Set in late 19th-Century Imperialist Russia, ANNA KARENINA tells the tragic tale of the titular married heroine (Keira Knightley) and her star crossed love affair with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Sweeping, epic, romantic, and a brilliant visual masterpiece, director Joe Wright has re-imagined a well-trodden literary classic and given it a bold, fresh, and unique new look.
At the film’s press day, we (along with a few other reporters) sat down with the visionary director where he spoke about his ambitious adaptation, collaborating with costume designer Jacqueline Durran, and the feminist impact of Tolstoy’s novel.
Q: How did you create this vision rather than go into it like a regular shoot?
I guess it was almost a process of osmosis really. It wasn’t a eureka kind of moment - although that might make a better story – it was more of a process of all these influences, including my parents’ puppet theater where I grew up, and reading about[Vsevolod] Meyerhold, the Russian theater director who talks about stylization being subtraction rather than decoration, a desire to get as close as I could to the emotional lives of the characters, and a couple of concerns as we were shooting around various palaces in Russia. All this money was being spent on travel and accommodation. All these things resulted in one day me lying on a sofa rather depressed in the office and then thinking and excuse my language but ‘fuck it.’ This is the time that I try something that I’ve always wanted to do and it was a matter of acceptance.
Q: Tell us about your collaboration with Screenplay writer Tom Stoppard, who also kept to the theme of theater, which is prevalent in the film, who is best known for his theatrical work.
I think he’s a proper writer. He is not a screenwriter really, he’s a writer, and his craft and artistry is mind-blowing really. I said I wasn’t really interested in making this film unless Tom was writing the screenplay – and then he said he would I was like “oh Jesus now I have to do it” We spoke about the film over the course of three months and it wasn’t until he knew what he was going to do and how he was going to do it that he agreed to take the commission, at which point he went away for six months at a cottage somewhere and with a blue pen hand wrote the screenplay. Pretty much 85% of that screenplay is what we shot – that was the challenge that I set myself to not ask him to rewrite for the theater but to take what he had written and try find ways of expressing what he had written within this environment I had chosen.
Q: How did you sell Tom on the idea of making the film set primarily in a theatrical setting?
It was very nerve racking. Here is the one I was most nervous about. He was very generous in listening – and I had prepared lots of picture references and storyboards and I was able to talk him through every single scene of the film and how I was going to do it. When I reached the horse race scene and told him there would be 17 horses galloping across the stage, it was at that point that he kind of went like “I’d like to see that.” He was amazingly supportive and that is not to say that he did not ask difficult and impertinent questions. That was also very useful. I think it’s important to have someone in that role.
Q: In this film, we often see chorography in places we least expect it. The first time we see Anna she is being dressed, it’s a ballet. That use of physicality combined with the music was an element that couldn’t have been used in the script. Can you talk about bringing that together and the chorography that carries throughout?
I really conceived the film as being a ballet with words and I was interested in developing a style of performance that was not naturalism – there was a fork in the road just after the Russian revolution and [Constantin] Stanislavski went one way and Meyerhold went another way. Stanislavaski came to America with method and naturalism has been a received style for many years now. But there is this other way, which was (inaudible) and people like that and its been far more prevalent in the theater – and so I was very interested in seeing I could develop a style of performance that could somehow that was more akin to that the idea through gesture one could achieve representation of the essence, and so I was trying to explore those ideas – it was an experiment really. I love chorography. I love dance. I watch a lot of modern dance. Sidi Larbi Cherkaui, the choreographer was someone who I was a huge fan of and was greatly honored when he agreed to work on the film with me and we spent three weeks of rehearsals working on movements and improvisations and playing the with ideas like the fact that the aristocracy never do anything for themselves what so ever – so one of the aristocratic characters could walk into a room begin to sit down where there is no chair and suddenly a chair would appear under their bottom or Vronksy changing from one coat to another – basically keeps walking and the coat changes around him – this idea that this society is supported by this unacknowledged mass – and you can’t make a film set in the 1870s in Russia without thinking about the coming revolution and so one wanted the sense of that building the situation.
VeryAware: The costumes are so beautiful – how they work to inform the narrative. Was this something that was in the book or was this something you collaborated with [costume designer] Jacqueline Durran?
No, I mean there is some reference in the book, you know, as a piece of naturalism Tolstoy was incredibly meticulous in his detailed description in almost everything, including scything, and so he does refer to the dresses a bit, he does refer to Anna’s dress at the ball being black velvet, once we decided to set the film in this stylized world we realized that in the same way with choreography – as long as you have done your research, do you know what I mean – you did the research, and then allowed ourselves to break some rules, as long as we knew what the rules we were breaking were. I liked very much what the silhouette of the dresses of the period, I didn’t like the detailing and I noticed that the silhouettes were very similar to the Dior silhouette’s of the 1950’s. So we used Dior as a reference as well and together we created this kind of fashion that was individual, unique to the movie that spoke about Anna, for instance, being surrounded constantly by death and sex – she’s always got a dead animal around her shoulders, and then things like the peasant class using a lot of eastern influence fabric to get a sense of the breath of the country that it went from Finland, India, and China. It was kind of playing with everything really.
Q: The attention to detail you talked about gives the film richness and something interesting to see everywhere we look, but it also tends reminds us how different our world is today. Do you find feminist elements to the story or elements in the way the story that is being interpreted that are directly applicable with what we are dealing with today?
I think there is social relevance, for instance the way rich society can turn on a young woman who seems to have transgressed moral values of her male dominated world – yeah I can see that happening. But for me personally I think that I’m more interested in the emotional personal relevance. This is a film about love and the potential for love to reveal to us our humanness and possibly even a gate way to the divine, and I think that is what [Leo] Tolstoy was getting at and therefore what I am getting at, and that’s what I am trying to figure out in my own life you know – I’d like some piece of mind, I’d like to feel that I’m a good man, a good husband, and that I am at peace with the world, and I think that is what Tolstoy was trying to figure out too.
ANNA KARENINA opens in limited release on Friday, November 16 to be followed by a wide roll out soon thereafter.