Murder on the Orient Express: Interview with Director and Star Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh is the director and star of the new version of Murder on the Orient Express, a remake of Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film.


Kenneth Branagh: We all kind of inevitably in the modern world now multitask as a matter of course every single day.  In your jobs, you must have to do it all the time and you have got to be listening for stuff and you have got to be reacting to stuff, our brains are changing, our brain chemistry is changing in the modern world, at a fast pace.  I guess the first trick is to try to find a way to enjoy it.  I use a phrase someone put to me once that you can be time poor, but moments rich.

Having a Stand-In

KB: I had a fantastic stand-in, Michael Raths, who is a fine actor, and who appears in the movie actually early on, who learned the lines and who was me, he had been in our theater company for the last year, and so we had that.  And I confess, literally I suppose I would get up a bit earlier.  I like to meditate, and sometimes that goes out the window when you have a busy life, but I did get up earlier to meditate, because that would be the thing that would help me not be overwhelmed.  What I found with this, was that there was absolutely relentless, remorseless demand every day.  Every time you did something difficult, there was something else difficult to come along, although it’s not brain surgery difficult, it’s pretty labor intensive, and boy did I feel it.  We finished up doing some sequences in Malta and I mean after that, for the week after that, I slept like a man who had never slept before.  It was like a physical change in my body and I had felt like I had sunk into the bed.  And suddenly you felt like you had been an engine that was revving so high, so consistently and so continually, that this editorial period I have been involved with so far, has been just such a thrill and to not be doing quite so much of that multi-tasking at that pitch, even if you can convince yourself to enjoy the Poirot, enjoy the directing and enjoy the coffee, you can’t do it all the time.


KB:  Traveling, and I wish I was as better traveler in terms of preparation.  My wife will get things ready the Saturday before the Saturday we are leaving, she will already start doing that.  She will get the outfits out and she will almost work out which days they will be in and she read a great Japanese book recently about folding and clearing things out and I wish I was that.  I was very fortunate, I had a lovely weekend last weekend in Portugal, and with 5 minutes to go, I was still throwing things together. As a result, I end up always needing something critical.  I am a man of a certain age, I left my glasses, I need my glasses cause I can’t read and I live by reading, I love reading.  I am not a good traveler, but boy do I enjoy it, I really enjoy it.  And whether it’s a train or a plane or a boat, I have childlike enjoyment for it all.  I still, I am sure we talked about this before, but I still get excited, it sounds silly, by food on an airplane. I like the joy of traveling, but I am terrible at preparation.

First Actor to Cast

KB: The first person I cast was Judy Dench.  I went to ask her if she would do it, and I hadn’t finished the question when she said yes.

Challenge of Large Talented Cast

KB: There’s a lot of logistics, but they are a lovely group, and it is a group with rapport.  A really critical component was Judy Dench.  Judy is like a talismanic figure.  Derek and Judy know each other from a thousand years ago.  Johnny has worked with Judy and he worships her.  She was like a weathervane.  She is always first there, she does have trouble seeing, but she never complains about it. So if she is there first, and she is entirely gallant about her own particular stuff, she is entirely even handed.  She is a real person and she responds to real people and there is no difference between her and anybody in any particular walk of life, anybody’s job or anything.  And when that is there, that kind of Northstar for behavior, then everybody else judges it as a plus, she’s fantastic.

Michelle Pfeiffer came up to me on the first day and they were all outside the train, and it was really like seeing a first day at school, people being a bit shy and some people holding back a bit and all the rest of it.  Pfeiffer then got on the train, quite immersive, and I thought oh God, somebody has upset her, and she said, I just love Judy Dench so much, I can’t believe I just met her.  I said well you are going to act with her in a minute. And what that did to the scenes–it kept them very much alive.

I tried to never waste their time.  Always get them when they are in that mood, get them on a train, and shoot quickly.  Really shoot quickly, because that is 16 actors times 16 makeup artists by 16 costume assistants or something and so that becomes a bloody train carriage.  You try to catch them while their excitement was good.  It’s a bit like athletes, they are warmed up, they are ready to go, you want the gun to go off and you want the race to start. I tried to find a way to get to that as soon as I could.  But Judy was an enormous help in being an example of how it could be serious and also fun.

Modern touch, New Style?

KB: It’s something that’s crucial sort of issue whenever you go into a classic story.  What is the tone that in some sense respects the classical origins of it, like it’s still on a train and you still have many of the same characters, but how do you refresh it?  Well we have added some pieces, so we give for instance, a sense of who Poirot is, earlier and different in this film, than in the novel or the previous movie.  Our inspiration comes from the novel. In the “Orient Express” book, people meet Poirot on the train with the sort of reported information that he is the greatest detective in the world.

I have always felt with doing classics not to assume everybody knows who they are–who Poirot is.  We go to some pains in the beginning of this movie to give a sense of what it means to be a very special and clever detective, so that when he gets on that train and then gets his own little quiet little modest way because he is having a holiday, he is unnoticed by the other train passengers, but our audience knows that this is somebody really formidable.  We put that into the story in a different way, and it allowed Michael Greene flight to fancy.  But it also allows him to raid sort of the other books. I would love if we made some more films but I am sure we are not going to make 37 of them, and that is how many books we had to choose from in terms of stealing this and that and just make some of the new seasoning work for the story.

Keeping the suspense

KB: Keeping the environment lethal is important.  Just making sure that we understand that while it’s still traveling, you just get on any train, but certainly on The Orient Express, it really throws you a bone and it can’t not.  As soon as you walk up and down a train, it’s not as simple as it seems, and so we could in that scenario, get some value out of just the various kinds of lethal objects that might be around on a moving thing.  It goes quickly and we put it in a slightly more dangerous environment than it might otherwise be.  And it’s not, as you can tell by the footage that we showed this morning, it’s not nearly a snowdrift that stops them, it’s something much more violent, which also leaves them in a marooned, in a viaduct which you saw that was part of when the group visited where the sense of jeopardy about what might happen to the train, the viaduct might collapse, etc, is much more present. And I think from the acting point of view, we wanted also to try to, to go to the point you make, is to create as much paranoia and suspicion as we could.  But to your point about the end of the movie and people’s familiarity or not with that, but the who the how and the why was really important.  And the why becomes something that gives us great suspense.

Advice to Himself as Young Man

 KB: To try and retain and maintain a sense of humor and a sense of lightness about what you are doing, in our business. Maybe it’s always been the same, maybe it’s now more. But the sense that young people can have of the importance of sometimes a career move and the importance of some kinds of acquisition of a job or a position or a title, things that may bring happiness that need to come along in a hurry, would be something that maybe I would say to my 18 year old self.  Who knows if they will arrive or you will arrive, but it can sound pretty pat like an 18 year old is, but it’s a journey. It’s a journey in which every path, every step in itself is something to enjoy, to relish, even if it’s hard.  I would say that, not that I didn’t have quite a good time, but I would say that as much as you can, enjoy every single moment of it and don’t be results orientated.


Casting Sergei Polunin

KB: We were talking about suspense earlier, and one of the things that Christie strives to stress, is that there are some tangibly dangerous people on the train that we know about ahead of time. Johnny Depp’s Ratchett, we have information to understand that he knows dangerous people and may be a dangerous individual himself.  And in the book, Count Andrenyi is seen before getting on the train, in a scuffle, and he is highly, highly protective of his wife.  We wanted for some sequences later on in the movie, we felt it would be good to have someone who really could dance, sort of unleash the physicality you might feel if you were someone whose physical life was very important to them and you were trapped in a very small space and then that train gets stuck in the snow.  The caged animal ferocity that someone like Sergei can bring to that venue, those characters really feel too small for him to even stretch out.  We have some more action and fighting later on in which also he can just do extraordinary things with his body at the drop of a hat.  And I wanted him not to show off, but if you are a dancer and a fighter, then you have probably got some different moves and indeed he did.

Rob Ashford, a co-director I have worked with many times and was my associate on this, very much kept an eye on my performance, he was kind of helping choreograph this fight between myself and Sergei, and he was so thrilled because there was nothing he asked him that he couldn’t do.  There was no lift of the leg that couldn’t happen.  He could leap over this kind of arrangement, through the gap and land on one foot.  He was that sort of dexterous. But he has an intensity as well that makes him as a character in this story very dangerous and potentially very violent.  He keeps suspense alive.

Sergei, Coming from Dance

KB: It’s his first acting part and we were aware of his extraordinary career. We were all aware of that certain image of him as the bad boy of Ballet, and yet this youthful phenomenon, the youngest soloist at the Royal Ballet. But we wanted the character to be very passionate and edgy.  At least I wanted to meet him and see what was his interests in acting.   Was he a dancer primarily and was this something to play with or whatever?  I found him to be a serious artist who was aware of reputation.  But he was very clear about the fact that he wanted to learn about moviemaking and learn about acting and he knows about Drama and he knows about character and he has a strong sense of that, but he was obviously going to express it in a different way.

It was a happy marriage–we were excited about his physicality for the character, but we also needed him to be speaking and to be in dialogue scenes with other people, and he seemed very open about that.  This was so new and so exciting that it was a departure for him and he was very open and serious about it.  I was very clear upfront and we all show up on time and this is going to be a very disciplined scenario and I have no doubt that he understands discipline and you can’t be a dancer and not understand that.  But he needed to show a different version of it here and he was absolutely ready for that.  He was a very quiet but very confident member of that troupe.  Girls loved him obviously, but everybody loved him.

Big Mustache to Hide Behind

Of all the time where I have done, when I have directed and acted, this one felt like a particularly good fit, because there’s something about directing that seemed to have a parallel in conversations that I have had with real detectives while doing “Wallander” and I ended up having quite a number of conversations with policemen and see how they interview people.  And as a director and also sort of in a crime interview, there’s a kind of parallel gaze that you have.  As a director, you have to offer suggestions very clearly, and you need to listen very, very carefully.  And so partly what you don’t hide behind but what you have learned, I remember when we first rehearsed with Derek, he said Christ, that’s an incredible stare you have.  And in fact I was listening as carefully as Poirot did to the nearest nuance, but I also as a director needed to be able to offer something back up to Derek.  But while I am doing that, he can’t necessarily know what I am thinking.  So you become this sort of this weird kind of positive, neutral, listening thing.  So your curiosity in a way becomes a protection.  And I think that maybe as a person, I have quite a lot of that myself.


Speaking French?

KB: very little.  But I did for the four months. On my way to work every day, I tried to do a French language thing, just so I could start getting into it.  I had an excellent dialect coach called Marina Tindle, and she found for me a dozen Belgian speakers, to try and get the right tone, the right age and all the rest of it.  And we were trying to negotiate a sound that did not go to Clouseau, but was sort of could be understandable and also not denied fun, because definitely Christie talks about Poirot very consciously putting people off-guard by, I mean in the book, Mary Debenham says of Poirot, what a ridiculous little man, it’s impossible to take him seriously, with this stupid, ridiculous mustache.  And in another Poirot novel, a man says to him contemptuously, look at that ridiculous mustache!  It’s obvious what this man does, he’s a hairdresser.  You wanted to have the fun of a man whilst people were dismissing him in this way, they also reveal themselves.  He doesn’t approve of murder and he also doesn’t approve of bullies and he doesn’t approve of people who mock other people merely because they are different.  We wanted to flexibility to play with the accent, and for it to feel real.  It was a lot of work actually, but it was fun work.  And endless tapes, and if my dog could talk now, my dog would talk with a French accent, because he was the one who had heard most of it.  My Jack Russell.


KB: I do know Belgian a little and it was fascinating to hear that he was born in Spa, or invented in Spa.  We give his Belgian background, his appearance in the Belgian Army in the WWI and also in the Belgian police force afterwards, quite a bit of space and air in this story.  So as you can tell, part of what to do with the look of the mustache, is to literally kind of bear it in a military flavor that is part of this Poirot, as well as the accent.


Instincts of trust or suspicion

KB: My instinct is to trust people. But I also think that you intuit things about people.  Willem Dafoe, we were just talking at Lunch today, he said, that was an interesting experience doing the press conference on the footage, because you are all smart people, so you have already got a sense of a vibe from that group of people just in that scenario, where you could probably tell more stories about what you just saw and what it is. But basically, I am not suspicious of other people.  I am an optimist in life, and optimists live longer.  This is a scientific fact, optimists live longer.  On the whole, although I know people are fascinating and everybody has secrets, everybody has amazing stories.  I on the whole assume that the world is potentially a good place, even if we sometimes have grounds for deep suspicion, I try and keep a balance in the other direction.