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Kenneth Branagh, Haris Zambarloukos on Shooting ‘Murder on the Orient Express’

Of all the prizes given out at the Camerimage festival, the Cinematographer-Director Duo Award stands out for recognizing the art and spirit of collaboration between helmer and DP. This year that honor went to Kenneth Branagh and Haris Zambarloukos, whose meeting of minds has given birth to the unique visual storytelling of the just-released “Murder on the Orient Express.” Their earlier collaborations include “Thor,” “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” and “Cinderella.”

They accepted the award at the event’s opening ceremony Saturday night, where Branagh also received the Camerimage Krzysztof Kieslowski Award, a distinction presented to actors and actresses who contribute to the art of filmmaking. Indeed, multi-hyphenate Branagh, steeped in Shakespeare, has been Oscar-nominated in five different categories: director, leading actor, supporting actor, live-action short, and adapted screenplay.

Branagh’s first collaboration with Zambarloukos was on 2007’s “Sleuth.” The duo spoke to Variety just after the opening ceremony.

Why did you want to remake “Murder on the Orient Express?”
Branagh: I never saw it in terms of a remake. If you don’t have something new to say that’s authentic, they you don’t do it. “Murder” spoke to me in a much darker and more emotional way than I remembered from reading the [Agatha Christie] novel or seeing the previous [1974 Sidney Lumet] film – both of which I enjoyed. But this felt new. It has loss and a primitive passion that I thought would unnerve the audience. It unnerved me when I played [the role of detective Hercule Poirot].

What did you bring to the new version in terms of craft and technology?
Branagh: We used the 65mm format and payed homage to the golden age of travel with big, spectacular locations. We start in Jerusalem, get to Istanbul, go to the Alps, and then let the murder mystery play out in what you think is a typical simple and amusing Agatha Christie way – but then the scope makes you suddenly realize that death is at the center of this. It becomes a psychological drama that reveals a much sharper, darker pain than I was aware of before.

Where was the location work done?
Branagh: Haris went to New Zealand, and we went to France, Switzerland and other places, but the bulk of our work was done at Longcross Studios outside London, where we re-created the Orient Express. We built [the train], we put it 25 meters high in the air on a viaduct that we built, and we had a mile of track. One of my great moments came when Johnny Depp and Judy Dench asked one morning, “Remind us what this scene is about.” I said, “The train is about to leave Istanbul station.” They said, “Fine, but what’s going to happen?” I repeated, “The train is going to leave Istanbul station.” They said, “It’s going to stay here, of course.” I said, “No, the doors at the end of the soundstage are going to open and this real train is really going to start up, leave this station and go down a mile of track into Surrey.” They were like kids, their eyes lit up.

How did the two of you meet?
Zambarloukos: Ken invited me to his house to talk about “Sleuth.” I knew Ken before he knew me. I have very fond memories of being a camera trainee at Panavision Shepperton when Ken was shooting “Shackleton” and got to observe and watch at a young age.

Branagh: When we eventually met I had seen Haris’ show-reel and one of his first movies. I knew there was something I liked. I like working with boffins, people who in their own fields are always tinkering in their workshop. The term was applied to British scientists during the war who were obsessive and experts in their fields.

The nerds of their day?
Branagh: Exactly. We share a boffinish, nerdish thing. I love film and theater history in ways that a lot of people find weird. And Haris will talk about obscure films for which – apart from Scorsese – he’s the only one I know who’s able to come up with frames, lines, and shots.

Have either of you shot 65mm before?
Branagh: I have, with [DP Alex Thomson on 1996’s] “Hamlet.”
Zambarloukos: “Murder” was my first 65mm experience. It was fantastic.

Haris, in addition to film, have you shot much digital?
Zambarloukos: A little bit, but not that much. I’ve shot more film. I think that film – not just 65 but also 35 and even 16 – is really an immersive form of mood capture, and closer to the human eye and human nature.

What do you like about film? The detail, the scope?
Branagh: Both. Plus that silver is moving around in that celluloid, it isn’t locked into those pixels. We bake some of this quality into our 4K delivery. We don’t say it’s better than something else, but we enjoy the difference.

What’s coming up?
Branagh: We’re working on [Disney 2019 release] “Artemis Fowl,” the story of an 11-year-old criminal mastermind in Ireland who discovers that fairies exist and he determines to steal their gold.

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