Kenneth Branagh’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation “A Haunting in Venice” has been rattling North American theaters for a week now, signaling the start to spooky season with a packed ensemble cast featuring the likes of Tina Fey, Jamie Dornan, Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh and “Yellowstone” star Kelly Reilly.
Branagh’s players (and the director himself) weren’t able speak on behalf of the moody chamber piece due to the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Variety caught up with veteran producer Judy Hofflund (who made the first two Poirot films with Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile”) to discuss Fey’s journey to leading lady status in a film from this era, as well as the future of Branagh’s mustachioed sleuth.
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“Venice” was greenlit shortly after Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox. How did the release of “Death on the Nile” and the new regime take to the franchise?
The second film was sadly released during COVID time, but I think that it did so well on streaming that it was a real boost of confidence for [Disney]. We had already hired Michael Green to get started on writing the third. I think that they I think they believed in Ken and Agatha Christie and the whole franchise. They were excited about doing something that was really different. This is a post-WWII Venice — eerie, scary, stormy and everything unfolds in one night. We’re personally excited about making a movie for this time of year, when everyone wants to be scared.
How was the approach here different from the previous two?
More than the other two films, Ken went into this with complete focus. He knew what he wanted, down to camera angles. He never wanted to deviate in creating an edge-of-your-seat claustrophobia.
Obviously, ensemble casts are key to this format. Why these particular stars?
Tina was the first person we cast, and for me that set the tone. I love Tina and Ken together, their rapport is so fun and rich and they keep each other on their toes. Also, casting Kelly Reilly in a role so opposite from [her “Yellowstone” character] was a lot of fun and she plays it masterfully. We also got to reunite Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill after “Belfast,” in a completely different feeling movie.
It feels like Tina Fey has been barrelling toward this kind of role for her whole career. There’s a transatlantic feel to this that she’s referenced in a lot of her comedy, including “30 Rock.”
Absolutely, she and Ken were so Nick and Nora Charles. The character Tina plays from the book is one that was Agatha Christie based on herself. It was a lot of fun for Tina to imagine playing this legendary woman. You can tell that Tina is a writer as well as an actor because of how her mind works. From the first reading that we did, she was completely off book. She had every line memorized, but she also brought her own humor to moments, even with an expression or just a word or two.
The film is certainly claustrophobic, particularly the seance scene, led by Michelle Yeoh, which kicks the plot into gear.
I’m sure Ken would say the seance was the hardest to film. He worked with Michelle a little bit before, but there was no rehearsal with any of the other actors. They knew the script, but everyone walked in for the first time with Michelle sitting on that chair in the middle of the seance – and that’s pretty much the take we used. Exploding lightbulbs and the [autonomously typing] typewriter, that was the first time any of the actors saw any of it. Then you’ve got Michelle spinning in circles, perhaps possessed. It was such a smart way to do it.
We’re still embroiled in these labor strikes, but I have to ask, are there plans for another Poirot film?
Not yet. There have been some conversations about what they’d like to do next. I know what I want next, but I can’t tell you what it is.
What’s up next for you, when the strikes end?
Ken and I have a little project together and the script is ready. We haven’t sent it out, of course. It’s kind of my passion project. It’s written by a young writer based on an idea of mine. It’s called “Grace and Lizzie,” and should be made very inexpensively. It’s a bit like “Thelma and Louise” meets “Promising Young Woman.”
“A Haunting in Venice” is currently in theaters. This interview has been edited and condensed.
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