Interview: Joe Wright on the Fairytale Dreamscapes of ‘Hanna’


On the surface, Hanna is just the latest action flick centered on a petite, butt-kicking young woman and the sinister world she inhabits. Yet, were that all it was, the new film from director Joe Wright (Atonement, The Soloist) would be a tired, forced enterprise, arriving in theaters a mere two weeks after Sucker Punch and just about one year following Kick-Ass.

Fortunately, Wright is too sharp a director for that. His keen visual eye and knack for character-driven nuance turns the story of highly-trained teenage killing machine Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) into an engagingly twisted fairytale/coming of age drama. With a soundtrack fueled by electronica wizards The Chemical Brothers, tightly coiled supporting work from Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana and a schema that offers a world of out-sized colors, foreboding shapes and demented villains, the Focus Features release is an offbeat, engaging blend of David Lynchian and kinetic action tropes.

We spoke with the acclaimed filmmaker about his latest directorial effort.

Can you elaborate on your attraction to characters such as E.T. and Kasper Hauser? What makes them so cinematic?

I think it’s because they afford us a opportunity to see our own world as if it had never been seen before. They afford us an opportunity to perhaps see more clearly what’s important and what isn’t.

When you first looked at the Hanna script, it was more of a straightforward CIA thriller. At what point in the process did it evolve into what it is?

Seth Lochhead wrote the original screenplay and story and it was this wild fucking surreal shit. Not shit in a bad sense. In a good sense. It was amazing. I didn’t read that draft first. Studios are often very nervous of things they don’t recognize, by which I mean things that haven’t been done before, and therefore they take a really original idea and they recognize the originality and then they try and make it look like something they recognize. So they try to turn it into something far more procedural. And it went through various hands, so the draft I read was quite far down that process.

I read it and I kind of sensed there was something interesting there. I quite liked the first 15 or 20 minutes, before it raced off into CIA Langley exposition. So I did some hunting and found Seth’s first draft and it was extraordinary. It was like, “Fuck me, I’ve been looking for this for ages,” a fascinating piece of original writing and very exciting. So I made sure we got him back on board and we started work together.

In terms of taking the film from that procedural realm and making it more about Hanna’s experience, how important was it to have Saoirse as your star?

[We knew that] whatever happens, we can just shoot a close-up of Saoirse and that’ll be fine. I think I just love her face, really. I think she’s got an extraordinary talent for subtle expression and she has the potential for something otherworldly about her. She’s actually quite a normal, wonderful teenager. I certainly wouldn’t have done the film had it not been for her.

How’d you conceive of Hanna’s fighting style?

We worked with a wonderful fight choreographer called Jeff Imada who comes from a martial arts background. We really developed the character and her movement as the same thing. So we started off by looking at her breathing in a kind of meditation way. Breathe through her diaphragm, very centered and balanced, very still, economical with her movements. There are no extra movements that aren’t required. And that kind of made it into a fighting style that worked for her. Obviously she’s not as strong as the men she was fighting, so it was really about using her ability to use their strength against her. … [Saoirse] trained very hard obviously, and suddenly discovered that she had muscles, triceps and biceps, and was kind of freaked out by them.

Your films are consistently framed in the specific, subjective points-of-view of certain characters. Why do you favor that approach?

I consider all drama to be the opportunity to see the world from another person’s point of view. That seems to be the point of drama really. And thereby to encourage understanding and even love. I’m interested in people with very exceptional world views or realities. The schizophrenic in The Soloist or Hanna’s strange alien, godlike perspective, in the sense that it’s a very objective perspective. I find that film for me is a wonderful medium for expressing an individual’s own reality.

What led you to the fairytale aesthetic?

One of the very first things we had to ask ourselves is under what conditions has she grown up and what do they have in the log cabin [in which Hanna is raised in isolation by her father]? So we decided they have two books. One is the encyclopedia and the other is a book of Grimm’s fairytales. So that is her perception of the world. She sees the world in that strange binary opposition. So therefore, if that’s your conditioning, then that’s how your going to perceive things when you leave.

But also I wanted the film to exist on a subconscious level, almost. I wanted it to be a dream space. Not a CGI fantasy but a dream space. I guess David Lynch is a big reference when it comes to that kind of mystical level, and I felt that fairytales were a great portal really through which to enter the subconscious in the way Jung used archetypes. So it was kind of an exploration of those ideas.

A lot of people have characterized Hanna as a “female empowerment” story. What are your thoughts on that notion?

I don’t know if it is a female empowerment story, because in a way although I think it’s probably a kind of feminist story, in the sense that Hanna, there’s something quite androgynous about her. Although I’m glad that she’s a girl, she could even probably be a boy. She doesn’t really ever do anything that is gender specific. … So, she’s a character that is outside of the kind of binary oppositional forces of male and female, black and white. She’s not in that discussion at all. The characters of Sophie and her mother Rachel [with whom Hanna interacts on her journey] are very specific portraits of females within society.

Rachel, the mother, is somehow the kind of lost feminist who can’t quite understand why this great struggle didn’t result in complete social change and is appalled by the fact that suddenly her daughter is buying into the commercialization of her sexual objectivity. Sophie is a pure product of that culture, celebrity culture, and I thought it would be interesting for Hanna to be a witness to that and it might possibly show that character and therefore that culture in all its absurdity and alarming qualities. But [the film] certainly doesn’t hate Sophie. Sophie is given understanding, love and empathy. I hope we’re often laughing with her, not against her. She’s a smart cookie, Sophie is, but she’s just conditioned in a way that Hanna is not.

Hanna is in theaters now.