince the sense of a man who has been in the wars, who knows in a very personal and meaningful way the cost of war. He’s less shinily innocent than film princes have been in the past. We give him philosophical and political positions about how a country is ruled. He’s surrounded by people who suggest that countries are ruled effectively by having wars, claiming other countries, uniting kingdoms. He finds in Cinderella a kindred spirit who believes that the important thing is not to go to war with your fellow man, but to have courage, to be kind and generous, and, where possible, to turn the other cheek: to see that as strength, not weakness. We wanted him to be a thinking man and a sensitive man, but a funny man as well. We make him a pragmatic realist in a messily political world. He has to prove himself the moral equal of Cinderella, with her depth of feeling and understanding. The performances of both Lily James and Richard Madden have intelligence, depth, and complexity in the way they react to things, in the way they carry themselves, in the way they present a weight of thought. These are people that we sense feel deeply, but they also have enormous capacity for fun and kindness.
What was the most exciting thing to you about helming this project?
With “Cinderella,” you can assume that the vast majority of your audience already knows the story, no matter what their age. So what you bring to it as a director, the way you embody the classic iconic moments of the story, was really a wonderful challenge for me. Being able to direct Disney’s “Cinderella” in the 21st century means that you’re in the driving seat for presenting a myth that has endured across the ages because it connects with human beings at a profound level. We identify with Cinderella, we love her. Cinderella is certainly placed in challenging circumstances, but she chooses not to be the damsel in distress and we see her make strong, positive choices in that regard. When she meets the Prince in the woods for the first time, there’s a different kind of connection there. It’s passionate and it’s lively and while it’s not love at first sight, it’s definitely a significant attraction at first sight and it’s beautifully played by Lily James and Richard Madden. You can feel the passion between them, yet they are respectful and even shy at times.
I loved coming up with ways to convey that sort of breathless excitement about going to a grand event where the characters’ lives may change, and making the color and the sound and the feel of it into a real experience for a moviegoer. And I was excited to produce a story where despite the many wonderful things and wonderful blessings that occur for Cinderella, at the end the real blessing is what’s going on inside of her and seeing her develop her own sense of who she is and what’s important to her.