Anna Karenina - Joe Wright interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
DIRECTOR Joe Wright talks about some of the many challenges of bringing this latest adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to the big screen as well as the reason he likes to work with many of the same people again.
He also explains why he wanted to take more risks with this new version both in terms of the portrayal of Anna and the theatrical backdrop. He was speaking at the UK press conference for the film.
Q. You’ve pretty much broken the rules when it comes to making a period film in a brilliant and poetic way. Was that what you set out to do?
Joe Wright: Um, no. It kind of grew really. I’ve always wanted to make a film like this and I kind of held it like a little guilty secret. And as the film developed… we were originally going to shoot in various stately homes around England and palaces in Russia but I already had the idea that I wanted to stylise the performance style and was already talking to the choreographer about how to achieve that. And then I was kind of scouting places and in Russia they’d say: “Yes, we have shot several Anna Karenina’s here before.” And in England they were saying: “Yes, you were here before, don’t you remember?” And so I kind of felt like I was treading too familiar ground and then thought: “OK, well maybe this is the one to do it with.”
Q. You’ve worked with Keira and Matthew before and, indeed, you work with a lot of people over and over again. Is that something deliberate?
Joe Wright: Definitely! I like the idea of a company atmosphere and I like working with the same actors and crew members – more so with crew. When Matthew [Macfadyen] was doing Pride & Prejudice he had to be very serious and sombre and I knew that there was another side of Matthew that I’d really like to engage with and so it seemed like a perfect opportunity for that.
Q. You changed the accent of the final scene a little bit. As I recall, Anna was really mad when she was about to jump in front of the train [in the book]. What made you change the accent?
Joe Wright: Keira had a very interesting thought about the suicide. She described suicide as being a shy person’s homicide and I thought that was very interesting because, for me, there was a lot of anger in her suicide and I agreed with Keira that it shouldn’t be played like a victim; it should be played like an active gesture… not a giving up. And so we really went for that. It is mad to throw yourself under a train… or it seems very mad to me, so that madness needed a reality. One didn’t want a generic madness.
Q. How do you think Russian people will react when they see this Anna Karenina?
Joe Wright: I certainly am planning to open in Russia and I’m a bit nervous to be honest with you about what the Russians will think. Tom Stoppard was incredibly conscientious about how it might be taken in Russia. He has a long and very good relationship with theatre in Russia and culturally. I’m excited to go there and see the reaction. We had an amazing time with the extras in the film We held an open casting and out adverts in the Russian speaking newspapers. Over 1,500 turned up on the day of casting, which was quite a surprise. But they came and got involved as extras and that was great because it felt like we had Russian with us. There were a lot of them! But their support was vital.
Q. It struck me there were nuanced levels of culpability in the story that I don’t recall from other versions. So, in the sense that every adaptation reflects the times we live in how conscious were you of that?
Joe Wright: Well, Tolstoy when he started writing the book imagined that he was writing a book about a terrible woman, a morally corrupt woman who committed a crime. She was married to an upstanding, religious man who was a martyr. And as he wrote the book it’s almost as if the characters rose up off the page until they were existing in front of him and he was writing down what they said and what they did. They got ahead of him, if you like. And during that process he fell in love with Anna.
There’s a scene in the book, which actually we don’t have in the film, where Levin meets Anna. He goes with certain prejudices, he’s head about this fallen woman, and during the course of their interview he’s charmed by her and walks away thinking that she’s probably the most honest and un-hypocritical woman in society. And so I think I was trying to reflect that relationship… Tolstoy’s relationship with Anna and with Karenin. And I’m not particularly interested in the simplified version. One of the early decisions that Tom [Stoppard] and I made was to involve Levin and Kitty’s story and that, for me, is the idealised love story; that’s the great romantic love story if you like. And that’s also fairly autobiographical. Levin is Tolstoy.
So, that allows me then not to have to make the Anna-Vronsky story as the great romantic love story but actually to do something slightly darker and more twisted and perhaps more relevant in the sense that it’s an obsessive love story – it’s almost a lust story rather than a love story. I’m not quite sure that Anna makes the right choices but nevertheless I do love her. And I guess that’s what we were trying to get across. And in terms of Karenin, I think he’d probably be a nightmare to be married to because there’s not a lot of communication there but at the same time he is trying and he is behaving with what information he is given.
Q. When did you get the idea to set the film in its theatrical context?
Joe Wright: Well, when I was thinking about if I were to set this film in one location, what would that location be, I thought that everyone in the film was playing a role in society. Anna is playing the role of a mother and the role of a dutiful wife and actually she finds that that role doesn’t really suit her anymore. And I always conceived the opening scene of Anna as being almost like an actress preparing to go on stage.
And then I was interested by Orlando Figes’ line, in his book Natasha’s Dance, where he describes Russian society of the period as living their lives as if on a stage… this idea that there was a bit of an identity crisis possibly, in the sense that they weren’t sure whether they were eastern or western. And that they assumed the outward appearance of being French. They spoke a lot of French and they dressed as fashionable Parisians and that they even read etiquette books on how to behave as if French. I thought this was a fascinating idea, the idea that a whole society was performing and taking on a persona. And so it was with that idea in mind that I decided to set it on a stage.
Q. Do you think it was a brave, even anti-commercial way of doing things?
Joe Wright: I was a little bit nervous about the whole idea. I remember coming home to my wife and telling her that I was planning to do this and she said: “So, you’re taking a fairly commercial proposition and turning it into a deeply un-commercial proposition?” I said: “Yes.” And she said: “Go for it!” It was like something that got a little bit carried away. I came up with this idea and I thought I’d try it on my production designer, Sarah Greenwood, and she said: “Go for it.” And then I thought I’ll try it on Tim Bevan and he’d definitely say ‘no’ but he said: “Go for it.” And so everyone kept on saying ‘go for it’, so we did!
Q. Anna isn’t entirely sympathetic. Was that also a brave decision?
Joe Wright: Most young actors… a lot of actors… I’m feeling my way through that! A lot of actors want to be loved by the audience and therefore will only play loveable characters because they perhaps under-estimate an audience and feel they won’t be able to tell the difference between the character and the actor. And so they’re all trying to play loveable characters. One of the things I admire most about Keira and, in fact, the entire cast, is that she wasn’t afraid to play the moral ambiguities and to engage the audience on a political and intellectual level.
Q. You went from the studio to some external venues such as Ham House. How was that?
Joe Wright: Frustrating, if I’m honest. I always thought that I’d be the kind of filmmaker who would really predominantly engage in real locations. But I find more and more that I like creating spaces with Sarah Greenwood in which to layout our dreams. And so more and more I’m leaning towards that. And also because so often there are quite critical limitations put on filming at such precious places as the National Trust. So, it was interesting.
- Read our review
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- Joe Wright interview
- Jude Law and Matthew Macfadyen interview
- Watch the trailer