Q&A: Tom Stoppard On Anna Karenina

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.

Composer Dario Marianelli On Scoring Anna Karenina

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.”

 

Composer Dario Marianelli, left, with director Joe Wright.
Composer Dario Marianelli, left, with director Joe Wright.

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.”

Q&A: Keira Knightley On Anna Karenina

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.

Behind The Scenes On Anna Karenina

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).

Keira Knightley, who stars as the ill-fated title character, and director Joe Wright on the set of Anna Karenina.

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.”