“It’s always fun when you can walk past a set and there is a big troll catapult outside,” laughs Kenneth Branagh. “It never gets old.” The acclaimed British actor-producer-director is talking all things Artemis Fowl, his latest project, set in a world of fantasy and fairies. Based on the best-selling book series by Eoin Colfer, Branagh is going behind the camera for this Disney-backed extravaganza that looks set to plug the hole left by Harry Potter.
Colfer’s work “felt very original”, comments Branagh, sitting on the upper floor of the elegantly-designed Fowl residence, just outside of London (complete with troll catapult, of course). “I loved its Irish-ness, coming from the north part of that country, and the collision and the proximity of worlds. Very different worlds. I like that creatively. It always feels like it’s a good place to be.”
He compares it to his earlier Disney movie, Marvel’s Thor, which juxtaposed science and magic. “The way those two things interrelate has always been very fascinating to me.”
Adapted for the screen by playwright Conor McPherson, Artemis Fowl stars newcomer Ferdia Shaw in the title role – a 12-year-old genius descended from a long line of criminal masterminds. Branagh calls it “a big challenge”, calibrating just how mischievous Artemis is. “The starting point in the first book is that he’s a bit more disposed to be villainous,” he says. “We try to find the centre and the spirit of the book. We offer up a journey from a relative normality. We put Artemis more in a normal, regular school; we see him with other people.”
‘Regular’, however, is not a word that really applies to Artemis or the world created by Colfer. He faces a powerful race of fairies who may be connected to the disappearance of his father. These magical creatures live in Haven City, an underground world policed by LEPrecon, the fairy law enforcers whose reconnaissance division is led by the esteemed Commander Root (Dame Judi Dench). To help restore his family fortune, Artemis kidnaps Captain Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), a feisty fairy and captain of the LEPrecon, in the hope of gaining fairy gold for a ransom.
“Holly is by no means, character-wise, in the books, a Tinkerbell,” says Branagh. “She’s not a small and fleet and miniature fairy. She’s a very spirited woman, which Eoin Colfer plays beautifully with human characteristics and his own made-up fairy characteristics.”
An idea that Branagh was particularly keen on exploring is getting those distinct characteristics “muddled” amid quite dramatic scenes. “You open a door and you’re into some crazy world where you realise, ‘Wow, she can fly, she’s got big ears, she’s got magic’.”
Shot in England and Northern Ireland primarily, the film’s opening was also given an exotic boost, with the crew going to Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City. Branagh was accompanied by Ferdia Shaw and Nonso Anozie, who plays the Fowls’ bodyguard, Butler, who both got to travel the city on mopeds – “safely”, adds Branagh, quickly. “It was an incredible culture shock: the noise, the intensity and density of the traffic, particularly motorcycle traffic. [But] the friendliness and curiosity of the people is an incredible injection in the beginning of the movie.”
Wisely, Branagh has surrounded himself with several key collaborators – cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos, production designer Jim Clay and composer Patrick Doyle – who all worked on the director’s last film, 2017’s Agatha Christie adaptation, Murder on the Orient Express. He’s also reuniting with Josh Gad, who – like Dench – featured in Orient Express. Here, Gad plays Mulch Diggums, a kleptomaniac dwarf who attempts to rescue Holly from Artemis’ clutches.
According to Branagh, Gad’s improvisational skills have been rubbing off. He recalls shooting a scene with Dench. “I said, ‘That’s great. We’ve got exactly what’s scripted. Now would you say this, this and this and if you think of something else, would you do that?’ To which she replied, ‘I’m not Josh Gad! He’s terribly, terribly clever.’ I said, ‘Do you want to do it?’ ‘Yes, I do want to do it’, she said, ‘I’m learning from him!’”
With witty banter flying back and forth, Branagh promises that Artemis Fowl will be a very “rapid” watch. “In my view, it’ll be a movie that’s way under two hours; I have ninety minutes in my mind. When I’m making films, I always try and watch classic movies of the past – of any kind, any genre – of ninety minutes, because I think that’s a terribly challenging time period to do lots of things well. And yet as I go to the movies, I sit for the extra twenty minutes that I don’t think we usually need – and I’ve provided those twenty minutes on numerous occasions! So, I speak as a guilty party!”
What about the Harry Potter question? Can Artemis Fowl inspire a franchise as big as the adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard story? After all, Colfer has written eight books in total. “I was very lucky to be part of an untouchable Potter,” says Branagh, who played Hogwarts professor Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. “We’re onto something that’s a little [more] madness, and a bit more Celtic.”
Branagh was particularly keen to keep the Celtic quality in his young leads. For Artemis, Branagh’s casting director whittled down 1200 boys to just Shaw, who hails from Kilkenny in southern Ireland. Lara McDonnell, who plays Holly, also happens to be Irish. “That helped locate something quite distinct in the tone of the movie,” he says. “We hear the accent so much it feels as though we really are in another place.”
While the casting is exemplary, there seems to be one thing missing. Will Branagh himself be playing a role? “There are moves for this to happen, but by other people,” he admits. “This literally happened yesterday. A pair of fairy ears were left on my desk! Unattributed. But that was an indication [of] some character that [hair and make-up designer] Carol Hemming has dreamed up.”
Kenneth Branagh disguised as a fairy? Now that’s worth waiting for.
Artemis Fowl opens in September 2019