Spinning Platters Interview: Saiorse Ronan and Joe Wright on “Hanna”

by Jason LeRoy on April 7, 2011

Joe Wright and Saiorse Ronan at the WonderCon panel for "Hanna" in San Francisco last weekend. Photo by Kendall Whitehouse.

“Does anyone have a terrible allergy to cigarette smoke?” Joe Wright, the director of Hanna, is hoping the answer is no. It’s a Friday afternoon, and he’s looking a bit rough. Perhaps it’s a combination of jetlag and the looming specter of WonderCon 2011, which will be kicking off in a few hours. While Wright is no stranger to publicity tours, this is the first time he’s working the geek festival circuit. His previous three feature-length directorial efforts — Pride and Prejudice (the 2005 version starring Keira Knightley in an Oscar-nominated lead performance), Atonement (the breakthrough film of Hanna star Saiorse Ronan, whose performance garnered her a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the age of 13), and The Soloist, a contemporary drama starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx — did not take him down this particular promotional path.

But now he’s made the completely unexpected move of directing Hanna, a dark fairy tale in the form of a highly stylized European action film; it suggests the work of Luc Besson and Tom Tykwer while also echoing masters like Kubrick and Roeg. Ronan’s eponymous character is a teenage girl who’s been raised in a cabin in the Arctic wilderness all of her life. She knows nothing else. Her father (Eric Bana), a former CIA operative, has raised her to be a warrior. She is eager to leave the nest and enter the real world, but her father warns that someone out there will stop at nothing to kill her. That someone is Marissa (Cate Blanchett), a CIA agent.

When Wright first joined us for the interview, he was supposed to be joined by Ronan, who was missing in action. When she finally located us about ten minutes later, she rushed in in a flurry of apologies, kissing Wright on the cheek and asking him about his neck massage. There is an adorably teasing rapport between them, as evidenced by their brief chat about the massage. “How did you hurt your neck?” she asked, in her somewhat fading Irish lilt. “I was drying my hair getting out of the shower this morning,” he glumly replied. “You’re such a girl!” she responded in a fit a giggles. He paused and let the playful insult hang in the air while she continued laughing, before responding, “You’re such a man!” Then she punched him in the face. Just kidding! She laughed harder.

Ronan — whose first name, once and for all, is pronounced SIR-shuh — is much cuter and girlier in person that you’d expect from the gravity and darkness of her performances. After her breakout role in Atonement, in which she played a young girl whose unfounded accusation against a young couple leads to a lifetime of separation, tragedy, and regret, her next major role was as Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson’s highly anticipated (but poorly received) adaptation of the bestselling novel by Alice Sebold. In that film, she played the ghost of a girl who was brutally raped and murdered. And now she’s playing a brutally efficient teen assassin, a vocation she will revisit in her next film, Violet & Daisy, the directorial debut of Oscar-winning Precious screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher. (She is also rumored to be reteaming with Jackson for his upcoming Hobbit films.) Clad in jeans and a Beatles shirt, she flaps her hands and walks her fingers across the table while giving eloquent, excited responses to our questions. After the interview, we will have a squealing conversation about this being her first visit to San Francisco.

But that was once she’d joined us. Let’s start at the beginning. Wright, whose answers should be read in a tone of bone-dry British humor, has just lit his much-needed cigarette and is attempting to move his neck as little as possible.

Do you get used to doing all this publicity, jumping from interview to interview?

JW: It’s the bit I get paid for, really. The bit I do for free is actually the making of the film. I get paid for the development process and the publicity process. Making films — I can’t quite believe I get away with it. And a few critics can’t either. But I love what I do intensely. And actually, it’s quite nice, I don’t really mind [the publicity]. I get to come to San Francisco. I’m quite excited about this tour because I specifically requested that we do some screenings at colleges. I wanted to talk to some students, some smart young people.

Why the college audience?

JW: I’m just interested in their point of view on the issues that the film touches upon, such as the objectification of women in contemporary society and questions like that. I thought that would be an interesting place to start. Hopefully they’re not all going to ask, “What’s it like working with Cate Blanchett?” or “What’s it like working with Keira Knightley?” You’d hope they’d have something to actually think about.

How much research did you do on the science in the film? Do you believe it’s possible? Or do you think of your film as an anti-science cautionary tale?

JW: I’d hate for it to be an anti-science film because I kinda believe in science. I’m actually not that interested in the science of the movie, and I think that possibly shows in the wafer-thin explanation of it. The original screenplay by Seth Lochhead was completely without explanation [of Hanna’s origins], and then later before I came on board, subsequent drafts were done where it became more of a procedural story that involved the CIA and espionage and back stories about why and what. I came on board and tried to take it much further toward Seth’s original idea. It’s interesting,the development of storytelling from Hitchcock’s theories on the MacGuffin to David Lynch’s complete refusal to actually give any reasoning for his plot other than poetry and truth. This kinda fits somewhere on that line. I consider all of my work to be an exercise. I never think I’m creating a definitive film or that “this is the film that is me.” If I start thinking like that I’ll just screw myself. Each film is a development and part of a longer process. But with this film I was experimenting with ideas of the MacGuffin and how much you give away and how much you don’t give away.

You were just saying you don’t necessarily view your films as perfect realizations of yourself as a director, as an artist. Have you always had that level of personal detachment from your work, or have you learned that over time?

JW: Oh, I’m very personally attached to the work. Probably too personally attached to the work. When I was 23 or 24, I went to the great critic Stanley Kauffman in New York. I thrust my short films into his hands and then met with him, hoping for some kind of great enlightenment and long conversation where we were really going to get to the depths of cinematic aesthetics. And all he said was, “Make them more personal.” And that was it. My work is always very personal. I don’t come into it from a particularly intellectual point of view. But I like to work, and I make quite a lot of films. I’ve made four films now in six years, and I can’t imagine that really letting up. It’s not like I’ve produced one film every five years. As I said, it’s an ongoing process. I learn from one and take into the next. [pause] I feel like I’m selling myself short. [pause] I have above my desk at home the Samuel Beckett quote, “Fail again. Fail better.” I think that says it. Perfection is an illusion.

What other directors do you consider some of your central influences?

JW: Well, you grow with film. And so, the first film I saw was Bambi, and that obviously had a profound effect on me. The second film I saw was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the psychological element of that scared the living shit out of me. TV had a big impact on me as well. The Dukes of Hazzard is probably a big reference, as is The Red Hand Gang and Knight Rider. At about the age of 15, I was left alone for the summer while my parents went on holiday. That was the first time I was left alone, and I had a VHS machine, and I discovered Blue Velvet, and that just blew my fucking mind. That was the film that changed everything for me. I never really knew there was such a thing as “art house”  before Lynch.

And he led me to Taxi Driver, and that led me to The Godfather, so there was a big American thing going on there. But it also led me to really appreciate films like The Night of the Hunter and The Red Shoes, and see them in a new kind of way. Before that, I’d always seen film as just the story, and I’d kind of appreciated the aesthetics to a certain extent, but never understood that it was as plastic as it is. And so it continues into the French New Wave, and the Italians of the ’70s and ’60s. And it just keeps on going, and that’s what so wonderful about it. I loved, loved, loved, loved Charlie Kaufman’s New York, uh… Synecdoche, New York or whatever it’s called. That, I thought, was just a mind-blowing piece of work. I’m really interested at the moment in exploding the suspension of disbelief. It seems like there—

[Saiorse Ronan briefly enters the room talking to a handler, then quickly turns and rushes back out]

JW: There’s a little Irish girl back there somewhere…

[Ronan returns a moment later]

SR: Sorry sorry sorry sorry!

JW: It’s all right, sweetheart.

SR: Sorry sorry sorry! Okay. Hi guys! What are we talking about?

JW: We can talk about something else now.

SR: No! Carry on!

Photo by Focus Features – © 2010 Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved

Could you talk about creating the violence in the film, and making it more realistic as opposed to sensationalizing it?

JW: I didn’t really try to make it real, to be honest with you. I tried to make it quite sensational. Because it’s not real, it’s a fairy tale. And fairy tales are dark and they’re very violent. As I’m sure you know, in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” she commits suicide at the end. In “Hansel & Gretel,” they cook an old woman alive in an oven. The whole point of fairy tales is that they’re dark, but they’ve been colonized by Disney and children are now lied to and told that everything’s going to be happily ever after. But the point of fairy tales is to prepare children for the fact that they’re going to come up against some cruelty and deceit and darkness in the world. And that’s their purpose, really.

SR: When we were making the film, the whole point was to make it surreal and magical.

Saiorse, would you like to continue the martial arts training you did for this film? What styles were you trained in?

SR: Yes I would! I haven’t yet. It was a mixed style, and it was individually and specifically designed for Hanna. The majority of the people that she fought were men, so I needed to use their energy and strength against them.

JW: It was all about finding the character through her fighting style, and the fighting style through the character. When we started, we weren’t just looking at punches and moves and all that kind of stuff, but we were looking at who she was, how she might move as a human being.

SR: Even the way she walked, which I remember we worked on one day in the office. That came into how she fought as well.

There seem to be a lot of physically empowered young female characters in movies right now, like Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass and your character in Hanna, and Katniss in the upcoming Hunger Games movie. Do you think there’s a cultural need for that right now?

SR: I think there is, yeah. I went to a screening the other night, which Joe wasn’t allowed to go to because it was an all-girls screening [giggles]. And there were women, some of them mothers, all in their late 30s, and what they really got out of the film was a sense of empowerment — not that Hanna is young, but that she’s female and has this strength over so many people. It’s very exciting to see that on screen. I’m glad that there are more characters coming out like this. It’ll be great when The Hunger Games is out. I remember reading the book and thinking, “This is a character that girls are going to look up to.” And I think they’re going to do the same with Hanna. But the reason I look up to her is because she’s weird, and a bit of a misfit, and she’s got strength.

Joe, you’ve also become known for your commercials and PSAs with Keira Knightley. How does that process differ from when you’re making a film?

JW: We treat them exactly the same. In the Chanel ones there’s a whole glamour element that wouldn’t be portrayed in the others, but otherwise we treat them exactly the same. In a way it’s just a regular story that you cut down lots. The one for Women’s Aid was really good, and I’m probably quite important for getting Keira to do it. I guess I’m paying back for the Chanel ones that we did before. You do feel a bit guilty doing the Chanel ones.

Saiorse, how did you find the balance in your character? On the one hand she’s very innocent and sheltered, but she’s also very self-assured.

SR: I think Hanna is someone who is always very focused, and she starts to focus on her fascination with everything that’s new to her. I feel like only when she starts to fight, only when that switch is flipped — that’s when she turns into an animal. We really did treat her like an animal, like a wolf. For me it was really about instinct, and being able to basically wipe your memory of anything that’s ever happened to you or anything you’ve ever experienced. Because she’s never really experienced anything, so everything seemed quite beautiful and wonderful. We did this one shot in Morocco in front of a hotel, and there were camels and musicians and lots of Moroccan natives. We did it in a Steadicam shot, and it was amazing… I stepped out of the bushes, and suddenly this whole world had just opened up, and it was like I saw it for the first time. I got to have those kinds of experiences myself within the film.

You’ve just done Violet & Daisy, correct?

SR: Yeah, I did that at the end of last year.

And you also play an assassin in that?

SR: Yeah. Yeah. [laughs] But she’s not the same kind of killer at all! I don’t want to give the story away, but she’s not really a killer, Daisy isn’t. And certainly not a natural one like Hanna. And it’s quite funny! It’s a black comedy. This isn’t a black comedy.

So you’re just kinda coming at this assassin thing from every angle?

SR: Yeah! I’m just going to stick to assassins, and branch out within the assassin world. [laughs]

Photo by Alex Bailey – © 2010 Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved.

How was the evolution of the story once you were both on board? Also, could you talk about your use of single takes in the film? Did you always plan on doing them?

JW: The screenplay had been written by Seth a few years ago, he was 24 when he wrote it. Focus took it up, it had been on the Black List. They sent it to Saiorse. She was intrigued and suggested me as a director, as a piece of perverse casting. And because Saiorse was interested, I paid perhaps more attention than I would have normally. I saw in it the opportunity to play with the nature of a very fascinating character who is completely unconditioned by contemporary society, and therefore what that character’s perspective can show us, and show me. Saiorse talking about seeing the world in a whole new way, that was actually a really lovely exercise for myself too. While we were developing the script, I’d walk around a location like Berlin and ask myself, “What would it feel like[if I were seeing this as Hanna]? What would I notice?” And that’s a lovely, Zen-like way to walk around a city or wherever you may be.

The story had always had a fairy tale structure: a kid grows up in the safety of a parental environment, then needs to leave that environment and go on a journey where they’ll encounter darkness and overcome it, but at a cost. It was implicit in the script but not necessarily explicit. Although the opening 15 or 20 pages certainly had a fairy tale atmosphere to them, the cabin in the woods and all this stuff. So I really just made all that more explicit, and I was interested in playing with archetypes and the film existing on a sort of dreamlike plane, using a fairy tale to access certain common themes and images.

I was really determined not to do any single takes in this film, and it’s something that just kind of happens as I’m developing the shooting script. Often it’s because of necessity. The Eric underground fight in this one was done as a single take because normally a scene like that, as written, would take about 40 setups. That would take me about three days, and we only had one day to shoot the scene because this film was made on quite a small budget for an action film. Single takes are a gamble. If you rehearse all day and only get five or six takes, you’re kinda gambling on that one day of work. If it does work, you’ve accomplished what you need to accomplish in a single day. There’s also a kind of theatricality to it that I like, I must admit. A kind of showmanship. It’s always a good day when you do one of those shots — if you get it. If you don’t, it’s a fucking disaster.

Saiorse, could you talk more about the training you did for this character?

SR: I trained in the gym for two hours a day for two months. And suddenly I had muscles, didn’t I? [laughs] I wouldn’t show them to Joe for some reason. I felt like a boy! I had all these muscles and I didn’t like them, but I felt stronger, and my core felt stronger too, which was a great feeling. I did stick fighting, which we actually see at the start of the film, Eric and I do that, and that’s actually quite a complicated thing to do. We learned how to make fires, bow & arrow training… Her appearance was something that Joe put a lot of thought into—

JW: Your voice too. Didn’t you do voice training?

SR: Well, I had a dialect coach…

JW: You brought your voice down a full octave!

SR: [pause] I thought I brought it up?

JW: Oh. You brought it up an octave.

SR: There was one day in Berlin where we were trying to figure out what my accent would be, because we weren’t quite sure what we were gonna do with it. It was me, Joe, Eric, and Sandra my dialect coach. There’s a line in the movie where I say, “I am Hanna, I live in…” and it’s this whole schpiel I go through every time I meet someone for the first time to persuade them of who I actually am not. And my voice is deep enough, so Joe thought it would be good to bring it up a little bit. So we brought it up, and we brought it up, and we brought it up, and we found a place for the character. Actually, it was amazing,  because after I found her voice, the character became a lot clearer. The voice is so important.

JW: I was really up for doing a kind of survivalist weekend where we’d go out and live on the land—

SR: Where? In Berlin? [laughs]

JW: No! Oddly enough, nobody was up for that.

SR: Yeah, I didn’t know about that.

JW: You didn’t?

SR: No! No one told me about that! I would’ve gone!

Hanna opens in Bay Area theaters tomorrow.


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