Kenneth Branagh, Maggie Gyllenhaal take it personally in our roundtable

This time it really is personal. The six directors who took part in this season’s Envelope Oscar Roundtable forged deep connections to the stories they were telling, whether for reasons that were obvious or not so much.

For Kenneth Branagh, the connection was the most direct, as “Belfast” is drawn from his own childhood, exploring what it was like to be a young boy in Northern Ireland at the outbreak of the Troubles before his family moved to England.

“Tick, Tick… Boom!” is based on the life and work of Jonathan Larson, the playwright and composer who died before the smash success of his musical “Rent.” Larson was a crucial early influence for Lin-Manuel Miranda, who would himself transform musical theater with “Hamilton.” Miranda makes his feature directing debut with the film, which stands as a tribute from one creative spirit to another.

Watch their full conversation on television beginning Jan. 21 at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1.

The apocalyptic satire of “Don’t Look Up,” in which two scientists discover a comet on a collision course with Earth, was initially a chance for Adam McKay to work out his feelings regarding the response to climate change, but transformed into something else as he continued with the project during the pandemic.

Siân Heder’s “CODA” took an unprecedented sweep of prizes when it debuted at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it also set a record for highest sale price in the festival’s history. The film tells the story of the hearing teenage daughter of Deaf parents — the title stands for “Child of Deaf Adults” — and while Heder had no direct connection to the Deaf community going into the project, she did come to see herself in the story’s heartfelt depiction of family.

A very different notion of family comes through in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter,” which marks the debut as writer and director for the veteran actress in adapting the novel by Elena Ferrante. The film is an emotionally thorny depiction of a woman on holiday as she reflects on her long-ago decision to walk out on her husband and young daughters.

As directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, “King Richard” is part sports movie, part character study in its portrait of Richard Williams as he steers his two young daughters, Venus and Serena, from Compton to international superstardom as tennis champions.

The directors even had unexpected connections among themselves, as McKay nearly cast Gyllenhaal as the female lead in his 2004 debut “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” As he said, “I like to think us not casting her in ‘Anchorman’ led to her directing the beautiful film that she made. I’ll take a little bit of credit for that.”

Their late October conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kenneth, your film is loosely based on your childhood. Were there any moments when you were shooting that became emotional, that brought up actual personal memories?

Kenneth Branagh: In a strange way, that process started happening in writing the piece. It was quite intense, looking at a moment in my life, really about 20 seconds, where my life changed forever. A normal happy moment in the street, which illustrated this idea that it takes a village to raise a child — I was lucky enough to experience that — but it changed in 20 seconds when I heard the sound of what I thought were bumblebees but turned out to be a crowd, which became a mob, which came up the street. It changed everything about my life, about where I lived, how I sounded, what I became. So in revisiting that, yes, it was intense.

Then in making the film, not so much emotional, because we had fantastic collaborators and we had a great cast. And they made everything their own. I encouraged improvisation among the actors, and they took that chance and did it brilliantly. And so it got further and further away from me, which I liked because it wasn’t trying to be just a navel-gazing exercise. I wanted it to be recognized in some way by people from different places, different cultures. But down the far end of it, it became very emotional again when you started to see the impact on other people. So at this end of things, I’m a wreck.

Lin, Jonathan Larson was a big influence on you at the start of your career in musical theater. What has it meant to you to be the person, to borrow your phrase from “Hamilton,” to tell his story?

Lin-Manuel Miranda: So much of what Kenneth just said really resonated with me, because when you’re making a movie, you’re making a thousand decisions a day. It’s this color, it’s that color, and you’ve got your blinders on and you’re making your movie. And the thesis of this was always to honor Jonathan Larson’s life and Jonathan Larson’s work. So to me, that apartment is as specific a re-creation of his actual apartment as we could get. We shot on location in the places where he actually lived and performed and created his art.

And it wasn’t until I showed a rough cut to one of my best friends, Quiara [Alegria Hudes], my collaborator on “In the Heights,” where she saw the first scene where Jonathan’s in his apartment. And she looked at me and said, “Lin, that’s your apartment, dude. That looks exactly like your bedroom in your 20s.” And all of a sudden I went, “Oh, my God. This movie’s so personal.” You don’t realize it until all those decisions you’re making, faster than you can humanly make them, add up to something that really is coming from a deeper place at the end of the day.

Reinaldo, I’ve heard you say as well that in the story of Venus and Serena Williams and their family you found a lot of connections in their background, their family dynamic, to your own. Did that surprise you?

Reinaldo Marcus Green: Yes. To be honest, I didn’t know much about the Williamses other than that they were two of the greatest tennis stars of all time. I grew up a baseball player, and I spent the first third of my life on a baseball field. And when I read the script and I realized how involved their father was in their lives — I grew up in a single-parent household with my brother who’s a filmmaker, Rashaad Ernesto Green. But that was not my father’s intention. He wasn’t trying to raise two filmmakers. He was trying to raise two professional baseball players.

I realized how much their father was invested — in a way that was supportive, not in the way that we find a lot of these stories being told with overbearing parents and brainwashing their kids. He brainwashed them with love. He brainwashed them with time and commitment. And I had a father that very much gave that to me. So, yes, it definitely felt very personal when I started realizing how invested Richard really was in these girls’ lives and still is to this day and how close the siblings are. So I could relate to that with the father that I had and the love and time that he gave my brother and I.

Adam, even though “Don’t Look Up” is this story about a comet hurtling toward Earth and it’s told with this farcical air, I think it still touches on a lot of important issues. Was it important to you that it stayed grounded in certain real-world issues?

Adam McKay: Yes. I always say that movie is more personal for my wife because she was the one who had to put up with me for about the last five or 10 years not sleeping because of the issue of climate change. So I think she was very happy to see me finally find some outlet for dealing with our world’s odd inaction in the face of this tangible, crazy looming threat.

I also think the one thing was I wrote the movie before the pandemic, so the movie ended up being far more personal than we ever dreamed of because as it turned out, we ended up living through actual scenarios in the movie as they were happening. So the movie in a way riffs off the trope of the disaster movies from the ‘90s, but it’s maybe the most personal movie I’ve ever made. And I’ve had very emotional reactions to parts of the movie, especially the ending, that I’ve never experienced before. So, yes, I think it’s very personal, but at the same time, it’s something we’re all dealing with.

Siân, “CODA,” in its story of a hearing child who’s part of a Deaf family, is something that’s outside of your experience. And I’m wondering if you ever questioned your place in that story or even whether you should be telling that story at all?

Siân Heder: Of course. Whenever you’re coming in as an outsider to a community that’s not your own and particularly a community that’s been underrepresented and misrepresented for so long, I felt a really incredible responsibility that I had to do it right.

And yet it became an incredibly personal movie for me anyway, even though it was not my culture. I certainly related to Ruby; there were definitely things in the story that I felt very connected to. And then certainly having all the Deaf eyes that I had on set and on this project was essential, because I was always going to be coming from a hearing perspective. And I think I knew I had to put that perspective in check, and yet it was important to me to approach these characters as a tight-knit family who also has their own culture outside of Deaf culture. It’s always a combination of research and figuring out what you don’t know and how to fill those gaps, and then also really imbuing as much of yourself into the story as you can.

Maggie, you have this interesting challenge in adapting “The Lost Daughter” in that the author, Elena Ferrante, is anonymous. How did that impact your work on the adaptation?

Maggie Gyllenhaal: I’ve interacted with her really only through email. And I don’t know why she made that decision or why she’s maintained that anonymity. But I do know that in some ways not knowing who she is has meant that she’s been able to be whatever it is that I needed her to be. And throughout the process, she has been everything I wished that she would be. In the very beginning I appealed to her for the rights to the book and I said I wanted to direct it. And I gave her a sense of why I wanted to adapt it, and she said, “Yes, you can have the rights, but this contract is void unless you direct it.” Which was at the time a really meaningful vote of confidence, which came from kind of nowhere.

And so I took that freedom that she offered me at a certain point in the process of adapting it and certainly in the filmmaking; I stopped writing with the book under my arm. I lost it. I’ve since found it again, but I really did move away from the structure of the book, and that is when it started to really be mine. And so I think the fact that I don’t know what she looks like and I don’t know what her personal issues are, I don’t know her weaknesses, means that she can be this kind of fantasy, wise, cosmic feminine force in the universe just supporting me.

Casting is an alchemy that can make or break a movie. Reinaldo, you cast Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney to credibly play tennis, looking like a young Serena and Venus Williams, and go head to head with Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis. Was that a challenge?

Green: We got lucky, honestly. Both Demi and Saniyya had some high-level experience. Demi had worked with Forest Whitaker, and Saniyya had already worked with Viola [Davis] and Denzel [Washington], so it wasn’t their first rodeo. I think the challenge for them was taking on someone that has that much strength and power in the world and feeling like they can do that.

But they had such amazing set moms and dads. Aunjanue is an incredible actress, but she was so helpful in helping them feel at home and feeling like we were creating a family. Will, if you haven’t met him, he’s everything you can imagine. He’s the most generous person you can ask for in an actor. And that goes beyond his on-screen performance. He is as generous off-screen as he is on. And we were able to create this sort of mini-family before we ever rolled picture. And it doesn’t always happen that way. Most times, it doesn’t. We were very fortunate.

Lin, when you cast Andrew Garfield in the lead role, he did not sing. That feels like a big roll of the dice. What made you confident that he would get where you needed him to be?

Miranda: I knew as soon as I had the gig, I needed a consummate theater person to play Jonathan Larson. This is going to be someone who’s telling their own story on stage. And I was lucky enough to see Andrew play Prior in “Angels in America” at the National in London. And I didn’t know if he could sing or not. I just thought, “That guy can do anything.” Because that guy just held the center of a six-hour play in two parts and is called upon to do everything within Tony Kushner’s great work, and he did it and was so open and so strong and frail.

And then what was amazing was he just said, “When are you making the movie?” And I said, “Not for at least a year.” He said, “OK. Then I can sing.” And so he learned everything he needed to learn. Then there were other blessings that I could never have anticipated. We have an entire musical number set inside a swimming pool. Andrew’s father is a swimming instructor. Andrew’s swimming stunt double was like, “I can’t swim that fast.” [So Andrew did it.] There were just other weird superpowers he pulled out, and this was my first movie as a director. I knew about Jonathan’s life and I know a little something about musicals, but to have a collaborator at the top of the call sheet who is as gifted as Andrew, it was an incredible collaboration.

Kenneth, you didn’t cast yourself in ‘Belfast.’ When you’re not acting, do you feel more focused on set, or is it almost like a phantom limb where you feel like you should be doing this other thing while you’re also directing?

Branagh: I love watching the acting regardless. It’s a great privilege if you direct to see other actors in close detail with all the very many ways that they might choose to prepare or execute a performance, and finding out what people like and, for any given project, how they approach a character. Whether they stay in character, whether they mess around before a take, whether they improvise, whether they like to keep the camera running. Anything that I think tries to get that sort of happening, that moment that I think all these films share, the ones I’ve watched, are this beautiful, invisible acting, which I think is really a tribute to how beautifully everybody’s directed it.

A question I have — it took me a long time in post-production to find the tone of “Belfast.” I just wondered because there’s such a beautiful balance, this sort of effortless movement between, comedy, tragedy, drama, naturalist [in all your pictures], was it on the page? Did you get it right? Because it took me about 10 months to even know how it was going to turn out.

McKay: Yeah, that was a big thing for us that we talked about, was we really wanted to be channeling the idea that we’re laughing at this kind of craziness that’s going on, but at the same time, we’re feeling sad, at the same time some of us are feeling very real about it, and there’s a lot of different emotions that go through this time that we live in right now, but laughter was a big part of it. I mean, the only way you can process the president of the United States going on national television and floating the idea that people ingest bleach is you kind of have to look at that as something you wouldn’t even have written in a comedy sketch.

And at the same time, underneath it there’s a very real fear. So all the actors, we talked about that, about what’s the line between the real emotion, what’s the line between absurdity, and what ended up happening was a lot of the actors had different jobs. You really had a lot of actors representing like 15, 18 different tones sort of bouncing off each other, which is ultimately how the world kind of feels right now, depending on who you’re talking about.

Tone was very tricky. And I noticed that with a lot of the movies that there’s tone shifting going on now that I don’t think we’ve seen in the past 20 or 30 years, because that’s kind of how life is right now. The tones always shift. It goes from absurd to sad to terrifying to perplexing.

Gyllenhaal: Actually, one thing I had really clear was the tone. I had some idea of how I wanted to start, tone-wise. I knew I wanted to kind of play with a classic thriller format and then explode it. I think I learned as an actor that when the structure and the format and the storytelling is pretty simple and clear, it actually offers you real freedom of expression. Like, if you’re not as an actor having to make the story work, then you can make the strangest, most bizarre, most freeing choices.

And I think it does have something to do with being a woman. I know not everyone agrees with me on this, but I think women make movies that are different than men. And for a long time we saw movies, we learned a language, that was made by men — fantastic movies, moving movies. But I guess I was curious what my language would be if I let it out. But I wanted to start with a kind of language I already knew.

Heder: I want to say something, Maggie, to you about your film, because I agree. I was so moved by your movie. I felt like I was kind of shook by your movie. And part of it was tonally you threaded a needle that was so brilliant and sure-handed. I was so impressed by your tone, because it was so clear, and I felt so safe watching the movie, like I was in really good hands.

Also as a mom, you tapped into something about motherhood that I have never seen in a film, which was the love and absolute joy living simultaneously with suffocation and anger and hostility and feelings of shame. And you tapped into something that I’ve heard so many women almost express in secret — that you found a feeling and you found a way to tell a story about a secret feeling. And I was so moved by it and kind of thrown as well, where I was like, “Oh, God, I’ve had moments where I’ve yelled at my kid for brushing my hair too hard. Oh, my God, what’s wrong?” I was impressed by the journey you took. And it is a very feminine movie in a way because of all of those nuances of feeling that I don’t think could be captured by anybody else.

Gyllenhaal: Thank you. I think if we make space, which we’re doing, it’s incredible. And money. I mean, the thing about movies is they cost money. Women can go and, you know what they said about the Brontës, hide under their sewing and write their books. But if they cost millions of dollars, it’s harder to make space for women to make movies.

But now that we are really making an effort to do that, things that have been secret, that we’ve agreed not to talk about — like you were asking us all in the beginning, these movies are connected to all of us. The reason they work and the reason these movies by all of these incredible filmmakers are so beautiful is because they’re vibrant and they’re current and they’re things we need to say.

We wish to thank the author of this article for this incredible content

Kenneth Branagh, Maggie Gyllenhaal take it personally in our roundtable

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