On Tuesday morning, Belfast writer-director Kenneth Branagh had a lot to celebrate.

Branagh became both the first man to be nominated in seven different categories in Oscar history and broke his previous record of two nominations in one year, which he garnered in 1989 for Henry V, with three to his credit for Belfast — Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.

But his leading lady, Outlander star Caitriona Balfe, was snubbed by the Academy after an awards season abuzz with predictions that she'd land her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Branagh tells EW that he still credits his nominations to Balfe and her co-stars.

"We know that this is a phenomenally competitive year," he says. "They're just some wonderful films out there, and inevitably, there are wonderful performances. What I know for sure is that I wouldn't have any nominations, for sure, without the incredible work of Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe and Jude Hill. It sounds cliched, but I mean it when I say these nominations absolutely belong to them."

Credit: Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Branagh also credits his cast with drumming up support for the film and encouraging audiences to return to the cinema when box office returns continue to suffer the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At any rate, he knows this won't be the only time Balfe's name is in the conversation. "What I know for certain — and I would bet the house right now — is that she will be back for sure," he adds. "It's a beautiful piece of work that in many other years would have been recognized, but she, nor I, nor anyone would ever have any complaints about the amazing people that have been nominated this year. It's an honor to be in the conversation. And you know that anybody who takes those places has earned the right to do so."

Judi Dench in 'Belfast'
| Credit: Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Balfe may not have made it into the Best Supporting Actress category, but Branagh's other female star, Judi Dench, did receive a nod. Dench and Branagh have a long professional partnership, dating back to his directorial debut, Henry V, onscreen. "I'm so thrilled for Judi because sometimes she's taken for granted," Branagh reflects. "Because she's a national treasure and a movie legend. But she's also just a phenomenal artist, and so, to remember that and feel it with this performance is great. Rather than taking for granted that she'll always be good. She's special in this film."

Branagh is also thrilled for Ciarán Hinds, who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Pop, Buddy's grandfather. "He has a tremendous career of being prominent in excellent films," notes Branagh. "When you see his face or his name, you know what's coming up is going to be classy. Here, he responded so powerfully to a screenplay about a story that's set half a mile from where he grew up."

Ciarán Hinds in 'Belfast'
| Credit: Rob Youngson / Focus Features

In addition to his cast, Branagh says he shares the nominations with renowned director Fred Zinnemann, who's work on films like High Noon plays an integral role in Belfast. Branagh met Zinnemann when actor Paul Scofield brought him to set during production of Henry V, and Branagh was bowled over by Zinnemann's generosity of spirit. "His generosity and his kindness and his graciousness to a 27-year-old first-time director showed me what it was like to be a gracious individual," he says. "Fred Zinnemann gave me a big, graceful thumbs up when I was 27 years old, and I'm giving one right back."

This marks Branagh's second nomination for Best Director, with just over 30 years between the two nods. He was first nominated for his directorial debut on 1989's Henry V. But one key thing connects the two nominations — working from the heart and the gut.

"I was 27 years old when I started directing that first picture that was nominated as Best Director," he reflects. "I had instinct and I had a passion. I had a love of the movies and a fantastic history of watching them, but I had very little experience and with that combination, what I listened to was my instinct. 30 odd years later, in a pandemic with a story that was as close to my heart as anything I would ever do, my reaction was also once again to do the thing I did — but now with a lot of experience — to follow my instincts."

"In both cases, when it came to the choice of where to put the camera, how to shoot a scene, how to pace the editing, what to do with music, everything was was from my first instinct," he adds. "I didn't second guess. I didn't overthink it. I enjoyed the process of making the film as much as I enjoyed the process of making Henry V. I did not feel pressure or risk in both of those instances. What I felt was the adventure and the privilege of doing it. I've been a lot more worried doing my work in the 30 years in between and sometimes I felt a lot more pressure. But in both of these instances, I tried to listen to my gut and to follow my heart."

Kenneth Branagh.
| Credit: Rob Youngson/Focus Features

Branagh is certainly no stranger to the Oscars. He's been nominated for everything from Best Actor to Best Adapted Screenplay to Best Live Action Short Film. But the outpouring of love and support for Belfast, his most personal film ever, is unlike anything he's ever experienced.

One might assume that one of his numerous prestigious Shakespeare adaptations would've nabbed his record-setting nominations, given that such titles are typically easy Oscar bait. But Branagh says it's this film's very personal nature that he believes has vaunted it to success.

"When material really connects with people's hearts, sometimes bypassing the head, it makes for that experiential relationship to that piece of cinema," he says. "It really activates consideration of [people's] own childhoods and their own families. The handover is from a very personal account and very specific accounts of my background, but it hands over very personally to their own. There are so many people I know who've seen this, who've spoken to me, who start with accounts of what happened when they moved as a child or when they crossed over from that period of innocence into adulthood that perhaps they weren't quite ready for."

Director Kenneth Branagh (left) and actor Jude Hill on the set of 'Belfast'
| Credit: Rob Youngson / Focus Features

"A deeply personal dimension is what it started from, and it's where people seem to connect," he adds. "Of course, that can happen with Shakespeare, it can happen with all sorts of films, but sometimes it's timing. And in this case, the timing was about people's hearts and minds as we come out of the pandemic still, shakily — where community and family and the closeness of people we love is more important than ever."

Belfast scored seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.

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