Before 'Hanna,' Joe Wright was probably best known for his period dramas, and could easily have carved out a comfortable niche buttoning up beautiful actresses like Keira Knightley in too-tight clothing and putting them through the paces of anachronistic romances. But his new film reunites him with his other 'Atonement' star, Saoirse Ronan. This time, though, instead of ruining lives, she simply ends them, playing a pre-teen hitwoman who leaves a trail of bodies in her wake as she races to reunite with her retired-agent father (played by Eric Bana).
Cinematical sat down with Wright as the director discussed creating fairy-tale imagery, chatted about his collaboration with electronic music luminaries the Chemical Brothers and offered some insights into the unspoken and unrevealed stories beneath the film's stylish surface.
Cinematical: What was the learning curve like for you in terms of shooting action?
Joe Wright: It was incredibly difficult. In fact, I feel like the learning curve is there for everyone to see on the screen; the opening sequence in Finland and those fight sequences were the first ones we shot, and they're kind of more traditionally shot. But then as I gained in confidence and the mystique of the action sequence was dropped, I kind of understood that there were certain received ways of doing it that actually could be challenged, and I really went after that because I was excited. So it was all about gaining confidence, and debunking the kind of "oh, we don't do it like that, mate."
This film is rare in that it is based on an original script. How important and how difficult was that to get it into production?
I think it's very difficult, and that's why the budget on this film was about a third of what would normally be spent on an action movie. But I think that Seth Lockhead's script was sort of undeniable, and once you start to kind of congregate real talent around it, like Saoirse or Cate Blanchett or Eric Bana, people seem to feel more confident in their taste and so they kind of move sort of gingerly toward production. And then there's no going back!
How important was it to have a clearly defined back story for these characters, even if it wasn't going to be fully revealed in the movie itself?
That was one of the most challenging things of the process, really. I was quite keen to pull it away from the kind of procedural CIA drama -– I wasn't really interested in any of that, I kind of found it a bit tedious. And I was more interested in taking a look at the emotional back stories of the characters, and their relationships, and how that informed where they are at the beginning of the film.
I was also interested in the concept of the MacGuffin, and how the MacGuffin stands up in today's culture –- whether one could still get away with the suitcase of papers in 'North by Northwest'. Nowadays I feel like the suitcase of papers might be explained or given a back story. So I was kind of interested in whether one could still do that; I don't have an answer yet because the film's not been released, but I think it was an interesting exercise.
You have talked about musical connections you envision during shooting or in the process of development. How much of the actual music for the film was written either before or during when shooting was going on?
The theme that Tom Hollander was whistling, was a temp that was recorded prior to shooting, and then there was one kind of generic action-chase theme which I think was used a bit in the trailer park sequence. And then during post-production, rather than fine-cutting the film and sending the finished cut to the Chemical Brothers and having them write a score to it, it was very much a organic dialogue where they would send pieces of music and I would kind of cut them into picture, sometimes even kind of editing the music itself, and then cutting the picture to fit the music.
And then the sound-effects editors were sending sounds to the Chemical Brothers and they were sending sounds to the sound-effects editors; I really wanted to blur the distinction between music and other sounds, which is difficult when you're working with an orchestral score because obviously there's a very clear division between an orchestra and everything else. But I was excited by the opportunity to blur that division.
When you started collaborating with the Chemical Brothers, what sort of discussion did you have about doing a dedicated electronic score versus something more classical?
I don't see the point of hiring the Chemical Brothers and then getting them to do an orchestral score. I mean, it seems like a pointless exercise, really; you might as well hire someone whose talent is with an orchestra. I very specifically wanted the score to be an extension of the Chemical Brothers' music. They are I think possibly the most genius drum programmers ever, and I wanted rhythm in this piece.
Given the fact that this movie has so much style, how much of it could be improvised during shooting, and how much had to be engineered from the beginning?
Obviously I consider pre-production to be part of the process, so lots of the ideas come in through pre-production -- an example being finding the amusement park. That wasn't in the screenplay, but we went to Berlin on the first scout and we said, "OK, forget about the script, show us some extraordinary places." And they took us to those wind tunnels for the escape from the camp, and we'd heard about the amusement park. So having seen both places and going, "Wow, this is f*cking great," we responded to them by writing them into the script.
Normally there's an apartment, and they'll take you to six apartments, and then go "that one, please." With this, we just said, "show us what you find extraordinary," and that included the amusement park, and the wind tunnels, and a lot of amazing places which we ended up writing into the script, and responding to the world instead of trying to impose our own imagination on the world.
How tough or easy was it to find that balance between that dreamlike, fairy tale atmosphere, and the intensity of the actual story?
I guess I conceived the whole film as being a dream, or rather, like a painting in which the world kind of seems to be real but actually there's something just off about it. So I was always trying to find Hanna's point of view of the world, and one of the things that interested me most about the film was the character of Hanna, and what her naiveté and lack of judgment, lack of conditioning could show us about the world. It was a lovely thing to see the world through her eyes, and it's a special kind of view, I think.
Chauncey Gardener in 'Being There' is another example of that kind of view, and even 'E.T.' in a way is the same. And I think I see the world quite sort of dreamily, really; it's just a matter of how you look at things, you know? It all seems rather strange to me. Especially when you're a stranger, as Jim Morrison said [Laughs].