Director Joe Wright weaves elements of dark fairy tales into his new adventure thriller, “Hanna,” shot on location in Europe and Morocco. The film follows the adventures of a teenage girl who goes out into the world for the first time and must battle for her life. The cast includes Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan (of “Atonement,” also directed by Wright), Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana.
MoviesOnline sat down with Joe Wright at a round table interview in Los Angeles to talk about his new film. He told us about his collaboration with The Chemical Brothers on the film’s score, why the rhythm and pacing of “Hanna” were so different from his previous films, and how he used a dark fairytale theme to elevate the action genre. He also shared with us his appreciation of Lady Gaga and explained how fellow director David Lynch’s bold imagery, undefined symbolism and love of fairytale iconography influenced his life.
Q: Saoirse told us you were her date for the Lady Gaga concert at the O2 Arena in Berlin. Did you enjoy yourself?
JOE WRIGHT: I felt rather old and rather straight, but I did enjoy it. Yes.
Q: She said you were standing still with your arms crossed very observantly. So what was your appreciation of the performance and were you watching it as a director?
JOE WRIGHT: I don’t know. It’s difficult to separate the director from myself. I thought she was great actually. She’s had other forms in previous generations perhaps but she’s doing for this generation what other people did for us and so that’s great. I think it’s important. She’s powerful and quite liberated. She’s kind of cool.
Q: Are you a fan of The Chemical Brothers and how and when did they get involved?
JOE WRIGHT: I am a fan of The Chemical Brothers. I went to their very first concert in London in 1992 which is terrifying to admit. It was a nightclub called Rah-Rah’s above a shoe shop in North London and they blew my mind that night and I’ve been a groupie ever since. I love them and I love music. It’s one of my passions in life and I have a very eclectic taste from Beethoven to Indian classical music to The Chemical Brothers and beyond. You know, I married a musician. And it’s come as no surprise to me somehow that the only Oscar my films have ever won was for Best Music. It seems about right. So yeah, I love music and it was a great opportunity. I was really excited to be able to work with a contemporary score. With classical scores, orchestral scores, there’s a very clear division between music and sound effects and with this I was excited. If music is the organization of sounds, then I was really excited to take sound effects and organize them into music and then take music and make it part of the sound effects and sort of blur the distinction. It was quite an exciting process.
Q: When you were going forward with “Hanna,” did you have to reconstruct how you approached film because the pacing and the tone of this are so radically different from your previous works?
JOE WRIGHT: Yeah, I guess I did, although a lot of the same things applied. I mean, for instance, in terms of the character development, we worked first on the physical aspects. With “Pride and Prejudice,” we started rehearsals by doing dance. With “Atonement,” we started rehearsals with Saoirse looking at how she walked. And with this, we started by looking at how she stood and balanced herself and how that would work in terms of the action sequences. It was a lot freer in a way making this movie. There was a lot more improvisation. The first two films were literary adaptations and so one did feel a certain responsibility to be as true as possible to those books. The third was based on a true story and so one felt even more of a responsibility to really be true to those lives. With this, one could go anywhere and do anything and that was really liberating. At times, it was kind of scary as well. The sort of options for options paralysis did occasionally sink in but generally the idea that we could discover an abandoned amusement park in Berlin and think “Wow, this is a great location. Let’s shoot here.” and have the freedom to do that was great.
Q: Were all the pieces like the Wolf’s Mouth in place?
JOE WRIGHT: The house wasn’t but the rest of it was. It was an amazing find and the first time anyone has shot there as well. It was an amusement park for East Berliners before the wall came down and when the wall came down, instead of going to the amusement park, they went to the shops and so it fell into disrepair.
Q: This is kind of Bourne’s Red Riding Hood. Was the idea of using the fairytale themes to elevate the action genre always something you had in mind or did that evolve as you took on the project?
JOE WRIGHT: I think it was one of the keys into the film for me. The structure was always that of a fairytale – a young person grows up in the safety of the parental home, embarks on a journey, encounters evil, overcomes it. I mean, that’s a fairytale. In a true sense, it’s dark and I like the darkness of fairytales as opposed to the colonized fairytales of Disney. I grew up in a puppet theater in London. My parents had a puppet theater and they would put on productions of “The Little Mermaid” or “Rapunzel.” So they’ve always been part of my consciousness and it was a great opportunity. And I think there’s something quite elemental. They’re somehow deeply rooted in the collective subconscious, the fairytale folk stories, and so I wanted the film to operate on a subconscious level. I liked the idea that it’s not quite reality but it’s not a fantasy in the modern sense. It’s more a sort of dreamscape where things are almost right and real but not, and so I thought that the fairytales would be a good route into that as well.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about some of your past inspirations in terms of action films? There are a couple scenes where Hanna is running that took me back to the great action films of the 70s. It felt like homage even though it’s still very modern and updated. I was wondering if you were inspired by any of those old films, and if so, which ones?
JOE WRIGHT: I’ve never been a huge action film aficionado. I found that most of them are misogynistic, rightwing and fairly vile. But I thought one of the things that Paul Greengrass taught us with the Jason Bourne franchise was that you could make socially conscious action films. So I took the lead from him really. Aesthetically, I was looking at films like Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket” for the economy of shooting style and for the clarity as well. I admire Paul a lot but I don’t want to imitate the kind of fast-cutting, handheld action sequences of the Bourne films which I feel have been done too many times recently. I was looking at a lot of French thriller films like “Diva” and “Boy Meets Girl” and stuff like that that was kind of more on one the hand expressionistic but on the other hand had a kind of clarity to it as well. Also, we didn’t have a lot of money and so we were forced to think of ways to create a kind of atmosphere around Hanna where she was slightly magical and would appear and disappear, so one did that kind of elliptical cuts rather than special effect wooshes. That was borne out of necessity but actually I really enjoyed the sequence, for instance, when she is escaping her incarceration and ends up in the lab and you have the guy coming into the lab and looking up at the air vent and seeing it open and then the door closing and she’s behind the door. I’ve no idea how she got down and it doesn’t matter to me. What I enjoyed was the kind of playfulness of these elliptical cuts. The same applies to [when] she’s in the hole in the desert and the car passes over the top and she’s disappeared from the hole and she’s under the jeep – obviously totally impossible. But I kind of enjoyed that kind of playfulness.
Q: Don’t we sort of expect or forgive impossible things like that because it’s just part of the subconscious language of filmmaking?
JOE WRIGHT: I think so. I hope so. I think that as long as you give the audience an emotional truth and plausibility, then they’ll kind of go anywhere with you, I hope, and that was what I was playing with – emotional truth being different from plot. I was also interested in MacGuffins and all of those ideas as well.
Q: In “Hanna” there is this seamless connection between the music and what you’re seeing on film. It’s almost like a character in the film itself. Was your working with The Chemical Brothers different and maybe more involved than working with previous scores?
JOE WRIGHT: No, I worked very, very closely with Dario (Marianelli) on “Pride” and “Atonement” and “The Soloist.” And, in fact, on “Atonement,” I started developing methods such as having music composed prior to shooting. The typewriter piece in “Atonement” was composed before shooting and then played on set so that Saoirse had a rhythm for the music and she was almost like a dance walking to the music. And so, we did the same thing with this. They composed a couple of the tracks prior to shooting and we shot to playback and then I believe that a lot of filmmakers will edit the film to a temp track and then send it to the composer and say “This is the edited film. Please write a score to it.” I don’t like that idea at all. I never use temp music. I will send rough cut sequences to Ed and Tom and they write some music for it and send it back to me. I recut their music. So it needs a certain openness from the composers. I’d recut their music, send it back to them. They’d change it, send it back to me. I’d recut the picture. It’s a very symbiotic, organic process. And then, we’d also send bits of music to the sound effects editor. The sound effects editor would send sounds to The Chemical Brothers. They would use the sound effects within their music. So it was very much an exciting, collaborative thing.
Q: And they knew going in that you would be cutting their music then?
JOE WRIGHT: Yeah. I mean, I never cut their music in terms of the final score. It would always be ideas and suggestions and then they’d take those ideas and suggestions and take them way further than I could possibly have hoped. So I wouldn’t like to say that I was in any way tampering with their final work. It was really a way of collaborating. It’s one of the benefits really of the digital process that you can send things down line and they come back to you in a couple of hours. It’s great.
Q: You’ve spoken a lot about your influences from David Lynch. I was wondering if you can expand on what exactly they are and how they materialize in the film?
JOE WRIGHT: David Lynch is just like a feeling that you have, isn’t he? And David Lynch changed my life, I think. When I was 15, my parents went away for a summer and it was the same time that we first got a VHS machine as well, and I discovered pot and David Lynch and it was the greatest summer of my life. I watched “Blue Velvet” on rotation I think about 16 times and I’m thinking it was the funniest film I’d ever seen in my life. And so, he’s a kind of feeling, Lynch. That kind of mystical thing, that there’s something just beyond your rational appreciation and there’s a kind of symbolism within his work that I really enjoyed but a kind of undefined symbolism. Things are symbols for something that you’re not quite sure what they’re symbols for. There’s a kind of raw poetry. It’s like a grownup reading Keats who suddenly discovered Charles Bukowski and thought maybe this is poetry too. Poetry can talk of different things. And I guess some of the styling, his kind of love of the 1950’s pencil skirt and quite bold imagery I think spoke to my already inherent love of fairytale iconography. He’s quite iconic in his imagery. Nothing is ever what it seems.
“Hanna” opens in theaters on April 8th.