Murder on the Orient Express has made over $200M worldwide since its release on November 10th. Based on the Agatha Christie novel, the whodunit film was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also stars in the lead role of detective Hercule Poirot. Branagh took time out recently to speak with Post about his vision for the film and how long-time collaborator, composer Patrick Doyle, was able to affect the audience with his original score. In addition, Doyle and Branagh together wrote the film’s original song, “Never Forget,” which is performed by Michelle Pfeiffer, whose Caroline Hubbard character in instrumental in the film’s plot.
You have a long history of working with composer Patrick Doyle. Is he your go-to guy?
“We’ve worked together collaboratively for 30 years. He did a score for a theater production of Shakespeare’s ‘12th Night.’ Over these dozen films and 30 years comes a shorthand and rapport that means that by the time you get to something like Murder on the Orient Express, a lot of conversations have been had and you can quickly get to the point. It’s been a very fruitful, enjoyable artistic partnership I must say.”
What was your initial vision of the score?
“We often talk about whether we hear, or I hear, lots of or not much music? Often we’ll mention a particular instrument. In the past, you might suddenly say that this feels like there’s a cello at work, or it feels very orchestral, or it feels spare, or modern. With this one, piano was important from the word ‘go.’ Pat came along early and we talked about a feel for the movie. My goal was to encourage him to engage with the idea that the movie had an epic sweep. It’s had a big, wide-screen, landscape-feeling, 65mm size to it. It would have some orchestral ‘umph’ to it because I wanted to immerse the audience.
“I am using this film format to immerse the audience in this story that starts in a big, exotic location and goes on this exciting departure at a packed railroad station. There would be a lot of sweep to those scenes, but once we got into train, once the murder proceeded and the characters revealed themselves, the movie would probably get sparer and sparer.”
You had an idea for the instrumentation?
“Piano would dominate. Subtly suggesting there was a piano in the salon bar on the train, probably that has an integrated sense about it to the audience. And it felt like movie would go from an epic travelogue to murder mystery to a bare psychological or drama. And the scale and size had to reflect that, and have those colors in it. He went off very early on and wrote a response to that in a kind of piano suite of three or four pieces, which were early impressions that established that we felt same way about tone. And the tone was often sort of dark and mysterious. But the critical thing that we found in it, and it’s very powerful in his music generally, is it had emotional quality. Rather than merely being a puzzle, there would be some tragic undertow coming from the pain of the characters of the center of it.”
How did the song “Never Forget,” which Michelle Pfeiffer sings in the closing credits, come about?
“We’ve experimented with songs over the years and included some and not included others. The key thing was that the music should come organically out of the story. It seemed as though the theme that covered the painful backstory of the Armstrong family tragedy was something that Pat judged very well. He’s got this great gift for simplicity and yet [profoundness] in the way the music gets to you. He found that musical attachment to the pain at the center of the story.
“By the time we had answered the question marks that (detective Hercule) Poirot poses to himself and to our cinema audience: we know who did it, we know how they did it, we know why they did it, but now, what should justice be? After he makes his decision about what to do and he leaves that train, it felt as though a question mark was over how difficult it was for Poirot to do that? For a man who had said, ‘There is wrong. There is right. There is nothing in between.’ He suddenly finds that he has to live in a moral gray zone of accepting that this human pain isn’t as simple as being able to say that. It’s more complicated and it’s more painful. And it seemed that after that, the ultimate conclusion of the movie could return to the Armstrong family theme and express via the character — in this case the character of Miss Hubbard — a sort of articulated, emotional response, which is both an expression of: Why did this all happen? Because they miss that child so much! Because the pain of that loss, followed by the loss of those parents is so deep and profound…They continue to miss those people and would never forget.
“Somehow the song and musical theme was an expression of how those characters would carry on. They would continue to feel the loss and feel the pain, but the song in itself was the beginning of processing. The beginning of consolation."
Michelle Pfeiffer’s character plays a key role in orchestrating the murder.
“It was critical to us that Michelle Pfeiffer sing it. We had no desire to bring in an artist who was not connected to the film. The song was coming right out of the film and somehow offering consolation to those character. And in a way, a consolation to Poirot and our movie audience.”
Will this be submitted for Oscar consideration?
“It’s a beautiful piece of work of Patrick’s. I think Patrick did an amazing piece of work with the score and I am very proud of what he’s done. People have commented very strongly on the musical element and on the song itself. We’d be very lucky to be considered in that way. I am very pleased that it sprung organically out of the film. As you say, it was a challenge and fascinating one to see whether there was a completion to the movie that music and words could offer. This felt like a very natural thing. It came creatively out of it, both the musical theme and the theme inside the lyric itself: the danger, the pain, the necessity and the longing involved in never forgetting those that we lose.
“Added in to that, Michelle Pfeiffer, who was instructed not so much to feel that she had to sing it, although I think she sings it beautifully, but that she could and should allow herself as Miss Hubbard, to experience it. My hope for it is that the song gets to find a wider audience because I found that people who have heard it and seen it in the context of the film have been very, very touched by it. It may have a life beyond the movie, which is a very pleasing thing. That theme of loss and that attempt to console through music is something I feel very passionate about.”
In hindsight, did the film turn out as you had initially imagined?
“It became much, much more than I could have possibly have hoped for. For me, there is immense pride in the work of my colleagues. I think that Jim Clay, the production designer, was met by fantastic visual effects, conjoining with (VFX supervisor) George Murphy leading a great team, to produce something that I thought was very spectacular. I think the elegance of Pat’s score…Michael Green’s great screenplay, and a lot of beautiful performances from the ensemble, all those thing added up to something deeper and richer than I could have imagined.”
You played a pretty important role on-screen too!
“I enjoyed playing a great part. Poirot is such a fascinating, brilliant, complex, multifaceted character. I got to play a great part and was privileged to do so.”
What is next for you?
“Today I am doing camera tests for a movie that I am directing for Disney called Artemis Fowl. And Artemis Fowl is an 11-year-old criminal mastermind from Ireland who discovers that fairies are real and determines to steal their gold.”