Near the eleventh hour of pre-production, while director Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Hanna”) was preparing to shoot his adaptation of “Anna Karenina,” it became clear that the budget was going to be an issue — plans to shoot on location were causing the film’s budget to double in cost. As such, Wright and his team had to quickly rethink the picture. As it turns out, they reimagined it with ideas that had been simmering in the filmmaker’s mind for quite some time.
When we spoke to the director at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this week, he told us that he’d been hoping to veer away from pure realism for a while. “I use necessity as an excuse, really,” Wright said of the concept to drop locations and instead film almost the entire movie on soundstages. “ I’d been wanting to challenge the conventions of naturalism a little bit more than I had before. So these ideas had been percolating for a while. I was looking in locations in the U.K. and Russia,” Wright told us, “and I was hoping to create a performance style that was more gestural and physical and I was planning to work with this choreographer [Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui], and then I got really frustrated one day and found myself wondering… I didn’t know how I was going to marry this performance style with these naturalistic locations.”
Given the pop-art madness of his previous film, “Hanna,” it’s not surprising that Wright found himself chaffing against the constrictions of reality, and the frustrations were doubled by the fact that much of the money would have been spent “on hotels and travel expenses,” rather than seen on screen. Furthermore, the director found himself nostalgically thinking back to the filming of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement” where much of the shoot took place in a single location. So Wright thought, if this was shot in one location, what would it be?
“The theater sprang to my mind,” Wright says. “That came from a lot of research, thinking about society at the time as living upon a stage, and how we all play different roles in different times in our lives, and the way that in which Anna is feeling miscast in the role of a mother and dutiful wife and wanting to break free of that role… so the metaphor of theater seemed appropriate. I started testing the idea out on people and the first person I talked to was my designer, Sarah Greenwood, and she leapt on it.”
The major exception to the rule is the character of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who is central to the novel (Wright told us that he’s Tolstoy’s surrogate in the novel), but often gets short shrift in film translations. Tom Stoppard’s adaptation makes him just as important, if not more important, to the film than Anna, and the theatrical conceit was also a way, as Wright says, of depicting “the way Levin is seeing a more authentic way of life without pretense… The idea that Levin turns his back on the theater of society and goes back into the real world.”
As such, Levin’s scenes in the countryside were shot on location, a stark change of pace from the often-claustrophobic feel of the rest of the film. Even then, however, it’s not pure naturalism — as Wright points out “in a way, it’s a cinematic reality he’s walking into,” rather than an absolute real world.
Realism is clearly something that’s been on Wright’s mind of late, with Powell & Pressburger and Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect among the influences on his approach. “Western audiences are afraid of this,” he told us of his more stylized take. “We’re in a period of new romanticism, where emotion is king. Everything has to be emotional or visceral, and people are very afraid of engaging an audience’s critical faculties. That’s somehow uncommercial. So the biggest challenge was walking the line between the critical faculties, but also engaging the emotional response from the audience — speaking to their hearts.” He admits that his producers were concerned for a time too, until he pointed out that much of the film would be in close-up anyway — “so it doesn’t matter where you are, whether it’s in a field or in a theater, the background will be in soft focus”
Of course, it helped that he had his two-time leading lady Keira Knightley in the film — indeed, he’d had her in mind from the start. But (perhaps unsurprisingly, given that she was nineteen on “Pride & Prejudice,” their first collaboration), he also found himself working with a new Knightley: “She’d developed into the woman she was born to be,” Wright says. “Incredibly strong, powerful, unafraid and I wanted to bear witness to that on screen. Also her sexual awareness had developed. She was far sexier than she had been as a girl, do you know what I mean? She was this woman and i thought that was something that i hadn’t seen in her before. “
As for what's coming next, Wright says "The Little Mermaid" is still something he hopes to adapt for the screen, but don't expect it soon, as it's still deep in the discovery phase and he hasn't cracked it creatively. "Yes, that’s certainly something we’re working towards, but I’ve absolutely no idea how to do it," he laughed.
One project Wright tried to mount in 2009 was an adaptation of Alex von Tunzelmann's book "Indian Summer: The Mountbattens, Nehru and the Dying Days of the Raj," about the end of British rule in India in 1947, starring Cate Blanchett. Delayed at the time over budgetary and Indian government concerns, the director says it’s not likely coming back. “That one went by the wayside,” he said, doubtful of its return. “We found ourselves in a position with the Indian government — they have to read every script for every film to be shot in India– and they weren’t so keen on portrait that we were painting of of with Jawaharlal Nehru [the first independent prime minister of the country].”
Whatever Wright ends up doing next, “Anna Karenina,” like “Hanna” before it, suggests a filmmaker increasingly willing to march to the beat of his own drum (read our review here). And that’s always an exciting thing to see. “Anna Karenina” is out in the U.K. now, and will be released in the U.S. on November 16th. – Interview by Julian Carrington