Branagh relishes research on FDR
By Steve Hedgpethe
If you happen to see actor Kenneth Branagh in a library or bookstore, speak softly. He's likely researching a new role.
Think of Irish-born Branagh, and Shakespeare comes to mind. He made his reputation by acting in film adaptations of "Henry V," "Much Ado About Nothing," "Hamlet," "Love's Labour's Lost" and "Othello.”
But in recent years Branagh also has been doing his share of historical/biographical roles, in the feature film "Rabbit-Proof Fence" and in TV films "Conspiracy" and "Shackleton," moving from Australian bureaucrat to cold-blooded Nazi to intrepid British explorer.
And now Branagh, 44, channels Franklin Delano Roosevelt in "Warm Springs," in an HBO film.
"I find a huge amount of pleasure in the researching of these roles," Branagh said. "I'm at a point in my life where I'm fascinated by history and politics, and these roles give me the opportunity to delve into that which I'm interested in. I spend months and months steeping myself in researching these roles, and I find that an amazing gift that's been given to me.
"When the role of FDR came up, it was, 'Where do you start?' You could spend the rest of your life in the library or bookstores, with acres and acres of biographies on the man. It's almost overwhelming."
Branagh is joined in "Warm Springs" by Cynthia Nixon ("Sex and the City") as Eleanor Roosevelt, and Kathy Bates, David Paymer, Tim Blake Nelson and Jane Alexander.
"Warm Springs," as with Dore Schary's "Sunrise at Campobello," deals with a pre-presidency FDR stricken by polio in the '20s. Though the disease left him paraplegic, FDR, in his late 30s at the time, refused to surrender to self-pity and set about to rehabilitate himself.
The title of "Warm Springs" refers to the recuperative waters of a spa in rural Georgia where FDR travels to undergo therapy. What follows is not just a journey of the flesh, but of the spirit.
While at Warm Springs, Roosevelt, born of wealth and a powerful family legacy, comes into contact with patients and townsfolk struggling to survive not just sickness, but poverty, racism and illiteracy. The experience will come to inform his politics.
"I liked this picture because it focused on a particular episode from FDR's life in which profound change of character occurs," Branagh said. "His education as a pragmatic politician came about when he had this experience at Warm Springs."
The movie was filmed in part at the real Warm Springs.
"You're in the presence of ghosts there," Branagh said. "There's something about walking in the footsteps of history. You just get chills when you walk into the same place that FDR walked into."
"Warm Springs" also explores Roosevelt's marital infidelity — he had an affair with his secretary, Lucy Harper — and its effect on Eleanor. She was deeply hurt by the betrayal, offering at one point to give her husband a divorce, but in the end the marriage survived.
"(FDR and Lucy Harper) slept together early on, and that was very threatening to Eleanor," Branagh said. "Here's this tub-thumping proto-feminist at odds with her idealism about romantic love. Nevertheless, there was a deep-seated companionship, a whole kind of soulmate thing, between FDR and Eleanor, despite the separate nature of their lives at times."
Branagh is full of praise for his film Eleanor, Cynthia Nixon.
"All I can say is that there are some people that when you act with them, there's some kind of simpatico. I must have known Cynthia in a previous life, because we got on from the get-go. She was a joy to work with, and we had a chance to portray that under-the-skin connection that FDR and Eleanor had."
Q&A Kenneth Branagh
REBECCA WINTERS, KENNETH BRANAGH
The film focuses on F.D.R.'s crippling battle with polio. Are those your real calves? No. It's prosthetics and computers. Oh, thank God. Sweetly put, though. I'm blessed or cursed with rugby-player legs.
Is it easier to play an American icon when you're not an American? I was a big admirer of F.D.R. He saved Britain. Maybe there's some measure of objectivity. He didn't have that hard R Americans have. [In a loud, nasal voice] "The only thing we have to fe-uh is fe-uh itself!"
Maybe because of all the Shakespeare, maybe because of the intelligent women you've been linked to, some Americans see you as Mr. Smarty-Pants Intellectual. Is that a fair assessment?
Intellectual--it can end up being a rather pejorative word, that. I read. I'm kind of cerebral. I'm definitely interested in ideas, poetry, music.
Plus, you're in a band called the Fishmongers, which plays right into that image. Yes, the music itself is a pretty well-kept secret, and it's going to remain that way. I play guitar and piano. I'm just a strummer.
To be or not to be?
You've gone all profound on me, haven't you? Be. It's the hardest thing to do. The trickiest thing in life is to be just here, in the moment, in this conversation. There's no point in agonizing about your broken VCR, is there?
Excerpt from: He's Our Man: Producers of FDR movie knew they wanted Branagh By Tim Clodfelter
"He is the quintessential actor, who can do virtually anything," said Joseph Sargent, who directed the film.
That included replicating Roosevelt's distinctive speech pattern.
"That mid-Atlantic accent... came very easily for Ken," Sargent said. "Well, any accent comes easy for Ken. But in this case, it was a transition that was easy for me to acknowledge as being right on."
The similarities between Roosevelt's mid-Atlantic accent and Branagh's British accent helped him capture Roosevelt's voice, Sargent said.
According to the film's producers, Branagh was their first choice for the role, even though he wasn't available because he was scheduled to be filming Mission Impossible III.
When it came time to prepare for the role, Branagh learned more about Roosevelt than he could have imagined, from his family background to his school years. And he immersed himself in Roosevelt's speeches and biographies.
"There's an enormous amount of film to be seen and an enormous library of books to be read, many taking on - thank God - very, very specific areas of his life."
In his research, Branagh discovered that he and Roosevelt shared a passion for the works of William Shakespeare.
"At times of crisis, (he) did quote the St. Crispian's Day speech from Henry V, the great speech about being at the wrong end of long odds," Branagh said.
One defining aspect of Roosevelt's life and career, Branagh said, was his ability to ignore the odds. That included his determination to recover his motor skills even though the therapeutic treatments at Warm Springs had no discernible effect on him.
"You could say he's like the poster boy for denial," Branagh said. "He just wouldn't acknowledge it."
Though Roosevelt's experience at Warm Springs didn't result in a miraculous recovery, it did give him a personal connection with people in dire straits. The story of his attempts at recovery ran in newspapers and led other polio victims to come to Warm Springs. In most cases - but not Roosevelt's - the spa did have therapeutic effects.
The story of how Warm Springs changed Roosevelt and helped him become an inspiration to others is a story that "you could describe as, if not Shakespearean, certainly very bloody impressive and maybe even epic," Branagh said.
Excerpt from How HBO Helped Warm Springs
A conversation with Colin Callender, President, HBO Films
As told to Richard Stayton
I didn’t know he actually used his own money to turn it into a rehabilitation center. And I certainly didn't know that his experience with the other patients or residents of Warm Springs really did have a profound impact on him. And then you think about his social policies, how he turned America from a world that was still predicated on the notion of the survival of the fittest into a world in which there was a safety net for everybody, that no matter who you were, there would be a mechanism to try and stop you from falling through the cracks.
Kerry Putnam [HBO Senior Vice President of programming} was working with [independent producer] Mark Gordon, and she became an enormous advocate of the project. We looked at Warm Springs and were intrigued, but we equivocated because I thought the piece had a danger of being slightly sentimental and romanticized. And then two things happened.
One is that we went into an election period and the question of what makes a great president, and what does the public want of their president, and the question of character and moral values became issues in the election. And the notion of the competence and the qualifications of a man to be president became central to the Kerry/Bush debate. This movie really did explore the notion of how a president of such great vision and stature as FDR discovered his political soul and his personal soul. What are the qualities we're looking for in a president, and how does a president get those qualities? Are they born in him? It's the same as Shakespeare's line: "Some people are born great, some people acquire greatness, some people have greatness thrust upon them." Where does this come from? We thought that was very interesting.
And the second thing that happened: We liked this project but never quite got to the place of committing. We decided to meet Margaret Nagle with Mark Gordon. Margaret was just captivating in the first meeting, and was clearly deeply steeped in the story. And there was much, much, much more texture, much more detail, much more complexity, many more paradoxes in the story as she told it than were actually on the page.
She spoke for an hour and a half. She had the personal connection to the story because her own brother is disabled. And so she had a very interesting perspective on it and was terribly smart about it all. And it was clear that the development process had somehow chipped away some of the richness of the story, some of the detail which made it so unusual. There were details she was telling us that you couldn't invent. As ever, the real world is more complicated and interesting than any fiction you could really create. What became clear is that this movie had a particular challenge becauseif you had created a fictional story of a man who gets polio, a man with a big golden career, who then confronts some terrible obstacle and then rises above it, the first act would be establishing who he was and the promise of his future. And then at the end of Act I, he'd be struck down by this illness. Act II would be his struggle, his falling into the deep hole. You'd explore his darkest moment as he struggles with this problem and it would be a deep, dark struggle as he tries to confront the realities of what's going on. And Act III would be pulling his life together and coming out of it. That's a traditional arc of a story like this. But in actuality that's not what happened.
What happened with FDR, and as you see in the film, was he learned how to stand very quickly after arriving at Warm Springs. He got the muscles back. He began to walk in the water, albeit not in real life. In the middle of the movie, he doesn't descend into some deep dark hole; he actually finds a whole new meaning to his life and a new purpose. Suddenly, the real story defies the sort of traditional, simple, Robert McKee-storytelling structure that you would impose on a story if you were creating it from whole cloth.
So part of the challenge of Margaret's work was to embrace that and say what's interesting about this story: FDR gave up on the idea of a political career and found something else that he wanted to do, and he found a certain sort of joy and meaning to his life through his work in Warm Springs, at the expense of–and in a way that would potentially undermine–his political future. In the middle of the movie, you don't have this dark journey into the void; he's actually facing new meaning and new purpose in his life.
He then has to confront this paradox that he's rebuilt himself. He's found himself in this community of disabled people at Warm Springs. It's a home and a family. But he decides to leave that behind and pretend he's not crippled, not disabled, and go out into public and pursue his career. That's a very complicated twist to the end of the story. The challenge in the screenplay was to embrace that complexity and that paradox rather than try and simplify it.
Also, this was a turning point in Eleanor's life. Not because of his infidelities, but because she became empowered, because she found her political voice, and she found her sense of self through this period. So you have him on this journey, prompted by the polio, from being humbled by and rising out of it a changed man. But she'd been changed by his polio, too, because she came of age. She also found her political voice, which then stood her in stead for the latter part of her life when their marriage became very complicated and they both embarked on their own journeys. So you see in the course of the movie the extent to which she emerged as a result of this, as a woman in her own right. It was a fascinating story that wasn't in the early Margaret draft. We then commissioned Margaret to go back. I think she felt unshackled and able to go back and tell the story the way she'd always wanted to. And indeed dug out scenes that she'd written that I think along the way had actually dropped out or been lost. Then I read different drafts and gave thoughts, and we'd have a discussion. It was a very collaborative and very constructive process. She felt that we were pushing her to go further and make it more complicated, make it more textured rather than less.
After I saw the movie in a test screening, I did feel very strongly that there was a scene missing at the end of the film. I felt there was a beat missing and the focus group's response sort of confirmed that. We don't go by focus groups, so I wouldn't have relied on a focus group response to endorse an argument for or against. I just didn't feel the end of the film was working as well as it might. It wasn't about changing what the ending was doing, it was about making the ending more powerful. It wasn't about a different ending. The ending was Margaret Nagle's ending. This wasn't a question of seeing the film and saying we need to soften the ending or harden the ending, or make the ending more palatable. It didn't quite have the real power that I hoped it might. As I say, it wasn't a function of trying to change what the film was, it was just trying to make the film work even better on its own terms.
Focus groups don't tell you that you need a scene here or you need a scene there. For us, it's not about cards, it's not about them answering certain questions; it's about the experience of sitting in a room and watching a film with an audience and actually feeling the room. It's something much more sort of touchy-feely than it is actually concrete, specific, quantitative. It's about just feeling how the movie plays and feeling how the audience reacts. We never use score cards and all that as some way of deciding how to cut a movie. We sometimes use the chance to screen a movie with an audience that doesn't know what they're seeing, that's coming fresh to the film, to get a sense of how the film is playing in terms of pace, in terms of the emotional power of the film. With Warm Springs, we wanted to deal with the paradoxes within the story. On the one hand you have FDR having to face the reality of his disability, having to be confronted by other people with a similar disability, and come to understand that he could treat them as equals, and see beyond their disability. And yet when he goes out to the public to actually return to politics, he hides the fact that he's disabled. That's quite a complicated moment. And I felt that the missing scene was one that somehow in his mind brought that into sharper focus. So the jeopardy of him going out there as a cripple and the irony of him going out there as a disabled man and hiding it, even though he had left behind people at Warm Springs who respected him for being their advocate, that irony is rather complicated, and interesting, and actually it's what makes the story in the end of the day really intriguing.