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Atonement - Joe Wright interview

Joe Wright, director of Atonement

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JOE Wright talks about overcoming the challenge of adapting a literary classic and how the much talked about extended tracking shot on the beach at Dunkirk was created.

He also talks about casting the three ages of Briony in Atonement and working with Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Minghella on another of the film’s key scenes…

Q. Did you find it daunting to adapt such a popular, well-respected book?
Joe Wright: I did really. It’s a weird thing that people say: “Great books make bad films and bad books make great films.” I had that paranoia running around the back of my mind. But the problem is that I don’t have much choice. When a piece of material gets its claws into me, I’m at its mercy. However much I try and talk myself out of doing something I can’t really help but do it. So that’s how it was with Ian McEwan’s spectacular novel. It just got under my skin and all those kind of concerns had to be dealt with.

Q. Was there any pressure to make it less faithful to the novel and less literary?
Joe Wright: I think the book is very visual so therefore I tried to make an almost literal adaptation of the book. When we got to a passage in the book like Robbie in the cellar, for instance, and there’s this little sequence that talks about going back to before it all happened, we literally ran the film backwards! We were very literal about it. Most of the changes that happened did so for financial reasons rather than creative ones. The book works obviously, so we tried to be faithful to it. I kind of had faith that the film would work too if we stuck to the truth of the novel.

With a lot of adapted novels, the catchphrase they all have is kind of, “at some point you need to throw the book away”. I always used to nod my head and pretend to understand what they meant. But I think you only throw the book away if it’s rubbish, so we never did that. We kept the book by our side throughout the whole process. Obviously, you have to cherry pick a bit. I also think a lot of literary people presume that literature and the written word has a monopoly over internal truth and I personally, as a dyslexic, don’t agree with that. I think, to me, the films of Fellini or Bergman or the great classical masters of the medium spoke just as much truth as Tolstoy or Dickens. It’s just another medium, so anyone who thought that the book was un-adaptable was probably under estimating the power of film.

Q. Can you tell us about the Dunkirk sequence?
Joe Wright: As you know in the book, you’ve got these Stuka attacks and these hundreds of thousands of refugees on the roads and people being shot. It’s this epic journey. So, one day I went to Tim Bevan [of Working Title Films] and said we needed another $4 million to be able to realise the whole walk to Dunkirk sequence properly. He, bless him, said: “I won’t give you a dollar over $30 to make an art film.” Immediately the hairs on my arm stood up and I said: “What did you call me?” [Laughs] But at that moment I realised this was a licence to do what I want.

So, I pulled everything out of the walk to Dunkirk and make it these three figures walking to the beach and make it slightly more of an esoteric journey. I also shot lots of sequences of them walking because I thought the monotony of the walk was something I really wanted to try and impress upon the audience. So there was these endless shots of these blokes walking through nothing that I thought were really profound and interesting but obviously if you’re trying to portray boredom then the audience is going to feel a bit bored, so they got cut back a bit.

Then I put all our resources into the beach shot at Dunkirk. It should be borne in mind that this film’s budget was pretty much the same as Pride & Prejudice – £4 million more. So we put all our resources onto that beach. Then I thought: “OK, we’ve only got one day to use these thousands of extras, so how do I utilise them to the best effect?” Originally, I’d thought of a montage sequence but to cover a montage properly I’d probably need about 50 set-ups.

Traditionally, I only get about 15 to 17 a day, so I thought we were going to be short-changed. I knew what was going to happen. I knew at the beginning of the day we’d ben spending all this time on these great shots and then by the end of the day everything would be rushed. So, one day, kind of as a joke, I said: “Remember that shot we did in Pride & Prejudice, the long steadicam shot? Wouldn’t it be cool if we did that on the beach?” Everyone laughed but it amused me and so I did it again. The joke then turned into something dauntingly real.

Q. So how did you go about it?
Joe Wright: It’s all about capturing the light. I had faith that at a certain point we were going to get really good light that day and I’d almost chosen a location because of the direction of the light at evening. I wanted a magical, elegaic sense to that scene. It’s a scene about wastefulness – of human life, of animal life, of machines, of industry, of everything… even Bibles were being thrown on the fire so the German’s couldn’t use them. So, we rehearsed all day and at 6pm we started shooting. I got three takes and on the third one the light was with us and it was magical.

It was terrifying as well though because the radio contact between the camera and the recording devices was at such a long distance that we didn’t actually have a record of what we’d just shot. So we were all looking at each other, saying: “Did we get it? Did we get it?” I went for a fourth take but the steadicam operator collapsed as he came around the bandstand, so time was up. It didn’t all go right but we won’t tell you what went wrong.

To me, the reason why that scene works is the extras and the local people who came and gave their time with so much dignity. They really put their hearts into it. My primary concern on that day was making sure they were involved and engaged and feeling like they were performers. There was this incredible energy of these 1,600 people focusing on this one little bit of film and that was an incredible experience and something I’ll never forget.

Q. What was the process in creating the three ages of Briony? I gather Romola Garai was the last of the three to be cast?
Joe Wright: It was true. Usually, when you have a child play a version of the same character as an adult actor you get the adult actor first and then try and find someone who can not only act but looks like the adult. We did it the other way around. I kind of had Vanessa Redgrave in my head as the oldest Briony and I really wanted to cast her because I worship the water she walks on but I didn’t cast her until I’d found a Briony. So therefore it didn’t matter what she looked like. And we hunted for a Briony that could act basically. It’s amazingly difficult to find kids that can act. But Saoirse Ronan is the clearest example of the acting gene that I’ve ever come across. She just can do it and it’s really weird.

It’s strange because you work with actors like Keira and James and you think: “Well obviously, they weren’t just born that good, they’ve learned and trained…” But then you meet someone like Saoirse and say: “Right, well she hasn’t trained and this is what talent is.” Maybe James and Keira were also like that, I don’t know, but she was extraordinary. Once I cast her, I could then cast the other two.

I learned from something from Angel At My Table, which was make one big visual statement about the character. In Angel At My Table it was frizzy red hair, which I thought was probably a bit much for Briony. But then you’ll know immediately who that person is. So she got the same straight hairstyle, the same mole on her cheek and the same blue eyes and that was it. You stop asking that question. The hairstyle… I mean it’s an extraordinary achievement for Briony to maintain the same hairstyle for 70 years! [Laughs] But she did!

Q. How did Anthony Minghella take direction?
Joe Wright: Very badly [laughs]. No, he was wonderful. Anthony is a friend and I showed him the script before I was shooting and he asked some really awkward questions, which was really good. So, we talked about the whole project a fair bit and then I was trying to cast someone to play the interviewer. But it was very, very difficult because I didn’t want to cast Melvyn Bragg, because he might have upstaged Vanessa. But I wanted someone who was an authority, not some day playing actor. I’m not quite sure who came up with it but we all said: “Wouldn’t it be a great idea to get Anthony Minghella?”

He was also wonderful on the day. We talk about sex scenes and certain scenes that have the label of the closed set. But that scene was also a closed set – I find emotions just as exposing, if not more so, than love scenes. So, everyone was very calm and quiet and it was all about looking after Vanessa. Anthony was able to do that as well, he didn’t take any of her emotional space and was very respectful. It was a lovely day. People talk about the length of the steadicam shot but that close-up on Vanessa is probably almost as long. They’re two very different extremely long shots and I think that shot with Vanessa is probably my favourite shot in the movie.

b>Read our review of Atonement