On the heels of their successful collaboration Murder on the Orient Express, director/producer Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green began discussing their favourite Agatha Christie titles and which ones would work cinematically and kept circling back to Death on the Nile, a daring mystery-thriller about the emotional chaos and deadly consequences triggered by obsessive love.
“The hunger for sex in Agatha Christie’s original story is very powerful, and people are reckless in their pursuit of it. Their greed for physical satisfaction is dangerous to a murderous degree,” says Branagh. “It is the most unsettled of Agatha Christie’s books. She presents a veneer of sophistication, sexiness, glamour and romance, but it is, at all times, brittle, fragile, dangerous and disruptive.”
Based on the 1937 novel by Agatha Christie, Twentieth Century Studios’ “Death on the Nile” is a daring mystery-thriller directed by Kenneth Branagh about the emotional chaos and deadly consequences triggered by obsessive love.
Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot’s Egyptian vacation aboard a glamorous river steamer turns into a terrifying search for a murderer when a picture-perfect couple’s idyllic honeymoon is tragically cut short. Set against an epic landscape of sweeping desert vistas and the majestic Giza pyramids, this tale of unbridled passion and incapacitating jealousy features a cosmopolitan group of impeccably dressed travellers and enough wicked twists and turns to keep audiences guessing until the final, shocking denouement.
According to director/producer Kenneth Branagh, this Death on the Nile has taken Christie’s high-end concept and re-humanized the stories so that the audience gets the action, the travelogue and the aspirational trip. “In these difficult times we’ve been living in over the past year, a trip down the Nile to jump into the ancient majestic splendour of Egypt, is going to be something that people will enjoy,” says Branagh. “And it’s always more fun if you have a twisting, turning plot and a story that will thrill and scare you, but with wisdom, human emotions, compassion and a sense of soulfulness that everyone can relate to.”
The filmmakers were fortunate to have two relatives of the famed author, Mathew Prichard (Poirot) and James Prichard (Murder on the Orient Express) of the Agatha Christie Estate, involved with the production, which provided an invaluable resource in terms of understanding the author’s personal attitude towards this specific book. “We were the lucky recipients of quite a lot of the sort of human texture that is part of why her books are so successful,” says Branagh. “She’s not merely someone who can write clever puzzles, she writes real people.”
Mathew Prichard was especially thrilled for the Agatha Christie Estate to embark on another collaboration with Branagh. “What we like about ‘Orient Express,’ and now with ‘Death on the Nile,’ is that the plot and the story, and most of all, the atmosphere, of the real Agatha Christie is recreated on the screen,” says Prichard. “For the audience, it is tremendously important they feel that they’ve not only seen a wonderfully modern and hugely cinematic film but have also experienced an evening of Agatha Christie.”
In making the transition from the 1937 novel, which is rich in complexity and characters to a screenplay, the filmmakers mined the story for the key elements to evolve and expand upon. “The book is very well written,” says Green. “It’s got some of Agatha Christie’s best prose in it, and it has this wonderful plot with a wonderful solution. It’s sprawling.”
But it was the themes of romance and jealousy that the screenwriter wanted to truly explore. “We just kept coming back to passion and love, diving into those feelings, and making sure all of our characters really had something to say about those emotions,” says Green.
“In an Agatha Christie novel, it works to have interesting people hanging around who aren’t suspect,” explains Green. “As a result, there were a few minor changes made to the script to help enhance a few of the characters and to fold together others to make them more cinematic, as everyone needs a potential reason to have a motive and opportunity to kill.”
“The exotic location and glamorous settings made ‘Death on the Nile’ a very exciting prospect for Ken,” says producer Judy Hofflund (“Artemis Fowl,” “Panic Room”). “The idea of making a big landscape version of these Agatha Christie stories and to tell a story on a large canvas was very appealing.”
“With ‘Death on the Nile’ we have a wealthy socialite’s attraction to a man who previously has been passionately entwined with an equally beautiful woman, whom he rejects then embraces and weds the other,” Branagh explains. “There is a wedding party where a group of exotic and amazing people who claim to be their friends, surround them. Because of the karma generated when one woman steals another woman’s man, fireworks ensue. So a human love triangle that goes bad, is the sort of rotten fruit at the centre of this murderous holiday.”
“Michael’s first draft was a home run,” says Hofflund. “It was what we showed to every actor, and it was the script we cast the movie on.”
“It had a more youthful approach,” agrees Branagh. “Everything about the story is now younger and sexier, literally and aesthetically.”
From day one, the filmmakers realized it was an enormous privilege to be able to take cinematic audiences to exotic places through the imagination of Agatha Christie, and never took for granted the fact that they needed to create that energy and excitement on screen. As a result, the film was shot on 65mm film and will be presented in 70mm in cinemas, which is a very immersive form of filmmaking and one that is suited especially for a film with a big ensemble cast.
Michael Green is an American writer and producer. In addition to writing for television, Green has written several feature film screenplays, including Logan, Alien: Covenant, Blade Runner 2049 and Murder on the Orient Express, all in 2017. For Logan, which he co-wrote with James Mangold and Scott Frank, Green was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
He developed, wrote and is an executive producer for the Starz series American Gods with Bryan Fuller. It is adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name.
“For me, the escapism and the transportation are so total,” says Branagh. “It is a wonderfully immersive, illusory experience that is very full and thick. The depth, the detail, the chance to replicate the experience of the human eye is absolutely at its premium.”
Branagh continues, “And it is a very unusual and unique opportunity (especially in the wake of what we’ve all been through recently) to share the experience of community in the telling of a story in a socially distanced, smaller audience-auditorium with a massive wall of communication and picture and sensory stimulation. Cinema has never been more attractive, cinema has never been more vital and cinema has never been more thrilling, than it has a chance to be, coming out of lockdown and coming into stories like ‘Death on the Nile.’”