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.”
It wasn’t long before C Stage had to stay open round-the-clock, whether for filming or for building and then dismantling sets. Supervising art director Niall Moroney and Nick Gottschalk, the art director for the theatre set, coordinated efforts so that as soon as scenes were filmed, construction, painters, props, and lighting departments were at the ready – literally, waiting in the wings – to strike one elaborate set and create the next. “It became an elastic universe,” praises Webster.
Transitions between scenes were abetted by huge painted backdrops on the main stage. This spectacular scenery includes St. Petersburg, Moscow, and the starry night sky at Betsy’s soirée; and elaborate murals such as the clouds and cherubs which surround the beatific Kitty on stage when Levin fumbles his marriage proposal.
The various levels of the theatre indicated the social standing of the respective individuals frequenting them; the foyer, auditorium, and upper level were for the higher echelons of society, as was the corridor where the art exhibition takes place. Backstage became the salubrious French theatre, while the wings were where Oblonsky conducts his affair.
Matthew Macfadyen comments, “Given that the settings were in and around Russia, the whole theatre reminded me of where the Bolshoi Ballet might have performed.”
The biggest set pieces, such as the ice rink, the ball, and the opera lent themselves well to the theatre space. For the races sequence, a paddock was placed in the center of the auditorium while those playing the upper classes were higher up and those cast as working-class people were at or below theatre stage level; even so, as it was impractical to have live horses and riders racing across the theatre stage, the racing scenes were filmed separately by the second unit and would be carefully worked in later by editor Melanie Ann Oliver and her department.
Oliver reveals, “Although Joe works very much in storyboards and with a precise shot list, I tend to try and not to look at them; my initial response to the rushes is an important hit I will never get again, and I tend to go by that. It’s also one of the reasons I don’t visit the set too much. The raw material of the rushes comes in and I work very fast, and then I sit back and consider the edits before getting Joe’s feedback. I love identifying little gems or nuances in the takes, and he generously takes notice of my finds.
“What Joe has done is to redesign this story, yet the core the truths of it are still very much there, especially with Anna’s affair and people’s reactions to it, and the emotions and the primal feelings throughout. The way he uses sound is one of the layers that heightens the world of Anna Karenina. ”
Tim Bevan notes, “Joe has the ability to create a world you can believe in –which is not something that every movie director can do – and he has the assuredness to know when to have the editor do a hard cut or not.”
Wright remarks, “What we were going to be able to do away with here was, shots of carriages pulling up and exterior shots of palaces. That can become architecture rather than storytelling. We could hone in on the emotional beats of the scenes and the drama of the characters as played out by the actors.”
Stoppard recalls, “A few days into shooting, I was shown about ten minutes of footage and I thought, ‘This is working.’ I called Joe and Tim to express my relief.
“When I visited the set weeks later and saw what the art department had achieved, it was mind-blowing. What months before Joe had described to me that was inside his head had been made real.”
Owing to logistical necessities, the ice rink sequence was the first to be filmed within the theatre space. The company behind the U.K.’s Dancing on Ice television series was brought in to create a bespoke ice rink within the parameters of the theatre auditorium for a one-day shoot. The ice was then allowed to melt away, so that the space could be readied for its next redressing.
In the visual approach worked out by Wright with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, as the story progresses the trappings of the theatre cease to be visible. Wright explains, “The concept is, much as the characters are unaware of their existence within the environment, the audience is immersed within the story and disbelief is suspended.”
Greenwood remarks, “The only time a character acknowledges that they’re in a theatre is the opening scene with Oblonsky on the stage, which is the crossover moment.”
Webster notes, “Since the stage is in that scene as a French theatre, the sequence unfolds as a bit of a French farce.”
Greenwood adds, “There’s humor, but we’re then quickly going to all these places with the characters and the narrative and the incredible dialogue.”
Keira Knightley felt that “Joe’s concept to set it in a theatre was completely brilliant, because you instinctively know that as soon as you enter a theatre you are required to use your imagination.
“Your sense of space changes, and with all the changing sets we would forget it was a theatre; that definitely was so when filming the ice rink, or Betsy’s soirée – what with all the chandeliers. But even that happened because of the nature of what a theatre is and how we perceive a theatre; we know reality is going to be suspended, and therefore you accept what it is being depicted as.”
Some of the sets forming part of the theatre did have to be built on other stages at Shepperton; these included the prop room (which is the drawing room of the Oblonsky house), the paint frame (which is the Oblonskys’ dining room), and the fly floor, a platform at the side of the theatre stage (which became a train platform). The Karenin home in St. Petersburg was built on B Stage; the Grand Hotel, on D Stage. In all, four stages at Shepperton were used.
Greenwood says, “These sets had subtle architectural links echoing the theatre, such as the same style of doors, which helped to make the transition as seamless as possible.” Once the characters move through the theatre, walking up the staircase, along corridors, and through doors, they have a seemingly direct link to these other sets, such as the long corridor at the Karenin home. Most strikingly, Anna’s son Serozha’s bedroom is a miniature version of the main theatre – with footlights from the main stage softly illuminating it.
However, as Greenwood notes, “As opposed to being dilapidated, these sets are highly polished.”
Katie Spencer, the set decorator whom has worked in tandem with Greenwood on all of Wright’s films, elaborates, “St. Petersburg is much more classical and looking more to the West. So the Karenin home is highly regimented, and much less cluttered, than the Oblonsky house in Moscow. As such, it feels more like a conventional film set, though it is still conceived within a theatrical context; that is evident in the shape of the set, with receding prosceniums one way and another.
“The Oblonsky household was quite complex to decorate. They are aristocracy, but the father spends so much of their money – eating well, drinking well – that they are getting down on their luck, so there had to be a more naturalistic environment which worked for them. I was excited when our actors embraced the idea and fully inhabited the set.”
The formality of the Karenin apartment is conveyed through marble flooring, hand-painted motifs on the walls, and darker colors. Heavy doors lead into a marital bedroom of deep colors and masculine style, which creates a claustrophobic and oppressive atmosphere that indicates the state of Anna and Karenin’s marriage. Greenwood muses, “It’s interesting; the men who visited the bedroom set would say, ‘Ah, fantastic, I’d love to sleep in a hotel room like this,’ while women who stopped in would be slightly unnerved by it.”
Jude Law adds, “There was a wonderful description in Tom Stoppard’s script of Karenin being like clockwork, so clocks became something that Karenin surrounds himself with.”
Some scenes in Karenin’s study and Anna’s boudoir do unfold within the theatre set; the walls of the latter fall away as Anna walks away from her life with her husband and son, leaving destruction in her wake.
Pointing up the insular nature of the society world, and enhancing the immersion of the audience, the theatre settings lack windows.
A scaled-down version of the theatre stage was built at Didcot Railway Centre in Oxfordshire. It is here that Count Vronsky and Oblonsky meet their mother and sister, respectively, as they step down off the theatre stage onto the train platform; when the huge train pulls in, it is effectively doing so into the auditorium.
Outside the theatre entirely is the world of Levin and his country estate in Pokrovskoe, where he works in the fields alongside his servants. He steps into the artifice of the theatre when he is with his friend Oblonsky and seeking Kitty’s hand in marriage, but otherwise prefers to live a truer existence outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Levin’s interior scenes take place within sets but his exterior scenes take place in real locales – the countryside in South England and a landscape in Russia that were found as part of Adam Richards’ location scouting.
Accordingly, to best incarnate Levin, Domhnall Gleeson was tasked with learning “how to scythe. I was awful at the beginning; they’re dangerous things, scythes, and I was a menace for a while. By the end, I was told I was pretty good. Now, that might have been lies, but the two days we spent [filming on location] in Salisbury scything were incredible; when you’re doing that digging with the blade you do forget about thinking who you are, you just are.”
In editing these scything scenes – with far less dangerous cutting tools – Oliver was asked by Wright to “make it have a musical rhythm, with the people going back and forth. Joe also had me look at old Russian propaganda films.”
Even subtler themes and motifs were layered in by Greenwood and Spencer throughout; the pale blue wallpaper of Anna’s small boudoir features snowflakes bringing to mind both the icy landscape of Russia and the coolness of her marriage. The gilded horse which appears within the set design is a symbol of Russia, as is the double-headed imperial eagle which is a badge of honor for Karenin.
The bird motif was also picked up by costume designer Jacqueline Durran and her department, with birdcage-like undergarments for Knightley to wear indicating that even within Anna’s own private quarters she is a beautiful, feathered creature trapped on display; this being the third occasion that the majority of the filmmakers and crew had worked with Knightley on a feature, they had an innate awareness of her physicality and how it could relate to the surroundings. Such intricate details as the style and shape of an antique chair were given consideration in conjunction with Ivana Primorac’s hair and make-up design, to flatter Knightley’s shoulders and décolletage.
Wright’s childhood in the world of theatre and puppets influenced the dressing of the Oblonskys’ drawing room, which features many delicate and ornate toys, most notably handcrafted alphabet blocks and a beautiful large-scale doll’s house in which Anna sits with the Oblonsky children. Spencer remarks, “It’s beautiful, and it signifies how family-oriented the Oblonskys are – he is a philanderer, yet this shows how much his and Dolly’s children mean to him.”
Kelly Macdonald marvels, “That set was like Aladdin’s cave! Every time I went in, I would notice something different.”
Macfadyen reflects, “It makes sense that we’re in the prop room; the Oblonskys have six children, and there are bits of the fabric of their lives everywhere.”
Greenwood reveals, “The doll’s house interior was representative of what the Oblonsky house would have looked like had life-sized sets have been built, rather than our working within the theatre set parameters.”
Reversing the latter conceit, Anna’s son Serozha has a toy train which travels through a wintry Russian countryside and then morphs into the full-scale train which takes Anna on her momentous journey to Moscow.
Gleeson says, “You might think that limitations were set by having everything in this one space, but in actuality the possibilities were endless because of everyone’s imagination. You would arrive on set and constantly be surprised at the richness of the tapestry.”