With only a handful of features to his name, Joe Wright has established himself one of the world’s most reliable filmmakers. He made “Pride & Prejudice” fresh and vital in his debut, reunited with Keira Knightley in the award-winning “Atonement” and ventured of to the U.S. to shoot the powerful, if overlooked, “The Soloist.” His latest, “Hanna,” finds him working again with another “Atonement” star, Saoirse Ronan, but that’s where the similarities end.
“Hanna” is a violent, action-packed thrill machine boasting a pulsing soundtrack by The Chemical Brothers, and is a beast unlike anything Wright’s tackled before. Ronan plays the titular heroine, a 16 year old raised in the icy wilderness of northern Finland by her father Erik, an ex-CIA agent. When she decides it’s time to venture out into the “real world,” she comes up against ruthless FBI agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett, sporting a red wig and a droll Texas accent), who will stop at nothing to capture Hanna.
indieWIRE caught up with Wright in Manhattan.
Now I thought “The Soloist” marked a departure for you, but “Hanna” takes the cake. You parted ways with your composer, worked for the first time with an original script and tackled action set pieces. Did you feel a need to really challenge yourself on this outing?
I wanted to smash it all up a bit, really. I felt like deconstructing myself and my filmmaking. There was a kind of punk impulse in me. I’m generally a bit of a soul boy, but a little bit of a punk came out in me.
What about the action? Were you at all apprehensive about tackling something this complex in execution?
Yeah, I was really scared. But I like fear. It gets me up in the morning. I think it’s really important to step outside of your comfort zone and challenge yourself. There’s no reason why one shouldn’t develop as an artist.
I was at that great upheaval exhibition at the Guggenheim the other day. There were these artists, like [Marcel] Duchamp who painted these extraordinary cubist paintings, and then suddenly he’s takes a urinal, turns it upside down and puts it in an art gallery. I love the idea that we are free to change and develop. I think the idea of making the same type of film throughout your career would be really boring. I hope to be around a long time and I hope to make lots of different types of films.
So why the return to period romance for your next film, “Anna Karenina”?
One doesn’t really think of genre, period or non-period; one really responds to stories and characters. That was what first drew me to “Hanna.” With “Anna Karenina,” the idea of a challenge to take on such an extraordinary work of fiction is really exciting. Tolstoy’s analysis of motivation and character is so extraordinary, it’s so kind of acute.
I also said I’d do it if Tom Stoppard wrote the script and he said yes. For me, every film is an education. To sit at the feet of the master and learn from him is an amazing opportunity for me. I also wanted to really work with Keira [Knightley] again — and in fact, a whole company of British actors. I was really enjoying the idea of doing a film that’s more about the actors than “Hanna” was about the action.
Speaking of Keira, you have a tendency to collaborate with some actors more that once; in the case of “Hanna,” with Saoirse Ronan. Would you have made “Hanna” without Ronan?
No, I don’t think I would have made it without her, to be honest. I’m not sure that anyone else could have done it. As soon as I knew she was on board, I had an idea in my head of what the film might be in terms of the subtext and atmosphere. I do like working with the same company of actors. I also work with the same company of technicians as well. It’s rather like a kind of theater company.
Can you recall your initial first impressions of Ronan?
I was kind of freaked out by her when I first met her. I first saw her on a tape her dad and her had made in a house in Ireland. It was her as this little kid being Briony Tallis. Someone told me that she was actually Irish which I couldn’t believe because her accent was so perfect. And then she came over to London and she was totally not Briony, other than the fact that she had this extraordinary imagination and talent for belief.
Were you taken aback by how she threw herself into the role of Hanna?
No. I have absolute belief in her as an artist. I kind of think she can do anything. She has a preternatural understanding of the human condition.
The film plays out like a fairy tale. Was that in the script or did you bring this aspect to it?
I saw it in the sense that the opening of the film is very like a fairy tale and also the structure of the story was kind of fairy-tale like. The darkness of it I felt was akin to a fairy tale. But then I kind of emphasized and made it far more explicit.
Was your fascination with fairy tales borne out of your background in puppetry?
Yeah. My parents were puppeteers and they founded a puppet theater in London called the Little Angel Theater, which has its 50th anniversary this year. The shows that they put on were mostly fairy tales or folk tales. These performances, I saw thousands and thousands of time as a child. You can’t help but have them somehow become a part of you.
Have your parents had the chance to see “Hanna”?
My dad’s dead, but my mom has seen the film. She got quite a kick out of it.
How did The Chemical Brothers come on board? You created visuals for them back when you worked for Vegetable Vision.
Yeah, back in the old days. I first went to see them play at a gig at a club above a shoe shop in North London in 1992. That’s nearly fucking 20 years ago! I’ve been a groupie really ever since. I have a very broad, eclectic taste in music – from Beethoven to The Chemical Brothers. So the opportunity to work with a modern contemporary score was something I was very excited about and came early in the process.
This seems to be a current trend right now.
I think the musicians are more open to it right now, maybe because of the state of the music industry. People are more open to applying their artistry in areas just beyond the albums and the singles. I think they find it fun.
How collaborative are you with your composers. “Atonement” seemed to be edited in synch with the music. The same goes for the action sequences in “Hanna.”
The Chemical Brothers wrote some of the score before we even started filming. Also Dario [Marianelli] did the same for “Atonement.” So we were actually filming with the music playing often. I sometimes think my job is on-set DJ.
Any more action films on the horizon?
See, I don’t really think of “Hanna” as an action film. I don’t classify my films in terms of genre. But yeah, I don’t see why not. I really enjoyed it. What I don’t enjoy is working on blue screen. There was very little of it in “Hanna.” But what there was, was dull as fucking dishwater. I like going out into the field with my actors and crew and exploring the world. So I can’t imagine doing a high-concept blue screen movie. But then, never say never.
This film was made on a relatively low budget for a film of its kind. Do you like working within certain means?
I kind of like the range of around $30 million. I like it because there’s enough money to have some fun with, a bit of freedom financially and time, but still you’re allowed to be a bit more experimental with that money.
Did you ever feel hindered given the elaborate action in “Hanna”?
Yeah, it was a fucking nightmare. It was a really tough shoot. Most action films maybe take 150 days to shoot and we had 62. So that meant we had to find creative ways to achieve the sequences. For instance, the Eric Bana’s stedicam scene was done out necessity because we only had one day to shoot it. But I often think necessity is the mother of invention. And I think limitations often push you more creatively.
That’s not to say, if there are any studio executives reading this interview, I wouldn’t welcome a $100 million. I like to keep my options open.