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Joe Wright Talks Liberating ‘Anna Karenina,’ from Stoppard and Knightley to Dior, Supertramp and ‘The Leopard’

Joe Wright Talks Liberating 'Anna Karenina,' from Stoppard and Knightley to Dior, Supertramp and 'The Leopard'

The decision not to shoot “Anna Karenina” on location in Russia liberated director Joe Wright. Without changing the Tom Stoppard adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic–which threw out all sorts of things anyway–Wright used an old London theater as a way to completely free himself from the constrictions of period costume drama. “Anna Karenina” is a swirling, mad, exuberant, joyful, passionate celebration of the novel. Is Anna (Keira Knightley of Wright’s “Atonement” and “Pride & Prejudice”) your ordinary romantic heroine? Not by a long shot. She’s doomed to meet that train. But there’s more to this story than adultery. Tolstoy’s counterpart, Levin (Domhall Gleeson), balances out the drama. And Jude Law gives one of his best performances as Anna’s cuckolded husband.

Anne Thompson: You were going to shoot naturalistically Tom Stoppard’s script on location in Russia, but changed your mind. What happened?

Joe Wright:   Originally Tom wrote a a magnificent screenplay set in various places around Russia. We were looking around lots of palaces in Russia and people were saying things like, ‘yes, we’ve shot seven Anna Karenina’s here before,’ and I was getting more depressed and thinking, ‘what am I doing and who am I?’  At the same time now for a number of years I have wanted to experiment with the fourth wall and I’ve been reading Mikhalkov, the Russian director from the revolutionary period, and I was fascinated by the idea that stylization was about subtraction rather than decoration. And there were also budgetary concerns. We were spending a lot of our budget on hotels and travel expenses and Russian taxes.  Also, the main thing was that I have been wanting to find a way to focus more and more on the actors and finding a way to express the essence of the story in the characters without getting hung up on the ephemera of realism.  This all built up to the point where I decided to set the film in one location and then I had to think about what that location might be.  I was reading Orlando Figes’ book ‘Natasha’s Dance’ about the cultural history of Russia and he talks about Russian society of the period living their lives as if on a stage, they were experiencing an identity crisis.  They desperately wanted to be part of Western Europe and imitated the French, including speaking French they all spoke French more than Russian.

AT: ‘War and Peace’ is full of French and so is ‘Anna Karenina.’

JW: Yes, they spoke English when talking about horses. And Italian when talking about art, but generally they spoke French.  So this idea of the theater seemed to be an appropriate metaphor.

AT: Stoppard wrote one thing, and then what was the process of going back to him and saying ‘Tom…’

JW:  ‘I’ve had an idea.’ The idea was not to change the script.  There were no re-writes to incorporate in the theater.  The idea was that I would use it almost like a play script, like you can take Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and set it in the Weimar Republic.  You take the script and you find cinematic equivalents to expressions for what is written there.  For the scene for instance when Levin is at the restaurant with Oblonsky and Kitty calls from above, in the script that was cut from the restaurant, wide shots of the palace, a carriage pulls out, the doorman opens the door.  Levin trudges through the snow, goes in, rings the bell.  This takes up a lot of time and it was really a matter of finding how do we get a sense of that?  Definitely Kitty needed to be above him when he first saw her, so we found cinematic equivalents within this style when we had the idea. I have a long notice-board in my studio, we put post-it notes along it, me and my designer Sarah Greenwood and we figured out over three days really.

AT: It must have been exhilarating. There is such liberation in this movie.

JW: What I find is if you set limitations they somehow liberate you. I did a TV thing once where I only used one lens and that was fantastic, it completely liberated me.  

AT: Another shot that I love is where you are in these interiors and fireworks are going off and you lift the ceiling.  How did that come to you?

JW: I once got invited when I was doing TV to a television festival in Monte Carlo. There was an extraordinary night at the end of the television festival, this party and the bloke came onstage and said: “Ladies and gentleman, Supertramp.” And Supertramp came onstage and the ceiling rolled back and there were the stars.  I decided not to use Supertramp in the end. (Laughter)

AT: It feels almost like a musical. It isn’t obviously, but the way you used the set pieces.  It’s choreographed.

JW:  I conceived it as a ballet with words.  That came before the theater idea really.  I’m interested in the craft of acting.  I know that sounds like a silly thing to say because I’m a director, but I’m interested in exploring the physicality of performance and interested in blurring the lines between walking and choreography. And just focusing on what the body is saying as much as what the words are saying.  I worked with a choreographer named Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and he came and worked with us together with the actors.  Most of the rehearsals were about the physicality of workshopping and relationship through movement. And it lead on from there.

AT: In the extraordinary dance scene where everybody is fluttering their hands, how close is that is to the actual dance in the period? How were you were able to use stylization to exaggerate?

JW:  We looked at the period dance and for the ball everything that is going on below the waist is historically accurate and what’s happening above the waist is not.  We thought the ball, given that they were dancing, was a natural place to push the boundaries of that dance experience and be more expressive and find a way to find this flirtation and the push-pull of romantic engagement.

AT: You worked very well with the music there, cross-cutting between the two couples to a hideous crescendo. 

JW: Dario [Marianelli] and I have made four films now, this is our fourth collaboration.  All of the music was composed prior to shooting not just the dance sequences but other things as well.  

AT: That’s unusual isn’t it?

JW: But I find that it kind of helps us to be on the same page, it gives the actors a rhythm and the camera operator a kind of a rhythm too.  With the ball scene we just rehearsed and rehearsed and the actors were exhausted by this process but we drilled the dance for a long time.  And it was just, it was the sequence that I was most nervous and excited about.  I had loved doing the ball scene in ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ but knew I wanted to up that.  And I had in my sights the ball scene in Visconti’s ‘The Leopard,’ by no means suggesting I have surpassed that…

AT: You went back to Keira Knightly to be your Anna Karenina.  Was that an obvious choice for you?  Were there other options?

JW: No. I specifically wanted to make another film with Keira.  It has been a great privilege of my career to have witnessed her develop from stunning ingenue to great actress and for me, I think her performance in this movie is her crowning achievement.  Having seen her on “Pride” when she was 18 and “Atonement” when she was 21, then she went through some rough times, a couple of dark years there.  If it don’t kill you it makes you stronger and she had become this extraordinary powerful woman and I wanted to give her the chance to express that.

AT: The way that you worked with your costume designer, it’s almost as if the costumes are part of her character.  The animal skins, the bird cage.

JW: The dead birds, the diamonds that are cold, the dead animals around her neck.  There is a lot of sex and death in her costumes, that was basically the idea.  The costumes feel as if they might fall off her.  We looked at the period dresses.  Though I like the silhouettes, I didn’t like the detailing.  So Jacqueline and I began to look at Dior dresses of the 1950s and realized they were similar in terms of the shape.  So we started developing a style of dress, and like the dance, it was totally un-historically correct.  And that was the fun of it, we were creating a fantasy in the film as most period films should be fantasies because I’m not interested in historical reenactment because it’s impossible.

AT: And Alicia Vikander is a real discovery as well, she’s also very good in ‘A Royal Affair.’ Why is she the right woman for Kitty?  She’s Swedish.

JW: She’s Swedish indeed, yeah. That slightly worried me.  I’d seen her in ‘Pure,’ a film she made in Denmark and I thought was extraordinary. I met her, she read, and I thought she was one of the most determined people I’d ever met in my life.  She studied at the Royal Ballet in Sweden from 6 to 18, then when she was 18 she was offered a place in the Royal Ballet in Gothenburg, she chose to start acting instead.  So she has that incredible discipline that dancers have.  So she could play that kind of sweetness and superficiality of the younger Kitty and the sincerity and authenticity of the later.

AT:  You shot this in 35 mm?

JW:  Yes we did.  Last film to be shown at the Odeon on film.  

AT: You haven’t gone over to digital. You and Chris Nolan and Steven Spielberg.

JW: Yeah but I might have to.

AT: Why?

JW: Because the laboratories in London aren’t capable of really coping with 35 anymore on this kind of scale, which is a complete tragedy.  The problem is that the laboratories aren’t set up to deal with it.  It’s just dreadful because they’ve shut all the laboratories down and there is just one left in London. But the rushes were generally a mess when we got them back, and always late.  So it was just generally frustrating, so we’ll see.  There will be discussions with Dr. McGarvey as we call him.

AT: Seamus.  How many films have you two done together now?

JW: This is only our third film together.  We’ve known each other for 20 years.  We started out in the early 90s; he was cameraman for Pop Videos and he was and still is my hero.

AT: You usually have a signature shot in a movie, of course I remember the exhilarating long steadicam shot in ‘Atonement.’ What shot were you most proud of in this film?

JW: People talk about the steadicam shots and stuff, generally they come about out of necessity.  My favorite shots are always closeups.  I love the human face more than any flashy choreographed moment.  One of my favorite shots in this, is of Keira sitting in a chair when she comes back from seeing her son for the last time and she has the veil on and the light moves across the wall.

AT: What were you up to with the veils?

JW: Just the idea of caging her, of hiding her more and more. A large element of Anna’s character is about shame, so it seemed in appropriate in terms of that emotion.

AT: I like how you used the scaffolding of the theater as an upstairs-downstairs divide.

JW: I like that the stage has the serf-class, also the idea obviously was to start on the stage with the Oblonskys, but then to really take film throughout the entire theater and use as much of the theater as possible.

AT: Did you have real debates about when to stay inside and when to go outside?  Because you do go outside.

JW:  We do.  We go outside with Levin mostly.  The idea for me was the book was two books in one.  There is the fiction of Anna Karenina and then the semi-autobiographical portrait of Levin as Tolstoy.  Tolstoy kept a memoir of his entire life apart from the four years during which he wrote ‘Anna Karenina,’ and when asked ‘why?’ he said, ‘because Levin is my autobiography.’  I was trying to find a cinematic equivalent for that idea, so the theatrical artifice of the theater suited the fiction of Anna and the more cinematic reality suited Levin, although there is no such thing as reality in film so therefore it’s all artifice.

Sarah Greenwood, my designer and I have worked together now for about fifteen years.  I’ve never shot a frame without her.  So, we’ve got to the point where we can’t remember what was my idea or her idea, our aesthetic and our ideas are so meshed now. Like all my crew, they’re a company of creatives I’ve worked with for a long time and we’re kind of a little family now. Sarah, Jacqueline Durran, Seamus McGarvey, Dario Marianelli.

AT: What is the difference in Russian society between St. Petersburg and Moscow? We think of Moscow as the bigger city but St. Petersburg was the sophisticated cultural center?

JW: St. Petersburg was the capital and built almost like a set very hastily.  Peter brought in these French architects and it was the sophisticated seat of power. It was fashionable.  Moscow was more Russian in its character, more to do with the Orthodox church, more to do with big meals. I always think of Oblonsky with big feasts, where in St. Petersburg, they’re all rather anemic.

AT: Tell me about the sets you built?  You were constantly striking and building?

JW: It’s an enormous great set we built, it was operating 65 days continuously.  When were weren’t shooting there they were turning it over to the next sequence, so never it went dark for 65 days. It was really exciting. 

Audience question: What attracts you to adaptations, particularly the old ones?

JW: I feel like I need to catch up.  I’m dyslexic, and I really didn’t start reading properly until i was 15 or 16.  And then I read a book called ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’ by Milan Kundera and instantly my brain exploded and I realized there was this stuff I really needed to know and I was missing out on a huge part of life if I didn’t really attack it.  So I consider it a continuation of my education and these writers are like my teachers and with this one I had the great Thomas Stoppard to tutor me through the experience. I’m not a screenwriter but somehow adaptations give me a freedom, I feel liberated when I’m working within those limitations.  It’s one of those paradoxes.

Audience: Can you talk a little bit about your rehearsal process with the actors?

JW: A lot of that depends on the individual actors. Keira and Jude in particular like to really sit at a table and talk a lot and will do almost anything to avoid actually standing up and acting. (Laughter) So I let them do that for a day and then make them get up and get on with it.  For the first week, pretty much, I had everyone who had a speaking part in the room together and didn’t differentiate between the Keiras, and the Judes, and the one-liners. And we workshopped ideas about Russian society at the time and did things like having improvisations.  We separated the group between those who were playing the serfs or servants and those who were playing the aristocracy and the servants would operate the aristocracy as if they were puppets to think about those relationships.  I like the idea that comes up quite a lot that the aristocracy never have to lift a finger, you can walk across and sit down and a chair would appear under your bum.  Or the way in which Oblonsky changes his coat, he doesn’t do anything, it just kind of changes around him.  So that idea sort of grew out of that workshop process, then I start to work with smaller pairings, working with the family unit and then building out from that family to give a sense of where they have come  from.  But then again working quite physically, a lot of the stuff I did with Keira and Aaron was quite physical work too.

Audience: How long was your shoot?  How many days?

JW: 65. We went to Russia the last few days, it was an island called Kizhi that’s where we shot the exterior and snowscape scenes.

Audience: How did you develop your editing process,  how much time do you spend in editing with your editor, or do you just give it to him and go?

JW: In fact the edit room is in my house, so I’m there all the time. I think about the edit exactly, I design the film very much in my head and prior to shooting and then whilst I’m shooting I’m thinking about how it’s going to be cut. I’ve always loved it, it’s the stuff of film really, film for me is really about time and movement and playing with those tools is how you create meaning.  I remember the first time I really experienced the potential of a transition, I was about 16, was David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” They all go around to Ben’s house and sing “Candy-Colored Camera” and at the end of the scene there is a wide shot of Dennis Hopper standing in the room and he shouts: “Let’s hit the effing road.” Then he disappears and as he disappears, the camera has been locked off, as he disappears, you hear the sound of car wheels spinning off and then it cuts to car wheels spinning off that shot and then cuts to inside the car.  That struck me as something extraordinary, having never really understood the power of edit until I saw Lynch. 

AT: You get to play with real disjunctive stuff here.  You have a train in a mirror.  

JW: Yeah, no, I like that you can start playing with pre-lapsed images and all that stuff.  And enjoy a lot of that sixties cutting, the psychedelic cutting, where they would kind of intercut.  “Easy Rider,” they did a lot of that didn’t they? What I love is when you’re in the cutting room trying this stuff out and it seems to somehow make complete sense when it works.  And when it doesn’t work it fails, it’s a strange instinctive relationship with the editing.

AT: You’ve been working a lot.  You’ve done about five films in eight years. What’s coming up next?  

JW: I’m going to spend next year in London making some theater.  I’m doing a couple of plays, one at the Dunbar one at the Young Vic.  I’ve never done theater before so I’m excited.

AT: This gave you a little practice.  Well did it?  Did it make you feel like this is what you want to do?

JW: To an extent.  I feel like some of the ideas I’ve had perhaps as suited to theater as they are to film.

AT: You’re not giving up on film are you?

JW: No, I just need to slow down a bit.


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