In just five movies, British director Joe Wright has established himself as a master stylist with an almost painterly eye for shot compositions and spatial geography. On the eve of his newest film, "Anna Karenina," we thought we would go through the five most amazing shots in his oeuvre (whittling them down was something of a challenge). As an added bonus, we got to talk to Seamus McGarvey, the cinematographer behind behind three of the five scenes, including the one from "Anna Karenina," about what it was like crafting these truly unforgettable moments. We've included the scenes where possible, but of course, you can check out each of these films on home video.
Anna Karenina – The Overture
When we first saw "Anna Karenina" a couple of months ago, we thought that our eyes might spring out of our heads, like some Tex Avery wolf. The conceit behind "Anna Karenina" is that the entire movie takes place on a stage, with the camera moving around the stage and up into the rafters and down into the basement. This is all established in a mind-boggling opening shot we'll call The Overture, which lays out the geography of the stage/movie and sets up the emotional stakes for what's to come, following various characters as they prepare for their day (with the backgrounds shifting behind them), including Keira Knightley as the titular Anna, Jude Law as her husband, and Matthew Macfadyen as her brother. One of our favorite flourishes (in a scene full of them), is watching the other characters "wait in the wings," as the camera passes them by.
Wright has said that the decision to set it on a stage was a financial concession (that turned out to be an artistic triumph), and we were surprised this wasn't always the case. "The complete shift of gears was a shocker to us all, especially at such a late stage in pre-production," McGarvey admitted. Wait, so it wasn't always supposed to be on a stage? "I was on 'The Avengers' when all this was being done. But locations were being scouted all over Russia and Britain. And suddenly it changed. It was a Fellini-esque atmosphere, all of us on this set, with crews running between stages."
"The opening of the film, all of that is in-camera, with the curtain and the curtain is front-lit, so it appears like a solid curtain… It's like an old theatrical technique with the gaze, and the revealing of Oblonsky and beyond," McGarvey explained. He said that there was one key difference between this film and other Wright films that he's shot. "The difference with this film was that we had a choreographer involved, who was just incredible and who devised all these dances and even the most little, incidental movement was choreographed," he said. "So that scene was crystallized as we thought about all the elements. Joe is so conscious about what it takes to do a move. There's a constant evolution of the shot that involves creative discussion on a photographic level."
We wondered, for all the extensive planning and choreography and staging, if, in the end, McGarvey wouldn't have rather just gone and shot on location. "For me, it was a great decision, even though it meant working with a lower budget and a hell of a lot harder. It meant that every single scenario had to be created from the ground up," he said, sounding liberated. "Sometimes you work on these period films, as I've done in the past, and there are a myriad of restrictions. Not only in terms of how you can light something but where you can put the camera, etc. In design terms it has its own built-in look."
"We were creating all of this from the ground up, so it gives it a stronger feel and one with more visual cohesiveness," he continued. "I think I was able to completely change my lighting style. A lot of times you're battling against ambient light. I was able to use more expressive forms of lighting. And the fluidity of this environment gave our camera was great." McGarvey then boiled it down thusly: "It was one of the most creative cinematographic excursions I've ever had."
Hanna – The Subway Showdown
There's a moment, right before the third act really kicks into high gear, in Wright's "Hanna" — a quasi-science-fictional tale of a young girl (luminous "Atonement" co-star Saoirse Ronan) trained by her father (Eric Bana) to become a killer — where Bana's character, fleeing CIA goons, descends into a German subway station. The camera tracks him as he leaves a building, past posters adorned with eyes, scribbled or sprayed in graffiti (symbolism ahoy!), and agents trying their best to look inconspicuous but failing miserably. (At one point Bana looks back at them and they try to appear casual but end up looking like a menswear model from a fifties mail order catalogue.) When Bana gets down into the subway, the camera swirls around him as the goons make their advance. Bana incapacitates them handily, as The Chemical Brothers' brilliant score blares, stabbing, shooting, and generally kicking their asses.
What makes this sequence so thrilling is that, with the unbroken shot and the balletic camerawork, you know for sure that it's Eric Bana and not some dude from the stunt team doing all the work. It makes things more immediate and dangerous, with the camera oftentimes feeling like one of the agents trailing Bana (Brian De Palma understood this brilliantly). The sequence is the slickly realized antithesis to Paul Greengrass' shaky-cam intensity, which occasionally borders on seizure-inducing cubism (Wright consulted with Greengrass before taking the gig; Sam Mendes would do the same thing before signing on to "Skyfall").
The subway sequence is the last big bravura moment in "Hanna," which from here until the bloody climax, is choppier but also more breathlessly adrenalized. This is a brief and still incredibly violent pause (photographed by European cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler and a king of a Steadicam operator) before things really start to vroom. And it's totally amazing.
The Soloist – The Big Pullback
"The Soloist" is sort of an underrated movie, one that was mired in pre-publicity bad buzz after a strategic shift in its release date by Paramount made it look like an orphaned would-be Oscar contender that wasn’t good enough to make the cut. It's anchored by two outstanding lead performances in Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, as a schizophrenic, homeless music prodigy. We were curious, in particular, about the film's final shot, which takes place inside of Walt Disney Concert Hall. It starts as a very tight shot on our lead characters and then pulls back, through the concert hall (they're on a mezzanine level) and finally ends up down on the stage, between musicians who are performing. Cut to black. Roll credits.
It's a totally dazzling way to end the movie, although bringing up this shot was somewhat painful for McGarvey. "You've actually made me break out in hives at the very memory of it!" he exclaimed. "We were in the Disney Concert Hall and it was a rig that had been put in at quite a large expense. It was a wire-cam system but it was custom built by the grip. Unfortunately, on the day, the whole thing fucking broke down. It was a motorized, remote control trolley system, and we had tested it and we were very pleased with our ingenuity and genius. But on the day, the motors burned on the trolley and we had to actually drag the thing with a rope, back." Making matters worse was the limited timeframe of the shoot. "We were only there for a couple of days so we couldn't postpone the shoot. We had to make it work."
And make it work they did. We were still curious how they got people into position on the stage in time for the camera to swing back. McGarvey broke it down thusly: "You've got a third of a second to shuffle somebody in, so it appears you're right over their shoulder…" He sighed again at the memory, before adding: "The magic of movies."
Pride & Prejudice – The Dance
Although technically not one shot (when all is said and done, there are three separate cuts), the shots themselves are quite long and the scene, as a whole, might be the most Wright-ian (new term!) moment of the bunch. In the unforgettable dance from "Pride & Prejudice," based on Jane Austen's beloved 1813 novel, Keira Knightley plays Elizabeth Bennet, who is in the process of being wooed (and indeed wooing) the stately and grouchy Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) during a highly choreographed ballroom dance. (The two stars appear in "Anna Karenina" in a very different relationship – they play siblings.)
The sequence, under the supervision of cinematographer Roman Osin, follows them delicately as they perform the smaller portions of the much larger dance. It just stays with them. It's mesmerizing, but less for the technical virtuosity and more because we're able to get in between them with their verbal sparring. It just goes on and on, and then, it breaks, and when it breaks, and this is one of the more genius visual flourishes in Wright's oeuvre, the rest of the dancers in the ballroom melt away and it's just Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. It's the perfect visual manifestation of their closeness and connection, simple and brilliant, and when the sequence snaps back to include the other dancers, it's a painful, heartbreaking reminder of all of the outside noise that infected courtship back then.
The sequence is striking, even if it is Wright in his visual infancy, and the highlight of a highly enjoyable period romp. Without experimenting with sequences like this, we would never have the glory and opulence of "Anna Karenina." Thank you, "Pride & Prejudice."
Atonement – The Dunkirk Evacuation
If there's a single shot Joe Wright is known for, it's a four-minute tracking shot in the middle of his adaptation of Ian McEwan's literary juggernaut "Atonement" that takes place during World War II's evacuation of Dunkirk. It follows lovelorn soldier James McAvoy as he walks along the war-ravaged beach, cranes up to see a cluster of soldiers singing a patriotic hymn, and surveys the damage, before reconnecting with McAvoy. It's one of those shots that you can't help but be dazzled by (even people unaware of filmmaking technicality were blown away by it), a truly indelible moment in a movie filled with them.
All of this makes it such a surprise to know that it wasn't originally supposed to be a single shot. According to McGarvey: "Initially, it wasn't one shot. On the page, it was read as a number of scenes that occurred. We were going to shoot it as such." It was, like "Anna Karenina," a matter of both practicality and artistry that necessitated the single shot. "But then we looked at the location and firstly, we were on a beach. And a beach is only traversable for three hours on the day. So it meant that it was the only day we could shoot, three hours. And once we scouted the location we realized that the afternoon was the best for light because otherwise it was very flat-lit and horrible-looking. So once we established time for the shoot and optimized the time of day when the tide was out, we realized it had to be one shot."
What's also surprising to hear is that McGarvey didn't really want to do it as one continuous shot. "I was wary of it. I really didn't want to do it in one shot. At that point in the film I thought that it would be too totemic, it would overwhelm the subtleties of the rest of the film," McGarvey said. Once again, though, he was swayed by Wright's unrelenting vision for the sequence. "Joe, very wisely, argued, that the swirling nature of the camera would be the perfect expression of Robbie's hallucinatory state." There was other reasoning, too. "He also had this notion that the camera would shift between an objective and subjective point of view, so you could toy with those two modes in the one shot. And we realized that it would be a challenge but the right way to tell that part of the story."
The actual nuts-and-bolts of shooting it, McGarvey admitted, was "terrifying." And even though they made "a scale model of the beach and worked out the trajectory," with Joe Wright individually addressing the thousand extras (most of them from the town where they were shooting), it wasn't smooth sailing. (McGarvey is quick to point out the enormous contribution of Steadicam operator Peter Robertson, who also did the aforementioned overture sequence in "Anna Karenina," "who jumped on and off of milk carts, he was on a rickshaw, he was climbing up stuff.") After a lousy first take, and an okay second take, they finally hit their sweet spot with the third take.
"The light was extraordinary with this amazing cloud that was blocking the sun and there was just an emotion there," McGarvey said. Although there was a fairly sizable stumbling block. "In the middle of the take the microwave link back to the video village gave up so Joe had no idea if he got the shot or not. I knew. But Joe had no way of seeing it. And Joe said to do one more take," McGarvey explained. Then he added: "Talk about a sphincter-tightening moment." Wright made him do another take for safety, although that fourth take was more or less a disaster, underlit and plagued by technical errors. "It was terrifying to wait until the next day until we had the shot. I remember watching it and thinking, 'My that's something.' "
"Anna Karenina" opens in theaters tomorrow. "The Soloist," "Pride & Prejudice," "Atonement," and "Hanna" are all available on home video.