When gearing up to make a movie, director Joe Wright is known for his intense preparation work. The filmmaker actively collaborates with many of the same talented craftspeople and actors from movie to movie, which creates a familiarity and the feeling of a company of players – an important personal and professional link to the world of theatre he grew up in with his own family.
For Wright, this familiarity is a vital part of his moviemaking process. He reveals, “I find the whole process of making a film totally terrifying and so to have the support of people I feel loved and accepted by is really important; these are also people who I trust in terms of their creative and artistic sensibilities.”
So it is that Anna Karenina marks Wright’s fourth movie with Focus Features; his fourth with Working Title Films producers Bevan and Fellner; his third with producer Paul Webster; and his third with leading lady Keira Knightley. This established creative team of Academy Award nominees, united on the previous successes Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, works collectively alongside the director to bring his vision to the screen.
Part and parcel of the team effort as well are Wright’s permanent production designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer (who have also done the Sherlock Holmes movies); his regular costume designer Jacqueline Durran (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy); his frequent hair and make-up designer Ivana Primorac (Hanna); his past (and now present) film editor Melanie Ann Oliver (Jane Eyre); composer Dario Marianelli, who won an Academy Award for Atonement; casting director Jina Jay and supervising location manager Adam Richards (both of Pride & Prejudice); and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who was Academy Award-nominated for Atonement and went on to shoot the record-breaking The Avengers.
Bevan sees this grouping as being of great benefit to the filmmaking process. He explains, “I think that Joe’s very lucky because he’s got an experienced team together that has the energy and the interest to explore and create new worlds with him.
“There’s no doubt that they work very efficiently together as a team; when filmmakers tend to work with the same group of people there's a lot of shorthand – and a lot of the stuff that you tend to waste time with on other films just doesn’t happen. So, hopefully, you can achieve greater things.”
Given the preparation period, the brainstorming commences early and often. As with Atonement, Marianelli composed much of the music in pre-production, which in turn allowed the movie’s integral and thrilling choreography to be rehearsed and fully imagined by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui prior to filming as well. The producers’ call went out to Richards to confer with Wright and Greenwood before, and while, scouting and securing locales ranging from Britain’s vast Salisbury Plain to the manicured maze of the U.K.’s Hatfield House to Kizhi, a remote island in Russia.
Anna Karenina was an epic production filmed over the course of 12 weeks on 100 different sets, across 240 scenes, with 83 speaking parts. More so than before, it was imperative that the team’s latest production ran as a well-oiled machine. To supplement the meticulous research that Wright personally carries out, he actively encourages his cast and crew to do the same – and to bring their ideas to the table.
Webster says, “Joe immerses himself in visual and literary research, and takes his team along for the ride with everyone spending a lot of time researching and understanding the world that they are entering into to tell the story.”
In addition, Wright storyboards his films to visualize them in full, the majority of the time following them almost to the frame once the camera rolls; he prefers to shoot chronologically to build up the characters’ emotions, yet he remains flexible and open to the seizing the moment.
With the actors, Wright embarked on an intense cast rehearsal period of several weeks. Tom Stoppard visited one day and spoke to the actors at length, articulating how love suffuses the story. The screenwriter comments, “It was like social intercourse, but we were talking about work. I tend to feel timid in the presence of actors, who I think are brave.”
Beyond character development and interacting with their fellow cast members, the actors were educated about Russian cultural life of the time through research presentations and discussions to help inform their understanding of the world their individual characters existed within. These included a seminar with Orlando Figes. “We were lucky to have him,” says Knightley. “His speaking to us and then our reading his great book helped us understand the period and the culture better.”
In addition, cast members worked with dialect coach Jill McCullough. Some were required to learn physical skills, such as the riding of horses and how to handle weapons.
With the director and choreographer, the actors developed not only the dance sequences but also their individual character movements. As choreography is a vital element to the film’s presentation, some two dozen professional dancers appear throughout Anna Karenina in a variety of different guises. These range from aristocrats at a ball and a soirée, to servants and wait staff, to exotic dancers at a decadent French boîte, to clerks in an office.
Every piece of preparation would contribute to a greater understanding of the story Wright wanted to tell. When the actors finally set foot on the theatre location, they did so with a familiarity not only for their characters but also for the surrounding people and society. Strengthening this feeling for actors and crew alike, they were joined by hundreds of Russians based in the U.K. who had been hand-picked as extras through an open casting call. Wright remembers, “Prior to shooting, we put notices in the Russian-speaking newspapers saying we were making Anna Karenina and were looking for Russian-speaking people to come and be in the film as extras. We thought maybe 200-300 people might turn up.
“Instead, when we arrived on the Saturday morning for the open casting, the line was twice ‘round the block. We met over 1,000 people that day, and talked with each one individually. They were just extraordinary and wonderful, and a lot of fun. So the film is in fact filled with Russians, and there are a lot of big set pieces with vast numbers of people, and they gave it an authenticity that helped us in making our movie.”