The return of Jack Ryan: Kenneth Branagh and Chris Pine reboot the Tom Clancy franchise
Some directors might be reluctant to take on the long-running franchise based on Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels. But when Sir Kenneth Branagh read the script for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, he jumped at the opportunity to direct what he calls "a great page-turner." Written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp, the Jan. 17 Paramount release takes a fresh look at Clancy's character, an analyst who finds himself on the front lines of an espionage war.
"For an origin story of a character I thought I was relatively familiar with, this was quite a surprise," Branagh says by phone from his office in London. "It appealed to me on a basic, primal level. I sort of had my moviegoer's hat on and was just swept up by it."
The script isn't a direct adaptation. Clancy instead let the filmmakers pick and choose from the entire Ryan canon. The screenwriters worked in details fans would expect—Ryan's schooling at the London School of Economics, his wife-to-be Kathy's training as an eye surgeon—but could also focus on themes that Branagh feels will interest new viewers "while remaining true to the spirit of his storytelling." (Clancy died this past October, after filming was completed.)
When Branagh joined the project, Chris Pine was already attached to star as Ryan. They worked together to refine the character. "Although Jack has a brilliant mind," Branagh reasons, "he's brilliant in the field of economics and analysis, not in covert operations. Now he's suddenly become a spy. Suddenly it's dirty, it's surprising, it's face-to-face, hand-to-hand. Chris and I wanted to take that seriously, not present 'Jack Ryan: Superman,' but 'Jack Ryan: Everyman,' in a situation that 'Everyman' would be terrified to be in."
"Jack is one of us," Pine agrees at a screening in New York. "If any one of us encountered violent, emotionally packed situations, what would we do?"
Branagh was inspired in part by Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers, in particular North by Northwest. "Cary Grant's character in that film is constantly trying to catch up with events, constantly trying to work out to whom he can tell the truth, if he dare. Always understanding that the villains are a few steps ahead of him—and ruthless. Just so for Jack Ryan, who needs to find and use his other qualities, gifts, to survive."
Early in the film Ryan battles his Ugandan bodyguard, played by Nonso Anozie. Branagh staged the fight in the bathroom of a luxury hotel suite. The confrontation leaves Ryan stunned, shaking.
"We both liked the idea that big action films like this don't often touch upon what actually happens to characters," Pine says. "Like if you see or commit violence that leads to death, how does that affect you? In other films, a lot of people might die, that guy dies here, somebody falls off a cliff there. You never see anybody react to all that carnage."
"Ryan doesn't know whose side anybody is on," Branagh observes. "Chris brings out this vulnerability and paranoia in his role. And when he's ambushed, he adds physical fear, the threat he feels from the wonderful Nonso Anozie. We tried to work out all the character details before we even began thinking about what the physical moves in the fight might be. I think Chris should be proud of that human dimension—it means he worked on the fight from the inside out." (Pine also suffered his share of bruises, including a broken finger.)
Branagh made one of the more auspicious debuts in film history when he directed and starred in Henry V. Here he has a small but significant role as a treacherous economic mastermind. Pine was impressed that he could juggle acting and directing at the same time, but Branagh plays down the difficulty.
"In this case the structure of the role allowed me to be outside of it really quite a lot," he explains. "I was in a limited number of scenes, and it was possible to plan them to cope with that double duty. I also had a friend, Jimmy Yuill, an actor, who watched over my performance."
Branagh also praises the help he received from his fellow actors. In addition to Pine, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit stars his longtime friend Kevin Costner as a CIA mentor and Keira Knightley as Ryan's fiancée, Kathy.
"I'm sure Chris will direct one day," Branagh says. "He's an experienced film actor, so his ideas are strong. Kevin Costner already is a fine director, so his input as well is extremely helpful. And, as young as she is, Keira's been doing this a long time, since she was a kid. I felt as though I was getting help and tips from people who could do my job too. It was more a collaboration than an additional burden."
Branagh's enthusiasm for the nuts and bolts of filmmaking is palpable. He talks at length about laying the groundwork for a suspense scene. A moment in which Keira Knightley has to distract a villain for a set amount of time provides viewers with a sort of ticking clock. "We took great fun in trying to exploit what follows," he says. "I've seen the film many, many times—I saw it again the other night—so I know what's going to happen. Even so, in that sequence you start sweating. When I've seen it play with an audience, the viewers become very, very nervous."
The director is also conscious of setting out rules for the viewer, giving his film an internal logic. "If you take a point of view about violence, you've got to stick with it. If we present Ryan as an Everyman, he can't suddenly change. So the way he responds, not always smoothly, not always with conventional heroism, he's not even right all the time—that can't change."
Branagh is just as serious about rehearsing, despite hectic, often conflicting schedules. "Rehearsals can be talking it through, it can be not saying the lines, it can be very specifically doing the lines, creating pauses, orchestrating it," he says. "Take for instance a scene at night in a Moscow park between Kevin and Chris. This is a crucial moment in the film, so we've prepared very carefully beforehand. But when it's time to shoot, we rehearse very little as I want the feeling that it's the first time, it's not overworked. I'm trying to catch the sort of hurried, breathless reality of those men in that situation."
Branagh has worked with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos on several movies. For Jack Ryan they always used at least two cameras, and in action scenes up to seven. "We've become quite practiced while shooting simultaneously that we don't see the other cameras, that we don't compromise the lighting scheme," he notes. "When you build the little blinds and masks from which cameras operate, that sometimes leads to really quirky, interesting camera angles."
The director will pre-viz action that requires special rigs, but he also credits second-unit director and stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong for help with complicated scenes. "We often work alongside each other. He and I have a rapport, a shorthand that goes back to Henry V. So 25 years ago we were talking long bows and the Battle of Agincourt and where a rain of arrows might fall, and this time we're talking about how we can do a car chase in Moscow without getting arrested."
For Branagh, who recently directed the blockbuster Thor, the key to good action is preparation. "You have to be very, very decisive," he says. "I've now done this enough to know I can be clear about what I want, clear with the crew. You say, 'Look, the helicopter swings by here once, the twelve vans come around the corner at this time, the guy on the motorcycle's going to go over there. I want the helicopter in back of that shot, you drop down and tilt here because the guy's going to come around the corner. Please, first assistant, you have to make sure that that timing is perfect because everything depends on it being back to back.' He'll say, 'Well, we haven't practiced it...' That's good! Let's do it straight away, get it crisp and sharp, because we're going to benefit from that feeling and create a tempo from it."
As for editing, "We're kind of cutting as we go along," Branagh reveals. "I like to see an assembly as soon as I possibly can. I'll have a ton of notes immediately, and after that we work on a structural path, then a character path. I'll go through every single take for every actor for the performance part of it."
Branagh also depends on "formal and informal" test screenings. "Sometimes it's friends, sometime's it's a carded preview. But you have to know what you're testing. The most valuable thing in a test is the feeling in the room. You can hear boredom even through the silence. You can hear a lack of concentration. And as soon as you see your film with one other pair of eyes, you're watching it completely differently yourself."
Branagh has already completed shooting a live-action Cinderella for Disney, and will be starring in Macbeth in New York City next spring. In addition to his stage work, he appears frequently on television, most recently in the title role of "Wallander."
Despite this crushing workload, Branagh seems genuinely excited to talk about Jack Ryan. Articulate, dedicated and dauntingly talented, he has won the respect of everyone who works with him.