Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has been adapted countless times, but English director Joe Wright lends new vision to this tragic love story. Wright, who only agreed to direct the film if Tom Stoppard wrote the script, didn’t consider any other actress but Keira Knightley for the title role. The two have been working together since 2005, when Wright cast 18-year-old Knightley in the critically-acclaimed Pride & Prejudice. The two have had great success since then. We recently got the chance to talk to the director about his stylistic choices, casting Jude Law in an unusual role, and the evolution of his working relationship with Knightley.
You and Tom Stoppard have managed to find the lyricism of Tolstoy due to your setting in an opera house, and the scene of choreography. What led you to that concept?
Joe Wright: Well, for some time I’ve been wanting to find a way of stylizing cinema, and trying to get closer to the emotional story that I was telling. Get rid of all the bumf that goes with it and allow the audience a more participatory experience. It was an attempt to do all of those things, and express the idea that all of these people were just performing roles in their lives. It’s no coincidence that the first time we see Keira she’s getting dressed like an actress putting on a costume. She goes out into world, or into her family home and tries to play a role that she’s no longer suited [for]. I guess all of those ideas were coming into play.
How did Knightley react to your stylistic choice for the film?
Joe Wright: I told her, and the first thing she said was, “Oh f-ck.” But she pretty quickly understood it. Keira has been doing a lot of theater recently and had an understanding that what I was suggesting is done all the time in theater. It’s just not very often done in film. So she got it. It also made it more challenging, and I think Keira and I both work best from a place of being the underdog. We like to feel like we have something to fight [against].
Did you find yourself having to omit anything?
Joe Wright: The idea was to take Tom’s screenplay as it was written and find ways of expressing exactly what he had written, but within that limited environment. I often find that the limitations kind of liberate you creatively. Suddenly when Karenin tears up the letter, and the letter becomes snow, you can’t do that sort of thing in naturalism where somehow you could express his heartbreak far more potently in that kind of limited environment.
Can you talk about casting Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson? Were they your first choice? How did they get involved?
Joe Wright: They were [my first choice], yeah. So, I got Keira and had to ask myself, “How do I balance these two men against her?” Karenin needs to be someone that one can imagine Keira marrying when she was 18. She didn’t marry him for his money. She married him because he seemed like a good match. He had to have something appealing about him. He had to seem like kind of character that everyone else would have thought she should marry. I wanted someone who was both appealing and yet shut off.
Jude and I chose to play that role quite sympathetically. There are no goodies or baddies in Tolstoy’s book, they are just flawed individuals. I think Jude works. Jude is a great character actor trapped in a leading man’s body. He relishes that stuff. So often, he’s just asked to be handsome and charming and dashing. There’s a lot more to him than just handsome, charming and dashing, really.
You left that to Johnson.
Joe Wright: I left that to [him], exactly. Count Vronsky is about the only lead character in the book whose age isn’t described. Anna is 28, and Karenin is like 12 years older. But Vronsky is just described as being a “boy soldier.” I had to do some detective work to figure out what Tolstoy thought Vronsky was. And the way in which Vronsky falls in love seems to me to be a very young puppyish love. I remember when I was about 18-19, I met a girl at a shop and thought she was the love of my life. I went and bought flowers for her and presented her with these flowers, and she called me a freak. But it’s that kind of love. It seemed appropriate that he should be around 21 or so. It’s this kind of ridiculous passion.
Also, as things begin to unravel in the latter part of the film, he’s way out of his depth, Vronsky. He just doesn’t know how to handle Anna’s hormones, paranoia, and fears. That’s important as well. I’ve also been there myself. He just doesn’t know what’s going on. Yet he does love her. Aaron was able to appear as this terribly, arrogant, self-important young man at the beginning, who we think is a bit of a cad, and actually by the end, I hope, we realize that he does love her and he is loyal to her. He’s just way out of his depth.
How did you create the look of the film?
Joe Wright: Sarah Greenwood, my designer, and Katie Spencer, the set decorator, and I have worked together for fifteen years. I’ve never shot anything without them. And Jacqueline Durran (costume designer), I’ve worked with for eight years. And Seamus McGarvey (cinematographer), I’ve also worked with for a long time. We have a strange telepathy that goes on. Our aesthetic is so the same. We move as a single unit and think as a single unit. We disagree sometimes, and then we have arguments like a family.
The aesthetic of this film is probably closest to my upbringing than any other. I was brought up in a puppet theater in London. My dad made the puppets, and my mom made the sets and the costumes. It all had a very homemade/handmade feeling about it. There’s probably an element of that in the film. That’s what I wanted to recreate with this film. We also looked at the animation of Jan Svankmajer, the Czech animator. Somehow his aesthetic had an influence in how we did it. We used lady stockings over the back of the lenses so they create this kind of soft, blooming atmosphere. It’s difficult to say who does what.
Knightley isn’t a mother, but she did a great job playing one. Did you discuss parenthood with her?
Joe Wright: Well I had just become a father when we shot the film. I was able to tell her the full catalog of horrors. We talked a lot about parenthood. We talked, in particular, about the birth of Seryozha, her son in the film, and what that might’ve been like, and possibly the idea that Anna had suffered from some sort of postnatal depression or something. So we talked a lot about those things, but most importantly, as a mother, she brought a friendship to that relationship and I thought that was very important.
How has your working relationship with Knightley evolved over the course of the pictures that you’ve done together?
Joe Wright: We challenge each other more now than we did when we were making Pride and Prejudice. She was only 18 when we made Pride. We push each other further. We understand that each other’s limitations or capabilities can be stretched. I’ve watched her turn from great ingenue to great actress, and it’s been an amazing privilege. Between Atonement and Anna Karenina, I think she went through a tough time. And she backed off cinema, and worked in the theater for some time. I think that developed her as a performer a great deal. In this film we worked more on the physical representation of the character. There was a lot of movement work in rehearsals, which we hadn’t done before. We always test and push each other.
When did you decide that Tom Stoppard needed to be the one to write the adaptation?
Joe Wright: At the very beginning. I said I wanted to make Anna Karenina, but was terrified of it. But I said that if Tom Stoppard wrote it, I would do it, fully thinking that he wouldn’t agree because he hasn’t written a film for ten years. I thought I could get away with that, and then he turned around and said yes. So I was committed.
Anna Karenina opens in limited theaters Friday, November 16th.