Depp, Dench and Kenneth Branagh: Behind the scenes of the star-studded Murder on the Orient Express
19 October 2017 • 7:00am
Agatha Christie ‘had always been allergic’ to cinema adaptations of her books, her husband Max Mallowan was quoted as saying. ‘She didn’t like her characters to be portrayed on book covers either,’ says James Prichard, her great-grandson.
Christie, who wrote 66 detective novels between 1920 and 1976, translated into around 45 languages, is the most widely read novelist in history, with sales of more than two billion copies worldwide.
There have been 23 film adaptations of her books in the UK alone, not to mention the multiple TV series. And now we have Murder on the Orient Express. Directed by Kenneth Branagh (who also plays Belgian detective Hercule Poirot), it features a parade of towering greats from stage and screen including Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi.
There is also the surprise of Sergei Polunin, the much-tattooed dancer who walked out of the Royal Ballet in 2012, who makes his screen debut as Count Andrenyi, a Hungarian aristocrat and a ballet dancer of global renown. It’s possible that there haven’t been so many stars gathered together in one movie since the last big-screen adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Sidney Lumet.
The cast included Ingrid Bergman, Albert Finney (as Poirot), Anthony Perkins and John Gielgud, and it was made in 1974, when Vanessa Redgrave and Jacqueline Bisset, who played two of the roles, were described as ‘comparative newcomers’.
The 2017 version, co-produced by Ridley Scott, with a screenplay by Michael Green (the writer of Blade Runner 2049 and Alien: Covenant) sets up the classic whodunnit with 14 strangers boarding the long-distance passenger train that connects Istanbul with Paris.
These include Caroline Hubbard, an American widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), the Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid, Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman).
A businessman named Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is murdered at night in the compartment next to Poirot. The train gets marooned in an avalanche (a snowdrift in the book) and the plot follows Poirot’s interrogation of each of the passengers in the hunt for the killer.
The appeal of the film is clear: stars are not being asked to play anything run-of-the-mill. They are showcased in sumptuous 1930s glamour, dressing for dinner (even on a train), and the cooks produce delicious fancies such as walnut soufflés.
‘I liked the sense that I could let the audience escape into that world,’ says Branagh, ‘where the details of what the characters are touching, seeing, eating, drinking, wearing are a significant part of the pleasure.
‘We live in a world where everything is so transient and quick, it seemed to me a period in which, from a piece of linen to a glass of water to an arrangement of flowers, there could be a way of evoking a parenthesis of calm in an incredibly rushed life.’
An ‘avid reader of crime fiction’, he last read the book years ago, but admits to being surprised when he reread it. ‘I’d forgotten how it worked out! ‘I liked the ensemble [nature] of it,’ he continues, ‘I like it being enclosed in snow, the claustrophobia. And it’s a tale that sums up the golden age of travel: a world in which you feel the miles under your feet.
‘Agatha Christie described her work as entertainment and dismissed any other claims for her work. But she leaves holes,’ he says, ‘invitations to go a little deeper. I think she definitely asks whether revenge is worthwhile – can you forgive, when do you stop hurting? – and says that loss has to be acknowledged because it can provide a poison that can create more crime.’
He saw another, more germane, theme: what happens when a mob rules. ‘When feeling drives action’ – a force ‘we are definitely awash with’.
He had long discussions with Michael Green and Jim Clay, the film’s production designer, about how to pin down key details from the period. ‘I wanted forensic detail, so you feel as though you’ve taken residence on the train and are taken into a much more dangerous environment.’
When the avalanche hits the train, it comes to a stop on a creaky old viaduct in the mountains. Branagh introduces the idea that passengers can escape. ‘It puts a lot of jeopardy, a ticking clock in the way of the story.’
Branagh’s Poirot is slightly evolved from the original character. Everything there is to love about Poirot is here: his grooming routine, intellect, appetites – specifically, hot chocolate, macaroons, ice cream. But there is also something that doesn’t appear in the novel. ‘He carries some secrets that the books seem to hint at.’
And Branagh brings another strength, says James Prichard: ‘He’s a good-looking Poirot and you don’t necessarily think of Poirot as being good-looking.’ Murder on the Orient Express was first published in 1934 – six years after Christie’s painful divorce from her first husband, the dashing Archie Christie, a member of the Royal Flying Corps (and the father of her only child, Rosalind), who left her for another woman.
Around a year after her divorce, she went on a trip to the Middle East and met Max Mallowan, an archaeologist, at a dig in Ur, Iraq. She was 39; he was 25. They were married in 1930 and stayed together until her death in 1976 (he died two years later).
Christie first travelled on the Orient Express in the autumn of 1928 – the year of her divorce and her first solo trip abroad. For years after that, she accompanied Mallowan on digs in Iraq and Syria, often via the Orient Express.
Many of her novels are set in England (in villages which such names as Much Deeping or Chipping Somerton), though now and then she moved the action to a more exotic setting such as a Nile steamer in Death on the Nile or an archaeological dig in Mesopotamia.
Christie, like many artists, drew inspiration from real-life incidents. In 1929, an Orient Express train was trapped by a blizzard in Turkey and marooned for six days. In 1931, an Orient Express train on which Christie was travelling got stuck for 24 hours due to rainfall, flooding and sections of the track being washed away.
Murder on the Orient Express was filmed at Longcross Studios, in Surrey. The ensemble of stars ‘were very playful, ebullient and like naughty schoolchildren at times,’ says Branagh. ‘Judi is a big part of that. She has a capacity to switch from daftness into a very concentrated performance and she encouraged the others to keep up.’ (Dench would later joke that the person she’d most like to bunk up with in a railway sleeper car is co-star Josh Gad.)
And unlike many all-star-cast films, Orient Express doesn’t have famous people turning up in relays. They were all in the same railway carriage – often for hours at a time. ‘Typically, I need some space when I’m working, I just need to get away from everything,’ says Pfeiffer. ‘So I was a little nervous about that. But fortunately everyone was really charming and entertaining. Josh would practically do stand-up, so we certainly weren’t bored.’
‘It was a festival atmosphere,’ says Olivia Colman. ‘Ken would come in with quiz questions to keep us happy.’
Meanwhile, Judi Dench played everything from board games to charades and Derek Jacobi did crosswords. Istanbul station was built in the studio in Surrey (huge columns, two tracks and a platform on either side) as was the train itself: a majestic locomotive with four complete carriages designed to run along nearly one mile of track. (The carriage interiors were constructed a second time to allow filming inside.)
Hydraulics and air bellows beneath each carriage helped to convince the cast they were riding on an actual train, as well as virtual moving scenery on LED screens. ‘If you suffer from motion sickness, as I do, it was a nightmare,’ says Tom Bateman, who plays Bouc, Poirot’s sidekick, who works at the train company that runs the Orient Express.
‘I had to pop a bottle of champagne and walk through the carriage and talk to all the passengers and pour them champagne. It wasn’t only motion sickness, it was a bit like trying to juggle on a unicycle.’ Branagh’s approach was to surprise his cast with an unscripted scene to make the action more convincing, such as getting them to watch a short film related to the plot and shooting their reactions.
‘I love stuff like that,’ says Colman, ‘if you think too much or prepare too much, often that is the death of it.’
‘I hate first days on any film,’ admits Willem Dafoe, who plays Gerhard Hardman, an Austrian professor. ‘I am still sussing things out, always a bit nervous and seldom confident. Ken insisted on shooting perhaps the most involved interrogation scene between me and Poirot on my first day on set. He wanted the scene charged with nerves.’
Branagh also embraced relentless precision as his guiding aesthetic. He never shot unless someone had been around with a ruler making sure each glass, plate, knife, fork was in exactly the right place. ‘Every flower had to be the same height, the stalks had to be the right height, with the right level of water…’ Dishes had to be historically accurate.
‘Whatever you see being eaten is from that time,’ says Branagh. This included a huge baked and glazed cod. ‘It was a time when gelatine and brawn were used a great deal. I can tell you that they have a short life cycle under film lights – they collapse, and get pretty whiffy.’
All the train fittings were either Orient Express originals or copied from originals, from the seats that unfolded to become beds right down to the coat hooks, door latches and light switches.
Authenticity also governed the costumes, which are mostly handmade and true to period. Alexandra Byrne, the costume designer, was ‘very kind because she protected my skin from all the wool,’ says Pfeiffer. ‘I am very sensitive to wool. I get itchy.’
Both Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer were ‘very clothes-orientated’, says Branagh, flying in for fittings months ahead of when they were required. ‘The first time I met Johnny, it was one o’clock in the morning and he was walking up and down in the costume room at Longcross Studios, trying out coats and walking sticks. You saw this whirring, obsessive, tactile encounter.’
The fabric for Poirot’s suits was specially woven in a mill in Scotland to ensure the drape and movement was ‘true’. ‘Cloth from the 1930s has a much denser weave, which we don’t use today for tailoring,’ says Byrne. ‘If you are using a modern fabric, it’s a bit more bouncy.’
There was also an ‘ironing station’ – with an iron and a steamer, to ensure clothes had the ‘right’ type of crease. ‘There are creases from sitting down on a chair on the train and there are creases from sitting down in a chair in a make-up trailer – and they are a bit different,’ Byrne explains. But perhaps the most startling prop is Poirot’s formidable moustache.
In Christie’s stories, Poirot’s moustache is described as ‘gigantic’, ‘immense’ and ‘amazing’. In Murder on the Orient Express, he is ‘a little man with enormous moustaches’. Christie was said to be disappointed with Finney’s more reserved whiskers in the 1974 film (‘I wrote that my detective had the finest moustache in England,’ she allegedly said. ‘But he didn’t in the film. I thought that was a pity. Why shouldn’t he have the best moustache?’).
Now Branagh has set a standard of facial shrubbery that few can hope to equal. He sees it as a ‘visor’ and a ‘mask’ that also hints at military service. ‘There is more substance and bulk, more growl in the moustache,’ he says. It is also a useful aid in detection.
‘People around him, I certainly felt, were focusing on the moustache, and not on him checking them out.’ Branagh tried growing his own – ‘it took a long time’ – but in the end went for a stick-on version.
‘Everytime you made Ken laugh it would peel off,’ says Bateman. ‘I do remember getting the first email jpeg of the moustache and seeing something that took magnificence to a magnificent degree,’ says Green. ‘I just giggled to myself and thought, “Can we create a movie where the moustache by the end doesn’t appear distracting because you are so involved in the story?”’
Murder on the Orient Express is out on 3 November