Joe Wright is a director who not only sees but conceives his films through their setting and a sense of space.
“Drama occurs between people in relation to each other, and in relation to the space in which they find themselves. It’s entirely linked,” explained Wright. Perched on the window of his New York hotel room, he tried to elucidate his point with an impromptu scenario.
“Okay, say you’re going to meet your wife, no, your girlfriend, and you intend to propose to her,” Wright paused as he took a drag from his cigarette, thinking through the scenario. “You’ve played it out in your head. When you arrive in the gardens, or maybe it’s a restaurant, with an idea of what it’s going to be like, something about the space completely throws you. The space plays a role in how the drama will play out — it can end in disaster and comedy, or it can feed the romance of the moment, and accentuate it.”
It is not uncommon for a film director to conceive story in images, for which setting can be a foundational component. But for Wright, the spatial containers of his films are often not only the entry point through which he sees character and story, but also performance, movement, composition, sound, and music. The very backbone of the 49-year-old director’s career is his 23-year collaboration with production designer Sarah Greenwood, and their indispensable set dresser Katie Spencer.
“It was one of the first times that I’d ever encountered such a solid creative team around a director in terms of design,” said frequent collaborator, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, recalling the first time he worked with the trio on “Atonement.” “Sarah and Katie are very much Joe’s righthand people. From the very outset they’re thinking about not only the look of the film, but the sort of philosophical aspects of it and how they connect with the design, the colors, the locations — all those things crystallize in Joe and Sarah and Katie’s early discussions.”
Often the very idea driving Wright’s fresh adaptations of familiar material — ranging from Tolstoy (“Anna Karenina”) to Winston Churchill during the Great War (“The Darkest Hour”) — is wrapped up in his sense of space. His first feature film, the 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice,” is a perfect example.
Focus Features/courtesy Everett Collection
“One of the things he did was he cast for age, which was absolutely perfect,” said Greenwood of Wright casting the then-18-year old Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet, with Carey Mulligan, Jena Malone, and Talulah Riley playing her younger siblings. “They’re behaving like girls do the world over. That was this freshness that came with it was that these girls.”
There was also a youthfulness behind the camera. Greenwood recalled thinking the young director was naive while location scouting for “Pride & Prejudice.” Not only did he have a surprising lack of knowledge of period (though she’d come to understand that “Joe is the fastest learner I’ve ever met”), but he seemed either unaware, or unbothered, of how his interpretation of Austen would be received by purists. The popular Colin Firth–starring “Pride & Prejudice” BBC series — set in the far more proper and straight-laced Regency period, circa 1810s, when Austen’s book was first published – was still fresh in the audience’s mind.
“There was a certain naivete, but it was his very instinctive response to Jane Austen,” said Greenwood, who was also quick to point out their film’s “far less prissy, more robust” Regency era setting, circa 1790, was more in line with when Austen actually wrote the book. Wright’s initial instincts — that golden nugget, and kernel of an idea — would become a vision that Greenwood and Spencer would come to nurture, and help evolve, not only because they grew to trust it, but because the then-32-year-old director proved an unstoppable force of nature.
Greenwood was amused on that first scouting trip when Wright fell in love with the extremely aristocratic Chatsworth House. Wright became determined it would not only be his fictional Pemberley (the country estate owned by Darcy family), but he would remove its heavy Victorian drapes to expose its hidden stone. He wrote its owner, the Duchess of Devonshire, about how her family home, passed down through 16 generations, was the vital ingredient to his love letter to Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice.”
“Not only did it work, [the Duchess and Wright] ended up having this amazing friendship for years,” said Greenwood. “He gets blood out of a stone, because at that moment it’s the most important thing. Katie and I had a certain [professional] experience up to that point, but to work with someone who’s going to push it — and that’s what Joe does — was exciting.”
At the heart of Wright’s vision was how he saw the Bennet household. No longer able to afford the servants to maintain a house of that size, the family of five daughters was conceived “as a house of many, many voices, and a complete mess,” said Wright. “It was sort of just teetering on the verge of being completely out of control.”
That conception was not only guidance for the production design, it was integral to Wright’s process and use camera.
In the video below, you can watch how Greenwood and Spencer did the painstaking work of converting the interior of a historical house to create a 360 environment, allowing Wright’s camera to effortlessly move between interior and exterior, and capture the “crazy familial, love fest” of “Pride & Prejudice.”
It is a perfect example of how, in Wright and Greenwood’s films, there is a distinct relationship between the camera and characters as it relates to movement, which is inseparable from the space. According to McGarvey, it is remarkable how much of even the photographic direction stems from the production design. “I’ve never had such fundamental discussions on my side of things, the cinemamonographic side, with a design team as I have with Sarah and Katie.”
Take Churchill’s underground war room in “The Darkest Hour” (shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel). The set has grounding in period recreation, but it is not a real or literal space, but rather a cinematographic one. As Gary Oldman’s Churchill stomps around, the narrow, cramped space feels endless.
“You never get your geography, you don’t feel like your feet are ever on the ground,” said Greenwood. “That sense of space was something Joe wanted. How you moved around was very important — how fast it was and the fact that you were always turning and turning and turning.”
That psychological state of mind expressed through space and movement is integral to the success of Wright’s film, but the ability to translate that into something that can be shot practically and felt on screen is a masterful piece of craft by Greenwood.
And yet from the breezy sense of how the exterior invades the Bennett’s interiors, to psychological expression of endlessness in “Darkest Hour,” each of Wright and Greenwood’s cinematic concepts is grounded by Spencer’s set dressing. Compare the BBC 1995 “Pride & Prejudice” to their 2005 version (or any of Wright’s period films, ranging from the historical to the musical fantasy adaptation of “Cyrano”), and what separates Wright and Greenwood’s films is how lived-in Spencer makes the spaces look and feel.
For “Pride & Prejudice,” Spencer would first formerly dress the set, then “break it” to reflect the state of the Bennets. “Here was a family who was struggling, they were genteel, but Mrs. Bennet needed her daughters to marry well,” said Spencer. “So that formal room with its faded covers, this reflects its glory from a time that was gone. That was slightly unfashionable. And then the clutter, they leave their books, their glasses, they squabble and knock things over. So it was a question of unsettling.”
According to Wright, Spencer’s set dressing was so character driven, he was able to take his young cast to the fully dressed set for a week before production to get completely used to living in the house (they actually slept in a nearby hotel) and develop the family dynamic. Added Greenwood, “Every time we come back to that house in the film, it feels like coming home, which is what it was.”
Watch how Spencer “vaulted” the Roxanne (Haley Bennett) character off the page in “Cyrano” in the video below:
With each project, as soon as Wright has a concept or early script draft of something he wants to make, he sends it to Greenwood and Spencer. It’s at this point they start talking with their long-time photo researcher Phil Clark (Wright for a moment debates between giving Clark his richly deserved credit by naming him, versus the risk of revealing their “secret weapon”) and location manager Adam Richards about ideas, looks, and locations.
Explained Wright, “I try to make the films site-specific, by which I mean I will often write locations into the script, rather than trying to force the script upon locations.” It’s a holistic approach that led the third act of “Hannah” to be written for an abandoned amusement park with which Wright fell in love in Berlin.
On Wright’s new film “Cyrano,” he initially wanted to shoot on location. Yet at the same time, he was looking for his musical adaptation of “Cyrano de Bergerac” to be what he described as “a fantasy version of a place and a time,” rather than a replication of 1640 France where the original play is set.
In June of 2020, during the first COVID wave, Greenwood traveled to Sommerset to visit Wright and Bennett to figure out how to make “Cyrano” in the middle of the pandemic. She suggested Noto, a town in Sicily she discovered while scouting another project. Noto had been completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1692, but the wealthy city had the means to rebuild from the ground up over a relatively short period of 20 years. The result was “this very kind of cohesive, complete Baroque [architectural] masterpiece,” explained Wright.
The insular exterior flow of space had the feel of a studio backlot, bridging the gap between the need for a fantasy feel while being outdoors and COVID-compliant with minimal crew. The city would actually be far easier to film with its residents indoors during the Italian lockdown.
The process of how Greenwood and Wright cracked “Cyrano” followed a similar pattern that has underlined their work from when they first met 23 years ago, when Wright landed his first big directing assignment, the limited series “Nature Boy.”
“I was 27 and I had got the job to direct a four-part drama for the BBC. I was terrified,” recalled Wright. “They told me I needed to hire a designer and I was introduced to all these old BBC guys, who were quite dry and decidedly un-stylish. I felt to be a designer, surely you had to have a certain sense of style.”
Greenwood remembers meeting Wright on a Friday afternoon, after she and Spencer had had a leisurely, wine-filled lunch with friends — not necessarily in the mood for an end-of-the-week work meeting. “But it was brilliant, immediately it was a kind of fizzing of the minds,” recalled Greenwood. “We talked about the beauty in ugliness, and all that kind of stuff that you do when you’re young.”
Wright remembered the same conversation, but adds it was tied to the first of his “big ideas”: how he would handle the rural British landscape in “Nature Boy.”
“We started this conversation that’s been going on for 23 years,” said Wright. “Usually what happens is that one of us, often me, will come up with an idea and then [Greenwood] will make it 110 times better than I could have possibly imagined. Often we get to the end of a project, and we can’t remember whose idea was whose. Our aesthetic cinematic sense has become so enmeshed that it’s impossible to really divide us.”
Adds Greenwood, “When Joe hits on something it’s very instinctive, and you go with it, but you also have to ruffle through it. When the ideas and conversation flows back and forth, that’s when you know you have something. If either of us has to fight hard for an idea, something’s not there.”
Possibly the most extreme example of this came when the funding to shoot “Anna Karenina” on location, including six weeks in Russia, fell through 12 weeks before production was slated to begin. Feeding off Wright’s desire to explore the artificiality of the society in Tolstoy’s book and create different type of viewing experience for his audience, Wright and Greenwood completely re-imagined the film as taking place in a derelict theater.
To see how Wright and Greenwood re-imagined “Anna Karenina” as taking place in a theater, watch the video below:
After not working with Greenwood and Spencer on his two most troubled productions, “Pan” and “Woman in the Window,” Wright has developed a superstition about not working with his two closest collaborators. Greenwood called the superstition “silly,” except to say that she does believe there is a back-and-forth that exists between them where the best idea emerges, and problems are identified.
In that sense, there is a big sisters aspect to their relationship. From the start of their collaboration with Wright, both Greenwood and Spencer have believed in and encouraged his brilliance, but also aren’t afraid to challenge him. Wright embraces a free exchange of ideas — which he likes to explore and push to extremes, which helps account for the flair and boldness in his cinema. But he also needs someone to pull him back when he goes too far.
Ultimately, it is a collaboration rooted in a deep friendship. Spencer reminisced how, on their second project together, the 2003 BBC series about Charles II, “The Last King,” which they shot in Prague with a local crew, the three collaborators started spending their evenings together, eating, drinking, and developing a close friendship that carried into “Pride & Prejudice.”
“I think familiarity and collaboration does allow you a freedom to create, actually,” said Spencer, who said that while she’s worked with other directors who embraced input, it’s only Wright with whom she and Greenwood can say, “That’s a bad idea.” Adding, “It’s far easier to do over a glass of wine.”