By Bill Desowitz
Who but the legendary playwright/screenwriter Harold Pinter could boldly rework Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth and make it utterly his own? And who but director Kenneth Branagh, the master of adapting Shakespeare to film (Henry V and Hamlet), could make such deadly cat-and-mouse theatrics so utterly modern and cinematic?
In this new version of Sleuth from Sony Pictures Classics, which opened Oct. 12, Michael Caine takes on the role originally played by Laurence Olivier in the 1972 film, while Jude Law, also a producer, assumes Caine’s previous role. Talk about role reversal. Caine plays Andrew Wyke, a wealthy detective novelist who matches wits with Milo Tindle, an unemployed actor and the boyfriend of Wyke’s adulterous wife, who match wits in a twisted game of ambiguous identity and deadly one-upmanship.
Sleuth was filmed on location in the U.K. in Bedfordshire and at Twickenham Studios (where Caine shot Zulu and Alfie) during January and February of 2007. Teaming with previous collaborators, production designer Tim Harvey (The Magic Flute, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing), costume designer Alexandra Byrne (Hamlet), editor Neil Farrell (Hamlet, As You Like It) and composer Patrick Doyle (Henry V, Hamlet, As You Like It), Branagh was joined here by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Enduring Love, Venus).
Branagh credits his collaboration with Zambarloukos for making the interiors seem like many, many different spaces. The filmmakers took their cue from Wyke’s love of gadgets and decided that he would be devoted to the latest digital technology in keeping with the ruthlessly modernized interior of the Georgian mansion that Pinter had specified in one of the script’s very few screen directions.
The impression that Wyke lives in his own private gallery was enhanced by the works of celebrated British contemporary artists Anthony Gormley and Gary Hume, which were loaned to the production from Jay Jopling’s White Cube Gallery in London, and several unique pieces of furniture loaned by Israeli designer Ron Arad. Production designer Harvey, a fine artist in his own right, painted several massive canvases for Andrew’s walls and also provided the smaller paintings that Milo vandalizes at his host’s urging. Branagh spoke to Below the Line about the challenges of revamping Sleuth.
Below the Line: How did you visualize Sleuth with Tim and Haris?
Kenneth Branagh: I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a Harold screenplay but it’s all dialogue. You’re lucky if you get a chair every now and then. Of course, that’s exciting as a director because it gives you a lot of room. In fact, when I brought this up to Harold, he said, “No, no, no—that’s your department.” When he said that, that’s when Tim, Haris and I got together and made sure they were the only audience members of a read-through that we had for the first time. Shakespeare’s always going on about “hearing the play” and once you hear it, you’re starting to develop a poetic response to how you present it. So one aspect is a rhythm thing. I didn’t hear a close-up until 12 minutes in when Michael takes the gloves off. Before that it’s a series of little jousts in this opening gambit between the two men and I wanted to stay away from them.
BTL: Why anamorphic?
Branagh: That was Haris’ recommendation. And I remember having an argument with the producers, who were complaining that we couldn’t see their faces… But it was important to establish this third eye—it had to do with unsettling the audience and that this was really about a house of games, a house of tricks and you’ll never quite be sure whether everything or nothing is significant.
BTL: What went into creating the house as a third character?
Branagh: It started with this strange dichotomy between a period exterior and an interior that looked like it was out of James Bond. We visited lots of galleries, looked at lots of modern art, and we realized that we wanted to be very spare and anti-clutter, anti-English country house baronial, anti-wood, so it was all about harsher textures. That was one of Tim’s first instincts. And we built it up from there. And then we did treatments of the walls that allowed us to maximize this kind of spare style…allowing us to intimidate with the few spare articles that we had, and also continue through the construction of the set and anamorphic lenses – particularly the widest versions of them—to expand and contract the size of the house. We wanted the audience to be uncertain about how much farther it extended and exactly what kind of size it was. We rehearsed longer than on any other picture I’ve made. I arrived essentially with the shot list more or less completed on day one.
BTL: How did you come up with this very stylized lighting design?
Branagh: Tim and Haris both agreed on a lighting design for the house that has to do with Andrew approaching his house almost as if it were a gallery space. And the possibility, through his remote control, of offering a visitor a permanent, changing lighting installation, to impress and unsettle him. And we could also have Andrew at the end of the first act reveal in naked form the intensity of his jealousy. For instance, to show jealousy, his walls turn green and later on when he appears to offer Milo a sexual advance, we’re in the red light of the bordello. All those were opportunities for realizing the cinema of a piece that some would say is two men in a room talking.
BTL: What was it like working with Haris for the first time?
Branagh: Actually, this was not our first encounter. He reminded me that he was a Panavision trainee back on Frankenstein. “I used to deliver batteries to you on set, sir, and you used to allow me to sit and watch for a bit.” I thought, “Jesus Christ, I’m really getting on now.” He really, as did Tim Harvey, relished the idea of fighting what one might dismiss as the un-cinematic nature of this. They wanted to play with this and Haris was very inventive from the beginning. He was already talking about using LED lights to emphasize with different colors this gallery space; he loved the idea of how dramatic we could be by offering this remote control to Andrew that could change the atmosphere tenor and lighting of any individual scene. We could be much more legitimately stylized in the lighting look but still accurate and truthful with the plot with Andrew as this techno maestro.
BTL: What about dressing Andrew and Milo?
Branagh: Frankly, we looked at Harold Pinter. Although not the same man at all, I hasten to add, Harold arrived at rehearsal one day all in black: a black suit and black tie and black shirt and black slacks, and he was both fashionable and intimidating—sort of powerfully neutral, if that isn’t too paradoxical. And Michael was very taken with that because there’s a formality to it and there’s sort of a modernist ringmaster feel to it. And, again, with all materials, we tried to find some sort of texture inside them: a bit of shine in what Michael wore but not too flashy.
BTL: And Milo?
Branagh: With this character we tried to find a foppishness. Jude had just had his hair done: slightly over-bleached blond, slightly over-coiffed. The combination of that with a thumb ring, with the Cuban heels, everything trying a bit too hard to be casually bohemian and hip, just an inch less good at being casual and hiding the massive effort to appear effortless than Andrew’s character.
BTL: What was Neil able to achieve here as editor?
Branagh: What he did was put it together very quickly. Also, at the end of each week that we shot, he put together a rough assembly that we would show on Friday nights to the crew, which is a very brave thing to do because you’re exposing your work very quickly. I found that very helpful and so did Neil. You get feedback that allows people, without running ahead too quickly, to see how it
works in context. But it meant that people like Tim and Haris could also have a view without suddenly trying to second-guess what Neil and I were doing. But increasingly we made ourselves work very quickly, and so within a couple of days of finishing the shoot, I’m looking at an assembly. Then I like to go away and really let Neil run with it.
BTL: So what came out of this process?
Branagh: We came up with many, many cuts of this picture. We did them quickly and then we got Michael, Jude and the other producers involved in looking at early cuts, because it felt like a shared project. There was a lot of trust involved. And one of the great things Neil has is his trust and openness. And the swiftness with which he chose to work on this one and his own imagination left unfettered is a great part of the process for me because he’ll always look at it in a different way. And then somewhere along in the postproduction process we meet somewhere in the middle.
BTL: And where was that?
Branagh: What changed out of postproduction was the tone. We did many, many alternates in terms of performance and we tended to head, to my surprise, not so much to the tragic side of things but to the darker comedy of it all.
Written by Bill Desowitz