By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 19, 2012 at 7:08AM
The decision not to shoot "Anna Karenina" on location in Russia liberated director Joe Wright. Without changing the Tom Stoppard adaptation of Tolstoy's classic--which threw out all sorts of things anyway--Wright used an old London theater as a way to completely free himself from the constrictions of period costume drama. "Anna Karenina" is a swirling, mad, exuberant, joyful, passionate celebration of the novel. Is Anna (Keira Knightley of Wright's "Atonement" and "Pride & Prejudice") your ordinary romantic heroine? Not by a long shot. She's doomed to meet that train. But there's more to this story than adultery. Tolstoy's counterpart, Levin (Domhall Gleeson), balances out the drama. And Jude Law gives one of his best performances as Anna's cuckolded husband.
Anne Thompson: You were going to shoot naturalistically Tom Stoppard's script on location in Russia, but changed your mind. What happened?
Joe Wright: Originally Tom wrote a a magnificent screenplay set in various places around Russia. We were looking around lots of palaces in Russia and people were saying things like, 'yes, we've shot seven Anna Karenina's here before,' and I was getting more depressed and thinking, 'what am I doing and who am I?' At the same time now for a number of years I have wanted to experiment with the fourth wall and I've been reading Mikhalkov, the Russian director from the revolutionary period, and I was fascinated by the idea that stylization was about subtraction rather than decoration. And there were also budgetary concerns. We were spending a lot of our budget on hotels and travel expenses and Russian taxes. Also, the main thing was that I have been wanting to find a way to focus more and more on the actors and finding a way to express the essence of the story in the characters without getting hung up on the ephemera of realism. This all built up to the point where I decided to set the film in one location and then I had to think about what that location might be. I was reading Orlando Figes' book 'Natasha's Dance' about the cultural history of Russia and he talks about Russian society of the period living their lives as if on a stage, they were experiencing an identity crisis. They desperately wanted to be part of Western Europe and imitated the French, including speaking French they all spoke French more than Russian.
AT: 'War and Peace' is full of French and so is 'Anna Karenina.'
JW: Yes, they spoke English when talking about horses. And Italian when talking about art, but generally they spoke French. So this idea of the theater seemed to be an appropriate metaphor.
AT: Stoppard wrote one thing, and then what was the process of going back to him and saying 'Tom…'
JW: 'I've had an idea.' The idea was not to change the script. There were no re-writes to incorporate in the theater. The idea was that I would use it almost like a play script, like you can take Shakespeare's "Richard III" and set it in the Weimar Republic. You take the script and you find cinematic equivalents to expressions for what is written there. For the scene for instance when Levin is at the restaurant with Oblonsky and Kitty calls from above, in the script that was cut from the restaurant, wide shots of the palace, a carriage pulls out, the doorman opens the door. Levin trudges through the snow, goes in, rings the bell. This takes up a lot of time and it was really a matter of finding how do we get a sense of that? Definitely Kitty needed to be above him when he first saw her, so we found cinematic equivalents within this style when we had the idea. I have a long notice-board in my studio, we put post-it notes along it, me and my designer Sarah Greenwood and we figured out over three days really.
AT: It must have been exhilarating. There is such liberation in this movie.
JW: What I find is if you set limitations they somehow liberate you. I did a TV thing once where I only used one lens and that was fantastic, it completely liberated me.
AT: Another shot that I love is where you are in these interiors and fireworks are going off and you lift the ceiling. How did that come to you?
JW: I once got invited when I was doing TV to a television festival in Monte Carlo. There was an extraordinary night at the end of the television festival, this party and the bloke came onstage and said: "Ladies and gentleman, Supertramp." And Supertramp came onstage and the ceiling rolled back and there were the stars. I decided not to use Supertramp in the end. (Laughter)
AT: It feels almost like a musical. It isn't obviously, but the way you used the set pieces. It's choreographed.
JW: I conceived it as a ballet with words. That came before the theater idea really. I'm interested in the craft of acting. I know that sounds like a silly thing to say because I'm a director, but I'm interested in exploring the physicality of performance and interested in blurring the lines between walking and choreography. And just focusing on what the body is saying as much as what the words are saying. I worked with a choreographer named Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and he came and worked with us together with the actors. Most of the rehearsals were about the physicality of workshopping and relationship through movement. And it lead on from there.