Tackling A Classic: Joe Wright on “Pride and Prejudice”

Tackling A Classic: Joe Wright on "Pride and Prejudice"

So who is this Joe Wright, anyway? One thing’s for sure: the director of the hot Brit film “Pride and Prejudice” doesn’t come across as very Jane Austen: working class/Cockney accent, floppy hair shoved under a beret, punk good looks. He claims he was dyslexic as a child and has “a lot of catching up to do.” When he was sent the script for “Pride,” he’d never read the novel. He’d never made a feature film.

Wright, 33, hails from the world of British telly, where he directed several miniseries, including “Charles II” and the social realist “Bodily Harm” with Timothy Spall. Granted, Brit telly is pretty high-end, and “Charles II” snagged a BAFTA (cousin to our Academy Awards). Yet it’s something of a surprise that Working Title gambled on a director lacking intellectual/lit cred or a track record in features for this big screen adaptation. (And equally surprising that none had been made since MGM’s Greer GarsonLaurence Olivier starrer, though a memorable TV miniseries appeared in 1995 with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.)

To judge by reactions at this year’s Toronto, though, Wright turned out to be an inspired choice. His take on this Regency tale of strong-willed women in a caste-bound society melds romantic sweep with period detail. With its sumptuous visuals, roistering ensembles, and a star-making turn from Keira Knightley as heroine Elizabeth Bennet, “Pride” exudes the youthful exuberance of an author who penned her novel at 21.

The Bennet family has five daughters to marry off. So when the Misters Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen) and Bingley (Simon Wood) settle in nearby, the chase is on it being “universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Mrs. B (a perpetually flushed Brenda Blethyn) grasps hysterically at any matrimonial prospect, since an arcane law deeding the family property to a male cousin (Tom Hollander in a priceless cameo) could land her brood in impoverished spinsterhood.

Uppity aristocrat Darcy is prejudiced against the Bennet’s lesser social status (they have a kinsman in trade) while Lizzie’s pride is nicked when at a ball she overhears Darcy dissing her looks (it’s a credit to Knightley’s assured turn that his judgment doesn’t trigger guffaws). In this template for romcom, the hostile attraction of the high-spirited pair culminates, after many reversals, in a happy union. Lizzie, you could say, marries up. Paralleling the material on the screen, Wright reportedly became involved, after filming, with patrician-looking Rosamund Pike, who plays Lizzie’s demure elder sister Jane. While the rough-diamond Wright never made it to university, Pike plays the piano and cello, speaks French and German and graduated with honors from Oxford. Life imitating art.

indieWIRE sat down with the director (who was fighting a cold) over breakfast at the trendy 60 Thompson Street hotel to discuss what shaped his updated version of Austen’s classic.

indieWIRE: Isn’t “Pride and Prejudice” compulsory reading for the English?

Joe Wright: I guess so. But since I’m dyslexic, I didn’t read any books at all when I was growing up. And then when I did start reading, I was reading kind of uh [inaudible] lit, like Milan Kundera.

iW: That’s called bottom literature?

JW: No modern. [Into my mike]: Modern, not bottom-dwelling literature like a carp. So, no, I’d never read any Austen and then I went and read the book. And I was stunned by it really — it seemed to me the first piece of British realism. It felt so accurately observed, so carefully drawn. And very, very true as well. And actually to discover this thing that spoke so directly to human experience. So at that point I had some ideas on how to make the film. And once those ideas had put their claws in me, I found it very difficult to escape them and really just wanted to see them realized.

iW: Tell me about your education.

JW: I went to comprehensive school in North London and left without any qualifications [diploma]. And I was doing bits of acting and improv in a drama club in the evenings. Then I discovered you didn’t need qualifications to go to art school, you just needed a body of work. I had my paintings and my Super 8 films, so I applied and was accepted to do fine art and film.

iW: How did you segue into directing?

JW: I got a scholarship the last year to make a short film for the BBC that gained some awards. Then a producer for the BBC said, How about doing TV? And gave me the script for “Nature Boy.” Then they offered me “Charles II,” very different from “Pride and Prejudice.” It was quite violent, quite a lot of sex in it. Charles was renowned for being extremely promiscuous. It was all shot in the studio — kind of “West Wing” circa 1600. I guess I was very lucky.

iW: You’re saying your success is due to luck?

JW: Yeah, I worked hard, but I was lucky the right people happened to see my work.

iW: How did you get tapped to direct “Pride and Prejudice” with its big name cast?

JW: I dunno, really. I went in and did an interview and told them my ideas. And they gave me the job. And then I cast it. So the cast wasn’t attached when I came on board.

iW: How were you able to snag the likes of Keira Knightley, Judi Dench, and the rest?

JW: It was just a good script. Like myself, actors are drawn to the quality of the script [by novelist and miniseries writer Deborah Moggach]. Initially I thought Keira was probably too beautiful for the role. And when I met her I discovered this scruffy kind of little tomboy character. And discovered she had incredible wit and intelligence and a very strong personality. Those qualities made me think that she doesn’t fit into the kind of preconceived ideas of what a girl should be. And that made me think she’d be perfect for Elizabeth.

iW: Her Lara in the TV version of “Dr. Zhivago” felt a bit anemic. Especially after Julie Christie.

JW: I think Keira’s great in the “Pirates” stuff when she’s playing opposite Johnny Depp. She’s been learning in public. She’s very young — 18 when we met her for the part. And she’s been developing and learning in the public eye. And that’s sometimes difficult.

iW: Why film this novel now?

JW: There hadn’t been a film version of “Pride and Prejudice” for about 65 years. So it felt like it was time to be made again. Also, I don’t really make work in the context of what’s been made before. Certain ideas just get their hooks in me.

iW: What did you bring to the story that’s new?

JW: In the 1940s film, Olivier was in his 40s, Garson in her 30s. To me that makes a mockery of the story. It’s about very young people falling in love. And I thought casting people of the right ages [like Knightley and MacFadyen] was the key to it. It seems really obvious, but it hadn’t occurred to anyone. In the book Elizabeth was 20 and Darcy 28.

iW: In those days their teeth would be falling out by age 30.

JW: Yes, Mr. Bennet would have had wooden pegs for teeth. If you think English people’s teeth are bad now, you should have seen them then.

iW: One of the things I most admired was that the film didn’t look like Masterpiece Theatre. You’ve said you wanted to avoid the “picturesque tradition.”

JW: For a start, I like messiness. I think messy is beautiful. I think tidiness is ugly and so that’s just my aesthetic. Through my research I also discovered that life was pretty dirty in those days. It wasn’t all clean and pristine. The Bennets didn’t really have the finances to keep a house like that in the order it should be kept. They would have only bathed once a week. Their clothes would be washed rarely.

iW: That really comes across. I had the feeling of sweat and smells and earthiness. When Lizzie is twirling on the swing in the courtyard, you can almost smell the manure. And when Mrs. Bennet was always flushing, it seemed almost menopausal. Was that in your mind?

JW: Uh, maybe. A little.

iW: Then you have this pig walk by and he has enormous balls.

JW: That’s not something we thought of before we saw the pig. Then when we met the pig, we were incredibly impressed by him. I’m rather interested in the fact that a family like the Bennets would only own female pigs. They’d hire the male pig to come in and, as they call it, cover the sows, at a fee. I kind of liked the parallels between human and animal procreation. I wanted a sense of the elements, of mud and rain. It occurred to me that love is an elemental force, and I wanted to set it in the context of the other elements. And it seemed to me that if Elizabeth had a very earthbound existence, then her aspiration for romantic love would be all the more heroic. She’s got her feet in the mud, and she’s reaching for the stars. I think it’s a heroic story.

iW: Why heroic?

JW: It’s about two people who have the imagination to envisage a world in which they’re able to love each other. You know, they are creating a new society in a way.

iW: Are there parallels with this story today?

JW: I think that people are still trying to understand each other and overcome prejudices. And people are still, most important, loving each other. And that is today as it was yesterday and will be for another 200 years. It’s also about a young woman growing up. And young people are still having to grow up and learn about themselves.

Director Joe Wright with actress Keira Knightley on the set of his film, “Pride and Prejudice.” Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

iW: Did you punch up the caste snobbery in the film? It’s pretty strong.

JW: No, it’s in Jane Austen. Each character has a different kind of snobbery and mind-set. Society at that time was changing. The French Revolution has just happened and the aristocracy are terrified that the lower classes are going to rise up in arms against them. So rather than segregate themselves, they assimilated. That’s why Darcy and Bingley go to that first Assembly dance.

iW: They’re slumming.

JW: Yah, Bingley thinks it’s marvelous, embraces it with open arms. All the more girls to dance with, all the more fun to be had. He’s not a snob at all really. Whereas Caroline Bingley is incredibly threatened by this whole development. She’s probably kind of new money. Not old money like Darcy, who’s more settled in his position.

iW: Obviously, an adaptation requires pruning. How did you shape Austen’s novel?

JW: We tried to stay faithful to the narrative beats of the story, but also the atmosphere and tone of the book. That’s why there are so many closeups. Jane Austen observes people very carefully and closely: so that was the cinematic equivalent of her prose. I like closeups very much indeed. I think studying the human face on that kind of scale is one of the enduring pleasures of film. Also the constant movement of the camera felt like an equivalent to the sense of energy and excitement about her talent that comes across to me when reading the book.

iW: There’s a magical, storybook feel to the film as well, especially with those glorious English settings and mansions.

JW: My parents founded a puppet theater. What I was playing with was the idea of bringing together the social realist aesthetic with fairytale imagery. I like the way the Bennet house has a moat around it. So you have five virgins living on an island, and stuff like that.

iW: What prompted you to open the film with that long Steadicam shot that follows Lizzie into the Bennet house?

JW: I wanted the audience to feel like they were living at this time, and involved deeply. I wanted a 360-degree world, where you could look around any corner, and it would still be period accurate.

iW: The opening Steadicam shot feels like music, like a dance.

JW: Exactly. Dario [Marianelli, composer of the film’s soundtrack] wrote a piece of music before we filmed that scene. So I had the music playing in my headphones while we were shooting it, which was really nice. For atmosphere, just for me. It helped with that feeling of it being a dance.

iW: But the long shot of Lizzie standing on the cliff, hair and skirts blowing, isn’t that more “Wuthering Heights” than Jane Austen?

JW: Austen set her scenes in parlors and people’s front rooms. And I wanted to take it out of the parlors. It’s not interesting to set everything inside.

iW: What was it like first day on the set?

JW: Terrifying. I had Judi Dench at the dinner table scene. On TV crews you have about 70 people maybe. With this, when I turned up there were over 300 people. That was a shock to start with. And then I was very nervous about directing Judi, because she’s such a genius. And I quite quickly realized that Judi was probably as nervous as I was. She gets very nervous, Judi. So I saw my role as making sure that she was okay and looking after her, and then I stopped being quite so nervous.

iW: What’s up next?

JW: I think I’m doing an adaptation of a book called “Atonement,” an Ian McEwan novel. Do you know it?

iW: I’ve read it at least twice.

JW: Yah, it’s wonderful, huh? I can’t wait.

iW: What’s the source of your confidence?

JW: Ignorance. And naivete. I just see it as a great story that I’d like to tell.

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