Kenneth Branagh: ‘It’s a challenge, Irishness in cinema’

Kenneth Branagh
Artemis Fowl director Kenneth Branagh on putting his own stamp on the troubled production and the challenge of faithfully capturing the Irishness of the novel on the big screen

It has taken almost two decades, but Artemis Fowl is finally winging its way to a small screen near you. Finally. Optioned by Miramax as long ago as 2001 – as the first of Eoin Colfer’s eight books appeared in all good bookstores – plans to adapt the Irish fantasy sequence were announced at the turn of the millennium. Cats and Dogs director Lawrence Guterman was to helm.  

 In 2003, Colfer, speaking to a US newspaper, noted that there was a completed screenplay. And that was the last anyone heard about the project until a 2011 story flagged Jim Sheridan’s interest. 

 Two years later, Walt Disney Studios partnered with producer Harvey Weinstein to resurrect Artemis Fowl: The Movie. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix screenwriter Michael Goldenberg would pen a script based on the first two books; Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal would executive produce.

By 2014, it was back to the drawing board. Kenneth Branagh was drafted in to direct the film for Disney, with Irish playwright Conor McPherson attached as screenwriter.  

“Jesus Christ,” exclaims Branagh. “That’s six years ago. I remember my nephews were reading the books on holiday, and they told me I should read them. And I got the call from Disney, and that’s when I started working with Conor McPherson, who was a fantastic collaborator on this.

It’s a challenge, Irishness in cinema. You have to translate how a nation looks at itself and the way the world looks at Ireland

“Disney had the rights for more than 10 years. And there had been three or four screenplays. They were all super-long. They borrowed from every kind of book. They just didn’t feel right to me. So the process for me was saying let’s go back to Eoin’s first book or maybe the first two books. Some people love these books but they are going to be new for many. So we need to find a way to create an origin story.

“The kind of arc I had in mind was Michael Coreleone in The Godfather. Required to take over the family business and suddenly finding that he’s rather better at it than he thought. And I wanted a 90-minute movie, not the two hours and 20 minutes that you so often see these days. I wanted the page-turning velocity and breeziness of Eoin’s writing.”

 Subsequent hiccups included the removal of Harvey Weinstein from the project, reshoots and a delayed release. Artemis Fowl was due in cinemas last August. It was knocked on to May 2020, where it fell victim to the Covid-19 crisis. The film will now premiere on Disney+ on June 12th. 

 The timing means that many years have elapsed since the Harry Potter goldrush, years that have been characterised by a glut of abortive attempts to emulate JK Rowling’s magical moneymaker.Billions of  dollars have been sunk into such floundered franchises as The Golden Compass, Eragon, Ender’s Game, Mortal Instruments, Percy Jackson, and the Divergent series.

Branagh, who delighted Potter fans with his performance as Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), is keenly aware of the pitfalls facing any filmed fantasy adaptation.

“You do think about it in the sense that the people thought about it with almost every young adult novel series after Harry Potter,” he says. “Every publisher was hoping to find the new Harry Potter. A new goose with a different golden egg. If any of the same elements or qualities were there – magical backgrounds or whatever – people were very suspicious and quick to call them derivative.

“I think Eoin completely jumped over the wall of that kind of concern. Because there was such a lovely anarchy in his storytelling. It’s very Irish. There’s lots of lateral thinking, lots of character stuff that’s just there for its own sake.

“But he still had a real page-turning plot. We knew as well that we wouldn’t be gothic in the same way as the Harry Potter films. We were an outdoors and daylight kind of movie. A modernist thriller with folkloric origins rather than a gothic mystery.”

Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) is a criminal mastermind who, after his father (Colin Farrell) is abducted by a mysterious supernatural being, teams up with an elven police officer and a double-dealing oversized dwarf
Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) is a criminal mastermind who, after his father (Colin Farrell) is abducted by a mysterious supernatural being, teams up with an elven police officer and a double-dealing oversized dwarf

The long-gestating Artemis Fowl concerns the titular 12-year-old (Ferdia Shaw), a criminal mastermind who, after his father (Colin Farrell) is abducted by a mysterious supernatural being, teams up with elven police officer Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) and a double-dealing oversized dwarf (Josh Gad).

Did the mythological underpinnings have any significance for the Belfast-born Branagh (59)? Or are faerie folk not sophisticated enough for those born east of the Bann?

“Well, I also grew up with a time when technology was suddenly presenting possibilities itself to us,” he says. “At school everybody was getting worked up about the moon landings and what man was capable of in the latter part of the 20th century. But there were definitely plenty of folktales going on.

“Every year we had our holiday in Butlin’s in Mosney. We went with extended family. My mother would sing. Other people would dance or play instruments. And my dad would take the opportunity to spin yarns. He appointed himself an expert in Irish mythology – live from the Pig and Whistle bar in Mosney – and teller of tales. So my father’s voice was loud in my head when we were making this.” 

It’s a heritage that justifies a degree of blarney, aided and abetted by another actor with Irish roots. Judi Dench, whose Dublin-born mother met her father at Trinity College, goes the full shillelagh, when, emerging from her faerie craft with Schwarzenegger swagger, she utters the words: “Top of the morning.” 

“It’s a challenge,” laughs Branagh, “Irishness in cinema. You probably know better than I. You have to translate how a nation looks at itself and the way the world looks at Ireland. In terms of cinema there’s a great tradition of things that have been memorable, whether they work or not.

“From The Quiet Man to Far and Away to Leap Year to Stones in His Pockets. There are a lot of traps to fall into. We tried to find a way to celebrate the look and sound of the place. And also the Irish capacity to have a sense of humour about itself. So Judi is a good mouthpiece for that.”

Astonishingly, three Baftas, two Olivier awards, a knighthood, two Emmys, five Oscar nominations, and a Marvel movie into his career, Artemis Fowl marks Branagh’s first Irish-based production since the early 1980s, when he made a splash with the Belfast-based Play for Today Billy trilogy. 

“That was my first job back in Belfast,” he recalls. “The Graham Reid Billy plays. So it was quite something to end up in Portrush with five separate camera crews. We had a marine unit, an aerial unit, a car unit, a skateboard unit and an acting unit. We had an incredible welcome there. The weather was fantastic. There was a hurricane in the middle of our time there.

“It might have taken me 30 years but by god, god they gave us the full David Lean scenery when we got there.”   

Over the course of those three decades Branagh has proved a nimble directorial presence, skipping between such improbable combinations as a film adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and the Shakepearean biopic All Is True. He’s still learning on the job, he says. 

Judi Dench emerging from her faerie craft in Artemis Fowl
Judi Dench emerging from her faerie craft in Artemis Fowl

 “You don’t second-guess the directors you work with. It’s quite the opposite. Instead you’re thinking why did he do that? How interesting. When you are working with people like Christopher Nolan or Danny Boyle or Robert Altman you just watch. You look, listen, learn. You park your ego at the door. Anything else would be insulting.” 

 Following on from Thor and Disney’s live action Cinderella reboot, Artemis Fowl marks Branagh’s third family film in a decade. It’s an interesting career swerve for an actor and director who emerged as the pre-eminent Shakespearean translator of the 1990s, having directed and headlined much-admired (and awfully grown-up) adaptations of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet.

 “Funny, one of the first things I did when I first approached Cinderella was to read an essay comparing it to King Lear,” laughs Branagh. “It’s a man with three daughters, including two villainous ones. With Shakespeare there are certain kinds of plays that suit the age you are.

“When I was starting to work on Artemis Fowl, Judi and I had just worked on The Winter’s Tale. So I’m looking around that period of Shakespeare’s life which is towards the end of this life. Those late plays – the romances, as they are called – are fairy tales. They use magic a lot.

“Maybe it was wishful thinking or maybe it was sentimentality at the end of his life. But the man who pushed out Hamlet and Macbeth and King Lear and Othello and all these great tragedies turns toward more simplistic writing and magical devices.

“And I guess he tried to give endings to human life that wouldn’t normally happen. There’s a shared fascination too in returning to stories that concern children or young adults. They have a clarity without the so-called sophistication that the middle years may bring.”

They open the door and you’re on stage and you’re walking down to a completely packed auditorium and you have no f*cking idea what’s going on

Branagh has been extraordinarily busy since Artemis Fowl wrapped. He’s currently in post-production on his second Poirot film Death on the Nile. The star-studded follow-up to the wildly successful Murder on the Orient Express sees the actor-director return as both filmmaker and star, occupying a role made synonymous with bank holidays by Peter Ustinov. As with its predecessor, the film was shot using 65mm film cameras.

“It’s an interesting thing because I’m so ancient that when I’m working with younger performers who have not been on film sets so much, there’s a sense of excitement that they get on a set with these massive pieces of equipment,” says Branagh.

“Sometimes it’s a little throwing because the cameras are so blooming big. They do occupy quite a lot of space. But it does set up the idea of event and it does set up the singularity of every single take. Every take is precious. You can’t just keep running. There’s an excitement and fear to that.”

Large-format photography has become something of a bond between Branagh and Christopher Nolan. Branagh, who used 65mm for his film version of Hamlet (1996), returned to the format after collaborating with The Dark Knight director on Dunkirk. The filmmakers even shared equipment.

They have recently reunited for Tenet, Nolan’s top-secret new sci-fi featuring Branagh as “the most genuinely appalling character” of his career. The time-travelling film is shrouded in secrecy, andeven those who are in the know are, apparently, still in the dark.

“There’s a moment in the trailer where Clémence Poésy says:  ‘Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.’ A couple of times on this film I came close to having the classic actor’s nightmare. You are pulled out of a queue for a theatre, put in a costume. The next minute they open the door and you’re on stage and you’re walking down to a completely packed auditorium and you have no f*cking idea what’s going on.

“If you had questions after Inception and Intermission, you will have questions.”

Artemis Fowl is released on Disney+ on June 12th