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Tracking Down Sleuth: An Interview with Kenneth Branagh and Michael Caine


Introduction and transcription by Rob Vaux

Nothing like a couple of distinguished Brits to class the place up. Kenneth Branagh is a widely respected actor and director, best known for his adaptations of William Shakespeare which have become this generation's gold standard. Michael Caine... OK, if you don't know who Michael Caine is, you need to find another website to hang out on, because movies just ain't your thing. The two have collaborated -- along with Jude Law and playwright Harold Pinter -- in a new version of Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth, which opens in limited release this Friday. They recently sat down in Los Angeles to answer questions about the project, and discuss other upcoming films of some small note.

(Spoiler Note: while many of Sleuth's twists are unrevealed here, a few are still mentioned and some of the broader elements are discussed at length as well.)

Question (to Branagh): Besides the obvious differences in scale, and the fact that the casting director can bugger off early, how do you approach a two-hander like this that differs aesthetically from a larger production?

Kenneth Branagh: It's always down to the screenplay to begin with, and what it tells you about -- what's the phrase? -- hearing performances clearly. Then it's about preparing in rehearsals with Michael and Jude -- separately and then together -- to try and absolutely work from their instincts. What did Michael feel the books that his character writes were like? The covers, the titles, all of that. The outside of the house, what that might look like. Trying to get those details from both guys, then trying to maximize what they're doing in rehearsals.

How do you do that? By finding an environment that sets it all off. In this case, it doesn't necessarily mean... and I remember having a conversation with the producers four days in where they were terrified because they hadn't seen a close-up yet. I said, "No, no, you'll get your close-up. It comes about twelve minutes in, when Michael Caine says 'I understand you're fucking my wife.'" That will be the first close-up because that's the sort of dirty center of what this film is. Up until that point, we'll stay way back, and we'll make the house become a third character, and make the audience ask, "What's going on?" There's a whiskey glass poured. [Caine] hasn't asked [Law] what he wants to drink yet. Where are all these cameras? Who's shooting? Is there someone watching this outside? Is the wife in the house? We want to set all of that up.

It all basically came from the script by Harold Pinter. It's darker, it's leaner, it's funny in a different way [than the original]. Then you get performances that you know are going to be multilayered. Then you need all the help that cinema can bring to it, which is the environment, and the character of the missing wife, and so forth. Things like sound: subsonic sounds. It could be the air conditioning, it could be a remote control. All of that. It starts in the center, and the center is performance, and it just finds the right size after that.

Q: Tell us about the house. How did you decide to shoot that wonderful space?

KB: Well, the minimalism was a challenge. The elevator was Harold's idea, so that was an essential feature of what we wanted to bring to it. Everything else was drawn from contemporary British artists and architecture. The wire figure is Anthony Gormley, one of our most famous sculptors. Gary Hume did all the artwork on the walls. Then there's this idea of a permanent lighting installation that changes with the tone. If we're in a jealous scene, the walls are green behind them. When the homosexual overtures are made, we're in the red light of a bordello. That kind of stylized quality could all come out of a house where a man is trying to show off his omnipotence (with his remote control), his invisibility (he can see you and you can't necessarily see him), and his conspicuous wealth (his taste and success). All of that seemed like a wonderful playground, visually, and we took advantage of every opportunity we could.

Q: How do men get to the point where they would fight so hard over a woman?

KB: Everybody I think has experienced jealousy in some form or other. And sexual jealousy is particularly debilitating. It leads to very irrational decisions. It distorts the world. It makes the mind protest. We talked about a psychological condition called "morbid jealousy," which Michael found helpful from a playing point of view. It suggests the degree to which this character might be motivated to revenge himself.

Michael Caine: Harold had put the homoerotic stuff in -- that wasn't in the first film -- without reading this psychological tract that Ken gave me. It talked about this; it was all true. This morbid jealousy, it led to murder in several cases, but there were one or two cases where the men couldn't murder [their rivals], and decided to seduce them homosexually in order to humiliate the woman in the greatest possible way they could think of. Harold included all of that without having read this tract, which I thought was telling. I found it hard to believe until I read about it.

Q (to Caine): What was it like for you to revisit this material in the opposite role? [Caine played the younger part opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in the 1972 version of the film.]

MC: Well it never felt like revisiting it, because there aren't any lines from the original film in this. All that happened was that Jude took the stage play to Harold and asked him to write the screenplay. Harold had never seen the play or the movie. He read it and said to Jude, "There's a great plot here." So he took the plot and wrote his own play. But none of the lines are the same. I mean, I couldn't look at Jude when he was working and say, "I said that line better than you did," because there are no lines there that I said. And I'm not saying any lines that Larry ever said. We're certainly not the same kind of character. [My character] has a house full of technology which wasn't even invented back then. I'm sure if you saw Larry play that character and you took a computer to him, he'd say, "I'm no good at that sort of thing." But my version of Wyke is an expert at that. He's got a whole house full of it; he's a control freak. If I ever went into that house, I'd be afraid to go to the toilet, in case someone came up with a digital photograph of it.

Q: Do you think you could play both roles in Sleuth at once?

MC: Oh no mate, I'm too old. [Laughter.] Even when I did the first one with Olivier, I always thought his part was better than mine. I liked his part; it's a good part. I don't want to play the other one. Anyway, Jude's prettier than I am. It would be very hard to do a story where I took the wife away from Jude.

Q: One of the biggest laughs I got out of the film was a moment when the two characters look at each other and say, "What's it all about?" [A line made famous by Caine in the movie Alfie, which Law later remade.] Can you tell us a bit about the decision to put that in?

MC: We never noticed it.

KB: I swear to God, we didn't see it. [Laughter.]

MC: It was a journalist who pointed it out to us the other day.

KB: The film played at the Toronto Film Festival, and somebody had come out of the screening, where it had gotten an enormous laugh. The same thing happened at the Venice Film Festival, and we hadn't taken it in at the time because within about ten minutes, Michael's character had said, "Oh yeah, the Italians; culture's not really their thing." Which got a big laugh from a rather cultured nation.

But it's indicative, I hope, not of our stupidity (I'd like not to think so), but of our attempt to play the material as straight as possible, and let what Harold Pinter's doing with the language emerge. Maybe it's funny; I'm pleased if it is and of course I now think it's bloody delicious to have that line in. I feel rather thick not to have spotted it. But I'm also very glad that we didn't get self-conscious about it.

MC: It just goes to show. I mean, Jude and I must have rehearsed that line three or four times. The idea of Alfie never came into either his or my head.

KB: Or any of the crew.

MC: If you're an actor with Pinter -- no matter what it is -- you're like a straight man in a comedy duo. If you try to be anything other than straight, you screw the whole act up. You've got to regard Pinter as the comic, and you as the straight man. You must remain in character. What makes Pinter so unusual is that you say these things, and people go, "Did you hear what he just said? And he never blinked! He just went straight on! What the hell's gong on here?"

For instance, I've got a line in here, where I say, "Were you breast fed?" And Jude says, "Yes, like a baby." And the conversation just goes on like that. That's Pinter.

KB: What we tried to find in rehearsal was this choreography: the rhythm of it. Exactly what Michael's talking about. You play it straight, and you start to hear it. You feel when it's close up. You feel when it's a wider shot. You feel when the camera moves. That all starts to emerge. This is one of the few films where I've gone into it feeling as though almost every shot is set before we've started.

Q: Could you go back into the chemistry onscreen and the homoerotic aspects? Were you satisfied with it? Did you want to go further?

KB: One of the beautiful things about the script is the endless, endless interesting question marks -- not annoying ones, but ones that make you go away from the film and talk about it. And in the third act, that great twist... Harold had borrowed the plot up until that point, and then he says, "No, I'm not going to worry about the twists from the original play." Instead the twist is that it's one set all, we've completely and utterly humiliated each other, and that now makes Wyke think, "You're my kind of person." And suddenly that's legitimate: as weird and intensified and compressed as it was. But that very compression, the very irrationality, the very high temperature of this kind of revenge drama made you feel that it was possible. So then it started to make me think, "Well is he gay? Is this happening in the moment? Or is this part of a kind of provocation which will lead to some ultimate and yet-to-be-discovered humiliation?"

I remember the first time we rehearsed it; the whole rehearsal room went still. Nobody knew what to do or say. It was almost as if the tennis match had gone into slow motion, and we didn't know what to think.

Q: What was that like for you, Michael? Did you plan anything with Jude before?

MC: No. We just rehearsed it. You stick to your own character, that's what you do. Sometimes you work with awkward actors -- and I'm not talking about Jude, he's fabulous -- but I found very early on that if you stay with your character, you're bullet-proof. No other actor can shoot you down if they mess about or do stupid things on the take. You just stay in character, and they're the ones who look silly or artificial.

Q: What did your wives think of the film? Did they say "typical men" or did they have some other reaction?

KB: She was riveted by it. I first read the script, and I said, "This is great, darling. I think I'm going to do this. But it's very dirty." She said, "What do you mean?" I said, "Read it and see what you think." She read it and said, "I think this is great, but it's not just dirty, it's filthy isn't it? You should do it."

You get to a point where, in the end of the second act, Michael is forced to wear jewelry in a very threatening, sinister scene, where you're not sure if he's going to live or die. But halfway through, he says, "I'm not sure if these earring suit me." You're walking some kind of strange tightrope that should be fairly compelling.

MC: My wife liked the earrings.

KB: You don't have to wear them at home, do you?

MC: No, just for dinner. [Laughter.]

Q: Is there any difference in how you prepare for a role like this and how you prepare for a comedy?

MC: It's all the same thing. If you do comedy, no matter how broad it is, it must be real. It doesn't alter at all... except with the old cliché that says, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." It's a cliché because it's true. Comedy is terribly, terribly difficult to do.

Q: Can you guys talk about your upcoming roles in Valkyrie and Dark Knight?

KB: Valkyrie is directed by Bryan Singer and written by Chris McQuarrie of Usual Suspects fame and Nathan Alexander. It's about an assassination attempt on Hitler by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, played by Tom Cruise and recruited by my character, Henning von Tresckow. It's a brilliantly put-together thriller... incredible considering that everyone knows the outcome. It nevertheless is this spine-tingler. The nearness to changing the course of 20th-century history that was averted by where a briefcase was put on either side of the wooden leg of a table. And it comes at the end of another series of incredible near-misses and coincidences. Cruise is brilliantly cast, and he looks quite like the historical figure, just by the by.

MC: No, the guy who tried to kill Hitler looks like Tom Cruise. [Laughter.]

Q: And Michael, you're going back to Batman.

MC: Yes, I'm the butler in Batman, like I was in Batman Begins. I thought that one was the best of the lot and I think this one will be even better. The big surprise out of this will be what we thought was a big problem going in: the Joker. I mean, you've got the shadow of Jack [Nicholson] looming over you, which was an incredible performance. But we've got Heath Ledger, who's gone in a completely and terrifyingly different direction. He's extraordinary; he'll frighten the life out of you. He did me the first time I saw him. We did a rehearsal on the first day, and we hadn't met or anything. He comes up in the elevator to Batman's home, and I'm thinking I'm letting friends in, and instead he's killed them all. He has, like, seven dwarves with him, like Snow White. When the bloody door opened on the lift and he came tearing out, I forgot every line in the scene!

Q: Were you always a big Batman fan?

MC: Oh yeah, I've seen all the Batman... Batmans... Batmen? I've seen all of them. I think, by a long way, that Christian [Bale] is the best I've ever seen. He's certainly the best actor; a wonderful actor, as he's proving. He's in 3:10 to Yuma now. Then there was The Machinist, and what was the other one he was just in?

Q: American Psycho? The Prestige?

MC: No, where he played the pilot.

Q: Rescue Dawn.

MC: That's the one! That's a wonderful performance.

Q: He was also in a little Shakespeare film called Henry V.

MC: Was he?

KB: Yeah, he was a slip of a boy. I carried him over my shoulder for half a bloody mile! I could have carried two of him!

Article published 10.12.2007.

Also read: Rob Vaux's review of Sleuth.

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