Joe Wright set up a big challenge for himself with Anna Karenina. The material could easily lend itself to the stuffy brand of period piece, which is the type of film we see all too often during the awards season. Wright didn’t want to make that film, though. With his theater concept, he may have stripped the budget down, but, according to Wright, it was the exact type of challenge where the most creativity comes from.
That notably happened with his previous project, Hanna, as well. Everyone adored the long-take fight scenes in that film, and that approach came out of saving time, budget, and, of course, creative impulse. It’s those type of decisions Wright seems the most excited by.
Here’s what director Joe Wright had to say about why his brain switches off when filming, the power of limitations, and why Anna Karenina is his least indulgent film:
The last time we spoke you said how your work life and your personal life are no different, in terms of thought process. With Hanna and Anna Karenina, you’ve made movies which focus heavily on parenthood, so has becoming a parent affected your work?
Very much so, and it continues to do so. I was very drawn to the character of Levin, and how he approaches love, marriage, and fatherhood. In particular, I think the relationship between Levin and Kitty interested me the most in adapting the novel for the screen.
Is that usually a subconscious act, how your personal life plays into what themes you explore?
Yeah, it’s very subconscious. I mean, one has moments of, “Oh, I understand that. I feel that too.” One’s self is revealed to one’s self by the material they’re exploring. The period of making a movie involves reflection. Afterwards, I’m braindead [Laughs].
[Laughs] How do you find that time to reflect?
There is quite a lot of time as a director. You set up a shot, rehearse the scene, and discuss what you need, but there is usually an hour of [waiting] while they light the scene. Also, I get up very early in the morning. I usually get up two hours before I leave the house, and during that period I play music, write shot lists, think about what I’m doing, and read the scenes. I often have a little cry during that time as well [Laughs].
[Laughs] Are you playing music which reflects the mood of the scene you’re shooting that day?
Very much so. In fact, I play music on the set. On this film, since we shot all in studio, I was able to rig a large scale sound system. I had this wireless thing attached to my director’s chair, so I could play music from my iPod.
Do you ever play music most people wouldn’t expect for Anna Karenina, like, say, The Clash?
Very much so! I don’t play classical music on the set often. Sometimes it’s to get people into the mood of the scene or express to the fringes of the crew what kind of scene we’re dealing with. Like, if it’s a very somber scene, I may play something more somber. Also, I use it to keep everyone going and awake, so I’ll play a lot of dance music.
For Hanna you didn’t have much time to storyboard. Since you were set to direct this longer than that project, did you have more time to thoroughly pre-visualize the film?
Not really, because the theater idea for the film only came up three months before we started shooting. I had the film pretty much entirely in my head when we started for shooting.
You usually have one or two specific images for your films you want to achieve. What were those images for Anna Karenina?
The horse race was quite clear in my head. The end of the ball when the train comes smashing through the mirror, and that was in there quite clearly. I guess those were the key ones.
How do you usually deal with not achieving those shots you imagined so vividly?
It happens. I usually tell myself that’s because what I had in mind wasn’t right [Laughs]. Sometimes you get in the flow of it, you know what I mean? I think for musicians, there’s something where they get into the groove and it just flows. Did you see the Senna documentary?
I never did, unfortunately.
Oh, it’s fantastic. There’s a moment in it where Senna talks about how, when he’s driving at top speed on a difficult track, there’s a period of time where your brain switches off, you stop thinking, and you’re just driving. Something kind of like that happens sometimes, and it’s those moments that are the ones that most excite me. You think you must be doing something worthwhile.
Can you think of any compromises that maybe led to one of those exciting moments?
Well, the whole theater concept. I had been thinking about making a film like this for sometime. It was only until we got at a certain point in pre-production where we saw the travel and hotel costs. The budget was ballooning, and not in the right way. It wasn’t stuff that would end up on screen. I decided to set myself up for the limitation of one single location. Out of that, I felt liberated. I guess it’s those limitations are where the most creativity comes from.
The editing for the stage changes has this free floating feeling. Is that how you saw the pace and transitions of those moments?
Definitely. I’ve always enjoyed that type of fluidity, where I could really let it loose.
Did you have to be very specific about those transitions early on or did you find any of them in editing?
I had to be very specific, because it all took a lot of planning and setting. I try to allow myself enough space for synchronicity to happen, but, still, someone needs a good ground for proprietary thinking.
How much experimentation do you want on set, for both yourself and the actors?
I think the whole point is to experiment. If you’re not experimenting, then you’re following a recipe. Everything you do is an experiment. One technique you used for one actor may well not work for another actor. Now, I do have some small experience to draw on, but I think it’s important to keep exploring and experimenting.
You’ve called this your least indulgent film. Why do you see it that way?
Did I say that? Oh, I speak a load of shit. I think the point of this style of filmmaking was to try and reach the essence of the characters’ journeys, so I allowed space for the actors. It’s not about big visuals. There are lush environments, but it was about pairing everything back. The nature of stylization is about subtraction and redecoration.
When do you consider a director being self-indulgent?
I think indulgence is…Well, I think it’s okay for directors to indulge certain ideas or fetishes, but only amongst consenting adults.
Anna Karenina opens in theaters today.