Writer and director Sir Kenneth Branagh offered Gérard Depardieu a small part in the four-hour version of the movie out of gratitude for his active support on the release of his first feature Henry V (1989) in France (not only was he the main distributor of the movie, but also dubbed Branagh's voice in the French version).
Kate Winslet did not even audition for the role of Ophelia. Winslet had previously auditioned for the role of Elizabeth in Sir Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein (1994) (the role ended up being played by Helena Bonham Carter), and Branagh was so impressed, that he offered her the role in this movie without so much as a reading. Appropriately, Carter played Ophelia in Hamlet (1990).
Some pathologists conducted a study determining how long a person lasts before dying after being stabbed directly. A scene from this movie where Hamlet (Sir Kenneth Branagh) kills Polonius (Richard Briers) was also viewed as reference to their study. In the end, it was found that a person, after being stabbed directly, can only last long enough to utter four words. This means that Polonius' uttering of the words "O, I am slain" as he dies is medically possible.
When filming the flashback scene during Hamlet's "Yorick" speech, shown in vision only with no sound, writer and director Sir Kenneth Branagh's only instruction to Ken Dodd was "Okay, make us laugh", which he did.
Writer and director Sir Kenneth Branagh's decision to shoot in 65mm was largely inspired by a film format seminar conducted by visual consultant Rob Hummel. Hummel convinced him to use the format because of high-resolution and certain shots could only be achieved in 65mm. Also, Branagh once said that the intention was to give a sweeping feel to the play, hearkening back to the 1960s epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
One of William Shakespeare's lines is actually changed with no acknowledgment. The sorrows come line "O Gertrude, Gertrude, when sorrows come they come not as single spies, but in battalions" becomes simply "When sorrows come they come not as single spies, but in battalions," probably because Claudius delivers them in a voice-over, and we do not know to whom he is speaking. It is the only line in the movie that is changed because of the way the scene is filmed.
The title of Hamlet's play-within-a-play is "The Murder of Gonzago", which may or may not have been extrapolated from an Italian prose work. However, when asked its title by Claudius, Hamlet responds by bestowing on it a new moniker, which reflects its purpose (to "catch the conscience of the King"), he calls it "The Mousetrap".
The construction of the interiors of the "Elsinore Castle" set (actually Blenheim Palace) cost two million dollars. The exteriors are simply the exteriors of the palace and had already been standing since 1784.
Sir Kenneth Branagh first encountered the full length version of the play while performing in the 1992 BBC Radio production of the play with co-stars Sir Derek Jacobi and Richard Briers (who reprised their roles as Claudius and Polonius respectively in this movie). This radio performance anticipated the winter 1992 full text production of Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare company, the one that would finally crystallize Branagh's interpretation of the character, and lead to this movie.
Hugh Crumwell was the then-Principal of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in which Sir Kenneth Branagh studied. Crumwell was on the set all the time. He came as a request by Branagh to give an objective critique for the performance of each take.
Like others before him who simultaneously acted in and directed a movie, Sir Kenneth Branagh used an acting double, Orlando Seale to play Hamlet during camera set-ups and rehearsals. This means Seale had to learn and perform almost the entire play with the entire cast, yet only appears on-screen as an extra, playing the part of a "Boatman".
For more than a year, Sir Kenneth Branagh had tried shopping the project around major studios in Hollywood, but no studio was willing to finance a four-hour production, citing skepticism of the commercial viability of a William Shakespeare adaptation to a late twentieth century audience. Also, most studios were aware of the negative reviews and the commercial failure of Branagh's previously-directed movie, Frankenstein (1994), and some of them would only finance this movie if the content and the budget is cut to half. However, Castle Rock Entertainment agreed to finance the movie and to Branagh's demands (filming in 65mm, complete control over the movie, et cetera) under two conditions: a star-studded cast for the movie, and a 35mm, abridged two and a half hour version of this movie for a wider release.
Cast members Sir Kenneth Branagh, Sir Derek Jacobi, and Gérard Depardieu have played Cyrano de Bergerac. As translated into English by Anthony Burgess, in the speech where Cyrano rattles off a list of possible insults to his nose, he includes "Oh that this too, too solid nose would melt", a parody of the "too, too solid flesh" line from this play. (In the Brian Hooker translation of "Cyrano", which José Ferrer played on-stage and on film, the line is given as "Was this the nose that launched a thousand ships?", a parody of "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships", a line from Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus".)
The was the first British movie to be shot in 65mm since Sir David Lean's Ryan's Daughter (1970), in which Sir John Mills appeared, and was made in Ireland. In the interim, Far and Away (1992) (also shot in 65mm in Ireland) was a Hollywood production on-location.
Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, and Gérard Depardieu are all featured in bit parts. The movie in which Robin Williams appeared just before this movie was The Secret Agent (1996), which also featured Gérard Depardieu. The movie in which he appeared just after this movie was Fathers' Day (1997), which featured Billy Crystal.
The wintry exterior scenes were achieved with a combination of real snow and artificial snow made from a detergent solution. There was much debate between production designer Tim Harvey and the groundskeeper of Blenheim Palace as to whether the artificial snow would harm the hedges and other greenery on the palace grounds. Fortunately when the production was finished, the hedges were unharmed.
Before the start of principal photography, the entire cast did a complete run through of the play, what writer and director Sir Kenneth Branagh described as a sort of studio performance. This way as they jumped around the chronology of the text during production, everyone would have a sense of where they were in the overall story.
Choreographing the numerous intricate dolly shots in this movie required a high degree of coordination between the actors, actresses, and the crew. They sometimes rehearsed as much as three hours for a single set up. Adding to the difficulty were the numerous mirrors lining the set of the great hall. Each shot was carefully scrutinized in playback to make sure that no crew or equipment were reflected in the mirrors. At one point during rehearsals for the "To be or not to be" monologue, one of the dolly grips gave Branagh a note about his pacing, to insure he completed his line before the dolly became visible.
Writer and director Sir Kenneth Branagh knew early on that he wanted a lot of long takes that moved about the castle interiors. He also wanted to avoid the floating feel of Steadicam shots. So all of floors of the Elsinore sets were carefully reinforced and levelled so that camera dollies could move smoothly over them without the use of tracks.
In addition to remembering all of their lines during the many long takes, the cast often had to memorize their marks as well. Normally their marks would be indicated with pieces of tape or other visual references on the floor. But these would have been visible in the shots, and consequently could not be used.
Although the production went to great lengths to make the exterior of Blenheim Palace look wintry, they were blessed on one day with an actual blizzard. Writer and director Sir Kenneth Branagh scrambled to think of an exterior scene that could be shot quickly to take advantage of the real snow. He selected the scene where the sailors deliver Hamlet's letter to Horatio, since Nicholas Farrell could read his lines off the letter. Branagh pulled Farrell away from his lunch break, and they quickly shot the scene.
Sir John Mills (Old Norway) and Sir Richard Attenborough (The English Ambassador) were offered the roles of the murderers in Richard III (1955), in which Sir John Gielgud (Priam) played the Duke of Clarence. However, Mills believed that it would be stunt casting, and Attenborough was unavailable.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
When Ophelia sings the famous "And will a not come again..." speech, Kate Winslet is singing a tune composed by Patrick Doyle specifically for that scene. The melody occurs in the score in several of Ophelia's scenes, foreshadowing her madness and death.