Atonement screened for my last UCLA class Monday night, and they went for it, although you can always tell when a movie has left some folks behind when they ask questions about why the characters behaved the way they did. About a third of the class had read the book. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton explained why the movie was such a difficult challenge.
The structure: when Hampton first wrote the script for Richard Eyre, he fashioned a more conventional framing device with the grown-up Briony Tallis explaining the set-up and then moving into the past. When Wright stepped in, he asked Hampton to redo it from scratch and follow the structure of the book, which leaves the revelations of the adult Briony to the end, as a surprise. This forces the audience to reexamine what they’ve already learned in a new light, which is always a risky thing to do in a film. Wright and Hampton admitted that they spent more time debating the ending than anything else. Hampton also worked closely with McEwan, who gave notes.
The casting: Wright made the call to cast three different actresses as the 13-year-old, 18-year-old and dying Briony. And he insisted on casting the youngest one first–he wanted a pre-pubescent who could act to establish the character. Then he realized that Redgrave would work perfectly for the elderly Briony; Romula Garai modeled her performance on Saorise Ronan. (All three actresses were stuck with the same short bob.) At first, Wright considered Keira Knightley, who starred in his Pride & Prejudice, for the middle Briony, but when he saw her in her designer duds at the Toronto Fest, he changed his mind and cast her as the sexy ingenue Cecilia. James McAvoy was perfect for the young gardener who attends Cambridge with Cecilia, partly because he’s believably working class. The last thing Wright wanted was “a posh actor playing common.”
The long shot: As some of you suspected, the 5 1/2-minute long shot on the beach at Dunkirk came about from necessity–Wright would have had to do 40 set-ups in one day–it was written as a montage. The director usually gets about 15 setups a day. The beach had a huge tide, which would be coming in as the day progressed. They planned an elaborate steadicam shot and rehearsed for a day, then did three takes. When Wright looked at the video playback, it was all fuzz. He tried to get another take but lost the light. It wasn’t until the actual dailies arrived in film cans that they saw how the shot came out.
The critics: After its stunning launch in Venice, Atonement became a critical and boxoffice smash in Britain. Hampton thinks that sometimes when a lauded movie arrives on these shores, some posh critics feel the need to go after it, he said.
Hampton’s next: Stephen Frears (who directed Hampton’s adaptation of his play Dangerous Liaisons) is shooting Hampton’s script of Colette’s Cherie, to star a 50ish actress as an aging woman of the night.
And Wright is working on a local L.A. story, The Soloist, from the LAT’s Steve Lopez, about a homeless musician. Jamie Foxx is now starving himself for the role, and practicing the violin.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]