Movie interviews Joe Wright (2005)

It's Austen All Over Again


Director Joe Wright Makes Pride & Prejudice for a New Century


By Sara Michelle Fetters


You know going into an interview with director Joe Wright you’re not going to be speaking with a local Seattle boy. The north London native speaks with an accent as thick as his wavy brownish-blonde hair, talking sometimes so fast it’s a bit hard to understand him. But, be that as it may, it’s apparent after the first few moments he’s a driven filmmaker, someone who knows exactly what he wants to see onscreen and will do whatever it takes to get it there.

And so here we were, this tall athletic Seattle girly-girl and a somewhat short, slightly disheveled British director sitting in the middle of a suite at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel discussing his new picture Pride & Prejudice starring current media darling Keira Knightley and based on the legendary novel by Jane Austen. Yet, the pressure of the material, of working with the young star, of treading on ground covered in the past by the likes of Laurence Olivier, Greer Garson and Colin Firth, never showed on either Wright’s face or mannerisms. Only his passion for the material, his eagerness to talk about it, his excitement towards its prospects, were the only things to ever show through making our talk truly one the interview highlights of my year.


Sara Michelle: Talking with the publicist earlier, you’ve really been all over the place doing interviews on this movie. It has to be a little exciting, but do you ever get a chance to go out and experience the cities your in or do you keep getting stuck in hotels like this one?


Joe Wright: It is exciting. It’s really exciting. I got to see a bit of Dallas and last night I was able to get up to Capital Hill [an eclectic alternative neighborhood just east of downtown Seattle], ran around there and went to a few bars; it’s great, it’s really great. Had a good time. Went to a place called Cha Cha’s. Loved it. Was a bit crowded, but loved it all the same.


SM: The Cha Cha Lounge, yes, I’ve been there many times. It’s a great place. One of Seattle’s best kept bar secrets if you ask me.


JW: It was really great.


SM: So, I have to ask right upfront, why Austen? Why this book? Why again? Why now?


JW: Well, they hadn’t made a film out of Pride & Prejudice since 1940. I was surprised by that, and I had never read the book before I was sent the script. Then I was sent the script and I didn’t know if I was really all that interested; I thought I was a little bit more mainstream then this, a bit more edgy. But then I read the script and I was surprised I was very moved by it. And then I read the novel, and the novel was an amazing piece of character observation and it really seamed like the first piece of British Realism. It felt like it was a true story; had a lot of truth in it about understanding how to love other people, understanding how to overcome prejudices, understanding the things that separate us from other people… things like that.


Keira Knightley and director Joe Wright - Photo © Focus Features

It was a story about love. About the physical side of love, the difficulty of love, and it’s a story of the emotional and spiritual and the elemental side of love. It’s all of those things. I had already been interested in doing a film about love and so I agreed to do [this]. And, I had never seen any other version other than the 1940 version, not seeing the [recent] miniseries or any of those beforehand.

SM: Did that help, not knowing or having any connections with those other versions of the story?

JW: Yes, of course. I mean, I purposely didn’t watch them because I was worried I would nick ideas and plagiarize them. I wanted to be as original as possible.


SM: And that was something you really didn’t have to worry about in regards to the 1940 version, because everyone in that movie didn’t really seem connected to the novel at all. I mean, while the movie is, don’t get me wrong, very good, the stars are in their thirties. Not exactly the age when a person usually goes through their first pangs of love.


JW: And that was really the first decision I made. I wanted to make something that is about young people, about young people experiencing these emotions for the first time and not understanding the feelings they are having. If you have a 40-year-old man as your star not understanding the feeling he’s having then it becomes a bit unbelievable and suspect, rather like The 40-Year-Old Virgin or something instead of Pride & Prejudice.


SM: So realism was your main goal?


JW: Well, I wanted to be respectful to this 21-year-old girl who sat in a parlor in the south of England and wrote this book. I wanted to be true to her. I wasn’t particularly interested in the temples that had been built around her. I wasn’t interested in the ‘Jane Austen Franchise,’ if you will; not interested in the monolith that has been erected over her and her books. I was interested in being true to her spirit and the spirit in her stories. That was what was important to me.


SM: How hard is it, though, to take a book like this and par it down to a manageable length for a motion picture?


JW: Well, yeah, you are condensing it down to two hours and you have to be quite careful about what you do. But, basically, what you do is work out beforehand what the story is you’re telling – what the prime story is – and that story is obviously about Elizabeth and Darcy, following them, and anything that detracts or diverts you from that story is what you have to cut.


SM: Considering that is the prime story, do you think Pride & Prejudice and the romance of Elizabeth and Darcy was the birth of the romantic comedy as we know it today?


JW: Yes, it was. But, also, I think [the novel] was the birth of social realism, of observation. British Realism is one of the best things I think that’s come out of our country, culturally speaking, and so I think there is quite a sense of the birth of that in Pride & Prejudice as well.


Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen - Photo © Focus Features


SM: But when you take on something like this, how do you avoid the clichés of the genre and remain true to the prose? Remain true to the ideas and the concepts that spoke to you in the first place? What struck me was how real, how lived-in, your film felt; how as I was watching it I could almost imagine that I was there. That’s rare in most period adaptations, especially Austen adaptations.


JW: Well, it comes from the book. I mean, you’re not only trying to stay faithful to the narrative events of the story but you’re also trying to stay faithful to the tone and the writing of the story. You try to find the cinematic equivalent of the prose and so, first instance I stated that I thought the book was very acutely observed, that’s why there are so many close-ups in the film and not as many wide shots. I also felt there was a certain realist element to [the book] so I decided to shoot the film in a realist style. I tried to put the audience right in there within that environment so we shot the whole thing on location. You’re then able to go in and out of doors and in and out of windows and really see and feel the environment for a full 360-degrees rather than something very static and stage-bound.


SM: In that way, this must have been very different than working on your telefilms or your short films?


JW: Well, each thing you do is incredibly specific to the story that you’re telling. The only period thing I’d done before was [the BBC telefilm] The Last King, and that was very much about a very claustrophobic world and was quite theatrical. We ended building a set for that, a rather huge set a lot like The West Wing set, and recreated the 1600’s. That was what the story demanded. This, on the other hand, demanded something much more realistic.

So, your focus than is really based on how you respond to the material. The difference really isn’t that massive. I mean, there’s the obvious. When you walk onto the television set there are about 17 people there and then when you walk onto a movie set there are sometimes about 500 people there. That was quite different; sometimes quite scary.


SM: What about walking onto the set with a burgeoning superstar like Keira Knightley for the first time?


JW: Well, Keira’s a mate, really. She’s one of those people that immediately becomes a friend. She’s a very warm, open person, and incredibly brave and strong. She’s one of the strongest young women I’ve ever met. We both come from north London so there’s an atom there of understanding between one another. She’s great.


SM: She’s never been asked to carry a movie before. She’s always been a supporting player before this.


JW: There are very few roles for women that are leading parts.


SM: True, but were you even a little worried at all that she would have the experience or the ability to carry this film?


JW: I kind of knew that she’d be fine. She’s a very strong young woman and incredibly dedicated, and I kind of had an idea that she would be able to do this. I trusted her, and I had to trust her, because if I had not than I’m not sure she would have been able to do it. You have to give the actor your trust. You have to make them feel like they can do it. And then they do; it’s positive postulation, I guess.


SM: How important is casting?


JW: It’s massive. I’d say 99-percent of directing is casting. Not only in terms of the actors playing the roles but also in terms of creating a company of actors and crew that can work together; to play with each other and respond to each other and that’s an incredibly important part of the directing process.


Matthew MacFadyen and Simon Woods - Photo © Focus Features

SM: How hard was this movie to cast?

JW: Very hard. Just because I was so specific about the types of people I wanted to work with. Some roles were much easier than some but it was still quite tricky. You’re also having to balance the producer’s investment – in terms of names and not names – with your own ideas of who is best for each particular role.


SM: Were there ever times you really wanted a particular person and the producers weren’t quite comfortable with your choice?


JW: No, they were incredibly supportive in that sense. I think Matthew [MacFadyen] is obviously less of a star than Keira and so if she hadn’t been playing Elizabeth I’m not sure I’d been allowed to cast Matthew [as Darcy]. So, it kind of worked like that. You try to balance it out as much as you can.


SM: Having not seen any of the other versions, did it still ever enter your mind the pressures you would be under taking on this story?


JW: No, and I think that is one of the reasons I cast Matthew. I mean, I think he’s one of the best actors of his generation in England but, also, I knew he would approach the role like any good actor should, and that’s from the point-of-view of trying to understand the character. He’s the least vain actor you’ve ever met in your life and he wasn’t coming onto this trying to portray an icon, he was coming on to play a character in the same way he would had he been approaching Hamlet or any other great role.


SM: I can’t say I’d ever seen too much of him before, not even his BBC television show, MI-5 [original title Spooks], that everyone talks about.


JW: He’s a properly manly man, as well, and I didn’t want a pretty boy kind of actor. His properties were the ones I felt I needed [for Darcy]. Matthew’s a great big hunk of a guy.


SM: That’s very true. I can’t disagree with that. He’s definitely not hard to look at.


JW: But he’s also very good in the role. At least, I think he’s very good in the role. I liked what he did with the character quite a bit.


SM: Do you wonder, maybe just a little, though, if people will completely accept the unabashedly romantic ending of this movie?


JW: Pride and Prejudice is my first film with a happy ending. Before, I naively thought they were a cop-out, but now I've come to believe happy endings and wish fulfillment are an incredibly important part of our cultural life.


SM: So, to that end, what do you hope the response to this is?


JW: The book was written, I think, with a lot of love. I hope that when people watch the film, the part of them that is still filled with love will recognize this in the film and be re-ignited by that. Do you know what I mean?


SM: Sure, I think I do. You want people to…


JW: I hope it makes people love. That’s it. I hope it makes people love.

That’s a really cheesy thing to say, isn’t it?


SM: No, not that cheesy. Maybe a little bit, but it fits, I think, fits the movie. It certainly made me happier and maybe even feeling like I should give that whole dating thing a try again. Can’t be single forever, after all. I’m sure getting people to think like that after watching your movie can’t be bad.


JW: Guess not. Guess I did my job.


SM: I guess you did.