Sep 15, 2007

Toronto Film Fest: Interview with Atonement Director Joe Wright

We speak with the Pride & Prejudice director about his upcoming film.

For the past few years, Joe Wright has had every reason to celebrate. After graduating from British television, he went on to make 2005's Pride and Prejudice (the Certified Fresh phenomenon that bred a new generation of Austenites), made history as the youngest director to ever open the Venice Film Festival, and last week became engaged to actress Rosamund Pike.

Wright's newest film, Atonement, shows little sign of breaking the streak. With a 100 percent Tomatometer from nearly 20 early reviews, critics are responding ecstatically and Oscar buzz is already percolating. Adapted from the best-selling Ian McEwan novel of the same name, Atonement is a romantic epic starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy as two lovers separated by circumstance and war. (Check out our review here.) Atonement opens December 7, and Rotten Tomatoes caught up with Wright during the Toronto Film Fest to discuss the film, Method acting, and the unique pleasure of the long tracking shot.


Rotten Tomatoes: Like anything you've seen at Toronto so far?

Joe Wright: I loved The Assassination Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I thought it was wonderful. I think Casey Affleck's performance in it is genius.

RT: Atonement has a lot of strong visuals. Was it difficult finding all the locations?

JW: My designer, Sarah Greenwood, is probably my closest collaborator. And I always get her on very, very early in the process. We started looking for locations at least six months before we started filming. So the locations were being found as we were developing the script [and] we would write locations into the screenplay. That is quite important to me.

RT: You frequently collaborate with the same people, both in production and the actors. What would be difficult about filmmaking without this relationship?

JW: I like working with the same people over and over. It's like a theater company. We all know each other very well. We support each other, we know each other's strengths and weaknesses. It's just important to me. I don't like the jumping of one group of people to another. I like the continuity.

RT: Does each project get easier to do?

JW: Yeah. Well, no. Not easier and easier. It develops. You get to watch people change. I think you have to know people really well to communicate with them.

RT: It's surprising more filmmakers don't try to find their personal troupes.

JW: It surprises me as well. I come from a theater-ish background. Puppet theater. And I've always had the romantic notion of the touring theater company. So I guess I try to model my film crews on that.

RT: Atonement's performances are modeled after the British films of the 1930s and 1940s. Did you envision this during film production or while reading the novel?

JW: I saw that happening when I read the novel. I'm a big fan of films from the 1930s and 1940s, and I'm a big fan of actors from that period. You meet a lot of young actors in London these days who absurdly try imitations of Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro.

RT: You're not a fan of Method acting.

JW: I'm not a fan of Method acting. I think it has its place certainly, and I'm not dismissing it at all. But I think acting is the one area of filmmaking that has not moved on in the past 35 years at all. Young actors seem to think they're being very modern by investigating the Method. Whereas, in actual fact, they're being very old-fashioned. So I think it's time to reexamine acting as a craft and what it means. And the only way to do that is perhaps to look back, earlier, and then move forward.

To me, the best director of actors in the American system is David Lynch. I've always loved his direction of acting. And no one ever talks about his performances.

RT: His style and stories tend to obscure the other qualities of his films.

JW: Absolutely. Naomi Watts's [performance] in Mulholland Dr. is one of the most extraordinary I've ever seen. And the choice to go with that style of performance that somehow heightens realism throughout the entire movie except when she's in that casting scene and she decides to play naturalism...it flips the whole idea of artifice being natural, and naturalism being artifice. And, suddenly, that scene, that audition scene, it is so terrifying, so effective. I found [that] brilliant. I don't know how Lynch does it. I think he's one of the only directors [who's] pushing the craft into new places.

RT: Pride and Prejudice and Atonement both have elaborate steadicam tracking shots. Is this the sort of thing that excites you when you're watching a movie?

JW: It does, yeah. I like making them, for a start. I really get a kick out of them. You get an amazing adrenaline rush from making those shots because it's a big, big gamble. A lot of choreography. And also because you're spending an entire day's shoot on one shot. If [it] goes wrong, you've gambled away a lot of money and time and effort. I enjoy that gamble. It's fun.

But, also, I like the happening aspect. Do you know what I mean? You create a kind of happening. A piece of theater. Everyone engages: you have 1,600 people focusing on the same five minutes and viewing that time as such importance. It's a beautiful thing.

RT: Which are your favorite long takes?

JW: Touch of Evil's is a masterstroke. I particularly like the Russian Ark film, which I thought was staggering. I was also influenced by a British director you might know. His name is Alan Clarke. He made films like Elephant, which inspired Gus van Sant's Elephant, and another great film for TV called Road. He was one of the first people to use Steadicam in Britain, not long after The Shining.

An artist called Sam Taylor-Wood did a music video for Elton John in which Robert Downey Jr. sang "I Want Love." And that was a one take shot. I like that one very much.

RT: The original Atonement screenplay you saw was different from the novel. In what way?

JW: It digressed from the novel quite a lot. It had become much more straightforward, much more linear. They had cut the idea of replaying the same moment from different points of view, which I thought was a great shame. A lot of the structural ideas had been lost. The idea of the film in three distinct parts had been lost. And death...was portrayed in big, operatic moments. I felt that was the wrong depiction of death. I've always thought of death as something very small.

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