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Interview with Director Joe Wright on 'Hanna'

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Joe Wright's Hanna Poster

'Hanna' poster

© Focus Features

Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement and The Soloist) takes on his first full-blown action film with Hanna starring Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett. Wright and Ronan previously worked together on Atonement and after Ronan signed on to the lead in Hanna, she suggested to the studio, Focus Features, that they bring in Wright to direct. And although it's a dramatic change from his past films, Wright was up for the challenge of helming the coming-of-age kid assassin story.

Joe Wright Hanna Interview

Thank you for the long take shot of Eric Bana taking on four guys.

Joe Wright: "I’m a huge fan of Paul Greengrass and I love what he did with the Bourne movies, but I think they’ve been copied a lot and a lot of bad imitations. So I wanted to try and do something a little bit different, especially as I was using the same fight choreographer as Paul, a guy called Jeff Imada. So I really was aware that I didn’t want it to be seen as a ripoff of that really, especially because I know him."

Would you have wanted to do an action movie of some sort, even if Saoirse Ronan hadn’t sought you out for this?

Joe Wright: "It hadn’t occurred to me, but when she came up with it, I was excited to do it. I just kind of respond to what’s in front of me each day, really. I don’t see each film as being the definitive film. I hope that I have a nice long career and I get to make lots of different films and each film is an experiment. You have a right to fail, and sometimes you fail and sometimes you succeed and that’s okay. I think action films is a medium that’s been kind of in the doldrums for a long time, apart from the Bourne films. I think the other thing that Jason Bourne showed us, that Paul showed us was that you could actually make action films with a social, moral, political conscience. That was a f*cking revelation to me, that actually action didn’t have to be chest beating tit f*cking gun loving Republican movies. But actually you could make something that had a conscience and was still exciting and visceral. So I wanted to play with those ideas as well."

Funny, no one refers to The Bourne Identity with Doug Liman. Did that not kick in until the second one?

Joe Wright: "No, it kicked in with Greengrass and Greengrass was a very, very political filmmaker for television in the UK beforehand. All his work was political, whether it be about Northern Ireland or political injustice in Britain. It’s no surprise that, for instance, the journalist in the third one, Paddy Considine’s character, is a journalist for The Guardian newspaper. The Guardian newspaper, as I’m sure you know, is the left wing newspaper in Britain. And Paul was a journalist himself, so there’s certainly a more liberal should we say, not necessarily left wing, but liberal attitude."

I’ve never seen a shipyard stunt like you did with the crate.

Joe Wright: "I have to give full credit to that to Jeff Imada. That was Jeff’s idea, that particular stunt. That was him. I worked out how to shoot it, but he came up with the idea of that crate. I haven’t seen that many action films so I thought this was a really original idea to shoot in a kind of containment park. He was like, 'Ewww, not so much.' But what I liked about it was the enormity of the building blocks reminded me of a children’s kind of toy set. It played with the scale and reminded me of children, really."

What’s the location of the amusement park used in the film?

Joe Wright: "That is a f*cking mad place. It was the amusement park of east Berlin. During the soviet era, it was where families would go. There are all these postcards of happy Soviet families in the theme park. Then when the wall came down, everyone for their day out would go west. They’d want to go to shopping malls and f*ck knows what."

"So the place fell apart really, and slowly the father and son outfit who owned it became bankrupt. So they came up with a stunning plan, which was to take some of the old rides, export them to Colombia, fill them with cocaine and then reimport them into Europe. This is true. Unfortunately, the plan didn’t work. They were arrested and put in prison for many years. Ever since, no one’s quite known what to do with this place so nature is slowly reclaiming the land. You walk, it’s literally like you see it in the film, almost. When we first went there, it was a foot deep in snow so we’d be walking through this weird dreamlike space with these strange kind of figures of swans and wolves. It was very odd, a very odd place."

When you have The Chemical Brothers doing your score, what input do you give them?

Joe Wright: "Not so much, to be honest with you, because I’ve known Ed [Simons] and Tom [Rowlands] since about 1992 I think we worked out the other day. I went to a rave above a shoe shop in London and it was the Chemicals’ first ever London gig. I’ve been mates with them for like 19 years now, 20 years - which is terrifying - so we know each other very well. Before filming, I asked them to compose a couple of tracks. One of the tracks was the striptease kind of Snow White theme that happens in the strip club. So I told them that I wanted a kind of f*cked up fairy tale theme that could be kind of whistled by the baddies throughout the movie later on. I kind of gave them cues and gave them bits of ideas. So once we had those tracks, we would play them while we were filming on a big sound system, or I’d just play their albums to give a rhythm."

Do you usually play music on set?

Joe Wright: "Always. When we were doing Atonement, when we were doing Pride. I love playing music."

For Pride would it be period music?

Joe Wright: "Sometimes. The love scene in the library between James [McAvoy] and Keira [Knightley] in Atonement was all shot to Brian Eno. But then at the same time we had bits of classical music that Dario [Marianelli] had already composed for Briony [played by Saoirse Ronan], for her walking."

So you’re shooting MOS [without sound]?

Joe Wright: "Lots of it, yeah. I kind of fully believe in the Italian kind of dub it afterwards. Unless it is a proper dialogue scene, then I’ll obviously need to record sync."

How much is ADR [automated dialogue replacement] in Hanna?

Joe Wright: "Quite a lot of it is ADR. ADR these days is so good you kind of get away with it. Not a huge amount. All the action sequences are ADRed and that stuff. Also, I really like...my dialogue editor in fact that I’ve worked with for 12 years or whatever, she is a bit of a genius, Becki Ponting, is very brilliant about cutting breaths. So the whole film, all of Saoirse’s breaths are ADR to give you a kind of closeness to her and a sense of her physicality."

Some actors find MOS distracting because people are hammering in the background.

Joe Wright: "No, no, no, I won’t do that."

You stop the set?

Joe Wright: "Totally."

Are you talking to them during the scene?

Joe Wright: "Sometimes, not necessarily. But I feel like a lot of drama for me is about rhythm. Often when we’re doing even a dialogue scene, there is an MOS where rather than giving actors notes on meaning, I give them notes on rhythm. So I find that playing music helps actors find the rhythm of a scene."

Would the actors recognize that those weren’t the sounds that were on the set that day?

Joe Wright: "I don't know. Luckily most of the actors I work with are really good at ADR. Saoirse’s really good at ADR. Cate [Blanchett’s] brilliant. Most of the actors. Keira’s a genius at ADR. Some actors are and some actors are really, really rubbish at it."

Is it a British thing?

Joe Wright: "I don't know, really. I don't know. No, it’s not really American/British. Robert Downey Jr.’s f*cking incredible about it."

What is the key?

Joe Wright: "Rhythm. It’s about rhythm. But Saoirse, there are sequences in there, musicality as well, Saoirse is able to have shot a scene three or four months ago, come into an ADR suite, hear it once and it be in f*cking Arabic and be able to get it just like that. It’s an amazing talent."

Is it a difference between actors who speak with intention or speak off the cuff?

Joe Wright: "Maybe. I’m very interested in acting as a craft. I think that it’s stagnated quite heavily for the past 50 years, really. Since the emergence of Strasberg’s Method and the dominance of that during the ‘70s. Now I find that a lot of young actors just f*cking copy. Not to mention names, but there are actors out there at the moment who are doing impersonations of Robert De Niro doing an impersonation of someone else. I hate it and I don’t believe the Method has monopoly on truth. In fact, I think naturalism is probably a kind of false god, really. I’m far more interested in acting from the ‘40s and pre-Strasberg. In fact, I think David Lynch is probably the best director of actors that I know. I think David Lynch, the performances he gets out of actors is extraordinary. He knows what he’s doing as well. It’s no accident. When I saw Naomi [Watts] in Mulholland Drive and this kind of extraordinary heightened performance that she’s giving, and then when she’s doing the casting, the audition and suddenly when she’s acting she’s playing naturalism. I thought that was a fantastic little comment on sincerity and on the craft of acting, because I think that we’re all acting all the time. Philosophically it’s about sincerity and what sincerity is, really. Are we ever really sincere?"

"It fascinates me. I’m reading at the moment, I’m hoping to do Anna Karenina in the Autumn and I’m reading about St. Petersburg society in the 18th century. There they imported a complete foreign mode of behavior. They all decided suddenly that they were going to be French. They divided their brain into two halves, the Russian half and the French half. The Russian half was always aware of what the French half was doing, how they were performing, how they were exhibiting their manners. I personally find that acting is an art form that is underestimated and overlooked in terms of its potential and what it can teach us about who we are as human beings."

Can you do Anna Karenina in two hours, or even three?

Joe Wright: "You can if you’ve got Tom Stoppard writing. He’s done an amazing script which involves Levin’s story as well as Anna’s story. Yeah, Tom Stoppard is just..also, he’s so immersed in Russian history and culture and identity or lack of it."

Will it be a challenge to make that accessible?

Joe Wright: "No, because I think Tolstoy wrote it as an accessible piece. It’s a family drama. War and Peace was his big political drama and Anna Karenina, as he says in the first sentence, is about families. 'Happy families are all happy in the same way. Unhappy families are all unhappy in different ways.' So he wrote it to be read by the new emerging literate Russian population. Obviously, it goes off into analytical theoretical studies of the Russian agricultural system which I won’t involve in the script. But the actual plot of it is fairly simple and very emotional."

What are the accents going to be? Russian?

Joe Wright: "No, because they didn’t even have Russian accents. The high society was quite French. They didn’t even speak Russian. A lot of them literally didn’t learn their own language so couldn’t talk to their own serfs, their own peasants, because they didn’t speak the same language. So the whole language issue is actually a really fertile one for that society. But I think they’ll be talking English, probably, with English accents. The problem is what you get the peasants to speak, the peasant characters and whether you have them speak the same language or whether you have them do really dodgy kind of west country English accents. They’re more difficult. I might have them speak Russian. I’m not sure."

Who’s your Anna?

Joe Wright: "Not sure yet. It’s fairly obvious, but I can’t quite say. She hasn’t signed on the line yet. I’m loyal to my actors."

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Hanna hits theaters on April 8, 2011.

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