All the Stage is a World
Wright Showcases The Story’s Art And Artifice By Containing His World In A Theater
(l to r) Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars as Vronsky and Alicia Vikander stars as Kitty in director Joe Wright’s bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, Anna Karenina, a Focus Features release.
To highlight the peculiar artifice of 19th century Russian society, Joe Wright refracted that historical moment through the prism of a stage. And to capture all its nuances, ANNA KARENINA’s filmmaking team built and rebuilt their theater to adroitly reflect the story's many inflections of class, elegance, tradition, action and romance.
In the months of pre-production, Joe Wright and his collaborators conducted extensive research into Russia and the society of the 1870s to gain an understanding of a period which was the twilight of an empire. Hundreds of visual references, as well as imagery tagged for inspiration, were catalogued as part of realizing the director’s unique vision.
Tom Stoppard remained in close contact, visiting the director in California for what Wright remembers as “one final big script meeting before we set off.”
The spectacular theatre setting coming together had to be unlike any other seen on screen before. Production designer Sarah Greenwood and her team set out to conceive the design for what would be highly divergent sets over the course of a three-month shoot.
Although various locations, including the condemned Alexandra Palace theatre in London, were visited and considered as filming sites, everyone realized that the way to go was to build from scratch. Greenwood explains, “We had to build the theatre on a stage because it needed to be a built environment for us to be able to control it. We had a lot of fantastic imagery to deploy.
“The overriding conceit of the setting of the derelict theatre is that this society is on its way out, decaying, heading towards unrest under the rule of the aristocracy. They did like their gold leaf, so gilding was important to have. But everything within is fake, paper-thin; Joe came back from St. Petersburg noting that what might look like marble was actually plaster.”
The overall inspiration was equal parts personal and aesthetic; Wright says, “I was raised in a theatrical environment, growing up around my parents’ Little Angel [Puppet Theatre]. I also have a keen interest in early cinema, which emerged from theatre at the beginning of the 20th century; the design of early cinema screens emulated the theatre proscenium arch.”
Paul Webster concurs, noting that “this approach of Joe’s crosses boundaries, going back to the origins of cinema where the distinctions between theatre and film blurred: ‘the theatre of dreams.’”
Wright reflects, “Aesthetically, this film is probably closer to my heritage than anything I’ve made before. The puppet theatre that I grew up with was a beautiful handmade world and we’ve tried for that within this film. The idea of the theatre being the whole world was how the puppet theatre felt to me as a kid.”
The immense interior of the theatre set was built on C Stage at the U.K.’s storied Shepperton Studios – the same stage which had hosted the wartime hospital scenes of Atonement. Of the set-ups within the theatre set, three would be on the actual stage while the remainder would be, variously, within the auditorium; on an upper level; in corridors; in the foyer; and “backstage.”