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Darkest Hour director Joe Wright shares candid thoughts on each of his films: 'I had a breakdown after making Atonement'

The British director reflects frankly on all seven of his films (and ‘Black Mirror’ episode)

Jacob Stolworthy
Wednesday 30 May 2018 15:45
‘I was so excited about it,’ says Wright. ‘I kind of muddled through “Pride & Prejudice” but with “Atonement” [starring Keira Knightley, above], I knew what I was doing’
‘I was so excited about it,’ says Wright. ‘I kind of muddled through “Pride & Prejudice” but with “Atonement” [starring Keira Knightley, above], I knew what I was doing’

Joe Wright, like most filmmakers, is no stranger to both critical highs and lows.

Having directed seven films over 13 years, the British filmmaker – who cut his teeth with BBC drama serials and Nineties music videos – has carved a career from a proven capability of capturing late 18th-century England (Pride & Prejudice) with as much panache as he can war-torn Dunkirk (Atonement) and snow-covered rural Finland (Hanna).

The director notably scored four Oscar nominations for his debut, the aforementioned adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, in 2005 – a staggering accomplishment for a first-time director. His latest, Darkest Hour, looks destined for similar success following nine BAFTA nominations and a Golden Globe win for Gary Oldman’s lead performance as Winston Churchill.

Ahead of its release, we sat down with the affable filmmaker to reflect upon each of his films – from the heady days of Atonement to the depths of 2015 failure Pan.

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Keira Knightley on the set of ‘Pride & Prejudice’

Pride & Prejudice feels like a long time ago. I remember my producer at the time, Paul Webster, saying to me that only one in 10 first time filmmakers makes another film and that terrifying the living crap out of me. So I was determined to be able to make a second film after that one and was very relieved to discover that people trusted me to continue.

“It was a film with a whole lot of love in it, that one. It was a beautiful summer – a kind of halcyon time: I’d been given my first feature film and was surrounded by these amazing girls. I just remember the light really, the late afternoon sunlight, and the laughter. It was a really happy time.

“Keira [Knightley]’s wonderful in it, and Tom Hollander. I don’t know if you remember the scene when he comes to propose to her and he brings her one flower? I’d seen him on a break wandering around the garden of that house and he came up to me – he had this one pathetic flower – and went, ‘I thought I might bring Keira this in the next scene.’ I went, ‘Yes, Tom, that would be delightful.’

“It was a very special time – we were very young. I feel like crying...”

Atonement (2007)

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley play lovers torn apart by a lie (Rex)

“I remember it was between two projects: one was Atonement, and the other one was [1993 Sebastian Faulkner adaptation] Birdsong, the book about World War One. I didn’t know which one to do and my agent said, “If you know a secret about one of them, that’s the one you should do.” I knew immediately then it had to be Atonement.

“I had a secret about it. I could see the film so clearly in my head. It was so much about form as much as content, and the form reflected the content so perfectly. I was so excited about it. I kind of muddled through Pride & Prejudice but with Atonement, I knew what I was doing. That makes it sound like I had no doubt – I had doubts; I didn’t know whether it would work. But I knew exactly what I wanted to try to do.

“Then along came Saoirse Ronan, and that piece of casting allowed the film to be what it became… we were very lucky. It happened with Gary in Darkest Hour too. I always resented the David Lean quote when he said directing is 99 per cent casting. I like to think that I have more control than that but unfortunately, I think he was right the old bugger.”

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The Soloist (2009)

Robert Downey Jr and Joe Wright on the set of ‘The Soloist in LA, 2009 (Rex)

“I had a breakdown after making Atonement. I was then sent a film about a schizophrenic and thought, ‘Yes, I can get it all out in this movie.’ But I was very nervous about making a film in America, especially contemporary America. I don’t feel like I understand it very well. I don’t think anyone does, to be honest with you.

“I’ve always loved Alan Clarke and British realism so I thought I’d spent a lot of time down in Skid Row with the homeless community. They are amazing people – there’s a wonderful sense of community down there unlike most of the rest of LA.

“So I had this idea – I went to the studio and said I’d only make the film if they allowed me to employ and pay 500 homeless people to help me make it. I said they’d be cast as extras and would also be behind the camera helping me. I fully expected the studio to say, ‘No way, absolutely not,’ but very much to my surprise, they said, ‘Yes, alright then, we’ll make it work.’ We set up a bank on Skid Row so that those working with us could receive a cheque and then go and cash it.

Wright saw that 500 homeless people were employed and paid for their work on ‘The Soloist’ (Rex)

“Working with Robert Downey Jr and Jamie Foxx was interesting as well. I’d had Donald Sutherland in Pride & Prejudice, but that was my first experience of working with big Hollywood stars. Was it good? [He pauses.] It was interesting. American actors are very different to British actors who have generally studied and been brought up culturally with the sense that the writer is the star and that their job is to serve the writing. Whereas Hollywood actors are brought up to believe that the actor is the star, and everything and everybody is in the service of them. Which is sometimes challenging.”

Hanna (2011)

Saoirse Ronan’s second film with Wright came about because of her insistence he direct it (Rex)

Hanna was nice. It was Saoirse Ronan’s idea. Usually, the director casts the actor but in this case, the actor cast the director. She was on board with the movie already – it was a Focus Features thing – and she asked me to direct it. It was written by an extraordinary, very eccentric writer called Seth Lockhead who was 25 when he wrote it and had never written anything else. His script was so crazy and wild that the studio got someone else to come in and rewrite it.

“When I read the first draft, I was very fascinated to find the wild crazy stuff as well as this straight procedural stuff. I asked what had happened and discovered that the writer they’d brought on had written the straight procedural stuff, so I asked for the original writer to come back on board.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to express a different side of my cinematic love, which is for David Lynch, and that kind of strangeness and hyperreality, dream state stuff. And I used [music by] The Chemical Brothers, so I could get the early Nineties rave scene side of my aesthetic in there.”

Anna Karenina (2012)

Wright describes ‘Anna Karenina’ as an “experiment’ (Rex)

Anna Karenina was an opportunity to work with [screenwriter] Tom Stoppard. I’m incredibly lucky because I didn’t get any education at school and didn’t go to university so my career has been a continuation of that and I get to sit at the feet of Stoppard – that is the greatest honour and gift.

“The film was written as a kind of straight realism but we couldn’t afford to do that properly so I said only 10 weeks before shooting: ‘How about if we set the whole thing in the theatre?’ and everyone went, ‘Yeah, alright then.’ So it was an experiment.

“What I find really interesting about that film is that cineastes love it and a lot of other people don’t get it at all.”

Pan (2015)

Hugh Jackman and Levi Morgan in the critically-mauled ‘Pan’ (Rex)

“Oh, how long have you got? Pan was a really interesting and super-expensive experiment. What I wanted to do with that movie was to convey the anarchy of a child’s imagination and so to make something totally and completely inconsistent.

“I had a great time making it. But then we discovered in post-production that the audience I’d made the film for – I think they’re what you call tweenies, the 11, 12, 13-year-old audience – didn’t want to go and see a movie about Peter Pan because they thought that was for little kids. So I had to re-cut the film for little little kids, like 6, 7-year-olds, and therein lies one of the main problems with the movie.

“Its critical and commercial failure was cutting and caused me to have some serious doubt – and then along comes a script about Winston Churchill and doubt. That kind of got me out of that.”

Black Mirror, ‘Nosedive’ (2016)

“That got me out of the doldrums – great, great writing. I’d love to do another one. I think Charlie Brooker is a proper genius and I’d love to work with him more. I don’t know when.”

Darkest Hour (2018)

Gary Oldman won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Winston Churchill (Rex)

“For me, Darkest Hour was a return to what I first fell in love with – drama. It was kind of a back to basics exercise. On the page, it’s lots of old white men in rooms talking to each other, so the challenge for me was to see if I could create an inherently cinematic piece that starts off quite light and funny and then becomes something like a political thriller.

“I’d been watching a lot of Hitchcock before I made the film – the earlier Hollywood ones like Notorious, Strangers on a Train – and wanted to try to think of the film as a Hitchcockian thriller.”

Trailer: Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is available on Digital from 21 May and DVD & Blu-Ray from 4 June – you can find Wright’s further breakdown of the film, including Oldman’s staggering transformation into the British PM, here.

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