Behind The Scenes Of Hanna: Making An Action Heroine For The 21st Century
Not yet out of her teenage years, Saoirse Ronan is already an Academy Award nominee whose performances continue to impress. But when asked what method she utilizes to get into character, the actress replies, “I don’t know whether I have one. I’m not the type of actor who lives through the character.”
Even so, as she explains, “I want all the roles that I play to hold challenges. With lots of action and a layered character, Hanna had them for me. It’s unlike any other drama that I’ve done. Here is a teenager who has been raised in a forest and has gotten all her education from her father; she’s never even met anyone else before. We meet her as she goes out on her own, and when she does she is fascinated by everyone and everything she comes across. My favorite quality of hers is that she is non-judgmental; she shows an open mind to, and a fascination with, everything. She’s a bit of a freak. But, I like that; I like freaks.
“Hanna discovers life for the first time, so the movie is not just about a girl who kicks butt – though she certainly does!”
Ronan embraced the concept. She remarks, “[Director] Joe Wright talked with me about how – as in a fairy tale – someone goes out into the world and it is overwhelming and scary and beautiful. Like any teenager, I can empathize with Hanna’s desire to see the world, but for her it happens at 100 miles an hour.”
The actress – who would turn 16 during filming of Hanna – had boarded the project even before her once and future director, Wright. It was he who had cast Ronan in Atonement nearly four years prior, with their resulting collaboration earning awards and accolades all over the world.
She reflects, “I always thought that if we were going to work together again, it would have to be something different from what we did before.
“Joe and I didn’t need to find our way; we are very in sync, even more so than before because we can tell if either of us is not completely happy, and we trust each other to try different things. Both Joe and I sympathize with Hanna because she does what she does to protect the people she loves.”
Seth Lochhead had written the original screenplay for Hanna in 2006. The script then continued on through development. Academy Award-nominated producer Leslie Holleran, who has successfully brought to the screen a number of literary adaptations, remarks that “it’s extremely freeing – and even more terrifying! – to work on an original story. Hanna goes on a journey, and developing the script for a couple of years was a journey in its own right.
“With Hanna, Seth had written a character of mythic quality. She is a stranger in a strange land – namely, our world. I was intrigued by the human connections she would make.”
Holleran adds, “I wanted to find a director for whom this movie would be a departure. Joe’s strong take was exploring the story through the prism of a fairy tale. What was also exciting was his thinking in terms of the action, the character elements, and even social commentary; this is a female empowerment story.
“I believe that his deep familiarity with Saoirse and what she is capable of as an actor gave him a confidence to be ambitious with the material.”
Once Wright was confirmed as the film’s director, Lochhead reports, “Joe invited me back to work on many scenes – ones that had been in the script since 2006, as well as ones that had come into it in the years since.
“I felt like Joe understood what I was trying to do, and I could see where he was coming from, with the story. We saw the characters the same way, so it was very exciting to go back into Hanna’s world.”
At the start of the film, the only person Hanna has in her world is Erik, her widowed father. Actor Eric Bana remembers, “The script reminded me of…nothing; I thought, ‘I haven’t seen this film before.’ I loved that this movie has a teenaged girl as the main character; what an exciting opportunity for Saoirse at this age. Joe’s take on the story fascinated me, so I quickly jumped on board.
“Hanna has to grow up and take on responsibilities, as her parent relinquishes control. I’m a parent myself, and I saw Hanna as a heightened version of every parent’s nightmare of their child going off for the first time.”
Bana was also drawn to his character’s complexities. He notes, “There are very traditional fatherly qualities to Erik; he’s a protector and a teacher. He’s forever been preparing Hanna to survive battles both mental and physical, so he’s also like a cruel drill sergeant with her.
“Yet, when a parent has done a great job of protecting their child from the world, the harsh realities out there are that much more shocking for the child, and Hanna is in real danger.”
The threat to Hanna is incarnated by Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett; she portrays the film’s third major character of Marissa Wiegler, the cold-steel magnolia CIA agent who once upon a time worked in the field with Erik. Now based in Langley, VA, Wiegler’s life has been “built around the telling of lies and the holding of secrets, and she has given her all to her job,” notes the actress.
As part of researching the role, Blanchett spoke with a CIA agent who illuminated for her “the tension that exists between those in the field and those who are at headquarters, in Langley.”
She elaborates, “Marissa worked undercover in Germany in the 1990s, and relished the cut-and-thrust of covert operations. The one she was involved with Erik in failed and was closed down, so she harbors incredible resentment towards the agency about the whole thing as well as self-loathing. When Erik and Hanna reappear, she goes back into the field to close them down. Finding Hanna starts out as a professional necessity, but becomes pathological, for her. She wants to possess this child; it’s a bit like the Wicked Witch from the Hansel and Gretel story. The fairy tale elements add a heightened quality to the scenes.”
Like Ronan, Blanchett had a previous professional tie to Wright. She reveals, “Joe and I were preparing another project together, and that fell through. Then he sent me this script, which terrified me; my partner noted that I’d never had a reaction like that to a screenplay.
“So Joe and I got to work; it was important to him that Marissa be from Texas, and I tried to get the accent subtly so that it wasn’t overpowering.”
Already at work was Wright’s longtime production designer, three-time Academy Award nominee Sarah Greenwood. The director’s frequent collaborator discussed adding “a fairy tale element through design, costume, and performances, and bring that quality to the fore.
“Lots of fairy tales originated as stories of warnings to children. As soon as Hanna steps into the world that Marissa inhabits, she learns fast lessons.”
Costume designer Lucie Bates adds, “Sometimes the dark fairy tale aspect was to be almost subliminal; Joe’s vision of Marissa as the Wicked Witch of the story meant that her colors would be red and green. Sometimes it was to be more open, as with Hanna and Erik’s cabin.”
Greenwood’s team, which per usual included set decorator Katie Spencer, worked with local craftsmen and “really built our characters’ log cabin out in the woods to look like it had been there for years,” marvels Bana.
The production designer reports, “Snow was the starting point in our design. The story begins, and the audience arrives in a place, and you don’t know where it is, what century it is, or who the characters are. Hans Christian Andersen was our inspiration, but we expanded on tradition to introduce our interpretations – including the book that Hanna has had at home.”
Blanchett adds, “Joe’s introducing a fairy tale aesthetic into the film draws on his own background in puppet theatre.
“As a director, he creates a safe environment where you can make a few mistakes, and then hopefully you make better decisions. Joe’s attention to detail is such that one minute he would be fixing my hem, the next helping to paint a set, and the next calling for the lens numbers. He is involved in every aspect of filmmaking.”
On Hanna, there was a new aspect for Wright to explore; putting the actors through a detailed regimen for rigorous action scenes. This provided an ideal opportunity to bond the actors playing father and daughter. Bana recalls, “Saoirse and I did some of our training together, and she was well-prepared, with great coordination. She was better than some of the men I’ve worked with over the years. It’s often harder to fight with an actor than a stunt person, but Saoirse was committed and engaged. Our fight scenes were unique, with a father teaching a daughter and not just two people going after each other and one winning.
“Turns out that her arm’s length reach is very long, and almost the same as mine. I had to be careful in our fight-training scenes together because those fists come at a great rate and with real force. I had to be very cautious not to hurt her – and not get knocked out by her. I’ve worked with a lot of guys who are not as tough as Saoirse is.”
“I know I hurt Eric a few times,” admits Ronan. “But Joe did tell me to go for it.”
“Saoirse and I also had a good time ripping into each other because, she being Irish and me being Australian, we were kind of kindred spirits in our senses of humor; hers is wicked,” reveals Bana.
Bana had experience in the physical arena from his other movies, but on Hanna stunt coordinator and fight choreographer Jeff Imada (fight stunt coordinator on both The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Supremacy) had to “teach Eric some things to fit his character – and Hanna’s, since the father is training the daughter.”
Bana points out, “This was a little different for me because of the hand-to-hand combat – which I actually hadn’t done a lot of in earlier movies. There are physically demanding scenes between Hanna and Erik that have emotionalpunch as well.”
Given that Hanna is someone who has been in training for as long as she can remember, Imada began work with Ronan well ahead of production, while the actress was still publicizing her film The Lovely Bones in Los Angeles. He reports, “I put her through a few tests to get a feel for her body mechanics, and to ascertain how much work we needed to do to make her look convincing as a teenager trained to a high level of skill by her father, who himself was trained by a government agency.”
Wright wanted the fight scenes to look as naturalistic as possible. Given the setting that was being established for Hanna’s upbringing, Imada introduced an element of the wild into the fighting style. He explains, “Hanna is surrounded by wildlife; she has learned a keen awareness from animals, how to survive and how to fit into and live in the landscape.”
“When she kills, to her it’s like killing in the wild, from her upbringing,” offers Ronan.
Imada comments, “Saoirse has a slight build, so she could be agile, moving quickly and with stealth. I incorporated martial-arts kicks, aerobic exercises, and basic boxing and grappling moves into our training. We adjusted Saoirse’s diet to help build muscle. We also worked with weapons, using sticks so that they would become extensions of her arm.”
The idea was to “mold all this into her, so that when it came to the fight scenes Saoirse would be able to summon all of this, immediately convincing the audience – and that she wouldn’t tire easily!”
Life began to imitate art; Imada trained with Ronan for six weeks, with the teenager working “five, six hours a day – and she never complained,” he notes. “I sometimes had to tell her when to quit. She was determined to come across as Hanna. I was really impressed with her.”
Ronan proudly notes that she ended up doing “quite a few of the stunts myself,” yet admits that the first days of training were punishing; “Joe warned me, but I thought, ‘I’ll be fine, I swim and run [regularly].’ I’ve always been quite athletic.
“Well, there was a lot more involved than I thought there would be. I got into the gym and had to start lifting weights and pushing bars over my head and running on treadmills every single day. It all paid off. I loved learning all the physical stuff; doing martial arts centers you.”
One martial arts discipline that Ronan particularly appreciated was “wing chun, which we used a lot because Hanna would be fighting people bigger and stronger than she is, and would have to use their strength against them. But Jeff would also put Hanna’s own spin on the styles.”
Imada says that he followed Wright’s mandate to eschew an over-the-top fighting style in favor of “everyday, real moves that can be used in self-defense. So although she enjoyed knife work, we also taught Saoirse to work with no weapons.”
“It’s easier if you’ve got weapons,” comments Ronan. “But to me it was more like dancing than anything else; it’s still choreography, after all.”
Bana remarks, “Joe had made it clear early on that he hates seeing a lot of editing cuts in fights – as do I – and that there would be sequences where he wasn’t going to cut away. So the fight scenes in long takes, as we were doing, had to be accurate and planned out with Jeff and Joe.”
Following up on the memorable uninterrupted sequences Wright conceived and executed in Atonement, The Soloist, and the miniseries The Last King, in one key sequence in Hanna the camera tracks Bana through a long steadicam take. In-character as Erik, he goes below ground into a train station to evade a special ops agent, only to have to fight off four at once. That sequence alone – with its elements of martial arts and street fighting – made the movie “the most physical picture I’ve ever done,” states Bana.
Blanchett also took her action scenes seriously. She reports, “I told Jeff that I didn’t want to look like ‘a girl’ holding a gun. He reassured me that women holding a gun often look more natural than men doing so, since the women are not trying to emulate Clint Eastwood or a cowboy.”
Bana praises his fellow Australian, stating that “Cate’s interpretation of this villain is great. She is a fantastic actor to have hunting you down!”
Ronan adds, “Cate is someone I look up to. I admire her work ethic and her professionalism. Sharing a scene with her, she gives you so much – yet manages to be so contained and not give away too much when she doesn’t need to.
“Eric is a terrific actor and is lovely to be around. He is like a ray of light on the set. He’s hilarious, and would keep me smiling on the coldest days in Finland.”
With financial incentives and considerable logistical support from the North Finland Film Commission, Wright and the locations team selected for Hanna and Erik’s “neighborhood” a landscape of breathtaking natural beauty around Kuusamo, just on the south border of Lapland.
“It gave us such scale and scope, and it was magical,” says Greenwood. “We were 25 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and 25 miles from Russia. There were trees that Dr. Seuss could have sculpted.”
Some of the shooting sites were accessible only by snowmobiles. The vastness of the snowy wilderness also served to establish the physical reality of the characters’ existence and capabilities. Director of photography Alwin Küchler consulted with Finnish peers and crew beforehand to be prepared for camera complications in certain temperatures.
Sure enough, the temperature went as low as 33 below zero during the Finland shoot. “I prefer Irish weather, at least when it doesn’t rain,” muses Ronan.
Holleran recalls, “In the morning, the steam from the river covered people’s eyelashes and mustaches – among other things – in frost.”
Ronan notes, “Finland did bring out the fairy tale aspects of the story. We were shooting on a frozen lake, surrounded by pine trees covered in snow.
“But that kind of cold affects everything you do, especially in fight scenes which require muscle memory. In that first week of shooting, the cast and crew all pulled together fast.”
When not acting and/or fighting on-camera, Ronan and Bana were covered up in blankets and long capes; they had also been schooled beforehand about hypothermia risks, as part of local production company Helsinki Film’s careful prep work with cast and crew.
Shrugging off the cold were animals on call for this leg of the shoot, ranging from wolf puppies to snow foxes to reindeer.
Imada’s fight choreography was shored up to allow for the difficulties of the ground terrain. Bana remembers, “In sequences where Saoirse and I were stick-fighting, when the bamboo hits your knuckles in below-zero temperatures you really feel it…
“Truly, Finland and the other locations added so much to the film and enhanced this story’s qualities.”
From Finland the Hanna unit traveled to Bavaria, in southeast Germany, near the border with Austria. Filming took place around Bad Tölz, in the shadow of the Alps. The weeklong stint there was for interior and exterior scenes of Erik and Hanna’s log cabin. Temperatures were higher than those in Finland – enough so that a portion of the snow had to be artificially generated.
Lochhead marvels, “Walking onto the cabin set was surreal. I was surprised at how much of a physical approximation it was of what was in my mind when I wrote about it. The feeling was, I knew this place well and somehow this whole crew was aware of it.”
The screenwriter reflects that for him the story took shape beginning “with an image in my mind, of a girl running among the trees and hunting a reindeer. Then I tried to explain it as best I could. When I saw Saoirse in-character, I thought, ‘Wow. She saw into my head, too.’”
Elsewhere in Germany, filming took place at Berlin’s storied Studio Babelsberg, while Berlin locations stood in for CIA headquarters in Langley. Bana enthuses, “For me, there were no days in the studio, and it was exciting to film on real locations – including my swimming sequences!”
Continuing across Germany – a feat made possible for the production by local and regional subsidies through the German state feature film fund DFFF – the main location in Berlin was Spree Park, an abandoned amusement park in the East of the city. “An amusement park, after the lights are turned off and the glitter has faded, has a sinister air,” cinematographer Küchler notes appreciatively.
A boon to Greenwood and Spencer and their team, the now-derelict Spree is littered with disused rides, rusting structures, elaborately crafted animals, and vacant control booths. Within the grounds of the park, they constructed Grimm’s House, where Hanna encounters Knepfler (played by Martin Wuttke, who was seen as Hitler in Inglourious Basterds). The structure of the house intentionally mirrors that of the cabin in the woods, but the garish plastic figures and colorful décor are a long way from the naturalistic home that Hanna has journeyed from.
Hamburg’s infamous red-light district was the site of another location that would seem to have been ready-made for the film; Isaacs’ nightclub, which Marissa visits expressly to bring him into the hunt for Hanna, is portrayed by the Safari Club. The latter is the only remaining live sex club in Germany; it retains its vintage 1960s interior, which the production was not allowed to alter in any way since the décor is legally protected. Additionally, filming had to be completed by 10:00 PM so that the Safari could open for business.
Isaacs is played by Tom Hollander, whom audiences will recognize from numerous films including two prior for Joe Wright – that is, if they recognize him at all. Ronan muses, “Tom plays Isaacs in a way that I’d never have imagined from the script; it’s unique. I can’t say I admire the character’s dress sense, but I admire him for wearing those clothes – most of which Tom suggested to Lucie and Joe!”
On a higher aesthetic plane, the “observation area” that Hanna is sequestered in early on was designed as “an homage to Ken Adam’s brilliant ‘War Room’ set in Dr. Strangelove,” says Greenwood.
Filming next took place in Morocco, “where the thermostat twice reached 122 degrees,” says Holleran. “We quickly learned to wrap scarves around our heads to keep cool.”
The first stop in Morocco was in the deserts around Ouarzazate, a town known as the “door to the desert.” Moving into the center of town, cast and crew found themselves at work along the road of the Kasbahs, which runs towards Zagora and is the last stop for camel trains before Timbuktu.
“We could actually order 200 camels, and they would appear promptly,” remarks Greenwood. In addition to fashioning a camel marketplace, her team transformed an existing structure into a rundown hotel.
Audiences will get a good sense of the area, what with sequences where Wright again orchestrated sustained tracking shots with Küchler and the camera department.
Actor Jason Flemyng remarks, “When you’re part of a shot like that, the pressure is on – especially if you’re coming in at the end of it! We did well, because the one take that got messed up was because a camel smashed into the camera. It’s so exciting to be a part of that; there’s one reason I wanted to do a Joe Wright movie.”
Ronan reports, “There’s this beautiful shot of Hanna in the marketplace in Morocco that we hold the whole way through. Morocco has very intense heat and light; it was the greatest contrast to where we had started out weeks earlier, in Finland.”
The unit went across the Atlas mountains to the Atlantic coastal port of Essaouira, for another contrasting landscape; buffeted by winds from the ocean, Essaouira is a popular surfing destination and was one of the last places visited by music icon Jimi Hendrix.
“We brought Spain to Morocco,” adds Greenwood. “To film the [family’s] Spanish campsite there meant bringing over 50-odd tents. Pitching them and keeping them standing was a challenge.”
Morocco was the final location destination for the Hanna troupe, if not for Hanna herself; after Hanna makes her action-packed escape from confinement, she finds herself in the desert of Morocco, and is given a lift by a holidaying English family as she plans the journey north to Berlin to reunite with her father. Ronan notes, “It’s here where she first begins to see the real world, hears music, perceives television and much more.
“I loved filming with the family; I call them that because I could see how all of them – Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Jessica Barden, Aldo Maland – were already close. Also, in contrast to the intense scenes with everyone else, Hanna’s ones with them are mainly comedic.”
Ronan plays many of them opposite fellow teenage actress Barden, fresh from stealing all of her scenes in Tamara Drewe.Barden “loved the relationship between Sophie and Hanna. They’re like two little flowers, and are intrigued by each other because they’re complete opposites.
“We all know someone like Sophie; she’s the popular girl at school, and it must be exhausting being her because she’s obsessed with how she looks. But she’s about to have the holiday where you grow up and then go back to school a different person.”
Barden notes that “working with someone so close to our own age, Saoirse and I got friendly; we’d sing Lady Gaga songs together all the time.
“Sophie and Hanna’s friendship in the movie is built around getting to know and understand why the other person is the way they are; their differences bring them together, and at the end of the day they’re both teenage girls trying to find their way in the world.”
Barden confirms Ronan’s intuition that the on-screen family had bonded off-screen. “When that volcano went off in Iceland, we ended up spending about 18 hours in a car together [traveling],” she reveals. “We got comfortable with each other.”
Her on-screen parents Flemyng and Williams couldn’t help but set that tone, for, as Flemyng quips, “I’ve killed Olivia, and I’ve divorced Olivia! You see, she and I have worked together so many times now and the dynamic of ‘our marriage’ is always the same; she’s in charge, and slightly disgusted about how I behave…”
Barden offers, “Jason is so funny that it was purely his fault when we would detour from the script. But Joe Wright liked how natural we were with each other, and encouraged that. He supervised the organized chaos of us.”
Williams felt that she knew her “character of Rachel very well; I’ve met this woman. There are several strong women in Hanna, and mine stands for motherhood – of a particular 21st-century kind, where you’ve read a lot of parenting manuals. Every member of her family thinks that Hanna is like them – and Rachel is no exception – and wants to write their own version onto the blank page that is Hanna.
“Joe lets actors have creative input. The more I talked with him, the more I had the slightly alarming feeling that anything you say in an unguarded moment – especially about your character – might end up in the script. And when you work with Jason, there is always room for improvisation…”
Flemyng clarifies that “Joe did let us improvise – or, as we actors call it, ‘nick bits.’ I said, ‘I’m going to be nagging at you and asking you questions,’ and Joe told me that it was fine and that actors who have no imagination are what drive him mad. As a director of actors, he’s very precise.”
Bana praises Wright as having “a great sense of humanity, as a person and in his work. He is able to communicate what the scene is about and what he sees in his head, but I know I will still be surprised along with audiences when I see the finished film.”
“Through Joe, this script comes to life in different and unexpected ways,” remarks Blanchett, who also feels that audiences will once again be impressed by the young woman playing Hanna. She states, “Saoirse is an extraordinary actor and an incredible presence, self-possessed and unaffected. She connects with things by drawing on her own experiences. She has a rare spirit.
“I had worked with her [actor] father on [the 2003 movie] Veronica Guerin. When I bumped into him at the Oscars ceremony in 2008, it was then that I realized that the little child who used to visit the set was one of the year’s nominees – Saoirse.”
No matter which challenging roles she takes on in the future, Ronan is now that much better prepared. “I’ve still got a few of the moves that I learned on Hanna,” she smiles.