Sleuth with Pinter, Branagh, Law and Caine

Co-starring Michael Caine and Jude Law, Kenneth Branagh's version of “Sleuth” was filmed in Bedfordshire and at Twickenham Studios during January and February of 2007. Law is also a producer, alongside with Simon Halfon, Tom Sternberg, Marion Pilowsky, Branagh, and Simon Moseley.

As movie fans and long-time friends, Jude Law and fellow producer Simon Halfon would regularly meet to discuss projects they would like to make together. Law had some experience as a producer on Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Halfon, a graphic designer, was keen to test the waters. During one of their conversations, Halfon suggested revisiting Sleuth, Anthony Shaffer's 1970 Tony Award-winning play, which became a successful film in 1972.

Says Jude Law: “Whilst the original play was brilliantly executed, Simon thought it could evolve into something modern, that there was plenty of undiscovered territory within the kernel of the story. So the idea germinated in my head for a while but what really got the ball rolling was when someone asked me what I'd been thinking about developing and Harold Pinter's name came up.”

Scripter Harold Pinter

At the time, Harold Pinter had not yet received the Nobel Prize for Literature, but his status as one of the most influential playwrights of the century made the prospect of approaching him to rewrite Shaffer's popular play seem nave. Pinter's formidable reputation would have discouraged many other producers and Law admits that it seemed like “a ridiculous long shot.” “But because the piece suited him, it also seemed like an opportunity to write to him,” Law says. “We went for a very funny, very long lunch at which I told him that the essence of the story was two men in a room, one older, one younger, fighting physically and psychologically over a woman you never meet. If I recall correctly, Harold said, 'I've been doing that for 40 years. He agreed there and then.'”

Pinter had seen Jude Law on screen and on stage and was pleased by the opportunity to work with him. “Jude's a highly intelligent man; he's got his wits about him,” he says. “He's got real enthusiasm and integrity.”
With Pinter on board, the idea became considerably more interesting and Castle Rock agreed to finance the writing and development of the project. “Once Harold was involved,” says Law, “it turned from being an intriguing remake into something altogether different, something with a lot more gravitas, a lot more weight. Anything that can seduce Harold's attention suddenly becomes important because he is such an icon in the writing world. We knew that in Harold's hands, the script was going to be of an incredibly high caliber.”

Over the next few years, the participants got to work. “It's a totally new take,” says Pinter. “I had not either seen or read the play, and I hadn't seen the film adapted from the play either, so I knew nothing about it. So I simply read the play and I think it's totally transformed. I've kept one or two plot things because you have to but apart from that, I think I've made it my own.”

“You almost can't believe it's something Harold didn't create,” says Law. “In a way, what you're talking about is a piece where two men are fighting over a possession–a woman, in this case, that each one wants to possess, but really it's about men fighting and why men fight. It turns into a piece about male ego and one-upmanship – the prize is all but forgotten. It's all about competition and beating the person in front of you, which is obviously something Harold is interested in, both in his body of work and in his opinions on the way the world is heading at the moment.”

Armed with Pinter's screenplay, Law and Halfon sought out additional financing. “Because of the style in which Harold writes (and you have to remember that this was pre-Nobel Prize) it was actually quite hard to get people to read between the lines. It was a very sparse script,” says Law. It seemed to threaten a lot of financiers. They saw the great dialogue but they didn't quite see the potential as a film. But our belief in it drove it forward.”

Law had proposed the idea to Michael Caine several years earlier and Caine
had agreed that it might be fun to do Sleuth as a movie again, this time playing the role taken by Laurence Olivier in 1972. With new the screenplay finished, Law approached Caine. “I was fascinated by the whole idea from the start,” says Caine, “but especially when I saw the Pinter script. Although the basic plot is the same
and the title is the same, Pinter's writing is completely different from Anthony Shaffer's. It's not the same movie.”

Director Branagh

With Caine signed up for Pinter's script, Law recognized that the moment had come to find a director to “lead the party and settle all of our visions into one.” Amongst the directors under consideration was Kenneth Branagh, perhaps best known for his adaptations of the work of Shakespeare. “My manager called me one day and said: There's a new version of Sleuth which Jude Law is producing and Michael Caine will appear in and the new version has been written by Harold Pinter,” recalls Kenneth Branagh. “That seemed like a very, very exciting combination of people. I knew and liked the original film and the play that I'd seen just a few years ago on tour with a friend who was playing Milo.

“Then I read the screenplay and I couldn't put it down. What I thought was already an excellent marriage now had Pinter's darker, more blackly comic sensibility behind it. It still had this page-turning, what-will-happen-next quality from the original, but the script seemed very confidently to be so different as to be altogether another film. It shares a central part of the idea and the characters have the same names but so much was changed from the word go “visually and in terms of mood, in relation to the characters and then as one went on, in relation to the plot.

“Pinter somehow lifts the observation of that which is familiar and loads it sometimes with humor, sometimes with menace, sometimes with great poetry. In Sleuth, he takes a marvelous piece of theatrical and cinematic mechanics and brings to it effortlessly his own fascination with what also emerges from Shaffer's play: this psychological drama, this testosterone fuelled gladiatorial combat between two, in their different ways, sophisticated and intelligent men. It seemed such a great way to enjoy a rip-roaring thriller and an illumination of the vulnerabilities and the posturings of apparently masculine, almost macho types as they fight over a woman. I guess I just had a gut feeling that it was going to be bloody good.”

Branagh was signed on to direct. “Ken saw the potential,” says Jude Law. “He saw that what lay between Pinter's lines was a film in which the third lead was the house itself, and the mood it created. He also recognized the value of just sitting back and listening to fantastic dialogue as opposed to fussing and over-complicating the piece. He understands the medium of text to performance so well. As with Harold's initial involvement and Michael's agreeing to participate, Ken just made sense. The four of us were like three generations of British actors and filmmakers and it felt like a very happy group, the right kind of group.”

Pinter describes Branagh's contribution to the project as “tremendous”. “Ken brought a new intelligence to the thing,” he says. “He's very skilful, very discerning. I'd admired him a great deal, both as an actor and a director–I thought his film of Henry V was terrific and he's a hell of an actor himself. It was an extremely stimulating process all along the line.”

The Text

A great deal is written about the inviolable nature of the Pinter text and even
more about the author's refusal to analyze or explain his work. Many of the
stories are undoubtedly apocryphal (although it may be true that the young
Alan Ayckbourn, then an actor appearing in The Birthday Party, asked Pinter for pointers about his character and received the reply: “Mind your own f***ing business. Just say the lines.”

When he was 15 years old, Branagh gave his first ever audition using a speech from a Pinter play, and working with the revered writer was a potentially intimidating experience that proved highly rewarding. “Several times in rehearsal I suggested things to Harold that he probably wasn't thrilled about,” recalls Branagh, “but he was always enormously respectful. Because he's honest and sincere, he will react naturally and if he doesn't agree, he will say so with all the vigorous and adversarial intellect that is at his disposal. It is a formidable intellect and he is a very passionate fellow so when he makes his point, he makes it with some intensity. But if you can justify yourself, he listens and you work out a solution.”

Asked to pinpoint what it is about Pinter's language that renders it unique, worthy of its own adjective and Nobel Prize, Branagh says: “Pinter brings poetry to the apparently prosaic and banal–he makes it memorable. There's a delight in language and an invitation to the imagination. He performs this trick of offering up what appears to be a naturalistic story–told naturalistically with naturalistic language–and then you discover it's not naturalistic, it's realistic. It's quite close to how we speak, the characters are quite close to ones we have met but they occupy another kind of territory, somehow the territory of our nightmares. You feel that these are words and phrases you've heard before but they are put together in a way that starts to sharpen and shine some of them up. There's humour, there's compassion, there's terror, there's a poetic dimension. He gets under your skin.”

“What's extraordinary about Harold's writing is the ambiguity–he cements something in reality by turn of phrase, in the disjointed nature of conversation,
and at the same time, he allow gaps within that for anything to mean anything,” says Law. “As an actor, you can deliver Harold's lines in any which way. We had so much fun but also such a challenge ahead of us when we realized that 90 per cent of the script could be performed in two, three, sometimes four different ways. Each one worked and each one gave a completely different slant to the scene individually and to the piece as a whole.”

Law continues: “Harold finds something beautiful, eloquent and absolutely descriptive in shorthand and in a very contemporary, at times almost ineloquent style through the mouths of people who don't know they are being eloquent. I think one of the big surprises about Sleuth will be how funny it is. The humor comes out of the ambiguity and the cruel, sparring quality of the exchanges. There's also a real under-use of words, playing a situation off understatement.”

“There is something very primal and atavistic about it,” adds Branagh, “A kind of visceral quality of combat. There's a strong sense of the sexual passion of these two men, of their physical strength channeled through this superficial attempt to be civilized. It's conversational sparring laced with such charged meaning and cruelty that it makes it riveting. Pinter often has characters say the thing that one would never say, the remark that would end the dinner party or the retirement gathering. You watch, jaw on the floor, embarrassed and hypnotized. It's very compelling.”

“Harold's words look very natural and ordinary, almost like Cockney slang, some of them,” says Michael Caine. “They are like little clichd phrases that you heard your mum or dad say, especially if you're a Londoner, and none of them mean anything until you get to the end of the sentence and suddenly, the menace comes in. It's extraordinarily difficult to do Pinter and get it right. You look at it and it's all very ordinary and then it's very, very, menacing, and very funny in a weird way. When you think of the original play, you think, how could this be rewritten And then you read Pinter, and you say, that's how it could be rewritten! Why didn't I think of that!”

“With Sleuth, Harold really seems to have embraced the idea of frightening people,” says Branagh. “With that level of tension running all the way through, he loves tripping you up and offering the odd conversational banana skin for audience and characters. You know you're in safe hands in terms of his artistic mastery but you're not remotely in safe hands when it comes to the idea of a comfortable evening's viewing.”

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