Here at the Toronto Film Festival, I had a chance to sit down with Joe Wright, one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. For the last two years I've been saying good things to everyone I know about his most recent film, a loose and lively adaptation of Jane Austen's classic Pride & Prejudice, and now I'll be able to change the subject to the joys of his new picture, an adaptation of Ian McEwan's Atonement. If you're at TIFF like me, don't miss out on an opportunity to catch a screening of Atonement -- it's the best film I've come across at this year's fest, and it's sure to be a tough competitor come Oscar time. During our conversation, Joe and I talked about his unique directing style, which among other things utilizes stream-of-consciousness techniques, and we talked about the challenge of adapting a novel that was shortlisted for every book prize imaginable. Joe and I started by talking for a few about what we've seen so far at the festival -- he recommends Control -- but eventually I hit the button and got us down to business.
RS: Have you seen the Ken Loach movie yet? It's good.
JW: No, I haven't.
RS: It's got a social relevance angle, but it plays like a thriller. Very tight.
JW: Okay, that's exciting -- I love Ken Loach.
RS: One thing I wanted to mention about the movie version of Atonement, and the book, is that I'm not sure I buy Part 3 -- I think we're dealing with an unreliable narrator at that point. Obviously she's giving us certain key facts, but also sliding in a very dramatic Florence Nightingale story. Do you buy Part 3 on its merits?
JW: I do. I do because of the research that we did. I was very fascinated by the role
So as far as Briony is concerned, for a start I don't think she would have had a choice. But I do think she showed heroism. I think Briony is incredibly strong in some ways. It always upsets me when people say they hate Briony. Which people do -- some women, especially -- do hate Briony by the end of the movie. I feel very close to Briony and I feel like she's the character I'm probably closest to.
RS: It would be such a completely different story if she were 17, instead of 13.
RS: And by casting Vanessa Redgrave in that pivotal third incarnation of her, it says to me that you did want absolute credibility there.
JW: Yes, absolutely. I think at that stage in her life she has to be utterly true and honest and right.
RS: The book, at some point, explicitly references Woolf's notion of a "crystalline present" and that was striking to me because I've picked up that thread in your work, perhaps most noticeably in the two very similar openings of your two films. Do you think a lot about formalizing those ideas in your work?
JW: I do. Not necessarily in the context of Virginia Woolf or literary ideas, but my medium is film and I explore things and ideas with the tools that I have and am interested in, as its put, the crystalline present. I'm interested in consciousness, basically. Trying to capture consciousness on film. And I think film is probably, to me, one of the best mediums for doing that. And also, I was trying to find cinematic equivalents to McEwan's prose, to the book. These lyrical passages are reflected in the kind of long, steadicam shots, and then these very staccato, elliptical cuts. I tried to capture those passages where he becomes more.
RS: At one point, speaking through Briony, he makes the pronouncement that character and story are dead and the journey of the mind is the way forward, but I see a contradiction there, because he's also very concerned about telling a great story, as are you in your works. You have to balance.
JW: Absolutely. He's ... I think McEwan is an extraordinary writer and certainly one of the most important, if not the most important British novelist. But his books do want to be read. They're not ... that's one of the things that's so good about him. He does create great stories -- you're interested in turning the page. They're not just musings, contemplations, meditations on consciousness. They're good plots. So he's got kind of a contradiction, I completely agree with you.
RS: In the same way he 'wants to be read,' your shot compositions are very deliberate – they 'want to be seen.' Think of all five Bennett sisters standing up at once in Pride & Prejudice, or that three shot on the boat in Atonement, with Keira posed in just such a way. Obviously you put much thought into those shots, but to what end? Is there something you're expressing through form?
JW: Yes, absolutely. To me, every decision has an impact on the reader. [laughs] I'm getting a little mixed up this morning. On the viewer's understanding of the story you're telling. So, just in the way that McEwan would consider how he constructs a sentence, I consider how I construct a shot. That's what I've got to play with. So I am very ... I try to be aware of what I'm doing. I try to be in the crystalline present, myself. Having said that, I often don't have an intellectual reason for choices. Most of my choices come about through some kind of intuition or instinct, and if I need to, I'll post-rationalize them, intellectually, afterwards. But generally, they come about just by feeling.
RS: By the way, everyone's been talking about why you chose Anthony Minghella for that small part in the end, and what you're trying to say with that.
JW: Oh, I just couldn't work out who the f*ck to cast in that role!
RS: It's a little curious. I mean, do you consider him a contemporary influence?
JW: I consider him a friend. We've known each other a little while, and when I was coming close to feeling like the script was ready, I showed it to Anthony and Anthony asked me lots of awkward questions, some of which I could answer and some of which I couldn't. So he was kind of an influence in that respect, but that really had nothing to do with casting him as the interviewer. I just literally couldn't think of who to put in that role and I didn't want to get some kind of day-playing actor who would be nervous around Vanessa, basically. And at the same time, I didn't want to get Melvin Bragg or some TV personality who might take up too much space. It was all about Vanessa, basically. It was all about finding someone who wouldn't be inhibited by Vanessa and that she'd feel comfortable with. I see the job of directing as being one of creating the right atmosphere, creating an environment where people can realize their full potential. So, it was a matter of creating the right atmosphere for Vanessa.
RS: Is that why you tend to bring back actors you've worked with – because that hard work is done, on some level?
JW: Yeah, to some extent that's true, and also I just like working with people I know, you know? It's true of everyone behind the camera -- most of my crew are people I've worked with at least once, and more often many, many times since my early TV work. And the acting department is another department, as far as I'm concerned. Obviously one of the most important departments, but it's just the same. It's our little family, and we all grow to love each other, and then you want to spend more time with them.
RS: We talked about the back and forth with Minghella, but what about McEwan? Did you have that with him?
JW: Very much so, yeah.
RS: How long did that go on?
JW: All the way through. I had to get his agreement to direct the film, so I met him, very nervously one lunch time when Tim Bevan proposed me as director and we had a ... I was terrified. I'm always very inhibited by extremely clever men. I find them terrifying, but we very quickly slipped into ... I was there to learn from him, basically. One of the most exciting things about my job is that I get to meet these extraordinary people and maybe get to learn a thing or two. So, I was there to learn from him and once he understood that and once he also understood that I was interested in ... the challenge I was setting myself was to make a totally faithful adaptation of the book. I found that an exciting challenge ... and he kind of warmed up and we got on very well. Every draft of the screenplay I would send him and he'd send notes or we'd have a conversation and I'd go round to his house and sit and talk to him. He was extraordinary.
RS: Was the faithfulness necessary to get his approval?
RS: I mean, you took liberties with Pride & Prejudice.
JW: Pride & Prejudice was actually, I think, a more difficult adaptation, just because there's so much plot. More has to be cut. I loved the book. I thought the book, to understate it, 'worked.' So I didn't see why one should try and fix it. So my challenge, really, was to see if it could work. I had this idea that you could actually make a totally faithful adaptation of that book, and everyone thought that was kind of crazy. There's a kind of received wisdom that writers, adapters always say, which is 'at some point you have to throw the book away.'
JW: And I'd always say, 'Oh, yes of course.' I'd take that received wisdom and say 'Yes, of course, you have to throw the book away, yes, yes, yes, of course.' I even found myself repeating it occasionally. Then, on this, I suddenly questioned that. I thought, well, why do you have to do that? The book is almost perfect, so why would I want to throw it away?
RS: Your next project, The Soloist, is quite a departure. Are you nervous about leaving Englishness behind for a while?
JW: I am, yes. But it's the story of two outsiders and so I kind of hope that I can bring an outsider's point of view to it. I always feel pretty schizophrenic when I'm walking through