He may only have five features to his name, but Joe Wright has certainly mastered the look of a seasoned maestro. Inside a luxe Waldorf Towers hotel suite, whose baroque sitting room could, on its own, accommodate dozens, he saunters over from a well-stocked bar, armed with a scotch-filled tumbler and a hand-rolled cigarette. With a subtle in-command presence, the director looks both rebellious and dignified, his exhaled smoke rising up around thick-rimmed glasses and a shock of black hair. All that’s missing is the Bergman beret.
It’s no wonder Wright seems cozy in the vast, lavish space: Since 2005, he’s built a reputation for crafting fanciful pomp and circumstance, from the gossamer flora and finery of Atonement’s opening act to the mad-hatter, fairy-tale flourishes of Hanna. In Anna Karenina, Wright’s grandiose translation of Leo Tolstoy’s doorstopper, the filmmaker opts to set the action on a literal stage, and merge the whimsy of toy blocks and train sets with the rapture of obsessively fine-tuned spectacle. The project marks the 40-year-old Brit’s third pairing with period princess Keira Knightley, and it’s arguably his boldest work to date.
Soft-spoken, yet rarely hesitant in his assured remarks, Wright credits his taste for pageantry to a theater-saturated childhood, which, presumably, also launched his growing creative ambition. With cocktail and cigarette in hand, he curls up on an ornate sofa, in his socks, and divulges bits of his story, including the ways in which music, illusion, and Léos Carax appeal to his heart.
In addition to such grand tasks as translating Anna Karenina to the screen, you’ve also shown a lot of formal ambition in your work, and it seems to grow with each film. Does that ever cause any friction between you and your producers?
Hmm, I like to be thought of as having an ambition of form. That’s nice to know. No, I’m very lucky to have a very supportive group of producers. And I think they understand that I take quite seriously the responsibility to make a film that people will enjoy and want to go and see. But I don’t see that as meaning that I need to compromise. I just need to make more engaging work. And I don’t see those things as being mutually exclusive. I don’t think experimentation and commerciality are definitely at either sides of the pole. I think one can, or at least aspire to, have both.
You’ve also shown strong interests in both costume drama and very modern, stylized tales. It’s almost as if there are two sides of you. From your perspective, how do the two worlds relate?
I think all the films I’ve made, barring The Soloist, are kind of fantasies, really. Hanna was definitely a fantasy, albeit one set in a more recognizable, contemporary world. I was brought up in this puppet theater in London, and it was this kind of magical, totally unreal little world. The puppet theater, the workshop where the puppets were made, and the house were all together, so it was this kind of magical kingdom. Unfortunately, I’d have to leave and trudge down the road to the local comprehensive store, which was gray and cold and depressing, and where there was violence and cruelty. And so, I think, probably, I’ve been trying to bring those two elements together, and find some kind of cohesion. Maybe that speaks to that kind of bipolar nature.
You’ve expressed your passion for painting in past interviews, and you clearly strive for a painterly look in your films, but there’s a definite musical passion as well, given the memorable score for Atonement, the content of The Soloist, and your work with the Chemical Brothers on Hanna. Do you often know the music you want when you’re visualizing a film’s look? How do the aural and the visual merge, conceptually?
I play a lot of music on set, and I like to think that music is almost the closest art form to filmmaking. They’re both very time-based and they’re both very involved with rhythm and movement. So music is a very integral part of the process in my life. A lot of the music is often composed prior to shooting. I work with the composer, he reads the script, and then he starts to write from his imagination in terms of what he’s read. And then I play that music on set, and it gives the actors and the camera a sense of the rhythm of the scene. But I like to create a soundscape where music and sound effects and dialogue are kind of non-divisible. So the music will come out of sound effects and vice-versa. And that’s something we obviously did with the typewriter in Atonement, but I’m trying for more subtle ways of doing that too.
And speaking of music, Anna Karenina plays like a glitzy musical, despite the lack of singing. Would you direct a musical, or is this the closest you’ll get?
I would love to direct a musical. Have you seen Holy Motors?
Fuckin’ hell, that’s a good movie. Wow. That moment when Kylie Minogue starts singing that song—that just blew my heart out. Yeah, I like musicals, but I’m not sure about certain Broadway musicals. I love music too much to. I’m not always keen on the music in the musicals that are around. I conceived Anna Karenina almost like a ballet with words. The dance element of the film was very important to me. I enjoy dance, and I watch a lot of dance in London. I find that whole scene fascinating, and I wish sometimes that I could be a part of it. So it was more of a ballet than a musical for me, and it was about exploring the boundaries between dance and the movement of actors in a scene. It was about exploring where that line is—what’s choreography and what’s just action. And that’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. With Hanna, I treated the fight sequences as dance, and I loved it. I really enjoy those games.
The story of Anna Karenina takes place in the 1870s, of course, but its themes, which are prevalent in a lot of films this year, concern the modern struggles of finding contentment and learning to live in the world. How do you relate to those themes?
I feel them. I feel very attached to the aspiration to find some kind of life that is more in tune with the rhythm of the universe. God, that sounds pretentious. But, you know, it’s out there, and I want to be in it. I want to live life in accordance with that rhythm.
How would you compare the undertaking of this film to your previous work? Was this production the most arduous?
It was very challenging. And incredibly liberating. I felt an extraordinary freedom. Once I’d set myself the limitations of this single location, I found that I was able to kind of fly, and that my imagination was so heightened. It was a really extraordinary experience. And I had the support of an amazing crew, and they were invigorated by it also. So, it was the most challenging, the most scary, and the most fun.
You’ve now worked with a handful of actors on multiple projects. Are there directors who’ve influenced you in that regard? Directors who’ve tended to work with same stars repeatedly? Do you consider yourself an actor’s director?
I’d like to be an actor’s director. I would consider that a very high compliment. I like the way Fellini and Bergman worked. There’s a kind of European tradition of the repertory company. And that seems to possibly be more prevalent in European cinema than it is in American cinema because there’s more of a tradition of theatre in Europe. I find that the process of making a film makes me quite vulnerable, and therefore I like to have people I love and trust around me.
Many are sure to assume that the stage conceit of Anna Karenina is representative of the illusions of Hollywood and the illusions of cinema itself. Did you intend for that reading?
Yeah. I mean, not necessarily the illusions of Hollywood, but definitely the illusions of cinema, and possibly the illusions of identity—the idea that we try to form some kind of persona from the mess of feelings that we have. But that is, to me, essentially an illusion as well. I make choices as to how I will behave, and those choices define me, but I could have made other choices. So I think the very nature of identity is an illusion. And that’s really what I’m trying to get at.
The elaborate technique is part of an experimentation that seems to be growing in your work. Are you headed toward some ultimate offbeat creation?
Well if I am, I’m not sure I’ll ever get there. I think the process is what’s important. I’ve learned to love the questions, and the answers will take care of themselves. I may strive for some kind of creative perfection, but I doubt I’ll ever achieve it. And that’s okay.