Kenneth Branagh on Bringing the Fairies and Fantasy of 'Artemis Fowl' to Life (Set Visit)
By Liz Calvario
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios
Get ready to embark on a truly enchanted adventure, as Disney brings to life Eoin Colfer's beloved fantasy novel, Artemis Fowl, with Cinderella and Thor director Kenneth Branagh at the helm.
For those unfamiliar with the eight-book series, the tale follows Artemis Fowl II (played by newcomer Ferdia Shaw), a 12-year-old Irish criminal mastermind who kidnaps the fairy LEPRecon officer Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) for ransom to fund the search for his missing father. It's a world filled with fairies, gnomes and elves, with a cast that includes Dame Judi Dench as gender-swapped elf commander Root, Josh Gad as kleptomaniac dwarf Mulch Diggums, and Nonso Anozie as Artemis' bodyguard, Butler.
"Everybody knew that -- although there's something brilliant at the center of it that Eoin’s done -- translating it to film was challenging," Branagh said when ET visited the film's U.K. set at Longcross Film Studios in April. "It's taken quite some time to find the balance between humor and emotion and magic and the contemporary world."
During a break in his busy directing schedule, Branagh sat down with a handful of reporters at Fowl Manor outside of London to discuss his cast, diving into Artemis' origin story and what it took to bring his "risky" vision to life.
The author at one point described the books as Die Hard with fairies, is that what you're going for with this?
Kenneth Branagh: It's definitely a book with a siege at the heart of it. We're starting that process today with a troll hammering its way into the house, and seeing whether the brilliant Artemis Fowl, who's able to translate fairy books through his intelligence and his imagination, can, in combination with Holly Short, stop it. Sometimes at the beginning of a process like this, my distinguished colleagues at Disney, who I get on very well with, will invite you to say, "What's your take on it? What's your great idea?" And my great idea was to copy Eoin Colfer and to not get in the way.
I hope, for instance, that the film, like the books, is very rapid, very punch and pacy. I think one of the ways in which he manages to keep us very intrigued by a series of beautifully improbable things -- unless we have a lot of people who believe in fairies here, maybe we have! Clap your hands if you do! -- is that he moves at a pace which means that even if you disagree with the conception, you are thrilled by the execution. We move rapidly, and I think both the humor -- and as always in things that I'm drawn to, the humanity and that emotion underneath it all -- moves very lightly.
As I get older, I'm a fan of shorter and shorter movies. [Laughs.] Maybe that's a bladder issue, I don't know. Having inflicted very, very long viewing experiences on people -- years ago, when I made a film of Hamlet, journalists would say to me, "This is yet one more Hamlet, what's yours about?" and I would say, "It's about four hours" -- I decided that after that, I’d probably [stick to] 90 minutes. When making a movie like this, that's what I'll try and do of an evening, watch a 90-minute classic and see how master filmmakers did things swiftly. I think Eoin Colfer does so in the books and that's what we're trying to do here. Not rushing, but simply celebrating the swiftness of thought, which is characteristic of the Irish, of him and, indeed, of his central character.
Did you consult Eoin Colfer much?
We've talked a little. Not a lot, but very warmly and very happily and he was here this week. It was wonderful to see his face when he walked into this place. We told him about how inevitably we've, in the spirit of the book, amended or changed a few things that are to do with the translation of a book into a film, especially for a first-time audience. As amazingly popular as [the books have] been, it will be the first time a lot of people will see it, so we've born that in mind and we came up with a couple of things. And the first thing he said was, "God I wish I'd thought of that.” He said, “I’ll put it into the book. I'll certainly put it in the reissue.” So, he's been very collaborative.
Can you talk a little bit about how much the second book [Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident] is influencing this first movie?
There’s a little bit of it heading back in there, but we're trying to hold onto as much of the first book in its entirety as possible. We're trying to lay out what maybe skews on it -- if there were future stories -- but essentially we're trying to serve this first one. I suppose there is an anchoring emotional pull that comes a bit from the second book, which is that Artemis' father is missing. It provides a way for us to do what I feel is important in a first film, which is for us to -- aside from admiring or being thrilled by his intelligence and his ability to think swiftly and imaginatively -- we've also got to like him and got to feel for him.
Who knows if we make another one [or] if it's an origin story. We had this issue with Thor, when we did the first Thor movie, was to find a way to offer a complete dish. That's all we were making. That's all we're making now. We can talk about other stories, but the public will decide that. We know Eoin's done them, but we're planning for this one and for this one to feel as though it has an emotional satisfaction and delivery. So, family becomes central to that.
How did you go from Murder on the Orient Express to Artemis Fowl? What was the decision there?
You know, Artemis has been something I've been developing for three years now. My nephews are here today and they were both reading Artemis Fowl four years ago. We were all on holiday together and they said, "You should have a look at this," and I did. Then about three weeks later, Sean Bailey [from Disney] rang up and said, "Have you ever heard of Artemis Fowl?" I said, “I just read the first book!" There'd been some scripts and versions and developments up to that point, and they said, "Would you be interested in taking it on?"
Everybody knew that -- although there's something brilliant at the center of it that Eoin’s done -- translating it to film was challenging. It's taken quite some time to find the balance between humor and emotion and magic and the contemporary world. For instance, you're in a house where, although it's attractive in the book to feel his difference -- a little boy lives in a crazily big, privileged house -- it seemed to me that you had to find a place where people around the world, as they looked at it, did not feel alienated or excluded by somebody leading an entirely privileged life. It's an imaginative place. It's a bonkers place. [But] we introduced our Artemis at a real school, like a school the kids who will be watching this film will be seeing. He'll look like a kid who could be in their school.
Can you talk a little bit about the casting choices? Especially the role of Artemis.
Just like Thor, I recon we we saw about as many people and it took months and months and months. We wanted to find someone, if we could, who was Irish, because we're trying to allow that to be a distinctive flavor here. And then we needed to find somebody who was not going to be overwhelmed or intimidated, who could see it for the beautiful opportunity it is and the fun that it is. I've said to Ferdia a trillion times, "We're just making this film. Don’t get all worked up about stuff. We'll go to work today and we'll see what happens. I hope we make a good film, and I hope it'll be a nice time. The making of the film is the here-and-now. Don't worry about pressure. Every time somebody says to you about Harry Potter or how’s [this movie] going to change your life, there's no life to change. There's no Harry Potter. We're making this film and it's all tickety-boo."
It's important that they feel and can convey to an audience -- and he can, as can Lara McDonnell, as can Tamara Smart -- a sense of what it's like being a kid here. A beautiful moment in the life of the movie was when I took [Ferdia] around the house for the first time. I imagine it would be a bit overwhelming, so I just came in with me and him, brought him up the stairs and he just went, “Wow! Wow, look at that!" Then we got him into his room and he looked at the bookshelves and he said, "God, I've read all of these!" [I told him], "I know, you told us you had, that's why they're there!"
He had the combination of that, plus their being very, very resilient about a kind of acting boot camp that we put them through. For instance, this morning, you talk to [the young actors] about coming in quickly on cue. Just to be able to technically say the lines swiftly together -- not leave pauses, not leave thinking time -- can convey this energy that we need at the end of the movie. And the energy is imagination. They've been picking that up at the same time as saying, "Can you do all that and then you move here? There's a mark there. You can't go over there because you'll be out of focus on that camera. And now speak louder because Josh can't hear you here. And we're going to have the sound of the troll here. And stay natural! And relax!" [Laughs.]
He was one of the kids who could do all that, aside from being as attractive in the non-superficial sense. They're attractive because they're open and they're kind and they're fun. Part of our goal is that while they're here, it's important that we help this be a fun experience, but also it's a job and it's a practical discipline as well and they've been terrific.
Whose decision [was it], or where did it originate, to have Judi Dench play the role of Root? Because that's obviously a big change from the books.
I've worked with her many times now, and it was just something that a great theater director, Pete Brook, refers to as the "uninformed hunch." The uninformed hunch is, whenever I ask Judi to do something, she says, "Is it different?" The other day she was having -- and I pointed this out to Ferdia and Laura -- I said, "People have little moments of confidence," and Judi looked a little bit trembly lip the other morning. She said, "I don't know how to play this part," and I said, "Maybe one of the things is that it sounds quite unlike anything you've ever done, you look quite unlike anyone you've ever looked like and I knew that would appeal to you."
And when she first started, we sort of pretend that we weren't rehearsing. We arranged a meeting and and I said, "So, should we talk about the characters?" And then she started walking around [and] just threw the odd line out. A line that she loved from Root was, [Grunting] "Knock it off, knock it off!" She just started doing this [voice] and the hand went around like [so] and I thought, Christ, she looks like Napoleon. Then she turned into this 6-year-old and said, "You think that would be any good?" I said, “That would be good. That would be really good!" I reminded her about this the other day, I said, “You know that line you liked? Well, you're gonna stand here and you're going to say 'Knock it off,' but this time you're going to have eight fairies around you on the edge of this sea wall. You're just gonna knock it off and they're all going to fall off the sea wall." But it was eight stunt men and women who did it, and she was tickled pink. She said, "Rehearsals are useful!"
You mentioned Thor before, which was early in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What did that experience teach you about world building and creating something that hopefully will live onwards past this first film?
That it's exciting, but it's a little scary. You're talking about the many kinds of fairies, elves, sprits, trolls [and] goblins that live under the Earth and, at the same time, you're looking to have a very sort of contemporary feeling modern world that embraces technology and quite advanced technology. That experience allowed me to not feel so intimidated by it all, although it continues to be a pleasant, creative, scary thing. We all feel it, because it's a huge, huge, huge, huge team effort. And everybody's critical to it, whether they are preparing this city, or finding our Artemis, or doing all this stuff with the computer programming, or the books, or the performance, or the tone of it all. What's really exciting is to see that although it's risky, when these worlds can mix, it's very exciting. It feels original. Thor had an experience that once you've been in a world of Frost Giants and blue planets and an enormous, blond Australian person lands in New Mexico and takes his shirt off in front of a scientist, then it ain't so weird to have your one 13-year-old Irish boy summon up ancient celtic spirits to potentially prevent a troll attack on your house. We've all been there, haven't we?
Artemis Fowl arrives in theaters on August 9, 2019.