Spinning Platters Interview: Joe Wright on “Anna Karenina”

by Jason LeRoy on November 21, 2012

Joe Wright and Keira Knightley on the set of ANNA KARENINA

“I cannot believe that I am less important than Tyra Banks!” Joe Wright exclaims with mock-indignation. He has every reason to be nonplussed. Through a bizarre chain of last-minute developments, I have found myself with a direct conflict to our scheduled interview time: the opportunity to ask Tyra Banks a question over the phone for a rare pre-taped episode of Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live. The call had originally been scheduled over an hour prior to my interview with Wright, but TyTy took her sweet-ass time arriving to the taping; so now here I am, sitting at the Ritz-Carlton with my iPhone flattened against my ear, waiting anxiously for my Tyra cue while Wright, the British director of such Oscar-nominated dramas as Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, paces in front of me with an unlit cigarette. I am fully aware that I am showing questionable judgment and hope that Wright’s next interviewer will show up so that we might reshuffle our schedule, but the next interviewer is nowhere to be found, and I am now personally responsible for keeping Joe Wright waiting.

Finally, after nearly an hour on hold with Bravo, I am given the great and prestigious thrill of asking Tyra Banks if she ever worked with Real Housewives Cynthia Bailey or Joanna Krupa. It is a brief moment. The Bravo operator promptly hangs up on me the moment Andy Cohen moves on to his next subject, and I now find myself alone in a foyer with no acclaimed directors in sight. I fear that not only have I unconscionably placed Wright lower on my list of priorities than a woman promoting a Smizing app, but may have (deservedly) missed the interview opportunity altogether. Tyra: she just takes and takes! But no, it turns out Wright has merely retired to his hotel room to pack his bags (not unlike a dismissed ANTM contestant) in preparation for his rapidly approaching flight to L.A. The interview is rescheduled for nearly 90 minutes after its original start time, and against all egomaniacal directorial stereotypes, Wright is still ready and excited to talk with me despite my utter lack of professionalism. Joe Wright: prince among men.

If only someone of Wright’s compassion and kindness had been there for the tormented protagonist of his latest film, a dazzlingly stylized yet emotionally impacting adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic Russian tragedy Anna Karenina, then perhaps things would have worked out better for her. But alas, for Anna (Wright muse Keira Knightley), things go from bad to worse when she scandalizes her upstanding husband, Karenin (Jude Law at his finest), and all of Russian high society by falling in love with dashing young soldier Vronksy (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The tale has been adapted for stage and screen many times over the years, but Wright has several aces up his sleeve to elevate his adaptation above the others: in addition to an expert cast that also includes Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, and Lady Mary herself, Michelle Dockery, Wright has a script penned by the Oscar- and Tony-winning playwright, Sir Tom Stoppard, as well as an elaborate and experimental stylistic gambit in which all of Anna’s scenes are set within an ornate yet crumbling theater, symbolizing her inability to break free of the role society requires her to play.

Below, Spinning Platters sits down with Wright (after much ado and a flurry of Tyra-related apologies) to discuss his “Oh fuck” moment after choosing the theater device, his film’s Petraeus scandal relevance, what women are “really” like, and Keira Knightley’s refusal to “lie on her back and take it.”

How has the response been to the film so far?

It’s been really interesting, actually. I’ve found the reaction to the film very emotional and slightly disarming. People after the screenings want to talk about stuff that is quite personal, so it’s been really lovely. I mean, I’m sure there are lots of people who don’t want to talk after the screening and who don’t have personal responses to the film, but it’s been quite humbling.

There was a young woman seated behind me at my screening who became quite distraught when the credits rolled.

Oh dear.

Apparently she was unaware that the story ended that way.

[laughs] Do you think it should come with a disclaimer?

It might prevent these kinds of outbursts.

I think life can be messy, and that’s why Tolstoy’s novel is so brilliant. It’s able to embrace that mess and yet still create a beautiful cohesive structure.

When we talked about Hanna, you said you need a personal connection to take on a project. What was that connection for this?

It was probably the most direct connection. When Tolstoy was writing the novel he was about my age, and he was questioning his relationship with the world and in particular with his wife and children. [The heartsick and idealistic young farmer] Levin (played in the film by Domhnall Gleeson) is really a self-portrait; I love his line when he says that “sex is given us so that we may find the one person with whom to fulfill our humanness.” I find that to be quite pertinent, the idea that it’s possible to fulfill one’s humanness through love.

For Hanna, you did targeted screenings with college students to get their feedback. Is there any target feedback you’re seeking for this?

Not really. I felt this film was potentially for a much broader audience than Hanna. To use an American phrase, “We’re reaching out to a lot of people.”

It was fairly late in pre-production when you decided to radically alter the film by incorporating the theatrical device. Were there any points after you made that decision that you started to rethink it? Like, “Oops, that was a big commitment.”

[laughs] Yeah, like all these things, you kinda go, “I want it I want it I want it!” And then suddenly you get it, and you kinda go, “Oh fuck, what have I done?” As my mother would say, be careful what you wish for. But I never regretted it. It was totally liberating and it felt like something I’d been wanting to achieve, or at least try, for a long time. It was a matter of accepting this was what I needed to do rather than deciding this was what I needed to do.

You partially conceived the theater as a grand symbol of the identity crisis facing 19th century Russian high society. Were you concerned about that going over the heads of American audiences with a tenuous enough grasp on our own history?

[laughs] I think the metaphor works on both a social and a personal level. Yes, Russian society in the 19th century was suffering from a bit of an identity crisis, so they adopted or appropriated the persona of French society. They were playing roles for each other. But I think the film and the theatrical metaphor plays to the sense in which we are all playing roles in our lives, and sometimes we find that those roles no longer suit us. It’s quite difficult to stop playing that role and start playing another role. I think our capacity for change is extraordinary, but it’s not easy. In the morning I wake fresh and I dress in the costume that is Joe Wright, and I either go off and perform the role of film director or stay at home and perform the role of father. And those are roles that I enjoy playing, but they are just that: they are roles. I’m not sure if they are truly my essence.

On Hanna, you said you specifically set out to avoid lengthy single-take tracking shots, but you ended up doing one for Eric Bana’s big garage fight scene for economic reasons. There’s a very impressive single-take shot in this film as well; had you always storyboarded it as such, or was it a compromise?

Yeah, I wanted to engage the audience in this kind of 360-degree world; if we were dealing with CCTV [closed-circuit television], there would see a drama happening in some corner at all times. I find that they create a kind of immersive experience for the audience, and in a way the film is like a piece of promenade theater. The audience are asked to participate with their own imaginations and come on a journey with us.

You mentioned your fondness for Levin earlier. Do you find him to be the most sympathetic character, or do you prefer not to think in those terms?

I think he’s the character in the end who kinda gets it right. and therefore he’ the character that I aspire to. But I feel very close to all of them, and I find bits of me in all of them. Anna confuses that initial sexual love for being true love; well, I’ve done that. And like Oblonsky, I’ve been greedy with love. And also like Karenin, I’ve been the cuckold in love. So I think it’s an expression of many different sides of us. I can dentity with all of them, although I don’t necessarily want to be all of them. I’d most like to be Levin, I think.

I found Karenin to be an especially heartbreaking and fully realized character. How did you work with Jude Law and Tom Stoppard to help expand that character beyond the cold-fish cuckold he’s generally portrayed as?

Certainly in films he’s come across as a rather repellent, slimy character. There are some references in the book to Anna’s perception of him being that, but it doesn’t feel like Tolstoy viewed him as that; it’s just that when she starts the affair, she defends her actions and herself by attacking him, which is an entirely natural thing to do. But it’s subjective, and I think if one takes out her perception of him — which we didn’t in the movie — but if one looks at him objectively for how he is described outside of Anna’s view of him, he’s actually a very good man. He’s pretty socially inept, he doesn’t have much spontaneity, he feels like he has to categorize everything and put things into nice neat boxes for fear of losing control. But he’s not a bad man.

There are no goodies or baddies in this. Anna is not a heroine; she’s a woman, and as such she suffers from violent emotions, and she is cruel sometimes and manipulative sometimes, but she’s also the victim of a very harsh patriarchal society. She’s also not a hypocrite. She also has a tenderness and a vulnerability that, to me, is very lovable.

How did you approach guiding the tone of the film on the continuum between earnest face value and a more postmodern distance?

The theatrical device is obviously a postmodern device, and that means the alienating effect that Brecht talks about is entirely feasible. And I like that alienating effect. I like to engage an audience’s intellect as well as their emotions. But at the same time, it has to have an emotional impact. So it was a matter of walking that very fine balance between the two. It was also a great lesson for me in the power of the closeup, because as soon as you’re in a closeup on someone’s face, the idea of alienation or any of that stuff is completely out of the window. It’s immediate and primal and classical and deeply emotional.

I find that the film is rather politically topical in America, ranging from Anna’s determination to choose what she wants in a patriarchal society that shames her choices, to the idea of an affair still having the power to destroy someone’s reputation. Have you had many questions about the Petraeus scandal?

People have asked about Petraeus, actually. I think it’s interesting that these things repeat over and over and over again. It’s human nature, really. And as I said before, I believe love is the thing that teaches us most about human nature. But I think Anna is an intensely modern creature, or probably just timeless. I find that some women still want to be what men want them to be, and what some men want them to be is placid and nice and supportive and selfless. And that’s not what I think women are like, really. I find from my own experience, and in particular from growing up with my sister, that women have violent emotions, they are often ruled by these terrible hormones; they have extraordinary intellect; and they bleed once a month. This is all covered over somehow and pretended to not exist.

But I find strong women far more interesting and wonderful than I do the pretty pink wife, “Behind every great man…” and all that bullshit. This film celebrates that. That’s why I love Keira as well, because she is not afraid of portraying women as being raw. I think that’s why she creates these very challenging performances, A Dangerous Method and stuff like that. She embraces it. I think she’s a wonderful icon, really. She won’t lie down on her back and take it for Hollywood; she refuses to. And I think that’s really admirable.

The sense of modernness she brought to Elizabeth in your Pride and Prejudice was striking.

She sweats, you know?

She puts her back into it!

She doesn’t have to be powder-perfect. Of course she’s intensely beautiful, so I suppose that gives her some kind of freedom or license. It’s probably more difficult for the rest of us. [laughs] But she allows that side of herself to be exposed and expressed.

What’s something about Keira that would surprise us?

[long pause] I think sometimes she feels constrained by the public, and certainly the media’s preconceptions about her. But I’m not necessarily sure that would surprise people.

You like to create sets where people feel they can come forward with ideas. How do you balance that flexibility and openness with respecting the classic you’re adapting and Tom’s script?

I think what I try and do is create an atmosphere. I’ve worked with some people where I have an idea or the script has an idea, and then someone comes along with a totally different idea and it doesn’t really work. You want people who will come along and take what’s there, be that Tolstoy’s work or Tom’s work or my work, and then make it better than we ever dreamed it could be and add to it. Everyone is encouraged to come and give of what they have at the service of this great story, and the film takes on a life of its own. There’s a part of my ego that would love to be able to claim, “I am the master of this film!” But I’m not. It is the master of me, and I have to do as it directs me. In a sense, my job is not to direct the film but to realize the film, and realize the potential of that film as a whole: that moment, that scene, that actor, that color, that cinematographer. That’s my job, really.

Finally, did you ever consider doing a coffee table book for this film? I know they’re not really a thing anymore, but I think you could have brought them back! All the sets, all the costumes, combined with Tom’s script…

Oh, I love a good coffee table book! [laughs] I love a good coffee table book and a nice slice of quiche. No one makes quiches anymore either. Crochet is another dying art. Although I did see a great piece of crochet graffiti in London. Someone had crocheted a whole wall, which was quite impressive. It might have been a gay graffiti artist. Or a granny graffiti artist.

Or a gay granny graffiti artist. It sounds like the domain of an older lesbian.

[laughs] That must be it.

Anna Karenina is now playing in the Bay Area.

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