HANNA’s Joe Wright Talks Shooting MOS, The Chemical Bros And Ass-Kicking Action

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE director Joe Wright steps into the world of action movies and gets it right. Here he talks about shooting without sound, scoring his movie to the Chemical Brothers, and about learning just because a film is an action movie doesn’t mean it needs to be a “chest-beating, tit-f***ing, gun-loving Republican movie.”

I saw the film very early - about two months ago - and fell in love with it. After the screening I attended there was a cocktail reception, and I talked with Joe Wright for some time. This would be a Badass Interview, but screenjunkie’s Fred Topel was also part of the conversation. Special thanks to Fred for hooking me up with the recording of this interview.

On making the jump to action.

One of the reasons why I was excited to make the film was the formal challenge of shooting action. I think action is like pure cinema because it can’t be replicated in any other medium. With drama, you can put people on a stage. With photography, you can put it in a gallery. With action, it really only works in cinema and that’s because of montage. So I really enjoyed playing with the ellipses and the magic of Hanna’s action. It’s as much about what you don’t see as it is about what you do see.

On his philosophy for action scenes.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Greengrass and I love what he did with the Bourne movies but I think they’ve been copied a lot and a lot of bad imitations. So I wanted to try and do something a little bit different, especially as I was using the same fight choreographer as Paul, a guy called Jeff Imada. So I really was aware that I didn’t want it to be seen as a ripoff of that really, especially because I know him.

I wanted to avoid the normal clichés of action stuff, so the people I was looking at, I looked at Robert Bresson’s film The Pickpocket. I think his economy of action, the whole train station sequence, is extraordinary. Also Alwin Kuchler, my wonderful DP, showed me Boy Meets Girl and the French director who also directed Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, his kind of very expressionistic action sequences, long running in those movies and I really enjoyed the idea of playing with the reality of what we were doing. So there’s stuff in Hanna when she’s running in the strobe lights for instance where she’s running on a running machine. She’s not actually moving at all. The lights and the camera created the movement and she’s actually staying completely still. I think action film is a medium that’s been kind of in the doldrums for a long time apart from the Bourne films.

I think the other thing that Jason Bourne showed us, that Paul showed us was that you could actually make action films with a social, moral, political conscience. That was a fucking revelation to me, that actually action didn’t have to be chest-beating, tit-fucking, gun loving Republican movies. But actually you could make something that had a conscience and was still exciting and visceral. So I wanted to play with those ideas as well.

On the film’s abandoned amusement park location.

That is a fucking mad place. It was the amusement park of east Berlin. During the Soviet era, it was where families would go. There are all these postcards of happy Soviet families in the theme park. Then when the wall came down, everyone for their day out would go west. They’d want to go to shopping malls and fuck knows what. So the place fell apart really and slowly the father and son outfit who owned it became bankrupt.

So they came up with a stunning plan which was to take some of the old rides, export them to Colombia, fill them with cocaine and then reimport them into Europe. This is true. Unfortunately, the plan didn’t work. They were arrested and put in prison for many years. Ever since, no one’s quite known what to do with this place so nature is slowly reclaiming the land. You walk, it’s literally like you see it in the film, almost. When we first went there, it was a foot deep in snow so we’d be walking through this weird dreamlike space with these strange kind of figures of swans and wolves. It was very odd, a very odd place.

On The Chemical Brothers’ score.

I’ve known [the Chemical Brothers] since about 1992. I went to a rave above a shoe shop in London and it was the Chemicals’ first ever London good. I’ve been mates with them for like 19 years now, 20 years which is terrifying so we know each other very well. Before filming, I asked them to compose a couple of tracks. One of the tracks was the striptease kind of Snow White theme that happens in the strip club. So I told them that I wanted a kind of fucked up fairy tale theme that could be kind of whistled by the baddies throughout the movie later on. I kind of gave them cues and gave them bits of ideas. So once we had those tracks, we would play them while we were filming on a big sound system, or I’d just play their albums to give a rhythm.

My editor, Paul Tothill who’s wonderful with music, so during post production, I send them a rough cut of the scene, they send me a track, I recut their track, send it back to them so there’s a constant kind of dialogue going on between us.

On shooting MOS - without sound - and the challenges of ADR.

I kind of fully believe in the Italian kind of dub it afterwards. Unless it is a proper dialogue scene, then I’ll obviously need to record sync.

ADR these days is so good you kind of get away with it. Not a huge amount. All the action sequences are ADRed and that stuff. My dialogue editor in fact that I’ve worked with for 12 years or whatever, she is a bit of a genius, Becki Ponting, is very brilliant about cutting breaths. So the whole film, all of Saoirse’s breaths are ADR to give you a kind of closeness to her and a sense of her physicality.

Sometimes [I talk them through the scenes]. Not necessarily but I feel like a lot of drama for me is about rhythm. Often when we’re doing even a dialogue scene, there is an MOS where rather than giving actors notes on meaning, I give them notes on rhythm. So I find that playing music helps actors find the rhythm of a scene. When we were doing Atonement, when we were doing Pride. I love playing music. The love scene in the library between James and Keira in Atonement was all shot to Brian Eno. But then at the same time we had bits of classical music that Dario had already composed for Briony, for her walking.

Luckily most of the actors I work with are really good at ADR. Saoirse’s really good at ADR. Cate’s brilliant. Most of the actors. Keira’s a genius at ADR. Some actors are and some actors are really, really rubbish at it. No, it’s not really American/British. Robert Downey Jr.’s fucking incredible about it. It’s about rhythm. Saoirse is able to have shot a scene three or four months ago, come into an ADR suite, hear it once and it be in fucking Arabic and be able to get it just like that. It’s an amazing talent.

On acting.

I’m very interested in acting as a craft. I think that it’s stagnated quite heavily for the past 50 years really. Since the emergence of Strassberg’s Method and the dominance of that during the ‘70s. Now I find that a lot of young actors just fucking copy. Not to mention names but there are actors out there at the moment who are doing impersonations of Robert DeNiro doing an impersonation of someone else. I hate it and I don’t believe the Method has monopoly on truth. In fact I think naturalism is probably a kind of false god really.

I’m far more interested in acting from the ‘40s and pre-Strassberg. In fact, I think David Lynch is probably the best director of actors that I know. I think David Lynch, the performances he gets out of actors is extraordinary. He knows what he’s doing as well. It’s no accident. When I saw Naomi in Mulholland Drive and this kind of extraordinary heightened performance that she’s giving, and then when she’s doing the casting, the audition and suddenly when she’s acting she’s playing naturalism. I thought that was a fantastic little comment on sincerity and on the craft of acting because I think that we’re all acting all the time. Philosophically it’s about sincerity and what sincerity is really. Are we ever really sincere?

I’m reading at the moment - I’m hoping to do Anna Karenina in the autumn, and I’m reading about St. Petersburg society in the 18th century. There they imported a complete foreign mode of behavior. They all decided suddenly that they were going to be French. They divided their brain into two halves, the Russian half and the French half. The Russian half was always aware of what the French half was doing, how they were performing, how they were exhibiting their manners. I personally find that acting is an art form that is underestimated and overlooked in terms of its potential and what it can teach us about who we are as human beings.