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6 Filmmaking Tips from Joe Wright

The director of ‘Atonement’ and ‘Darkest Hour’ shares advice that you should read with your own eyes.
Joe Wright Filmmaking
Focus Features
By  · Published on November 21st, 2017

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking tips of Joe Wright.

If you’re going to be an interesting director, you’re going to have a career of ups and downs. Joe Wright has made some modern classics in AtonementPride and Prejudice, and Anna Karenina. But he’s also helmed disappointments such as The Soloist and Pan. Thinking mostly of his great work, we can learn a good deal from the former child actor. Here are six of his filmmaking tips:

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1. Fear is a Motivator

“If you’re going through Hell, keep going,” said Winston Churchill, subject of Wright’s latest movie, Darkest Hour. Wright quoted this advice at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, and it fits with his attitude about filmmaking. Here’s something he said during a Masterclass event at England’s National Film and Television School in 2014:

“If I’m not scared by a project then I think there’s something wrong. Fear is a great motivator. One should confront one’s fears. Or at least I should.”

For a lengthier consideration of the fear involved in filmmaking, here’s a quote from Wright’s recent appearance on Vanity Fair‘s Little Gold Men podcast:

“You sometimes feel like you’ve got that day or that scene. You wake up every morning with this kind of punch in the gut of adrenaline/fear. You get up, you drink coffee, you plan your day, you do your shot lists, you’re terrified that you’re not going to get it, that you’re not good enough, you work through the day in this level of high anxiety and sometimes if you’re lucky at a certain point during the day you start to kind of feel like you’re going to achieve this. At the end of the day, if you’re lucky, you think ‘oh I think I’ve got that. That was really good.’ And you kind of can relax for an hour, and then the next morning you wake up with the same horror and fear. So you never feel like you have the whole film. You feel like you have pieces, like ‘I’ve got that piece. I’ve got that piece.’ And slowly you put them together. And then you don’t know until you get in the cutting room whether the thing is going to work as a whole. In fact, you don’t really know until you put it up in front of an audience.”

2. Film the Secret

One of the secrets to filmmaking is finding the secret of the film. Wright discusses this advice, which he initially received from his agent, in the NFTS Masterclass and the Little Gold Men podcast and elsewhere. From the former, simply:

“If there’s a project you feel like you know a secret about, a way only you could tell that story – that’s the one you should do.”

From the latter, more fleshed out:

“If you feel like you know a secret about the film. If you feel that there are certain cinematic moments that you can’t help but desperately need to see realized, then that’s a good indication. And so there are kind of tent pole moments that appear very early, and then you build, slowly, the joining sequences. So that elevator thing I think was actually on the first reading of the script. I see them in my head, and I kind of think cinematically, which is to say I think in image, sound, time, at the same time. It’s never like a still picture. It’s the idea that one is using all the tools of film at the same time.”

3. All Movies Need Humor

Wright has seemed to make mostly stuffy dramas and tragedies, but he believes all movies should be injected with some humor if not full on comedy. Here’s something he told The Guardian in 2013 while promoting a Victorian farce he directed for the stage:

“We’ve got this thing that it’s not ‘art’ unless it’s angry or pessimistic. Happy things are perceived to be cynical commercialism. But there is joy as well in the world, and sometimes it’s good to sing that song, too.”

And in the below video for BAFTA Guru, he talks about the importance of humor alongside a surplus of other advice (which includes his tip about finding the secret of a project and also that he has no good advice).

4. Say Thank You

Another piece of advice from the BAFTA Guru video, regarding an openness to and respect for other people’s ideas, is worth highlighting here:

“One of the things I tried early on in my TV experience was to say ‘thank you’ before saying anything else. I was very nervous when I started out, and my nervousness expressed itself in an attempt to kind of control everything. When people came to me with ideas that were different from my own, alternative ideas, I would not be able to listen to them really. Because I was scared of losing control. And my sister, who is a very clever woman, said to me, ‘Why don’t you try saying thank you before thinking about their idea or responding. So, I tried that and it did an amazing thing. It kind of completely dispelled the ego and meant that I was then able to listen to the person’s idea or to consider the person’s idea and decide whether it made the work better. Although that sounds like a really stupid piece of advice, if someone comes to you with an idea that is different from yours, say ‘thank you’ first.”

5. Realize the Best in Your Actors

“Our primary job as a director, before sound, before image, before anything, is to work with the actors and try and realize the best in them,” Wright said during the NFTS Masterclass. How do you do that? He has shared some additional tips and techniques for working with actors over the years. From a 2011 ShortList interview:

“I play a lot of music when I’m working. I always have a big sound system on set. I basically spend most days DJing between takes. When we shot the library sex scene in ‘Atonement,’ I didn’t want it to feel like some fucking chaste love scene in a period film, so I played modern music. Mark Lanegan’s ‘Bubblegum,’ I think.”

From his Pride and Prejudice DVD commentary (transcribed here):

“I used a hand-held camera in this scene, so that it becomes all about the actors, that you move with the actors. If they want to go somewhere, you follow them. So much of filming becomes about the camera and the technical aspects. And one of the good things about hand-held is that it empowers the actors.”

On not fearing actors, from a 2008 Guardian interview:

“Actors aren’t something to be scared of, you know. You have to treat them as artists and work with them. Often, it’s something simple and tiny that’s key to their performance and I’m not afraid of saying what it is. With Keira [Knightley], I just tell her every now and then not to pout and she’s wonderful.”

And here’s a long but terrific story about what Wright learned early in his life that he’s brought to his work directing actors, from an article he wrote recently for Moviemaker magazine:

“I used to do some acting when I was a kid at a place called The Anna Scher Theatre, a drama workshop for local kids. An instance arose where we had to learn a modern monologue and perform it for the rest of the class. I chose ‘Barbarians’ by Barry Keith: The character was a young teenage boy who narrates the story of his mum performing on stage at a pub, singing ‘Goodnight Irene’ as her colostomy bag fills up and she dies. I thought this was going to blow people away—I was just going to chuck buckets of emotion at the delivery of this speech.

“So it came to doing it, and I began the speech, and a little way in I could feel my heart rate picking up a bit. I thought, ‘That’s a good sign.’ And then a little later I felt my lip quivering. I thought, ‘This is good.’ And then I felt the first tears coming, and I thought, ‘Marvelous, they’re going to love this.’ And the tears came, and I was weeping, and sobbing, and finally I was singing ‘Goodnight Irene.’ People couldn’t understand what I was saying. I thought, ‘This is fabulous.’

“At the end of the speech there was this slow, lukewarm response. I was really confused. Anna Scher, brilliantly, said, ‘Well, very good, Mr. Wright, very good… I want you to do it again.’ I replied, ‘I don’t think I can. I’m spent.’ She said, ‘No, I want you to do it again, and I just want you to say the words. Just speak the words, and tell me the story.’

“So I sat there and I told the story, and at the end of that rendition I wasn’t crying, but all the audience was. It was an enormous lesson for me in directing actors, but also just in human response. In the first delivery, I had taken up all the emotional space and left no room for the audience, but in the second version I had taken up none of the emotional space, and left it all for the audience to project their own emotions onto the situation—to participate with their own imaginations.”

6. Happy Endings are Important

How appropriate to finish with a tip about endings? Since breaking out with Pride and Prejudice, Wright has often addressed the issue we have these days with happy endings. It’s a similar topic to the idea that there’s no place for humor in art, addressed above. From a 2007 Film Journal interview:

“‘Pride & Prejudice’ was the first thing I had ever done with a happy ending. Prior to that, I’d always thought happy endings were a cop-out and against my principles somehow—and I grew to find happy endings or wish fulfillment important.”

Wright explains a bit more in his Pride and Prejudice DVD commentary (as transcribed here):

“I think wish fulfillment serves a purpose. A lot of people consider it a cop-out or a cynical act, but I think wish fulfillment is really important in drama. And it’s important for the people who watch it and the people who make it. We need to have something to reach for. To not settle for less.”

And don’t confuse happy endings with fairytale endings. From a 2011 Telegraph interview:

“Fairy tales to me are never happy, sweet stories. They’re moral stories about overcoming the dark side and the bad. I find it ironic that happy endings now are called fairytale endings because there’s nothing happy about most fairytale endings.”

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Filmmaking is scary, according to Wright, all the way until the end (and even further, if you deliver a bomb like Pan). But you need to believe that you have a unique approach to the story you’re telling — and if anyone has any other ideas on how it should go, be respectful and thankful for their suggestions. Don’t worry, don’t take it too seriously, have a laugh, and hope for a happy ending, meaning a good and successful finished product.

Additional research by Natalie Mokry

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.