With the making of Cinderella, director Kenneth Branagh combined his background in resuscitating period classics (Hamlet, Henry V) with his experience shooting big-scale productions (Thor), creating a sleek, live-action reboot that smacks of modern fare while holding true to the fairy tale’s traditional roots.
“All of my interests and skill sets came together for Cinderella,” says Branagh. Furthermore, directing Disney’s live action remake allowed the Irish filmmaker to make strides towards his ultimate goal. “I often feel that the evolution of an artist is to try to get simpler and simpler, as least that is what I aspire to,” he says.
So, is Branagh calling Cinderella — which was made for an estimated $95 million — a simple film? Kind of, but that’s exactly why he signed up for the job. “Some people are dismissive of the fairy tale as a genre, but I’ve never felt that because the stories that end up having an influence over your entire creative life often happen when you’re very small,” explains Branagh. “Those first tales, whether told to you by a parent, or a storybook or at a theater, really make an enormous impression, yet at the surface, they’re very simple. I feel my trajectory was leading me towards stories, although deceptively simple, [that] carry with them an emotional charge vastly greater than its surface appearance.”
Read on for more from Branagh and for an exclusive deleted scene from the new Disney Movies Anywhere app cut – featuring a dark take on the obstacles facing Ella and her Prince Charming.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Disney Movies Anywhere app release will feature several scenes that were cut from the theatrical version. Which, if any of those scenes, feels the most personal to you?
KENNETH BRANAGH: Well, my experience directing films has been to try to produce the film that you’d think is the only way it can be. People say, “You don’t finish a film, you abandon it and you abandon it at the point that it has to be released.” I have been blessed in that I’ve worked with collaborators who have understood that, and I’m a passionate advocate and lobbyist for what I think is the best version of the film. So I suppose what I’m saying is that the films I’ve made are the way I’d like them to be. Nevertheless, I understand how so many people are interested in process and what went by the wayside. And I understand that what people might be most drawn to was our alternate opening. At the beginning, original intentions had us believe that we needed to show even more of young Ella’s childhood than it turned out we needed to, or wisely even could do for the sake of the rest of the movie. It’s always so hard to judge how economic you can be at the front, and so what you see on the home entertainment release is part of the editorial process. We tested the alternate opening, and on a simpler level it took us too long to get to the meat of the story. And I think probably it had too much tonally of a kind of rosy-hued perfection in Cinderella’s childhood. So people kind of had enough already. And I agree, hence the change that we have in the movie we had in theaters.
What can you say about the challenge of translating elements characteristic to the thriller or suspense genre — like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit — and packaging them within a fairy tale format?
There was no desire to patronize younger viewers. There was quite a strong interest in adult themes and adult techniques for bringing this story powerfully to the audience, and I suppose we were never afraid of the film being dramatic. We played very strongly with the idea of a more conspiratorial plot against the prince and indeed, Cinderella. So that experimentation was part of trying to judge what the overall tone that brought all of this together should be like. Finding that balance was interesting, and I myself particularly liked the drama, and thrill, and suspense, so I’m happy to have people see it with some of the deleted scenes.
You’ll be reuniting with Cinderella stars Lily James and Richard Madden for an upcoming stage production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. What about working with this pair are you looking forward to most?
With the life of Cinderella, from the screen tests to the rehearsals, to the shooting, to the editing and the release of the movie, Lily, Rich, and I had a lot of good and collaborative contact over almost a two-year period. That’s a great way to create a creative rapport. When you think of a play like Romeo and Juliet, which is an idea familiar to many people, you want to add an element of surprise for people. It’s a big challenge. So to have people with whom you have some history working with, with whom you have some trust, means you could potentially go a long way in terms of the quality you might seek out. And I’ve seen them learn how to dance, which they’ll certainly need to do with Romeo and Juliet. I’ve seen them do stunts, fighting, and things they’ll need to be able to do. They’ve been involved with music, which will be a large part of Romeo and Juliet as well. It also feels like there’s a chance to bring in a different audience of younger people to Shakespeare and this play through the presence of Lily and Richard. Derek Jacobi, who played the king in Cinderella, will be in the production as well. So we get to enhance and explore that creative relationship. But beyond that, all three of these people are incredibly fun, easy to work with, and hard workers.
What did you learn reinterpreting Cinderella for a contemporary audience that you might revisit in future productions?
Well, I think philosophically, I was surprised and delighted that a character who pursued a life of kindness and courage — but from a position of humility and strength — was something that people were interested in. I was surprised and delighted in testing the film when, at the end of the movie, audiences were particularly struck by the way Cinderella faces the stepmother and forgives her. Given that the portrayal of Cinderella isn’t sappy, you don’t feel that these are thoughts and actions coming out of a silly, superficial person. It expresses a potentially useful and generous way to live your life, and from which you can learn. For me, I was pleased to see that many people were prepared to embrace something that was not naïve, but that had a kind of passion and optimism to it, that cynicism didn’t prevent people from seeing a movie that could present a positive discussion. For me, that will professionally and creatively continue to be inspiring.
Cinderella will be released on Blu-ray/DVD, Digital HD/SD and on Disney Movies Anywhere on Sept.15.