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Director Joe Wright on Anna Karenina and Those SNL-Spoofed Chanel Ads

Joe Wright. Photo: Getty Images

When he’s not making films about teenage assassins, director Joe Wright likes to pair up his favorite actress (Keira Knightley) with his favorite books (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and now Anna Karenina) in a sort of cinematic book club that they share with the world. Although the stylistic form of this take on Anna Karenina was borne out of necessity — Russian locations proved too costly — the director embraced the opportunity to make the most of a studio shoot, by staging the majority of the action in a theater and orchestrating his actors’ movements like a dance. Wright chatted with Vulture about dyslexia, sex scenes, and the reaction to his Brad Pitt Chanel ads.

How long did you keep your sympathy mustache that you grew to keep your male cast company?
Oh, that had to go fairly soon after shooting. I quite liked it, but my wife basically wouldn’t kiss me with it. I mean, she kind of did, but I could tell she wasn’t enjoying it that much. It wasn’t quite there. [Laughs.]

This is your third time working with Keira. How has your relationship changed over the years? Is the fact that you’re both dyslexic something that bonded you?
You know, I think that’s true. We both appreciate that in each other, being dyslexic, because sometimes you have to work a little bit harder than other people. I think it means you have to consider things a little bit more. You can’t take things for granted. For instance, I can’t speed read, so I really have to think about what I’m reading while I’m reading it. And you find other modes of expression, and also other forms of study, be that film or visual arts. I guess I’ve gained a lot of my understanding of the world through non-literary means — even though I keep doing films based on classic novels. I think I’m drawn to them because I sometimes feel like I’m missing out, and there’s a lot of wonderful stuff in literature. I want to know that stuff.

Some people read Anna Karenina as an indictment of the patriarchal society that censured her for her adultery, but not her brother for his.
The hypocrisy is central to the story, and that was of great interest to me, but really I was interested in this more of an ensemble piece. All of these characters are trying to figure out who to love, and Anna’s situation is part of the canvas. But I don’t think she’s a martyr to love.

You have an unique way of staging the film in the theater. Is all the world a stage?
I think so. We all play roles and perform for each other, and a lot of the thing is about the desire for an authentic sincerity that we’re all probably trying to come to terms with. I’m really interested in how we all act and all the different ways we do it.

Everything seems choreographed like a dance — the workers, the peasants in the field, even the sex scene.
I find it interesting how people physically relate to each other: What can you tell from their movements that their words possibly don’t tell you? So I worked with a choreographer, a great Belgian choreographer named Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and we defined and refined the sense of movement, the connections and the distances between people. He gave the cast six weeks of coaching, and he was there through the rehearsal process, so we spent a lot of time thinking and workshopping the physical relationships.

You know, the sex scene comes from one of his actual dances, a dance between two men, actually, because it was something that I had seen, and I thought was exquisite, so I pointed out that dance to him and asked him to add it. I thought it added an interesting dynamic to it, because neither Vronsky or Anna is entirely passive in that. The general kind of sexual roles are challenged a little there.

Who was quicker to learn all the dance moves: Keira or Aaron Taylor-Johnson? Because Aaron really only had a few days of lessons, since he went off to go shoot Savages right after rehearsals for Anna Karenina, and everyone else got the six weeks.
I think Aaron had done a lot of dance before, so he was more used to working with his body in that sort of way. Did you ever see that R.E.M. video he did with his wife, where he’s dancing down the street? It’s completely brilliant, and you can see that he’s an amazing dancer.

It was recently reported that you’re considering doing a Houdini movie.
You know, I used to be a magician myself. Back when I was 12 or 13, mind you, I was the Great Kazaam, and I would busk in Covent Garden and do magic tricks. So I have a strong feeling for Houdini, but no decision has been made on that one yet. I don’t know what I’m going to do, because it’s just in the conversation phase. But if I did, it could certainly be as stylized as Anna Karenina. There are so many ways and feels to do a film, that to only do it naturalistically is selling the medium short.

Are you still planning to do the live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid?
It’s nerve-wracking! It would be an expensive movie, and we want people to see it, so we don’t want to say it’s got a sad ending, but we do want to maintain the original ending. We’ve been getting some grief about that, and I just don’t want it to seem that bleak. What do you think I should do?

Keep the original ending, but maybe you can talk up how it’s transcendent? When she dies, it becomes a beautiful metaphor for how the sea got its foam.
Yeah, I think that’s what I’m going to do. Okay, that’s settled.

Before you go, what do you think of the reaction to your Brad Pitt Chanel ads? Did you see the Saturday Night Live spoofs with Taran Killam?
No, I haven’t seen them yet, but I tell you what — I went up to the SNL studios this weekend and met him, and he was very, very sweet. His quote was, “We nudge with love.” And I thought that was lovely, so I’m very honored to be parodied by SNL.

Joe Wright on Anna Karenina and Those Chanel Ads