David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.
Leaving artistic issues aside, you could—at first glance—say that the competition for best original score isn’t a fair fight this year. Three of the nominees—Mychael Danna (Life of Pi), Alexandre Desplat (Argo), and Thomas Newman (Skyfall)—have never won an Oscar, and one of them (Danna) is enjoying his first nomination. Dario Marianelli won once before, but his nom for Anna Karenina is only his third. So who’s the heavyweight in the ring? None other than John Williams (Lincoln), who has won five Oscars for original score, as well as one for adapted score.
Williams is basking in his 39th nomination for original score. His first was for The Reivers (1969), starring Steve McQueen. His closest competitor within this group is Newman, who is savoring his ninth nom since 1994, when he earned two—for Little Women and The Shawshank Redemption. Desplat is suiting up for his fifth round since 2006, when The Queen first brought him close to Oscar gold.
Though virtually omnipresent on the Oscar ballot from 1990 to 2005, Williams has been less visible since the 2006 film year, though this year marks the second in a row in which he’s back on the ballot—and last year, he was there twice: For The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. As for this bunch going mano a mano, Williams was absent the first year Newman was nommed, but since then—in 1999, 2002, and 2004—neither won when the other was also in competition. And the same was true the one year, 2005, that Williams and Marianelli previously duked it out—the younger composer’s first time in the ring. Newman and Desplat have also sparred before—in 2006, the latter’s Oscar debut, and 2008—with neither emerging victorious.
So where does that leave us this time around? A case can be made for the lately hyper-prolific Desplat, who also wrote the scores to this year’s best picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty and original screenplay nominee Moonrise Kingdom. And the talk of Argo walking off with the best picture statuette could add some kick. But two years ago, Desplat was up for The King’s Speech, which landed the big prize even as he emerged empty handed. Indeed, in the past dozen years, only three films have secured both the best picture Oscar and the prize for best score.
Still, the Academy has shown a fondness for novel instrumentation. Slumdog Millionaire took the award four years ago, and the year before that, Marianelli won for Atonement, in which he ingeniously incorporated a typewriter into his music. For his part, Desplat seamlessly weaves into the Argo score a mix of Middle Eastern instruments—including the ney, oud, kemenche, and ethnic percussion.
Newman, an heir to Hollywood’s most storied film-score dynasty, has the most noms without a win in this quintet, so accrued good will could be a factor in his favor. But Skyfall is the latest entry in the James Bond franchise, and some of the film’s most memorable cues were written by others—including John Barry, a four-time score winner who was never even nominated for his Bond music.
Given the Academy’s penchant for sentimentality and tradition, some might write off the idea that a first-time nominee—in this case Danna, also nommed for best song—could win, but Oscar history suggests otherwise. For the past two years, the statuette for score has gone to an Oscar debutant—Ludovic Bource (The Artist) last year and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network) the year before. In fact, from 2000 on, seven of the 12 winners had never been nominated before their first victory.
Yet Marianelli offers formidable competition with his endlessly inventive score to what could have been a very tired subject, Anna Karenina. Without ever sounding forced, his music to Anna is consistently, often surprisingly, catchy—something the Academy seems to favor given recent winners like Bource for The Artist, Michael Giacchino for Up (2009), and A.R. Rahman for Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
That leaves Williams, now 81, the grand old man of Hollywood film scoring. He hasn’t won an Oscar since Schindler’s List (1993), which could bode well for him a la Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. (Oscar loves a comeback.) And his score for Lincoln is top-drawer—anthemic, comfortable, and ideally suited to the subject. But Williams has been amply recognized already for his contributions to cinema, and unless the Academy intends to send a valedictory message, it might choose to spread the love. That’s certainly been the pattern in recent years. Once a far more predictable category, best score’s days as a bellwether seem a thing of the past. But that’s no bad thing, because the Oscars need upsets, too.
Cari Lynn is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of AwardsLine.
Colleen Atwood |Snow White and the Huntsman
No stranger to the Oscar race with three wins (for Alice in Wonderland, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Chicago), plus another seven nominations, Atwood didn’t originally plan on a career in costume design. She’d gone to art school to study painting, but when she became pregnant in high school, her path diverged to retail fashion so she could earn a living. It wasn’t until her daughter was in high school that Atwood moved to New York and took a film class, where she found herself the go-to person for sets and costumes for her fellow students. Her first break was in 1980, working on sets and props for Ragtime.
Why it’s Oscar-worthy: “Any time you’re able to design a whole new world it sets it apart,” she says. “Personally, my work on Snow White and the Huntsman is some of the most interesting I’ve ever done because I got to use new and innovative materials and applications and shapes. To be nominated by your peers is fabulous and exciting because these are the people who really scrutinize your work, whereas everyone else can have an emotional experience to the costumes, but that’s pretty tied into the movie.”
The showstopper: “I was asked to do a presell image, so I designed a feathered, raven cloak for Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron). All the feathers were hand-trimmed, and I worked with an amazing milliner in London so that, like a real bird, all the feathers go in different directions and catch the light in an amazing way.”
Biggest challenge: “The fact that we manufactured 2,000 costumes. We had two armies designed from the ground up, three courts, peasants, scary creatures, and dwarves, where everything had to be scaled down to size but still be realistic. Also, Snow White had to wear the same costume throughout much of the movie, and you couldn’t get tired of looking at it, plus it had to go through variations. When I found out she was running through the woods, I thought, We’re going to get sick of seeing the same dress full of mud. We decided to put in the story that the huntsman trims the dress, and I put Snow White in leggings underneath. After the dress is trimmed, I love what happened—it’s a look young people could associate with, and on practical level Kristen Stewart does a lot of her own stunt work so the leggings protected her from the branches and cold and elements of the forest.”
How would you dress the Oscar statuette?: “The raven cape would look great with the gold body. And a crown. We used an awesome Gothic crown in the movie.”
Eiko Ishioka |Mirror Mirror
With a previous Oscar for Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992, a Grammy for the 1986 Miles Davis album cover Tutu, and a Tony nomination in 1988 for M. Butterfly, acclaimed Tokyo-born designer Eiko Ishioka passed away of pancreatic cancer prior to learning of her Oscar nomination for Mirror Mirror. Hailed by TheNew York Times as one of the foremost art directors in the world, Ishioka also has work that is featured in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. We spoke with Mirror Mirror director Tarsem Singh on the legacy of a pivotal designer, with whom he collaborated on all of his films.
Why it’s Oscar-worthy: “Eiko was a hell of an inspiration for us,” Singh explains. “Her verve flows out from her. Her DNA is completely in this film. You never had to say, ‘Think outside the box’ to Eiko. She belonged to a different planet. Usually people pull references from other films or research, (but) she never did that. She’d pull a photograph of an animal and say, ‘When the lizard is agitated, this is what it does with its neck.’ Her inspiration comes more from the natural history museum than any fashion magazine.”
The showstopper: “The wardrobe was written into the script—Eiko took my belief so viscerally. So if I say, ‘Let’s have a costume ball and make the queen stand out,’ she puts everyone in white on white and makes it an animal theme. Then there’s the Battleship game played with people’s hats. She does things I don’t think about until I see it, and I realize that every idea I talked about was incorporated. Then there are the dwarves. I wanted them to do fighting and didn’t want it to look CGI, but because this movie is also for children, the fighting couldn’t be aggressive. One of my biggest problems was solved by Eiko in a single conversation when she thought of doing accordion legs. We also discussed how the dwarves’ individual personalities had to come out through the clothes, but at the same time, they still needed to look like one group. So Eiko decided everyone’s personality should be in their hat.”
Biggest challenge: “Eiko was never fond of the practical. She would make what filmed the best, but it may not have moved. The toughest was for the dwarves—we didn’t want to have a Disney look, but they still had to look like a gang. Then, the Queen’s (Julia Roberts) wedding dress took a team to move it, and we made several dresses to shoot from different angles. If Julia was sitting, there was one dress, another for when she was in the coach. I was trying to make things easy for Eiko because she was undergoing cancer therapy, but she doesn’t know easy. She’d make seven choices of everything; I’d pick one, and then she’d present seven more variations on that. We spoiled her and said, ‘Let her have her time.’ It does make it more difficult for actors though—take a step in this (version of the costume), sit in that one, say your line in that one.”
How would Eiko dress the Oscar statuette?: “It’s so hard to try to guess. You would never tell Eiko what to make! I imagine she would have done something that would’ve been very hard to lift. If someone complained it was too heavy, she would have said, ‘You go put on weight then!’ ”
Paco Delgado |Les Misérables
Trained in set and costume design at the Institut del Teatre of Barcelona, Delgado has worked extensively with Spain’s most famous director, Pedro Almodóvar, on 2004’s Bad Education and 2011’s The Skin I Live In, as well as on Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-nominated Biutiful in 2010. In a twist of fate, Delgado met director Tom Hooper (Les Misérables, The King’s Speech) when they worked together on a Captain Morgan TV ad, and now Delgado has earned his first Oscar nomination for the epic film adaptation of the longest-running musical in history.
Why it’s Oscar-worthy: “This is about the history of France, but also about the history of the Western world,” Delgado says, “and it was a big responsibility to create this world, but I also had to remember I was doing a musical with drama, and I needed to have color and fantasy.”
Biggest Challenge: “We created 1,500 new costumes, out of a total of over 2,000 costumes, and many of them we had to break down with mud, grease, sand, brushes, and blowtorches because we wanted to reflect how poverty-stricken Paris was at that time. (In my research) I learned they used an amazing secondhand market where clothes were sold and resold and resold again until they were rags. Also, Tom and I had discussed a leitmotif, so I evoked the colors of the French flag throughout, using blue costumes in the early factory scene, then red for the revolution, and then moving to white for the wedding and nunnery scenes. Also, there’s always a fight with the budget and with time.”
The showstopper: “I wanted to try to interpret personalities and characters through the costumes. In Victor Hugo’s book, Fantine is coquettish and beautiful and had some views of the petty-minded society, so I wanted her factory dress to belong to her lost past. [Ed. note: Fantine’s dress was pink in the scene, in stark contrast to the other factory workers in drab blue.] It was all hand-embroidered and had a level of craftsmanship that would make Fantine appear as an outsider among the rest of the women.”
How would you dress the Oscar statuette?: “He already looks so sexy naked. After all, every woman and even every man wants to bring him home. I would do a version of the sexiest dress ever, like the transparent glittering dress that Marilyn Monroe wore at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday at Madison Square Garden. It’s very appropriate for Oscar who only appears in his birthday suit—and I’m very proud I have been invited to his 85th birthday!”
Joanna Johnston |Lincoln
Johnson’s biography reads like a “best films” list spanning more than three decades. She cut her teeth as an assistant costume designer on Roman Polanski’s Tess in 1979 and went on to be the go-to designer for Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Cast Away), M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable), and Steven Spielberg (the Indiana Jones franchise, The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan, War Horse). Somehow, though, Oscar evaded this British designer until now, with her much-lauded Lincoln, Johnston’s eighth Spielberg-directed film.
Why it’s Oscar-worthy: “I suppose it hits a button with the balance of the piece as a whole,” she says. “I think the work is quite quiet—most of my work is not showcase-y but relatively character-driven. The academics and the historians seem to be happy at the accuracy, and my thought is (voters) normally go for the very expansive and forward-projecting and not necessarily the things that are understated, so all I can say is I’m really, really pleased.”
The showstopper: “I don’t have a piece designed to be a showstopper—it’s not that kind of film; Lincoln himself is the most iconic, but if there’s one that pushes above in my mind, it’s Mary Todd’s cream dress when she goes to the theater. You see it as a whole dress, and I based it off of two dresses of hers that I saw in portraits and fused together. I embellished the neckline and the sleeves because I wanted to do something to help Sally Field’s physicality get more into Mary Todd’s physicality, so I depicted Mary Todd’s affectation of fussiness in her dress.”
Biggest challenge: “The whole film! Each film is unique, but this is a completely different film, a different creature than anything else—it had its own character and rhythm and roots and had a very long gestation period of eight years. I was involved to a tiny degree over a six-year period.”
How would you dress the Oscar statuette?: “I would keep him as he is. I don’t think he could be improved—although I think he’d look kind of cool in armor, beautiful armor with a lot of tooling.”
Jacqueline Durran |Anna Karenina
A favorite collaborator of director Joe Wright’s, British designer Jacqueline Durran has garnered two other noms for Wright’s Atonement and Pride & Prejudice. Not bad for a designer who says she couldn’t understand why Wright had even asked to interview her for his first feature, Pride & Prejudice, given that Durran hadn’t previously done pre-20th-century designs.
Why it’s Oscar-worthy: “I think it’s the whole thing, how all the elements mesh together and become such a complete vision,” Durran says. “The way they move through the theater and the colors and the costumes, we all benefit from each other’s work. Joe had such a strong vision; he always had the idea that the film would be stylized, and in our first meeting he said he wanted to concentrate on silhouettes. We got to talking about how 1950s couture is about silhouettes, and how dramatic and beautiful it was, and from there it seemed we could combine 1870s dress with elements from the ’50s.”
Biggest challenge: “One part is that Joe is a challenging director because he pushes you to do more, to rethink things or to come up with different ideas. The other part is the idea of Anna Karenina, you hear it and you say, ‘Oh, god. It’s such a big idea.’ She’s got to look beautiful, the world has to be beautiful, you have to capture this luxurious beauty, and for that I had to raise my game. You feel you have something to live up to.”
The showstopper: “My personal favorite is the cream dress in the tea room in Moscow—I thought it really suited Keira Knightley, and also it was the most fully fledged version of the 1950s/1870s combo, with traditional skirt and then a pillbox hat. There’s no point in trying to make a stylized statement if it doesn’t end up looking like anything, and this came together. However, I do think the overall show-stopper has to be the ball because of all the elements there—26 dancers, in what I call ‘sour pastels’, surround Anna Karenina, all in black, and Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), all in white.”
How would you dress Oscar: “In diamonds and furs.”
Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.
The Anna Karenina design team had to switch gears fast when director Joe Wright decided to set Anna’s oppressive high-society world inside a theater instead of shooting on location in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Money talked; location shooting would have blasted the film’s modest $31 million budget. Production designers had only 12 weeks to create interior and exterior “locations” that could exist within the confines of a theater set. In this stylized approach, the movie audience is aware of the theater, but the movie characters are not. The walls around Anna become literal, not figurative. “A Rubik’s Cube is often how we described this film: You’d twist it and then, suddenly, you’d twist it again, and it would just fall apart in your mind,” says production designer Sarah Greenwood. “You’re not just making pretty pictures here; you are telling a very big story.” Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer talk about putting together the puzzle of the living room set for the Moscow home of Oblonsky, Anna’s brother.
1) This scale model of the Oblonsky house stands inside the larger Oblonsky living room set, which in turn stands inside the larger theater set. Designers liken the layers of interiors (and meaning) to Russian nesting dolls. Keira Knightley’s Anna and the children look like giants trapped inside the ornate small-scale house. Although she is visiting her brother’s family in Moscow, Anna, from St. Petersburg, still appears caged the way she is in her own austere home and loveless marriage.
2) Greenwood and Spencer designed this colorful, richly textured interior to contrast Anna’s life in St. Petersburg with her brother’s life in Moscow. Greenwood says that during this period, Moscow borrowed from the exotic Eastern style of the Ottoman Empire and was “rejoicing in its Russian-ness,” whereas design was more spare and Western in St. Petersburg. The chaotic scatter of pillows, musical instruments, and children’s toys also highlights the difference between the earthy, boisterous Oblonsky home and the passionless lifestyle of the Karenina family.
3) This little theater-in-a-box is a child’s toy, but also represents a scale model of the larger theater set. Inside the small theater, the stage is set for The Nutcracker ballet (a detail audiences might never notice, but that became a fun project for art department assistant Martha Parker). Another insider’s treat: The little blocks on the ministage are a miniature version of the medium-sized alphabet blocks Levin uses to propose to Kitty in a later scene. Completing the trio: On this set, up high and to the right, are several alphabet blocks in a larger size.
4) The designers call this gold chair and footstool “transition pieces” from the living room set to the theater’s backstage area, represented by the empty picture frames and painted flats stacked behind and alongside the chair. Light streams into the theater through a window piled with snow. In the movie, this prop-shop area is the theater’s basement, but the actual set was built on the same level as the rest of the theater spaces. The chair is draped with a 100-year-old real leopard skin rented for the production (law would prevent the use of a new fur from an endangered species). In late 19th-century Moscow, Spencer observes, there was no such thing as too much opulence, or too much gold leaf.
5) The doll fits into the story, but also pays homage to director Joe Wright’s upbringing. The English director’s parents founded Little Angel Theater, a puppet theater in Islington. “The doll she’s holding is a puppet, and that little puppet was made by Joe Wright’s mother,” says Spencer. “Keira (as Anna) also uses the puppet when she talks about when she was first married and how she believed in love.”
Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of AwardsLine.
In a year filled with remarkable imagery, the work of the Oscar-nominated cinematographers stands out as integral to the success of the movies they shot.
The nominees bring broad experience to their films. Seamus McGarvey, nominated for shooting Anna Karenina with director Joe Wright, came to the project off the summer blockbuster Avengers; Robert Richardson shot his fourth film with Quentin Tarantino with Django Unchained; Claudio Miranda went both digital and 3D to lens Life of Pi for Ang Lee; Janusz Kaminski made his 13th film with Steven Spielberg in shooting Lincoln; and Roger Deakins ventured into the world of James Bond with Skyfall.
AwardsLine asked the five nominees for Oscar’s Best Achievement in Cinematography to pick a key scene and break it down in detail. The choices, like the nominated films themselves, speak to the challenges inherent in the craft and its essential importance to making a movie.
The Scene: In a single sweeping, shot Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) leads Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) on the dance floor at a high-society ball, with their electricity igniting movement from the other dancers. They connect in a moment of silence, and, for a moment, the auditorium is empty before the dancers return, bringing the star-struck couple back to reality.
Behind the Scene: “(Director) Joe (Wright) worked very closely with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui on the choreography of the scene, and the actors rehearsed it very much in advance to create a gestural language for this dance—one that wasn’t a classical waltz; it was fresh and modern and expressive. What we also explored with it was the idea of the photography shifting in its personality during the take, so we would migrate from a kind of an objective point of view to a subjective one within the same shot, and that the camera would shift perspective within the shot and then back again. From a lighting point of view, it allowed me to experiment with lighting that I had never tried before—theatrical lighting within a movie setting. All those things make it gently distinctive in terms of the film. On the day of, we had a plan for how we would shoot it, and we spent quite a bit of time planning the shot and planning the choreography. I had a huge amount of work to do in terms of programming the lighting changes because even as the camera is moving around in a circle, there are quite complex shifts in the lighting that I was controlling on a wireless pad, with which we were able to cue the lights live to preprogrammed settings. There were probably 30 or 40 cues in that one shot. But it has a simplicity. You don’t want to overwhelm the shot or the emotion of the shot with trickery.”
The Scene: A flashback, in which Django (Jamie Foxx) fails to convince the Brittle brothers not to whip his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
Behind the Scene: “The style is wildly different than the majority of sequences within Django Unchained. When Quentin talked to me of the scene, he asked that we shoot with two cameras, which is quite rare for us. He knew that an emotion and a spiritual space would be found once we began filming, and he wanted to capture that. Spiritual is an understatement. Shooting the scene was an act of enlightenment. Both Jamie and Kerry poured their hearts and their souls into the sequence. To watch the acting on set was extremely difficult for me, as it moved further and further away from acting or as I moved further and further from perceiving it as acting. When I was photographing Jamie, I noticed clouds race across his eyes then mist raised as he fell to his knees begging, tears sliding down his cheeks. Kerry was tied tightly to a wooden frame, stripped of her clothes, and one of the Brittle brothers pulled back a whip and fiercely let go. Kerry lurched from the lashing. Her screams stopped everyone on the set. I began shooting within a state rarely achieved: A blind desire to capture this particular moment that was so very real that, in hindsight, I know was out of place for a feature film. Deeply provoked and touched by the acting, which appeared to disappear as we settled into the past. It was as if we were transported through time. The setting, meaning the location, was on Evergreen Plantation, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Two-hundred-year-old live oaks covered the property. Beneath these stunning trees sat 20 or so slave quarters. Ironic to have such beauty atop such hideous history. We filmed amidst those slave quarters. Haunting. A vital slap of reality. What was extremely challenging was to maintain a vision for the scene when the events within the frame were as powerful as these were. Documentaries can mirror the moment described above. But I have experienced few in my career that rival.”
Life of Pi
The Scene: Young Pi (Gautam Belur) attends a spectacular candlelit ceremony with his Hindu mother as his older self narrates his and his family’s differing views on religion.
Behind the Scene: “It’s supposed to be big, with lots of light and spectacle. So I thought it would be really beautiful to try to fill this place with tons of candles. And I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could totally light the space with candles? How many would it be?’ And we were kind of walking around and measuring, and Ang (Lee) was talking like we should have one for every square foot. That’s 50,000 candles! We had to have that lit for the whole night, so I think we ordered 120,000. I don’t think it still was enough, and we added more with CG. The story was a little bit more about the mother—this was her religion, and they were taking her to this place and she was very introspective at that moment. That was shot pretty early on, just outside of Pondicherry. It was a scene about getting the kid. The kid was young and sometimes a little bit hard to get. We did know the beats. and we did go through those beats, and we wanted to be getting some angles on top—and we shot until the sun came up.”
The Scene: Having successfully passed the 13th amendment and ending the Civil War, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is reminded he is due at the theater and walks down the halls of the White House toward a greenish window and the exit.
Behind the Scene: “It’s not a difficult shot. I just like the metaphor of it, and that’s what makes it special. I chose that shot simply because it represents the metaphor of what is going to happen. This is the last time we are seeing him, except for his death bed. And I like that he’s going toward slightly greenish glass, which resembles the light on his death bed, which had a little bit of a greenish quality. He’s almost walking toward an unknown future, which as we learn quickly, it’s death. One of the difficulties was to find the proper choreography between Mr. Slade, who was his servant, who was trying to remind the president about taking his gloves with him, and the pace and direction of the president walking toward that glass window. I think we had done several takes, because somehow we couldn’t get the coordination between the camera and the actors’ movement. I also remember it was very dimly lit. It was probably not the brightest set that I’ve done in that particular movie. We wanted a bit of a silhouette of Lincoln going toward the exit of the White House. We all know what happens to him, and it’s a combination of sadness because he’s going to die but yet it’s not a completely depressed scene because he’s achieved so much.”
The Scene:James Bond (Daniel Craig) engages his target, a professional hit man (Ola Rapace), in a fight to the death in an under-construction skyscraper illuminated by a massive LED screen at night in Shanghai.
Behind the Scene: “It’s one we shot early on, and I felt I was taking a chance by suggesting or pushing for that kind of look, the big LED screens and light and the whole set just with those source lights that you see in the shot. Also the fact that we did it on stage as opposed to a location, which was the original intention. And I was quite pleased the way it turned out. When it’s one of the earlier scenes in a shoot, you feel a sense of relief that you’ve achieved something close to what you had in your mind’s eye when you started. We spent a lot of time prepping. Obviously it was a big stage set, and there was a lot of very particular lighting that was built into the set. We spent actually weeks and weeks testing a few different big LED screens for the playbacks. And then we had to order a particular one we liked, which was a combination of being a fine pixel count and also being practical to do in the size we wanted, because it was about 60 by about 40 or 50 feet, I think. And we had to find one we could rent for the period we needed it and, in fact, it was available for only a small window of time, so we had to shoot the scene and then it had to be broken down and sent back before we had really cut the scene. It was a bit of a risk in it, really. But it was good being on stage at Pinewood because we were shooting there quite a bit, and I could go in at the end of the shoot day and look at the lighting and just gradually build it. ”
Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of AwardsLine.
At age 75, Tom Stoppard is still at the top of his game, and still seeking new challenges in film, television, and stage. The legendary writer responsible for such original theatrical experiences as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Arcadia, The Invention of Love, The Real Thing, and Coast of Utopia has also made his mark with a slew of memorable movies including Brazil, Empire of the Sun, Billy Bathgate, and his Oscar-winning script for Shakespeare in Love (cowritten with Marc Norman). Now he is partnering, so to speak, with Leo Tolstoy on a risky but thrilling new version of the Russian classic Anna Karenina. Though there are many film and TV versions already in existence, Stoppard was frightened by the prospect of following in their footsteps yet he embraced it.
AWARDSLINE: Why did you want to take on Anna Karenina? It’s a very ambitious project.
TOM STOPPARD: I had no thought about it until I was asked whether I would be interested in doing it with Joe Wright, and I was immediately interested in it. You don’t often get a proposal to do Tolstoy for a really interesting director—that’s easy to say yes to.
AWARDSLINE: Did you have any trepidation about adapting something that had been done so many times before?
STOPPARD: I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but the first thing I did was to watch all the other ones. (Laughs.) And I suspect in screenwriting class, they tell you not to do that, but I was tempted, and I fell. I watched Greta Garbo, and I watched Vivien Leigh, and I watched Sophie Marceau, and about three others. It was immediately clear that, in a sense, the best one was the BBC—it was hours and hours. So that made one think about what does one do (with) two hours? And I got to the thought that one should deal with the subject of love and not worry too much about local government, agriculture, or (Leo) Tolstoy’s other preoccupations with Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). Levin is the character who represents Tolstoy in many ways, and Joe and I talked about this a lot. And I said, “We should just try to make a movie where the word love just keeps dropping in, like a pebble into a pond, and deal with the way that love works.” I don’t mean love between lovers only; I’m talking about Anna’s love for her family—intense love in the novel. That was the guiding track for me.
AWARDSLINE: I talked to Joe Wright after I saw the film in Toronto, and he said he absolutely shot your script. But he also said that he came up with this theatrical device. Were you in on that decision initially?
STOPPARD: He called me up and said, “I’ve got to see you urgently.” This was a few weeks before we went into production, and he came to my flat with this big file, which turned out to contain the storyboards of a lot of the movie. There was a terrifying moment where he said, “I hope you like it, because if you don’t, we can’t do it.” So I felt I had to like it before I saw it, and I was just staggered by it. I was also worried by it, for obvious reasons. But as I turned the pages, I began to understand that it could be an extremely exciting piece of storytelling. When we got to the horse race, for example, I thought, “This is insane, but insanely brilliant!”
AWARDSLINE: In a play, you are going to have interaction with the actors—did you go on set or interact with the actors to talk about your point of view for the film?
STOPPARD: That all happened before there was a set. I was at rehearsals, but once we had done rehearsals, frankly, the writer really doesn’t have a function on the set. If the script is stabilized, then the writer becomes a celebrity tourist visiting the set, trying not to get in the way. It’s very good for the ego, to go visit a film set if you are the writer, because they give you a special chair, and tell you where you can sit to watch the monitor. They make you feel special, but at the same time, they make it perfectly plain that you are irrelevant! (Laughs.) I think that the one time you’re not needed is during production. You are needed again in post—I love to do postproduction. I am good at being shown something and counterpunching. I am in no way a director, but I’m a quite good critic.
AWARDSLINE: Once you got into postproduction, what kind of changes did you see?
STOPPARD: You always end up with too much, so it’s good to be part of the conversation about not just what you can omit, but how you are going to do the grammar of the omission, how you make things continue to work when there’s something missing. It’s your last chance to rewrite. Rewriting isn’t just about dialogue, it’s the order of the scenes, how you finish a scene, how you get into a scene. All these final decisions are best made when you’re there, watching. It’s really enjoyable, but you’ve got to be there at the director’s invitation. You can’t just barge in and say, “I’m the writer.” (Laughs.)
AWARDSLINE: Would you want to work with a director that did not allow you into that process?
STOPPARD: I don’t think I would, actually. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.
AWARDSLINE: Do you have a preference for movies or theater?
STOPPARD: I’ve never actually written an original (screenplay), so the theater is my only original work. I really enjoy great (film) adaptations—you’re given the story and the characters by somebody else. So it’s more like a collaborator, even if your collaborator is dead. The first job always is to deconstruct the piece that you’re working from, the novel, and I find that it’s really enjoyable because it’s a manageable job, it’s not actually a creative job. You can see what you really need and what you don’t.
David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of AwardsLine.
For Dario Marianelli, who has scored all but one of Joe Wright’s five films, Anna Karenina presented exciting challenges. Wright’s fragmented telling of Tolstoy’s great novel afforded the composer new opportunities for musical expression—even as the film hewed to the story’s period setting.
“There were huge opportunities by the film not being literal,” says Marianelli, who recently spoke by phone from England. “But because those opportunities were opened up, they had to be taken, and that’s hard work. I can’t remember a film where I worked so hard and so long. For more than a year, on and off.”
Beyond that, Wright’s film was heavily choreographed, so Marianelli’s music had to be ready especially
early. “It was a lot of work up front, written before the script was even finished, particularly the two waltzes. I had to write them first, then adjust them when they were shot and then adjust them again during the editing. It was an inordinate amount of work, but all worth it.”
The freedom extended to the kind of music Marianelli would write, and its instrumentation, including a surprising amount of brass. Anyone expecting buttoned-up strains will be surprised by the pulsing passion and robust comic flair of the composer’s score, which despite such indulgences remains appealingly tasteful and elegant.
“We started with the idea of two opposites,” Marianelli says, “the folk music, the earthy music toward which the character of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) is attracted, and then the more sophisticated music of the aristocracy and also the pretense, the life on a stage. Then gradually more ideas came in, and they started interbreeding. We ended up with a lot less folk music and more of this new entity of the bands—rougher sounds coming into the sophisticated orchestra but still very pure high violin over simple piano or music-box notes.”
But a third element soon forced its way into Marianelli’s musical consciousness. “There was a necessity to have something that could give voice to the aspirations Anna (Keira Knightley) and Levin have to lead a life away from the stage. So I have a compass with three points, the third being this otherworldly music that had to be very pure and simple, and that represented the truth of a life they all wanted but couldn’t have—the escape they desired.”
The hardest part, of course, was getting started, and Marianelli points to that first waltz with particular affection. “I remembered recently that was the very first tune when I put my hands on the keyboard and wanted to send something to Joe to start the conversation,” the composer recalls. “This was May of last year, a full four or five months before the scene was shot. But I wanted to find something tender that could be danced to but that I could use at the end as well for when Anna dies. That slowly descending harmony—I’ll whistle it badly for you—that theme is particularly dear to me because it’s the first.”
He is equally partial to the clarity—rare for him, he says—that accompanied its articulation. “At that point, it was clear that it had to be something that could take this whirling moment when Anna falls in love with Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), when she’s enraptured or entrapped by him, but could also be used as a mournful commentary on her death. And I never let go of that in the months that followed. I found variations on the piano, in the orchestra, but substantially it was the same tune I had from day one. It’s like an old friend now. And if I have to go to the piano and play a bit from Anna Karenina, that’s what I will play.”
Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of AwardsLine.
Once director Joe Wright and London-based Working Title Productions selected Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to complete the literary adaptation trilogy begun with 2005’s Pride & Prejudice and 2007’s Atonement, the next step was easy: Wright’s Anna had to be Keira Knightley, 27, who had starred in both previous films and netted an Oscar nomination for portraying Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice.
The actress, who has also starred in sexy Wright-directed Chanel commercials, has been called Wright’s muse—and his comments in a recent AwardsLine interview support this notion. Wright said when the two reunited for last year’s Coco Mademoiselle commercial, “I was kind of blown away by how she had grown up. I mean that psychologically and emotionally and sexually. And she had a new kind of power to her, a new womanly power, and I wanted to bear witness to that on the screen.”
Whew. In a recent phone interview from “very rainy” London, where she was at work on Kenneth Branagh’s Jack Ryan, Knightley shared her feelings about Wright’s breathless praise, mixed reviews, and her preference for the challenges of literary screen fare over Hollywood romcoms.
AWARDSLINE: Joe Wright waxed rhapsodic in his praise of what he called your new maturity as an actress. Are you feeling it?
KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (Laughs). You don’t wake up the morning and say, “I am a woman now. Wow, I’m feeling really mature.” But, yeah, if the question is, “Would you have played this role like this five years ago?”, the answer is no.
AWARDSLINE: Anna Karenina is an iconic role. How did you feel about taking that on?
KNIGHTLEY: There are really so few wonderful roles for women, she’s up there as being incredibly complex and incredibly interesting. (But) I was much more frightened playing Elizabeth Bennet; she’s a character that you immediately fall in love with. Anna is absolutely not a character like that, so I don’t think I felt the same terror as I felt taking on Elizabeth.
AWARDSLINE: Wright said he wasn’t interested in a creating a likable Anna, and neither were you.
KNIGHTLEY: No (the idea) was to keep all the sharp edges. Some people might disagree with this, but I think there are some points in the story where Tolstoy absolutely despises her.
AWARDSLINE: The effort has brought mixed reviews, including New York Times critic Manohla Dargis calling you “miscast” as Anna. And some have quibbled about the stylistic decision to play out some of the action as theater, literally on a stage. How has that felt?
KNIGHTLEY: There is a big argument that says you are doing it right if you have people that hate it as much as you have people that love it. I do kind of agree with that. I actually haven’t read anything at all written about this. I know it’s been split because we knew it would be split from the beginning, but I actually don’t know what’s been said and what hasn’t been said.
AWARDSLINE: Do you make a point of that across the board?
KNIGHTLEY: Yes, definitely. I think you have to be careful where you take your notes from. So I’ve got about three or four people I talk to, and I pretty much ignore the rest. In watching yourself, it’s very difficult to remove vanity—you think, God, I look disgusting. At the end of the day, you can’t listen to everyone’s opinion or else you’d be very, very confused.
AWARDSLINE: I understand that style decision also had to do with money, to avoid expensive location shooting and keep the budget at $31 million.
KNIGHTLEY: Joe had always intended to make something that was stylized, (although) definitely less stylized than this. We couldn’t afford to do the naturalistic version that had originally been planned, but it wasn’t as though I was surprised that this was the direction he wanted to go. (Laughs). I did go, “Oh, God.”
AWARDSLINE: You have had the option in your career to do romcoms, the pretty-girl roles—why have you chosen to do these more substantive literary roles?
KNIGHTLEY: I try to do pieces that are as challenging to me as possible. Now one day that could be a romantic comedy or the Hollywood thriller that I’m currently doing (Jack Ryan), but lately they have taken a much more European, kind of a darker tilt. But it’s been more about what I wanted to explore, the worlds I wanted to explore.
AWARDSLINE: What would Oscar recognition mean to Anna Karenina?
KNIGHTLEY: It at least gives it a chance of having a life after it’s released in the cinema, online, or on DVD or whatever it’s going to be. (The Oscar campaign) depends on what distribution company you have behind the film, whether it’s well-geared toward the whole Oscar thing. It’s never anybody’s favorite thing to do, but when you have a piece of work that you are tremendously proud of, it all makes sense.
Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of AwardsLine.
The British are famous for understatement, and to call early reviews for English director Joe Wright’s new take on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina “mixed” is an understatement indeed.
The movie, produced by London-based Working Title Productions (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) and distributed domestically by Focus Features, arrived for its world premiere at September’s Toronto International Film Festival with an impressive awards-season pedigree. Anna Karenina reunites Wright with Keira Knightley, who also starred in Atonement and netted an Oscar nomination for Pride & Prejudice. Jude Law portrays Anna’s cuckolded husband Karenin, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Count Vronsky. (Working Title is also producing the upcoming Christmas movie musical Les Misérables, for Focus parent company Universal).
Anna Karenina has the added cachet of a script adapted by venerable British playwright Sir Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, the Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love), who Wright says wrote the Anna script in longhand.
In Toronto, Anna Karenina had Cleveland Plain Dealer film critic Clint O’Connor turning somersaults, calling the film “a stunning production, something akin to a grand dance.” But The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis attacked the film as “a travesty with a miscast Keira Knightley that is tragic only in its conceptions and execution.” The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips split his own review down the middle: “Anna Karenina only half-works; Wright forces the comedy more subtly managed by Stoppard (who is, after all, one of the wittiest men alive). But it’s trying something.”
And “trying something” seems to be the goal, say three key members of the team behind this $31-million effort: Wright, Knightley, and producer Tim Bevan of Working Title.
“If a piece of work is universally hated, it hasn’t worked; it’s equally true that, if it’s universally loved, it also hasn’t worked,” Wright explains. “What you want is some debate, to create a conversation, and that seems to be happening. In a way, I think culture is a conversation between artists and the public, and also writers and journalists, so I’m very excited.”
Knightley agrees that sparking discussion and taking risks were their goals. “We definitely went into this with everybody saying, ‘OK, let’s hold hands and jump.’ We didn’t want to do something that felt easy,” she explains. “We all wanted to push ourselves.”
The creative team also includes frequent Working Title collaborators Seamus McGarvey (director of photography), production designer Sarah Greenwood, and costume designer Jacqueline Durran.
For his part, Bevan offers this quirky comparison: To the critics, Anna Karenina is Marmite, a yeast spread that Brits love on toast, but many Americans find singularly appalling. “People either hate it or love it,” Bevan says. “I think with any form of cinema, particularly these more artistic films, you need to take risks.”
Much of the Marmite factor of Anna seems to stem from the film’s stylized approach: Scenes dealing with the suffocating artifice of the Russian aristocracy are, for the most part, performed on a theater stage. The scenes about landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), infatuated with the aristocratic Kitty (Alicia Vikander), play out in a naturalistic, earthbound setting. Wright says this decision was made after Stoppard had completed his script.
Getting Tom Stoppard to write the script was crucial for Wright, who sat down in Bevan’s office two years ago to discuss what literary adaptation might complete the trilogy begun with 2005’s Pride and Prejudice and 2007’s Atonement. “I said, ‘Anna Karenina,’ and Tim thought it was a good idea, but I backtracked a little bit and said, ‘Only if Tom Stoppard writes it.’ It’s a huge undertaking, and to me, Tom was the only writer really capable of doing the book justice,” Wright recalls.
Once Stoppard was onboard, the writer and the director agreed that, unlike some previous film versions of Anna Karenina, they would not eliminate the Levin-Kitty romance. “In terms of getting (a 900-page novel) to 120 pages of script, he said basically that anything that didn’t speak to various forms of love, he was going to lop out,” Bevan explains.
But both Bevan and Wright admit the choice to use a real stage within the context of the drama was as much about money as love. “The truth of it is, these (artistic) films can’t take huge budgets, they don’t do blockbuster business,” Bevan says. “We’re in an arena where very few people go, the $20 million to $30 million budget. That can be a very dangerous place to be. You are in the middle, but you have to make it look bigger, cost-wise. You have to give it an epic feel.”
A naturalistic approach would have called for too many locations, requiring expensive travel and hotel accommodations. Plus, Wright says, many potential locations in Moscow and St. Petersburg had been renovated to the point that they “had lost some of their magic.”
Then, too, some potential locations were overused. “When we found a location that we liked, we’d hear something like: ‘Yes, we’ve shot seven Anna Kareninas here before,’ which is really kind of depressing,” Wright says. “We were also looking for locations in the U.K., and a similar kind of refrain was heard. The guardians would say, ‘Yes, we’ve shot three movies with Keira Knightley here before.’ ”
Hence, the Anna’s world was devised as a stage, to the point of having some scenes choreographed like dance pieces. Wright says Stoppard’s script has remained virtually the same despite the change. And Bevan believes the unorthodox approach provides the raison d être for revisiting Tolstoy’s work yet again on film. The most recent version, a 1997 effort directed by Bernard Rose, starred Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean, and movie grande dames including Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh have portrayed Anna over the years.
With or without the critics—or Marmite—the movie seems to be hovering on the Academy radar, and both the producer and the director say the recognition can make all the difference to a film like Anna Karenina.
“It’s a very difficult subject for me because I find if one focuses too much, or even at all, on the competitive nature of our business, the art suffers,” says Wright, who was nominated for a BAFTA Award and a Golden Globe for Atonement but has yet to be nominated by the Academy for his directing. “I find it to be quite unhealthy, personally.
“Having said that, I think nominations mean a great deal,” the director continues. “There’s kind of a club, I suppose, and it’s an entrance to that club. There’s a validation from your fellow craftspeople and artists, and I think that’s a really lovely thing. That’s talking from a director’s point of view—the whole awards thing has a very, very different meaning to producers and to boxoffice.”
Bevan calls the Academy Awards “the kings and queens, the extreme royalty of the awards season. Because of the web, the Academy Awards are acknowledged as being the benchmark.”
But there’s a downside to the Internet, Bevan adds. “Everybody thought it was piracy that would kill us, but actually I think it’s the speed of comment, because if your film is not up to it, people will know fast. There’s that instant judgment, which is fantastically liberating in one way, and frightening in another.”