Joe Wright had, let’s say, an interesting 2021. He released two films last year. The biggest and most important one (and still in wide release) is his marvelous musical Cyrano (which had an Academy-qualifying December run in Los Angeles, even though its wider release was pushed back to February due to the pandemic). That one stars an electrifying Peter Dinklage in the title role, and it’s a testament to Wright’s dedication to feverish onscreen romanticism. But earlier in 2021, Wright also released The Woman in the Window, his much-delayed adaptation of the 2018 best seller, starring Amy Adams and Julianne Moore. That film, which ultimately came out via Netflix, is a somewhat more difficult topic for him: It was reshot and recut heavily after bad test screenings, and the poorly reviewed final product was far from the darker movie Wright envisioned (and which he discusses here). But he’s still proud of the fact that he at least attempted it. As he puts it: “You’ve got to come in with a fairly decent batting average, but if you don’t make the occasional film that doesn’t work, then you’re not fucking trying hard enough.”
Wright’s batting average is pretty terrific: Atonement is a masterpiece, Pride & Prejudice is close behind, and the cult around Anna Karenina grows with each passing day. (I suspect that I’m personally one more rewatch away from declaring it as great an achievement as Atonement.) And his work is surprisingly personal. As he explains, his Winston Churchill drama Darkest Hour was in many ways an emotional response to the failure of his children’s fantasy Pan. Similarly, the techno-action thriller Hanna was a direct response to the disappointing reception of his mental-illness drama The Soloist. That Wright finds ways to make everything he does personal is clear from the sincerity in his work. We talked about outrunning volcanoes on the set of Cyrano, what happened to his version of The Woman in the Window, and what about filmmaking in Hollywood still gets him up in the morning.
It sounds like shooting Cyrano was a crazy idea — to make this big international production in the middle of the pandemic, at a time when people couldn’t go anywhere.
It was June 2020, and we’d been in lockdown four or five months. I felt it was really important to get the film made at that time, especially in the context of a declining compassion I saw happening around the world. In the middle of this pandemic, to make a film about how important human connection is, about why it’s so difficult sometimes to connect, but why we must keep trying.
At the time, the British government weren’t supplying any financial help to freelance people within the arts, who were finding it difficult to literally put food on the table or to pay the rent. I felt a kind of responsibility. I’m a director and an artist, but also a boss in some senses, and I felt that we needed to get a group of our collaborators together and go and make a movie and put food on people’s tables. We hunkered down in this small town in Sicily and created this bubble. We had collaborators, artists, dancers, actors from all over Europe, in defiance of Brexit, frankly. But it was tough. People couldn’t go home and see their families as they normally might on weekends. There was this kind of passionate defiance of global circumstances that meant people really believed in the movie and why we were trying to do it. All the above-the-line people took pay cuts to get it made.
I found the experience of watching Peter Dinklage playing Cyrano, without the nose, far more relatable. Somehow it becomes even more about the fact that when you’re madly in love with somebody, be it requited or unrequited, you often feel like you’re not worthy of that person.
Which was exactly what the film was about for me: those feelings of unworthiness and the fear of intimacy. The fear of allowing that person you’re in love with to really see you for who you are and not who you wish you were, or who you present to the world on a daily basis. You’re not as great as you hope you are, but you’re also not as bad as you fear you are. You’re just somewhere in the middle, probably.
Pete brings a lifetime of experience to that role. He felt Cyrano didn’t trust others to be able to see past his otherness, and that there was a fine line between Cyrano’s own feelings of self-worth, or lack thereof, and his inability to believe that others would see him as worthy. So it’s as much an issue of trust in others — which I found to be a subtle but very important differentiation.
You also play a bit with how much Roxanne seems to know whether it’s Cyrano sending her those letters. There is a very knowing gaze that she gives him throughout much of the movie. We don’t quite know how to read it — but it’s clear she knows something.
You want to have an element of the film that isn’t necessarily on the surface. I have this idea that there is magic in what you don’t cognitively perceive, but do subconsciously. I tried to make it open to interpretation, but to my mind, there is a part of Roxanne that knows that it’s Cyrano speaking to her beneath her balcony, and is in fact in love with Cyrano. She has the physical manifestations of love when he’s near to her — her heartbeat quickens and her lips become dry — but she refuses to acknowledge it even to herself.
Had Cyrano been brave enough to declare himself and to put his own pride aside, he might have found it would’ve been impossible for her to deny her feelings for him. That’s not to say that she was using Christian. I think she did love Christian. I think it’s possible to love two people at the same time, dare I say it.
I once read a quote from you where you said, “I come in with the wildest ideas and then we all figure out how to do it.” What was the wildest idea you had on Cyrano?
Shooting up Mt. Etna. We chose to shoot at 16,000 feet near the summit of the volcano. It was extraordinary. The whole thing was conceived as these red soldiers’ uniforms against the black volcanic lava. We’d been told that no snow fell in December, so we built a set up there. We had this network of trenches, rather like First World War trenches, and we built this long camera platform on which we put a hundred-foot Technocrane that could shoot the whole thing. We planned it out within an inch of its life, and then suddenly, the snow began to fall. Two meters of snow fell, completely burying our set and our camera platform and making everything inaccessible. So, with no time at all, we had to improvise a new location at 8,000 feet with no set and no camera platform and no crane.
And it was interesting. Well, at first it didn’t feel interesting. First it just felt really emotionally appalling. But then it became this challenge in economy: How do you shoot this sequence with a camera on a tripod? And then the volcano erupted and we had to, on the last day, pick up the camera cases and run off the volcano. As we flew off the island on the 18th of December, in the dark, I looked out the window and there was just this beaming red eye of the volcano mouth staring at me. It was extraordinary. I like those kind of challenges. It gives something to the actors. The actors are really up there and it’s really freezing and they don’t have to act cold.
Can you discuss some of the changes the film makes to Roxanne and Christian?
In the original [Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand], I don’t think Rostand takes Roxanne very seriously. I don’t think he takes female intellectual pursuit very seriously. The very fact that she’s part of a group that’s referred to as the précieuse, which I understand translates as “the precious” — these “precious” women who were into literature as a hobby. It wasn’t seen as serious. And in fact, fictional literature at the time wasn’t really taken very seriously, which is why so much of late-18th-, early-19th-century literature is written by women for a female audience. It felt incumbent upon us to respect and take Roxanne a bit more seriously.
With Christian, I didn’t like the idea that he was just dumb. I thought it was more interesting that Christian is not dumb. He’s not a wordsmith. He’s not been brought up with an understanding of literature. He’s been told, like a lot of men, that what’s important and what is manly is fighting prowess. But he does have an emotional intelligence. For me, Christian is innocence. He doesn’t understand this strange, sophisticated society, where everyone is scheming. He’s guileless and without cynicism. He’s open, and openhearted. I really love characters like that, because there’s a part of me, possibly the preadolescent part of me, that is very much like that, and that I miss.
Is that something you’re trying to recapture in your work?
I’ve always really loved this archetype of the holy fool who walks naked into the palace, not knowing that he should be wearing clothes, but who somehow sees the foibles and absurdity of societal structures for what they are really, which are just fabricated. But is able to laugh at them as well. That’s a character that often is the central character of a lot of my films.
Music is obviously very important in your films. The National’s songs already existed in the stage production [written by Wright’s collaborator Erica Schmidt, upon which Cyrano is based], but they’ve been changed quite a bit for the film. What kind of input did you have to the music?
I worked very closely with the Dessners and Matt [Berninger] and Carin [Besser, Berninger’s wife who’s co-written songs for the National] in developing the songs specifically for film. In the workshop production, all the music had to be played live due to union rules, so we were able to expand the palette of the orchestration for film. Things like the song “Every Letter” developed into a kind of ménage à trois. I wanted a sexuality to the piece. If this is a love story, there has to be sexual desire involved. It’s not just a cerebral love that Cyrano has for her. He wants her.
I love how imperfect and fleeting it all is. There might be a snatch of dance moves while someone is walking down the street, but then it’s over just as quickly as it started. A person we’ve never met before might sing a really important verse, suddenly.
We got all of the cast to sing live on-camera because the faults in their voices, the cracks, the breath in the wrong place, the running out of breath — all that, to me, brings us closer intimacy and therefore more heartbreak and humanity.
My dad, along with my mom, founded this puppet theater, and one of the things I loved about his shows was his use of music. We would listen to the evening concert every night at home after dinner. So music and its dramatic use was definitely something that I was thinking about at a very early age. I conceived the adaptation of Anna Karenina as a kind of ballet with words, and so doing a musical felt like a natural progression from that.
Tell me more about your parents’ puppet theater.
My parents founded the theater in 1959, and it’s a 120-seat, dedicated puppet theater. Right next door is the workshop where we made everything, and then next door is the house where we lived. It was this complete little fantasy world. The only problem with it was that we weren’t at all prepared for what lay beyond the fantasy world and the harsh realities of London in the ’70s and ’80s. In the world of the puppet theater, everything was beautiful. I guess the character that I’m describing — the innocent character, the holy fool — is the character who leaves the puppet theater thinking that that’s what the world is going to continue to be like, and then realizes that actually there is harsh social cruelty. The world is not fair and not kind.
The puppet theater is probably why the aesthetic of my films has this kind of handmade feel. My dad was a big influence. I remember someone calling up to book tickets for one of the puppet shows, and they said, “Before we book a ticket, we’d like to just check, is there any audience participation in the show? Because we don’t like audience participation.” And my dad said, “Yes, madam, there is. There is the participation of the imagination.” That’s something that I’ve been thinking about ever since, really. That was the spark for the journey in Anna Karenina. The audience is required to engage their own imaginations rather than have every inch of the cinema screen filled with a kind of recognizable reality.
There’s two puppets at the beginning of Cyrano, and both those were made by my dad in 1948. I felt like with this film I was coming home, to the dream world of my parents’ puppet theater. And after Woman in the Window, which was a very angry movie and a very difficult experience, to come back to something that felt much closer to my own soul was important.
It sounds like Woman in the Window was a very frustrating experience for you.
Yeah, it was a long, protracted, frustrating experience. The film that was finally released was not the film that I originally made. It was like, Oh, fucking hell. You live and you learn. It got watered down. It got watered down a lot. It was a lot more brutal in my original conception. Both aesthetically, with really fucking hard cuts and really violent music — Trent Reznor did an incredible score for it that was abrasive and hard-core — and in its depiction of Anna, Amy Adams’s character, who was far messier and kind of despicable in a lot of ways. Unfortunately, audiences like women to be nice in their movies. They don’t want to see them get messy and ugly and dark and drunk and taking pills. It’s fine for men to be like that, but not for women. So the whole thing was watered down to be something that it wasn’t.
The cuts were really hard. I always think about that Gaspar Noe film, I Stand Alone, where there’s like a gunshot on every single cut, so you were dreading him cutting at all, and it left you a complete nervous wreck. There was something of that in Woman in the Window’s cinematic style. It was brutal. It was brutalist. And would you believe it? They didn’t like it! [Laughs] I always think that people are going to get what I do and that of course it’s worth spending X amount of millions of dollars on a sort of formal experiment in fucking anxiety. And when people go, “Hmmm, that’s not really what we …,” I get surprised. I think that sort of thing is fine if you’re working with a Gaspar Noe budget. If you’re working with a Hollywood budget, it’s probably not such a clever idea.
Do you think there’s any chance we could ever see the director’s cut of Woman in the Window?
I think it would cost a lot money to do, because you’d have to reedit the whole thing, regrade it, remix it. But it would be fun. I’d love to do it. There’s a great scene where she had sex with the bloke downstairs and stuff like that. It was very different. I’m not going to delude myself. It could just be that it was a film that didn’t work and that’s okay, too. We have a right as artists to fail. We have to keep pushing ourselves. You’ve got to come in with a fairly decent batting average, but if you don’t make the occasional film that doesn’t work, then you’re not fucking trying hard enough.
You don’t seem to be afraid of tackling material that’s been tackled many times by others before. Cyrano, Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina, Peter Pan. Even Darkest Hour, which was the third movie about Dunkirk that came out that year. (And you yourself had also tackled Dunkirk before, in Atonement.) Do you feel that when you take on something that’s been done several times before, it liberates you to try your own thing and go in a wildly new direction?
Yeah, maybe. Also, my dyslexia meant that I didn’t get to read these books when I was a kid. So when people say, “Well, this is a really important book,” I go, “Well, why?” I refuse to be cowed by the expectations of culture that people place on certain things. When I read Pride and Prejudice, I was like, “This is an amazing book! It’s written by this 21-year-old person who was discovering their own talent as they wrote it, and it has this youthful vibrancy and energy to it. So we have to have an 18-year-old play Elizabeth Bennet, and we have to make it about kids, and we have to make sure that it has that energy to it.” There are as many versions of Pride and Prejudice as there are readers. When you only see it in the context of the canon of great English literature, it’s not being seen for what it is, or what it was when it was written. You have to get away from all of that.
Without that kind of freedom, I imagine you wouldn’t be able to make a film like Anna Karenina. Because I think that’s probably the height of your formal experimentation.
It’s formal experimentation that comes from necessity. Tom Stoppard had written this beautiful screenplay adaptation of the book, at my request. It was all set in various palaces in Russia, so it was naturalistic in its presentation. We scouted a lot in Russia and Saint Petersburg. In the end, we just realized we didn’t have the money to make the movie in Russia. So we started trying to find British locations that would work. I thought, Wouldn’t it be fun to do it all in a stage set? What about if we set it all in a theater? But we never wrote any of it into the screenplay. The screenplay was the naturalistic setting screenplay. That’s what all the actors received. But then there was this plan of how to realize it within this strange dream theater that we were creating. I love blocking. I love moving figures in space, how we relate to each other. How we can be saying one thing, but our physical language can be saying another thing, and blurring the line between what is commonly known as blocking and choreography. Where does choreography start and blocking finish?
Anna Karenina was the third of your films with Keira Knightley — a sort of unofficial trilogy — and it didn’t seem to have the same kind of success as Pride & Prejudice or Atonement. Were you disappointed by the reaction to it?
I’m not today. If I’m in America and I happen to meet people who have enjoyed my films, they always talk about Pride & Prejudice or Atonement. In Poland, Russia, Germany, they always talk about Anna Karenina.
What role does doubt play in your work?
I remember after the fiasco that was Pan I was really in a state, and I called up Alfonso Cuarón. We met and I told him what I was going through, this crisis of confidence. He listened and he went, “Yeah, it’s normal. Me too.” I was like, “What? But you just made Gravity, what are you talking about?” And he said, “No, I had done this script and it was terrible …” and so on. I realized that we all suffer from that. Then along came this little movie about this funny little guy who had a crisis of confidence and stuff at this moment of terrible self-doubt: Darkest Hour.
Often the films are reactions to the previous film. Hanna was a response to things that were happening in my personal life, but it was also a reaction to the reception of The Soloist. That film had been accused of being Oscar bait, and I was really hurt and offended by that idea. So I thought, Fuck you all, I’m going to make the least Oscar movie possible, with a score by the Chemical Brothers, and it’s going to be like, up yours.
Hanna is one of your films that has aged really well. I interviewed Eric Bana last year, and he said that it was a film where he didn’t really know how it was going to come together while it was being made, but then he was wowed when he finally saw it.
I was really into, and still am into, Leos Carax’s movies, especially Boy Meets Girl. I was interested in how he shot action. And also Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, which I saw as basically an action movie, especially that scene at the station and going through the train, and how they shoot the pickpocketing. I found that to be just fucking beautiful. So there was a lot of exciting formal experimentation on Hanna that I really enjoyed. When she is going through a tunnel in Berlin and then she sticks her head out and she’s in the Moroccan desert. You have a top shot of a vehicle passing over a hole, and then she’s disappeared. There’s no way she could have jumped, but you’re just playing with those ideas without resorting to any CG stuff or anything. It’s all within the cuts, it’s all in-camera.
Speaking of Hanna and the Chemical Brothers, you’ve said in the past that rave culture was a big influence on your work. What did you mean by that?
When I was younger, I worked with a group called Vegetable Vision. We did light shows for raves. We’d shoot abstract footage, on 16-mm., and then build a 16-foot scaffolding tower in the middle of a rave with a large number of projectors and project these images around the walls. The brutality of the cuts was really interesting, one image next to another — placing a full frame of macro-shot crawling maggots next to a shot of, I don’t know, a baby laughing.
I also loved the immersive nature of the music. How great DJs like Andrew Weatherall, for instance, who recently passed away, could take you on a symphonic, emotional journey through the course of three hours. And the collage aspect of sampling and rave music; the sensory wonder of it all — the loss of self, this idea that one would be amongst a group of people and feel this sense of unity. At the time I was also watching films like Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire with its kaleidoscopic view of the world, that each was as important as all. I want all my films to have a sense of taking you to an alternative poetic world that is to me truer than the material world in which we are bound. God, I can sound pretentious! If I talk about that stuff in words, I just cringe.
I always want my films to feel as if at any point you could follow this minor character, and that character’s life would be as wonderful and revealing and powerful as your hero’s. I think about the character of the maid in Pride & Prejudice. There’s a shot that takes place at the end of a day. First, the camera’s looking through the windows and it spies in on Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their conversation about their children. Then it goes to the other window and you see one set of daughters. Then it goes to another window, and there’s another set of daughters. And finally, there’s a window looking in on a staircase, and you see the maid and she’s singing a little love song. Suddenly you feel like, Oh, she has a whole romantic life too. There is someone she loves, and that love is as great and as important as Darcy and Elizabeth or whoever.
Could you tell while making Pan that it was, as you put it, a fiasco?
No, I thought it was wonderful! [Laughs] We’d made the film very specifically for what they called the tween-y audience. Which I believe is 10, 11, 12, 13. So, it was bold and dark and difficult, specifically for that audience. Then I showed up at the first test screening and I walked into the theater in Pasadena, and there were 400 kids between the age of 4 and 6! “What’s going on? Why are all these tiny children in here? They’re all going to be scared out their wits.” And they said, “Well, yeah. The problem is that we tried to get tweenies in here, but they all thought that Peter Pan was for little kids.” And I was like, “Did no one think of this before?” So we screened the film for these tiny children, and they were terrified. And their mothers and fathers wrote these really angry replies, saying, “How dare you?” They really went to town on us.
The thing that makes me laugh about that film is that I have kids and I see how completely erratic they are. One moment they’re joy and happiness, and then a tiny thing can set them off and there’ll be despair and tears, and then another thing can set them off and they’ll be laughing, and another thing sets them off and they’re angry. They’re completely tonally inconsistent. So I decided to make a film that was representative of them, which was completely tonally inconsistent. Then when the movie came out, people said, “This film is tonally inconsistent.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s the point.”
The film didn’t work, but that’s what we were trying to do. I remember walking into the after-party after the premiere. I thought we’d done rather well. [Clasps his hands and gives a big, fake smile.] Then I looked at the lovely Sue Kroll, who was one of the heads of the studio at the time, and her face, it was just gray and ash. I was like, “Is there something wrong?” That was my first real indication that we had an absolute fucking turkey on our hands.
Since the beginning, with Pride & Prejudice, you’ve made films that have been in the “Oscar conversation.” And you were there again to some extent with Cyrano recently. I imagine you were pretty green when you did Pride & Prejudice. Has your attitude toward awards changed?
The whole world felt greener when we made Pride & Prejudice. I remember sitting in the boardroom at Working Title; we were discussing the problems facing us with Atonement, and someone came into the room and said, “Pride & Prejudice has been nominated for four Oscars!” We were like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” We weren’t even aware that that was the day when nominations were coming out. There was no buildup. There was no campaign. It felt like a different time. And possibly a lot healthier time, too.
But I enjoy the whole dog and pony show to a certain extent. I get to hang out with people and make friends. This year, I’ve spent a lot of time with Paolo Sorrentino, who’s one of my favorite filmmakers in the world. So that’s a lovely aspect of it. The whole competitive nature of the awards thing is anathema to creativity. Having said that, all of those great Greek plays, the great tragedies, were all part of competitions. So, it’s a double-edged sword really. I always want to challenge myself. I always want to be pushing myself in terms of form and content. That’s what gets me up in the morning.