Joe Wright, Anna Karenina

Near the eleventh hour of pre-production, while director Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Hanna”) was preparing to shoot his adaptation of “Anna Karenina,” it became clear that the budget was going to be an issue -- plans to shoot on location were causing the film’s budget to double in cost. As such, Wright and his team had to quickly rethink the picture. As it turns out, they reimagined it with ideas that had been simmering in the filmmaker’s mind for quite some time.

"Society at the time was living upon a stage, so the metaphor of theater felt appropriate."

When we spoke to the director at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this week, he told us that he’d been hoping to veer away from pure realism for a while. “I use necessity as an excuse, really,” Wright said of the concept to drop locations and instead film almost the entire movie on soundstages. “ I’d been wanting to challenge the conventions of naturalism a little bit more than I had before. So these ideas had been percolating for a while. I was looking in locations in the U.K. and Russia,” Wright told us, “and I was hoping to create a performance style that was more gestural and physical and I was planning to work with this choreographer [Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui], and then I got really frustrated one day and found myself wondering... I didn’t know how I was going to marry this performance style with these naturalistic locations.”

Given the pop-art madness of his previous film, “Hanna,” it’s not surprising that Wright found himself chaffing against the constrictions of reality, and the frustrations were doubled by the fact that much of the money would have been spent “on hotels and travel expenses,” rather than seen on screen. Furthermore, the director found himself nostalgically thinking back to the filming of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement” where much of the shoot took place in a single location. So Wright thought, if this was shot in one location, what would it be?

“The theater sprang to my mind,” Wright says. “That came from a lot of research, thinking about society at the time as living upon a stage, and how we all play different roles in different times in our lives, and the way that in which Anna is feeling miscast in the role of a mother and dutiful wife and wanting to break free of that role... so the metaphor of theater seemed appropriate. I started testing the idea out on people and the first person I talked to was my designer, Sarah Greenwood, and she leapt on it.”

The major exception to the rule is the character of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who is central to the novel (Wright told us that he’s Tolstoy’s surrogate in the novel), but often gets short shrift in film translations. Tom Stoppard’s adaptation makes him just as important, if not more important, to the film than Anna, and the theatrical conceit was also a way, as Wright says, of depicting “the way Levin is seeing a more authentic way of life without pretense... The idea that Levin turns his back on the theater of society and goes back into the real world.”

As such, Levin’s scenes in the countryside were shot on location, a stark change of pace from the often-claustrophobic feel of the rest of the film. Even then, however, it’s not pure naturalism -- as Wright points out “in a way, it’s a cinematic reality he’s walking into,” rather than an absolute real world.