It’s the eagerly awaited tale of an Irish criminal mastermind that film bosses have being trying to get made for over a decade. Kenneth Branagh returned to his native Northern Ireland to shoot Artemis Fowl, based on Eoin Colfer’s hit novels, and was eagerly looking forward to a cinema release this summer.
But even Hollywood’s top brass couldn’t have anticipated the impact of Covid-19, which has cost many lives and devastated businesses, as cinemas around the world shut their doors. With Disney + launching recently to families eager for new stories, it was decided to stream.
Many directors would be gutted to see their work denied a big-screen launch, but Branagh is philosophical.
“It does look great on a big screen. But in the end, I'm so happy given the uncertainty of the times,” he says. “We were due to come out last August and then when Disney took over Fox, all of the release dates got changed so that Disney films wouldn't cannibalise themselves.” The film was moved to a May 2020 release date, until Covid-19 scuppered the best-laid plans.
“Obviously, that can't happen. And now after the lockdown, there's going to be a phenomenal traffic jam of movies. There's going to be such competition, that a movie that's aimed at family audiences maybe has found its perfect place in these circumstances.
“As Ricky Strauss, who runs Disney +, said to me: ‘We are desperate for a summer tentpole movie for all these people who have been watching our stuff like crazy. And they want something new and they want something that takes them out of this situation, something that they can really have an escapist dive into’. It'll still look great on a movie screen if it gets a chance, the other side of this, to do that. But for now, we made it for audiences. It's been ready for a while. I'm thrilled that we have an audience who are going to appreciate it, I hope, because of the circumstances, in a very special way.”
One of Britain’s best-known actors and directors, Branagh first stepped into blockbuster territory with the hugely successful Thor in 2011. He has mixed it up in the years since, bringing audiences the live action adaptation of Cinderella and returning to his beloved Shakespeare with All is True.
He was first contacted by Disney’s President of Motion Picture Production, Sean Bailey, to discuss helming Artemis Fowl. By coincidence, he had just returned from a skiing holiday in France, where he’d read Colfer’s first book on the insistence of his nephews.
“I don't know whether that constitutes magic, but it certainly seems as though the universe was nudging us towards towards that kind of conclusion,” he smiles.
Growing up in an Irish household (Branagh was born in Belfast and moved to England at the age of nine) he was steeped in fairy tales, traditions and superstitions. He remembers, at the age of seven, placing a pair of shoes on the kitchen, only for his mother to scold him: “never put new shoes on the table, the house is cursed!” His father would tell him stories about little people as they went on family days out near their home.
“These days the world has seen what Northern Ireland looks like because you've all watched Game of Thrones. So all those amazing locations in Game of Thrones we were taken to as kids like the Giant's Causeway and the North Antrim Coast and Dunluce Castle. Whenever we went there, my father was always telling me about the giants and the trolls who lived underneath. So I was very alive to the idea that underneath this incredibly green grass of Ireland was full of pixies and sprites that my father used to tell me about.” It was the opportunity to film in his native Northern Ireland that proved a great draw (some scenes were also shot in the south).
“We were in Portrush on the north Antrim coast and a place called White Sands. There were so many of us. There was an aerial unit and a marine unit. There was a car unit for the travelling shots. There was a surfing unit. And then there was an acting unit. So what it meant was when we arrived in Northern Ireland, we had to kind of take over the town, every hotel and every place we could possibly stay.
“We were given unbelievable assistance. I mentioned Game of Thrones earlier. That part of the world now is so savvy and lined up for dealing with big film crews. The people are so friendly, they're interested and they don't mind hanging on for a minute while you shoot a film.
"But the natural landscape is so strong all the way up to the Giant's Causeway, basically that stretch of coast, we were there for quite some time. We managed to survive hurricane Hector which happened while we were there. It was an exciting place to make a film. And it reminded me of places that we'd visited as a as a kid. It felt like a very personal return."
Finding his Artemis and the female young lead character, Holly Short, involved a worldwide search, leading them to young Irish stars Ferdia Shaw and Lara McDonnell.
“Ferdia had read all the books and was so passionate about the character that he was a winner. Lara had played Matilda in London during one of the runs of that theatre play.
“But also they were incredibly patient. The process probably took nine months for anybody who got a part. That process and responding to it already indicated whether they were going to be a strong candidate because they were going to have to deal with all the vicissitudes of making a picture.” Like all of us, he has thought about his future career and life in general as the pandemic made its presence felt. “I think you end up… you're engaged with yourself. I don't mean in a self-indulgent way, but we all have, don't we, a lot more time to think about the world and about ourselves and how the two things happen and connect.”
Branagh will turn 60 in December. Will this be another time of reflection? He smiles. “When my brother, who's five years older than me, hit this one, he said: ‘oh, it's just a number’. But I think when it comes to the decades, you can't help but have some sense of something. In a way, anything that I might have thought about that that made me feel soft and fuzzy has been kind of interrupted by the lockdown because it feels like we're in a global moment of reflection that trumps everything.
“All it does is register for me a sense of wonder that I've had a career that's allowed me to get here. I've been healthy enough to get here thus far. And I guess if all three of the movies that I'm involved with this year, Artemis and (Christopher Nolan’s) Tenet and Death on the Nile, actually manage to come out and be seen by an audience, I think that in itself, in this crazy year, 2020, will be a kind of miracle.”