Toronto Film Fest: An Interview with Atonement Director Joe Wright

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

by | September 14, 2007 | Comments

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.

Atonement will be out in theaters December 7 from Universal Pictures.

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