Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Law, Branagh, and Caine on the Mysteries of "Sleuth"

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Law, Branagh, and Caine on the Mysteries of "Sleuth"

(from brinkzine.com 10/9/07)

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  • picture Michael Caine, Jude Law, and Kenneth Branagh
So we all liked the remake of “3:10 to Yuma,” although we were quite satisfied with the 1957 original. I think that’s going to be the reaction of most viewers who see “Sleuth,” when it opens this weekend. The 1972 screen adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s twisted two-character play about an aging mystery writer who lures his wife’s young lover to his mansion to exact sweet revenge had crackling dialogue written by Shaffer, dynamic and devilish performances by Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, and sure-handed direction of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, an old master making his final film,. Since that film still turns up on television with some regularity, no one has been clamoring to see a remake But how can anyone resist the new version, knowing that Harold Pinter wrote the venous new dialogue—keeping the plot but tossing out Shaffer’s dialogue—Michael Caine, now assuming the Olivier role,and the underrated Jude Law give Oscar-worthy performances, and the clever Kenneth Branagh makes one of his too infrequent turns as a film director. This “Sleuth” is less over-the-top than the original but my guess is that you’ll have equal fun watching the new version and again seeing two wretched human beings in mortal combat. I recently participated in the following two roundtable interviews with Law and then Branagh together. I note the questions I asked.


Roundtable with Jude Law
Danny Peary: I read in the production notes that when you began working as the producer of “Sleuth” you didn’t know you would play Milo Tindle. When did you know?

Jude Law: It’s not that I didn’t have the notion that I would be in it; it’s just I didn’t assume it. My first role was producer and trying to get the picture off the ground. I had lunch with Harold Pinter, who never read or saw Anthony Shaffer’s play or the movie with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. He agreed to do it because he liked the idea, the premise that two men fight over a woman we don’t ever see. My role then was to support his process, and guide him when he wanted guiding, and read what he’d written when he wanted it read. My concentration and focus was to look at it objectively as a whole. That went on for nearly two-and-a-half years as we picked our way through to a finished script. As soon as that was over, Michael Caine agreed to be onboard to play Andrew Wyke, largely because of Harold’s involvement as the writer and his giving it a new take and fresh voice. Then I could think of myself as Milo.

DP: But when Pinter was writing the script, did you at least tell him you were thinking of playing the part so he could write with you in mind?

JL: No. I don’t think he would ever write for anyone. The potency of his work is what isn’t in it, it’s the suggestion—the space around the characters, the space around the lines--that makes everything ambiguous and therefore anything possible. I think for him to be so specific and have me as Milo would have been too much detail for him—he likes the idea of “A Man Comes into a Room” and “Another Man Enters.” All else is suggestion.

Q: Did you prepare for your role differently because you’re actually playing two characters, and Milo has many layers to him?

JL: I don’t really have a set way of approaching roles. I approach every single role differently. I don’t have a method or process; I serve the piece and serve the director and I often look to the director for guidance and ask, “What do you want me to do? Where do you think I should start?” Sometimes they really don’t want you to do anything, sometimes they give you a stack of books and DVDs and tell you to go see Puccini performed or learn to drive a tank or God knows what.

That said, it was different from all other things I’ve done simply because I worked so long with Harold. By the time I read it as an actor, with about two months to go before the three-week rehearsal period, I knew the piece and Milo so well. I remembered all the conversations Harold and I had about his probably seedy past and how he might have made money. All the little layers and ideas about him were in my head, so when I wanted to do more research I didn’t know where to start. I realized that the best thing I could do was to commit to the rhythm and music of the dialogue, and play my part straight and clean.

Q: What was Kenneth Branagh’s approach as the director?

JL: Because he was the director, we all knew that when we went into the rehearsal room we didn’t have to sit around and break the piece down and work out what was going on. We already had covered most of the story questions from having discussed them with Ken one-on-one before the rehearsal. Ken has a great sense of get-up-and-go and wants to get everyone up on their feet immediately. Months before we even started we were chatting in the studio about the strange-looking inspector who comes to Andrew’s house to ask him about Milo’s disappearance. And he said, “Why are we just talking about it? Let’s just do it right now.” He went off and found a jacket and shirt and had me shove a pillow under it and greased all my hair down and put some tissue paper up my mouth and borrowed someone’s glasses. I didn’t use the final accent then, but we sort of did it. That’s how he liked to work, get us on our feet and have us make mistakes to get rid of them. We rehearsed things in that manner, on our feet, running through the material in sections, going back and finessing it, until we could almost run the whole thing like a play—and that enabled us to film it very quickly. He embraced the schedule. He loved the idea that we were going to shoot it very quickly, from the first time we met and I produced him as a producer with a script. He saw that as a plus, rather than something to be scared of. He liked that we were up against the clock and that our energy from working quickly might create something special.

Also because he’s a fine, fine actor with great personality and intellect, he has the ability to give wonderful suggestions about how far you can detail a character’s shadings. And when you are trying to go somewhere with a line, he’ll recognize it and he’ll tell you to go farther, farther, farther or pull back and be quieter. He explains it like an actor would, which means his dialogue with you is very fluid.

Q: The film is theatrical so did you play the script word for word or change dialogue?

JL: You can’t do that with Harold. If you miss out on an “Oh” or an “And,” you’re in trouble. First of all, it doesn’t work if you make changes, and second of all, it’s not needed. With some lesser writers, you might try to embellish or add colloquialisms. With the better writers, it’s like great prose or Shakespeare and you have to leave it alone. What you’ve got is enough and if you don’t see that you don’t understand it yet and must look harder. I’m glad you brought up the theatricality. That’s a tone to the film that was really important to me. I’m a big fan of Fellini and Bergman. I also like gritty realism, but I worry we often embrace what’s new in film and disregard what’s seen as old rather too quickly. Theatrical filmmaking is a great medium where there’s a separate other-worldly feel. You know it’s not completely real, and that draws you in. We wanted that house to be a bubble that you are an observer of. And anything goes in that house—and there’s no outside world for the people inside. There’s a voyeuristic feel to this movie, and it’s also claustrophobic. It was important for that to work that we embraced the theatrical roots.

Q: In “Alfie” you played a famous Michael Caine role. Now you’re playing another famous Michael Caine role opposite him. Was it business as usual or did you wonder what he was going to think of your performance?

JL: I feel slightly foolish in a way that I’ve done these two parts that he originated because it’s easy for people to assume it’s some kind of an obsession rather than just two parts that appealed to me. “Alfie” just came my way and I was intrigued whether it would hold up in modern culture. I’d never played a role like that and I was scared to do it—in fact that fear is probably what interested me most in doing it. As I said before, I didn’t start out wanting to play Milo Tindle. I’m lucky, it’s a great role and I went about it from a different angle. It’s funny--and I think Michael felt the same stepping into Olivier’s shoes—the parts felt so different from the original, because every line of dialogue was different, so you couldn’t compare and contrast. Michael was there watching me construct this character in front of him from Day One in rehearsal, so he knew I wasn’t emulating anything he had done.

Q: So it wasn’t at all intimidating working with him?

JL: Not really. There were one or two moments when it crossed my mind that I was playing opposite someone I’d been watching since I was a child. But part of his skill is that he’s incredibly good at putting you at ease. It was very collaborative and noncompetitive. He had a nurturing quality, so I didn’t feel awkward or on edge, but welcome.

Q: Talk about your conception of Milo.

JL: I knew there was a fence of three acts to Milo. The first is a presentation, the second is a demonstration, the third is really the closest to seeing who he really is. I think the first third of the film is very much a performance by Milo. He’s holding an awful lot back, putting his best foot forward, being a regular Joe. It’s not till later that he reveals his hand, how devious, violent, and manipulative he can be. He peels off layers and by the end you see the viciousness of what he is really about. I knew I wanted to do it that way.

DP: Because there’s such ambiguity found in both characters, when you, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Branagh were working together, did you have to explain to each other what you were thinking when delivering lines?

JL: We did different readings of various moments. We knew that allowed Ken the option when editing of accelerating, decelerating, or shifting gears. What’s amazing about Pinter’s work is that we could take one scene and do takes where we’re friendly or flirtatious and other takes where we’re at each other’s throats or one of us is aggressive and the other submissive. I remember Ken once calling Harold to ask about the phone calls near the end that Milo receives. Ken said, “I must ask you: what do you think Maggie is saying to him on the other end of the phone?” And Harold said, “How do you know it’s Maggie?” Ken said, “Because Milo tells Andrew it’s Maggie.” Harold said, “You assume it’s Maggie because that’s what Milo says, but how do you know it’s not just a friend calling?” Ken said, “Well, is it?” And Harold said, “I don’t know.” So we could explain what we’re thinking, but we never knew if what we were thinking was correct. Even Harold didn’t know.

Q: Is Milo bisexual or is he just tempted by Andrew’s offer that he move in? Or is he just feigning interest?

JL: I don’t know, and I rather like not knowing. What I love about Pinter and it’s what he’d say to you if he were here is that even he doesn’t know. The ambiguity is what counts. When you watch the film any or all those possibilities hold strong. What he’s playing with in those later scenes is that sexuality can be used as a weapon. I don’t know if Milo is attracted to Andrew’s offer of wealth and security, but he does want to come out of this whole thing with something. I’ll go that far. He wants to come out with something that leaves him better off than when he entered that house. Maybe it’s just that leather jacket. He’s happy with the jacket, that he’s got his prize.

Q: Viewers who haven’t seen the film yet, shouldn’t read this question or your answer but: Does Milo die at the end or is that one of the ambiguities?

JL: I think he dies, but honestly, I have a hidden interpretation where they do this battle every month. This time, in fact, Milo wins because he gets Andrew to lose his temper and shoot him. Whoever shoots the other loses. And Maggie doesn’t matter. Who knows who Maggie is or what Maggie is? Maybe there is no Maggie.

DP: You said Harold was intrigued that the men fight over a woman they don’t see. But can you agree that’s what this combat is really about?

JL: What really appealed to Harold is that it’s a piece about why men fight, that they have this primal need to fight, sometimes losing sight of the goal. It’s about winning the fight and suddenly the bone you were fighting about—in this case, a woman we don’t see--is forgotten in the dust. Instead it’s just about domination—and that, again, is where sexuality comes in. Michael and Ken discussed something called “morbid jealousy,” where a man seduces his wife’s lover to dominate and possess him rather than kill him, and that’s his revenge. The reason Harold liked the idea of putting us in an aquarium-type glass box that’s full of technology and man’s advancements is to highlight the fact that we’re still like cavemen who are scrapping around and fighting like animals.

Q: Now that you’re going into producing, do you think you’re going to choose more roles that aren’t focused on your looks?

JL: Again, Harold didn’t write specifically for me. He was specific to someone who is youthful, who has perhaps been judged for their looks over their minds. I think anyone, male or female, has found themselves in situations where their looks are more dominant than their interior works. He’s writing about a tendency in society where vanity is favored over integrity or inner workings. So in with this role and others, I’ve always thought that I didn’t choose parts based on my looks. All I hope to do as a producer or actor is continue to challenge myself and do things I haven’t done before.

Q: Do you have any such projects coming up?

JL: I’m doing a film with Forest Whitaker called “Repossession Mambo,” which is kind of a futuristic thriller. So that’s different for me. Also Ken is directing me as “Hamlet” at the Wyndham Theater in the West End, as part of a four-play 2008-2009 Donmar season. Ken’s also going to star in Chekov’s “Ivanov.” And Derek Jacobi’s is playing Malvolio in “The Twelfth Night.” So that’s my next theater project. I’ve done John Ford’s “Tis Pity She’s a Whore” and Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” but I’ve never done Shakespeare. In fact you could argue that Hamlet’s easier to play because it’s a much better written play. “Hamlet” is different. The reason I’m doing it is that I’ll again be in Kenneth Branagh’s hands.

Roundtable with Kenneth Branagh and Michael Caine
Danny Peary: Why did Anthony Shaffer name his play Sleuth? I’ve always wondered because the role of the professional sleuth, the inspector, in the play isn’t very large.

Kenneth Branagh: I think the original title for the stage production that was on tour was “Anyone for Tennis?” It was an ironic reference to the kind of line that would appear in drawing-room comedies or mysteries. Anthony Quayle with played Andrew said, “I hate this title.” And so Anthony Shaffer came up with the one word that described the kind of hero of the novels that Andrew Wyke would read—the aristocratic amateur detective or sleuth, like Lord Peter Wimsey. The word sleuth also can be used as a verb—to sleuth is to hunt down.

Michael Caine: That’s where it comes from. That’s exactly what Tony told me.

Q: Even before we meet Andrew and Milo, we know the house where the entire film takes place. Talk about working with the production designer Tim Harvey.

KB: Tim Harvey came on very early in the production. We talked to Pinter, we talked to Jude and Michael, we visited similar houses and then we tried to design a house that was in a fact a third character.

MC: And a sinister one, to boot.

KB: Exactly. Tim took a single suggestion in Harold Pinter’s screenplay—that the outside of the house is period and the inside is modern—and went from there. We started filling the house with what we thought Andrew would have. We visited every kind of modern art gallery, and covered the walls with contemporary British art; and then we found the types of books Michael thought Andrew would have—serial killer books rather than country-house mysteries. We had the lighting rigged so that a single and tiny-remote unit could change the color of every wall in the house at will. We felt it was a modern, dangerous, unsettling equivalent of the house of games that was in the original film. That was much more of a wood-paneled English, baronial, house. There are TV monitors, doors that slide open to reveal rooms we didn’t know existed, and panels that move up and down. So you feel someone is watching. It could be from the beginning that Andrew is planning the idea of filming the entire murder so he can, God-like, play it back later.

Q: Did Harold Pinter come on the set a lot?

MC: He was there a lot. Usually very close to lunchtime.

Q: You knew Pinter early on in your career.

MC: That’s right. I knew Harold when he was an actor named David Barron. Like a lot of actors I knew then, including John Osborne, David decided to write a play. He wrote a one-act play called “The Room,” under his real name, Harold Pinter. I did that in the Royal Court fifty years ago. Since then Harold has written all this great stuff, but nobody has ever offered it to me. So when Jude brought me “Sleuth”, I thought, “At last I can be in a Pinter play!” That’s very important to me. I really wanted to do it. I never would have remade this film if he hadn’t written it because I thought we did a pretty good job with Tony Shaffer’s script the first time. There was no point in remaking that. The Pinter script is why I did it.

DP: Would you have done any Pinter script or did you agree to the remake only after you read it?

MC: The fact that Pinter wrote it meant that I would read it. I wouldn’t have read it if someone else had written it. Pinter was the attraction the whole time. If anyone else had done a rewrite, I would think it would have been similar to the first version. I don’t think anyone else would have changed it that much. But Pinter rewrote it to the point where there are, I think, only two lines from the original. Someone asked me, “When you were playing opposite Jude in your old part, did you think he did it better than you did it?” I said, “I think this is Jude’s best performance ever, but there’s no point where I can make a comparison between our performances as Milo and how he delivered his lines and how I delivered my lines years ago because he never said a line that I said. With “Alfie” I could have done it, but not on “Sleuth.”

Q: What was it like to play Milo and work with Sir Laurence Olivier in the first film?

MC: Dangerous. We would rehearse a scene and then he’d do different things on the actual take. He had an extraordinary, mercurial quality and he would suddenly explode and you’d be hanging on as if you were in a hurricane and trying not to be swept overboard. But I got used to it very quickly. You have to remember that for all the class differences we had—where this little cockney boy was going to be up against the great theatrical lord—I was a very experienced movie actor and he had been in the theater for the past few years. So I wasn’t in his medium, he was in mine. I quickly realized that. I said to myself, “He’s in your medium.” So every time he went straight over the top, I went straight in underneath him. I’d appear completely natural and that made him look more harried. So we’d have to do it again and Joe Mankiewicz would tell him to bring it down a bit. When Joe first saw me having a bit of a problem with him running round and round the set screaming, Joe whispered to me as he walked by, “I’ll take care of this in the cutting, don’t worry.” I was glad somebody was on my side!

DP: It’s a totally different film now, but are the characters the same as you remember playing them with Olivier?

MC: No. I remember Larry’s Andrew as being a very florid eccentric who became dangerous with jealous. My Andrew is a neurotic psychopath. He’s already mad before Milo ever comes to his house. He’s arranged the entire evening. When he asks Milo if he wants a whiskey or vodka, he already knows what Milo will say because he serves a whiskey that he already poured. My guy is already nuts with jealousy right from the start. And another difference is that homosexuality creeps in toward the end, once they’ve tried everything else.

DP: Did that interest you?

MC: That interested me, but I thought it might be a little problem. I was worried about it but Ken gave me a proper psychological treatise on a real condition called “morbid jealousy,” in which a man will try to humiliate his wife by engaging her lover in homosexual sex. The greatest humiliation the husband can achieve is taking her lover away himself. When they get into a battle or competition, they completely forget about the woman. She no longer mattered, they were now just fighting each other. They tried humiliation, scare tactics, everything and now they are down to their last tact—homosexuality. They try to seduce each other. Pinter is telling you how far men can go, how primitive civilized men can be. They will do anything. Another thing. As we said, the house is the third character in the film—well, none of those things Andrew has in the house—computers and steadicams—had been invented when we did the first Sleuth.

Q: Michael, you say that Andrew gets the best revenge possible by seducing Milo, but when Milo betrays him your eyes indicate Andrew is heartbroken.

MC: But it may be he’s heartbroken not because he’s rejected by Milo, but because he now won’t be able to humiliate his wife.

KB: There’s a question mark about whether he’s suddenly revealed to be gay. I think Michael plays him with such vulnerability and ambiguity that we never quite know. When Andrew tells Milo that he should move in and it will be a great thing, is it a real offer? Is he really gay?

MC: Andrew doesn’t mention anything about his own bed. He says, “This is your room, this is your bed.” Milo is the one who says, “I want to see your bed. You’ve got a bigger bed than I have.” So now Milo brings homosexual sex into play.

KB: Is Andrew so vulnerable from humiliation that he’s offering himself and allowing Milo to take control and win the game? Or is he interrupting Milo’s chance to humiliate him and avenge himself? That’s one of the questions we enjoyed considering. I wondered what the truth was and the last person to ask was Harold Pinter. He wouldn’t tell you even if he knew. I asked Harold, “What does Maggie say when she rings up?” He said, “Who says it’s Maggie?” I said, “She rings twice.” He said, “The phone rang twice and Milo says it’s Maggie but who’s to say who it is?”

DP: For viewers to find “Sleuth” humorous and enjoy Milo and Andrew torturing each other, is it important for them to be unlikable?

KB: It’s good that they think it’s funny, but I don’t know if it’s essential that people don’t like Milo and Andrew. My experience of people watching the movie is that their allegiances shift across the course of the movie. That’s a very powerful part of the experience, reacting to the power struggle between the two men that is continually changing. That’s something Harold plays with. At the end of the first act, it seems that one man’s victory is complete, but we learn that his advantage is only temporary. And there’s always some intuitive thing. Who do we sympathize with at the end, the man who has been cuckolded or the young interloper? Or neither? Or the woman? I like the endless series of compelling question marks across issues like that.

DP: Andrew could have killed Milo earlier in the film but used a blank. So is it a life-and-death battle for both of these guys or just for Andrew—and Milo is only shocked by its gravity toward the end?

MC: I don’t think it starts out as life and death. I think it starts out to finish where it does in the first act. And then Andrew goes back to his normal life and is happily watching television. He has frightened away his rival and he’s going to get his bride back. Then the detective turns up.

KB: I think it becomes life and death. What should have been the end of the play is the end of act one. He’s unhinged Milo. He has humiliated Milo like he wanted—it’s good to see your wife’s lover a frightened, fucking wreck in front of him. That’s what he wanted to do, but as we know by the third act, Milo was wrong man to do it to, a man more in his image than he realized.

DP: But maybe Andrew appreciates a competitor who can almost match him.

KB: True. That Milo is a tough competitor becomes fairly thrilling to him in the third act. He may think, “Christ, I’m in this brilliant but lonely house and maybe there could variations on this every night!”

Q: Jude Law says that you did many different takes when the actors delivered ambiguous lines.. So can we expect to see many brilliant outtakes on the DVD?

KB: There could be two or three movie versions available I think.

MC: Yeah, people could choose to watch the loud one, the soft one, the funny one.

KB: What I remember most is and interchange in which Milo says that Maggie told him that Andrew was no good in bed but not that he was such a manipulator. And Andrew says, “She told you I’m no good in bed? She’s lying…” Michael said his lines in about seven different ways. One made me cry, one was so scary that I wanted to run away, one was sort of aggressive, one was said with a twinkle in his eye…

The first edit I did of the film was kind of like a domestic tragedy. It was very, very, very dark. We showed it to some people and the more we altered it to inject humor to go with the dark version of what we’d been shooting, the more they liked it. It seemed more to be on the fine line Pinter walks between tension and humor. I had the extra footage to create any tone I wanted because the boys were able to run in many different directions with their lines. So maybe there will be some treats on the DVD!

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