In Depth

People In Film | Joe Wright

Joe Wright | All the Stage, A World

Bold is an adjective that seems to inevitably attach itself to filmmaker Joe Wright. Since the start of his career, his choices – in material, approach, casting, etc – have been inspired and often surprising. Perhaps nowhere is this daring more on stage – quite literally – than in his adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece ANNA KARENINA. But getting from reading Tolstoy to realizing a fevered theatrical dream in which Russian society is relocated to one massive theater space was no simple path. “When I read the book,” Wright remembers, “it spoke directly to the place that I found myself at in life. You hope you are like one of the characters, and you realize that you have been like another.” Inspired, Wright sought out playwright Tom Stoppard to adapt the novel into a screenplay. The two talked for hours, trying to unravel the gorgeous knot of emotions and actions that connect all the fascinating pieces in Tolstoy’s masterpiece. “We felt that we could get more to the heart of Anna, Levin, and all the characters by contemplating love among Imperial Russian society in the 1870s,” explains Wright. “I was also thinking about the movies in which Robert Altman masterfully interweaved intimate stories. The narrative threads we chose work as a kind of double helix, winding around each other in a multi-stranded portrait of a community.” With love as the key to unlock the novel, Wright started imagining his movie, scouting location after location with his team until he realized that he needed to make a bold change. The more Wright learned about 19th century imperial Russia, the more he was struck with its theatricality – its imported fashion appearing as costume drama; its tight circumspection feeling like constant spectatorship; its overblown performance spaces, be they opera houses, race tracks, or skating rinks. “Their ballrooms were often mirrored so that they could watch themselves and appreciate their own ‘performances’,” notes Wright. “Their whole existence became a performance with imported ideas of decorum, manners, and culture.” In the end, he hit upon staging the whole thing in a decaying theater, not as if it were a play, but as if Russian society were a theatrical experience. Rather than being contained by this conceit, ANNA KARENINA’s producer Paul Webster points out how expansive Wright’s vision became: “You’re going through doors into snowy landscapes, into mazes. The theatre space hosts an ice rink, a ball, an opera, a massive society soirée, and a horse race. This is a vast, sprawling movie.” But at the center of it, for Wright, is the single subject of love: “The heart of the story is the human heart. I am forever fascinated by why and how love works, and how sincere we are as human beings with our emotions.”  For audiences, Wright binds the power of love with the power of his imagination. Or as Empire Magazine announces, “Bold, imaginative, thought-provoking and passionate, ANNA KARENINA puts Wright at the forefront of filmmaking in Britain. Or anywhere.”

Joe Wright | A Magic Kingdom of the Imagination

As a child, Wright didn’t just grow up reading or hearing stories; he lived them. His parents, John and Lyndie Wright, founded the Little Angel Theater, celebrated puppet showcase in Islington. Wright, who as a child struggled with dyslexia and local bullies, found a world of imagination at home and a love of art in school. “For years, that theatre was all I knew,” he told The Guardian. “And it was like a magic kingdom of puppets and hippy types wafting around. I'd get beaten up at school, but I just sat in the art room drawing pictures of the Great Fire of London until I could go home.” In his teen years, he moved easily from art into acting, first, taking classes at the Anna Scher Theatre School and then making films for his fine arts degree at Central St Martins. As a young man in the 90s, Wright managed to find theater in everything he did. In addition to studying art and film, he worked for Oil Factory, helping to make music videos. At the same time, Wright and a friend launched Vegetable Vision, a production company that created visual effects for bands like Andrew Weatherall, Darren Emerson and the Chemical Brothers (with whom he recently reunited to score Hanna). 

Joe Wright | All the World A Stage

Moving from puppets, to acting, to light shows to filmmaking was for Wright part of the evolution of theater. He recounted to Directors UK how he started doing television after getting a call from Catherine Lowering at the BBC: ‘“Have you ever thought about doing television?’, and I said, “No, I haven’t”. She gave me a script to read, which was called Nature Boy, and that was that really.” The BBC miniseries “Nature Boy” was about a 17 year in the foster care who decides to take off on his own, Wright followed that up by working on the dramedy “Bodily Harm” with Timothy Spall. In 2003, he moved into period with his miniseries “Charles II: The Power and The Passion” (with Rufus Sewell playing the indolent king). The show got plenty of critical attention winning the British Academy Television Award for Best Drama Serial in 2004.

Joe Wright | Pride & Prejudice And Puppets

In 2005, Wright moved from television to feature films by the force of his creative imagination. In The Guardian, Tim Bevan, whose company Working Title helped produce Pride & Prejudice, remembers Wright’s appeal: “He just came in and pitched images and emotions. There was no clever-clever, literary take on the story because he hadn't read the book, so he just had an instinctive feel for the atmosphere he wanted. It pricked my attention immediately…Joe takes complicated, intellectual ideas which swamp many others and smoothly translates them into images.” To adapt Austen’s layered tale of English manners and love, Wright turned to puppets. “Pride is the closest thing I've done to one of my dad's puppet shows because of the energy and the atmosphere,” Wright told The Observer. “Whenever I cast a character, I think, ‘How would I make a puppet of them?’"  He later added to Rope of Silicon, “it's got a kind of energy that some of the puppet shows used to have, but, at the same time, it's shot in a very realistic way.” Wright’s special mix of realism and make believe, precision and emotion, paid off. The film of the romance between the particular Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightly) and the proud Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) was an international sensation, earning four Oscar nominations, and winning Joe Wright the BAFTA for “Most Promising Newcomer.”

Joe Wright | Making Images of Words

As Wright was finishing Pride and Prejudice, Tim Bevan offered him a look at Atonement, based on the novel by Ewan McEwan. It wasn’t something that Wright had been thinking about; in fact, he was a bit worried about the old axiom: “Great books make bad films and bad books make great films.” “I had that paranoia running around the back of my mind, “Wright recounted to IndieLondon. “But the problem is that I don’t have much choice. When a piece of material gets its claws into me, I’m at its mercy. However much I try and talk myself out of doing something I can’t really help but do it. So that’s how it was with Ian McEwan’s spectacular novel. It just got under my skin and all those kind of concerns had to be dealt with.” And Wright’s interpretation was uniformly applauded for the powerful way it brought McEwan’s novel to the screen. Many, like Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, who wrote, “one of the few adaptations that gives a splendid novel (written by Ian McEwan) the film it deserves,” held Atonement up as a paragon of what cinematic adaptation should do. And others agreed nominating it for seven Oscars, including best Picture. With The Soloist, Wright brought a real life story to the screen. And while Hanna is itself not an adaptation, its dense and imaginative landscape often feels as if it there is a treasured book somewhere inside it.

Joe Wright | Taking Fairy Tales Seriously

For some, the action-packed fairy tale Hanna might seem a sharp departure for filmmaker Joe Wright, who has previously been celebrated for bringing to life such literary classics as Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. Yet in many ways the film links together many of Wrights’ interests: the focus on strong female characters, his artistic use of landscapes and regional architecture; and his ability to connect tales to archetypes. For Wright, “The story as a whole has a lot in common with fairy tales like the Little Mermaid or Hansel and Gretel. There’s a family – of sorts – living in a wood cabin in a forest, and rites of passage unfold in the story; the child has to leave the house and go into the world, and experiences and meets evil – which has to be overcome. Fairy tales to me are never happy, sweet stories; they’re moral stories about overcoming the dark side, the bad.” In the same way, he breathed new life into celebrated novels, Wright pushes the fairy tale into a whole new realm –– a super-charged, adrenaline-fueled, no-holds-barred techno realm. Indeed critics felt this same sense of exhilaration. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers describes how “the gifted Brit director Joe Wright excels at knocking you off balance and forcing you to rearrange his puzzle pieces in your head.” In the end, says Travers, “the movie becomes like nothing you've ever seen. I'd call it a knockout.”


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