Already garnering hot tips for Oscar success, Joe Wright describes the process of directing what is already one of this year’s most critically acclaimed films. Based on the best-selling novel by Ian McEwan, Atonement is the story of Briony Tallis, a priveleged young girl growing up in pre-war England, whose actions on one fateful summer’s day will tragically effect the lives and memories of those she loves for decades to come.
Q: You received a lot of critical and commercial acclaim for ‘Pride and Prejudice’. How did you become involved in Atonement?
A: We were finishing the film [Pride and Prejudice], editing it, and talking about what to do next. The film company Working Title sent me the book ‘Atonement’, and I said, yes please. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was the first thing I’d done with a happy ending, and I was a bit worried about happy endings. I didn’t really trust them. I thought maybe they were a commercial cop-out. But during ‘Pride and Prejudice’, I began to realise they were very important, and served a purpose, socially, culturally, personally for the storyteller and the audience or reader – and then came along ‘Atonement’, which was, weirdly enough, a story about happy endings – about the destructive and healing power of storytelling. So that’s how it all came about. I felt I knew a secret about it and it was important to tell it.
Q: You were involved in adapting the initial screenplay, what challenges presented themselves in preparing this particular novel for the screen?
A: Structurally, it’s a very complicated story. But really, you just start at the beginning and you work your way through, and you go back to the beginning and you work your way through, and so on. The challenge was to find cinematic equivalents of McEwan’s prose, and to maintain the atmosphere of the novel, I think. And to really inhabit the interior world of Briony Tallis and tell the story subjectively.
Q: The events in the film span years, and eventually decades. How important was it for you to visually delineate the various periods of the story?
A: Quite important. I love the structural questions that are asked by the book, and I really wanted to play with those, not just the three main blocks, but also the retelling of events from different perspectives. We did various tests on expressing the atmospheres of different periods. We eventually hit on the idea of using ladies’ silk stocking over the camera lens for the first part, for a softness and ephemeral quality that we were looking for – and the heat, where the highlights bloom and stuff. Christian Dior Ten Denier stockings were the best! And then for the war scenes, we went for something not particularly high contrast, but more textural, and colder, not as lush as the 1935 section. The modern day piece we wanted to be stark and crisp and very formal. I love the notion of this whole kind of epic story that stretches over half a story finally ending up with one close-up of an old lady against black. I enjoyed the simplicity of it. After all this kind of flashy stuff, you come down to a person’s face and that’s what it’s all about it the end. The greatest thing in film-making for me is the close-up.
Q: Keira Knightley is one of Britain’s best loved Hollywood actresses. She’s played risky roles before, but is the role of Cecelia more difficult for her given her phenomenal success?
A: I don’t know. She certainly relished the kind of rigour with which she was able to approach the character in this film. She wasn’t just a pretty girl being told to stand over there and look pretty, or surprised – I think she does a good surprised! And so, she kind of jumped in and it was lovely. I think she’s a very brave actress and unlike a lot of big movie stars she isn’t afraid of being disliked. And Cecilia is sometimes sharp and spiky and angular and difficult and awkward and angry and restless and ungrateful and blinkered and even snobbish, and I think that bravery in the face of being disliked by an audience was really admirable. She plays with such subtlety and she’s so instinctive and intuitive. A lot of actors won’t be disliked at all.
Q: Would it have been harder for an American girl to play that role?
A: Definitely. McEwan’s characters aren’t sympathetic all the time. I think Robbie’s sympathetic all the time – but then I love them all, and it’s important that one of the purposes of drama is to look from other people’s points of view, and by understanding them hopefully loving them a little bit. I love Briony! I have a bit of a problem when people call Briony a bitch. Sometimes people hate Briony, really resent her, which I have a problem with because I always thought as a character she was the person I was most like – the need to create order in a world, being so scared of the chaos that you have to create tidy lines of shoes or toy animals or walk in straight lines and turn sharp corners, or indeed write stories. Give life a narrative and tidy the mess a bit. I think all storytellers are probably like that.
Q: James McAvoy has been involved in a steady amount of better and better films, and manages to bring something fresh to each one. What qualities do you think he brought to the character of Robbie?
A: The character of Robbie is a very difficult character to play, because he’s idealised, the higher self. Is he real or not? I’m not sure. But he certainly is the higher self and that’s difficult, especially when an actor as talented as James tackles a role, they’re always looking for what’s the edge, even though he’s a goody? With this I kept on having to tell him, James, there isn’t one. He’s not a bad person. He does follow a moral code. That was quite difficult and brave, in reverse to Keira, for being totally good. It’s difficult to be good because people are worried that good is boring. Which I don’t agree with. I think good is fascinating. He’s got so much going on under the skin. There’s a heat that comes off him. And you like him, he’s an intensely likeable person. And that comes across on screen. He’s good at letting the audience project emotions onto him, and not taking up big acting space, or all the emotion onscreen.
Q: Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave all play the character of Briony. How did you ensure that Briony’s character remained consistent throughout the story?
A: Hairstyle! Briony Tallis deserves a special mention for managing to maintain exactly the same hairstyle for sixty-five years. Which is fairly fucking impressive! And also that mole on her cheek. You see those and you know it’s her.
Q: Were the locations used, such as the Victorian mansion, the Underground tube station, and the French countryside, all authentic locations, or were you able to cheat a little?
A: The 1935 Tallis house is a house in Shropshire. We very luckily found a house where we could use the inside and outside, we had weather cover, and we were based in one location for five weeks, which was great. The Underground and tunnel where Cecelia is sheltering from the blitz is the Aldwich Station in London, the bit that the water comes down is a model. The French countryside is the north-east of England. France is really expensive to shoot in.
Q: The war scenes in the book are a relentless march through horror and almost every catastrophe you can imagine. How did you choose which scenes to include and which to leave out?
A: We chose the scenes which we could afford! We couldn’t afford to do the enormity of the whole section of the book – the bombings and all that stuff. So I decided to strip everything away to the walk to the beach, which is a kind of almost Beckett-like three men in a wasteland, and then pour all the finances and all the resources into the beach scene. I quite like limitations – necessity is the mother of invention.
Q: The film deals with intellectual themes, but what, if anything, do you hope will bring it to a wider audience?
A: I don’t know what this phrase “wider audience” even means. You’re suggesting, perhaps, that there’s an intellectual audience and there’s a wider audience, and I don’t make that definition really. I never underestimate my audience. I try to keep up with them. I think they’re probably a lot smarter than I am. Especially now, when audiences are so cine-literate. Audiences understand exactly what’s going on in a cut, or image. I try to tell the story with as much truth as possible, and if it’s truthful to me hopefully it’ll be truthful to other people. I hope people respond to that.