Annie Wagner interviewed Joe Wright in advance of the release of his Pride & Prejudice. He’d like you to call it “the Keira Knightley version.”
I hear you hadn’t even read the book before taking on this project?
That’s not strictly true. I had never read the book before I went for the interview. I had thought Pride and Prejudice was for girls, really. I read the script, took it to the pub with me one afternoon, and discovered that by about page 60 I was weeping into my pint of lager. I found it very emotional. And that quite shocked me, really. Then I thought I better read the book. So I did read the book, and discovered it to be quite a radical piece of writing. It seemed really fresh. Her hand reaches right through time at us, she was observing people very, very closely, and I felt like I was almost reading the birth of British realism. It did feel political, as well. People have charged Jane Austen with avoiding anything political and vaguely conservative and I actually disagree. I think she was quite radically political in the sense that, the whole story, for instance, is kicked off by the fact that if Mr. Bennet dies the house goes to a male relative and not to any female. That’s the whole impetus for the story, which at the time, I think, was quite a bold statement politically. She’s just very clever, she’s not overt in her politics.
I just reread the book recently. I love the way Austen puts all the complaints about the entail into the mouth of Mrs. Bennet.
Yeah, absolutely. Mrs. Bennet isn’t completely stupid. Mrs. Bennet is the only one that’s really taking the whole problem seriously. I think that a lot of kids today—if you’re a kid, you’re thinking about the here and now and what you’re doing. There’s not much sense of rough times to come.
Certainly. And most of the judgmental statements about Mrs. Bennet come from Lizzy.
Yeah, absolutely. But I think Mrs. Bennet, especially as played by Brenda Blethyn is played very seriously. She got very angry with an interviewer, and I’ve never seen Brenda get angry. And I’ve never seen her angry. It was a press conference in a hotel, and this interviewer starts kind of patronizing Mrs. Bennet—not Brenda—but Mrs. Bennet. So Brenda got very angry and said, “I don’t give a shit about your ideas of Mrs. Bennet, I think she’s the only one that takes the situation seriously. She’s the only one trying to help her family and I think she’s doing it because she loves her daughters so much.”
Your film definitely diverges from a lot of Jane Austen adaptations. Had you seen the earlier BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries?
No, never watched it. I saw the Greer Garson version—I think it’s terrible the way people say “the Lawrence Olivier version,” or “the Colin Firth version,” do you know what I mean? It’s a story about a young woman falling in love. Why do you always call it the “male-lead version”? So this is the “Keira Knightley version.” And we’re very careful to put Keira, to put Lizzy, at the center of the film. It’s a story told from her point of view. I hadn’t seen the BBC version, not because—basically, I didn’t want to plagiarize it. I was worried that I’d see it and I’d think it was really good and I knick ideas.
What about Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility?
Oh yeah, which I love. And I saw the previous film version, because there hasn’t been a film of Pride and Prejudice since 1940. So I watched that, and I guess the only decision I made… The story doesn’t make sense if you have someone as old as Lawrence Olivier playing the role—he was in his 40s, Greer Garson was in her 30s—it just doesn’t make sense. Jane Austen wrote very young characters. Elizabeth Bennet is 20, Darcy is 28, and it’s about young people falling in love and they don’t quite understand the emotions, the feelings that they’re having. If you have a 40-year-old man not quite understanding the feelings that he’s having, than it just becomes a bit pathetic. It just makes a mockery of the whole story. The story only makes sense if it’s young people; otherwise it becomes the 40-Year-Old Virgin or something. [Laughs.]
I love doing interviews for eighteenth-century stuff in this hotel. It tries to be Georgian, but it doesn’t quite make it.
Everything is mock these days.
Well, in Seattle you obviously couldn’t get the real thing…
That’s true. But in England, as well, everything is mock-Georgian, mock-fucking Tudor. I hate it, all this mock-shit. I love the original, you know, I love real Georgian houses and I love real 20th-century, 21st-century houses. But that mock stuff is just such a lie. People do it in England, you know. They get these Barratt homes that were built in the 1980s, then they plaster them white and stick black wood planks over them to make them look Tudor. It’s gross.
Even in the eighteenth century they were doing that. They were doing fake Grecian ruins.
Right, right, right, that’s true. Fake Grecian ruins are one thing, but you know, those are ridiculous.
Exactly. But I guess, Adam and the whole architecture of that period, is kind of referencing classical architecture. But that’s different, that’s called “referencing” rather than “mock.” I think you have to have a sense where you’re referencing. So I did make references to Far From the Madding Crowd, for instance, and I thought it was really good and I wanted to try and get a bit of that atmosphere, that reality, and also that kind of subjectivity to the camera that I hadn’t seen in very many period films. And I watched Russian Ark, as well, although I had—
Did you think about doing it in one take? [Laughs.]
Well, I’ve been really into doing long, single takes since a project I did called The Last King, I think it’s called here—it’s called Charles the Second in England. So in that there’s kind of seven-and-a-half minute Steadicam shot around twenty-five different characters or so. Which is lovely. But, yeah, I watched Russian Ark and thought it was a superb piece of choreography.
Yeah, it’s choreography, really. It’s almost hard to call it filmmaking.
It’s wonderful, I love it. There’s a three-and-a-half minute shot in my film, in that ballroom scene, and that was a joyous day of choreography. An actor-camera relationship.
Yeah, I was reading that scene in the book recently. They’re dancing, and there’s this dialogue and then the dance ends, but there’s no indication of how that happens.
It’s a lovely thing with that book, for a filmmaker it’s great, because Austen gives very, very little description of anyone. That’s really nice because it leaves space for you to imagine. Maybe that’s why there’s been so many Austen adaptations, because it’s really a blueprint—it gives you fantastic structures and wonderful dialogue, but it’s not prescriptive. It doesn’t fill in the gaps for you. There’s space for you to imagine and feel… free, you know. But that may be the problem as well, because it means that people have created their own visualization of the characters and the houses.
Readers, you mean.
Yeah, readers, exactly. They’re holding you to a standard that only they imagine. And that’s something that Keira was concerned about, before she accepted the role of Elizabeth. She really, really wanted to do it, but she was terrified of having young women coming up to her, saying “You’re not Elizabeth Bennet, I am.” Because she felt that when women read the book, they feel as if they were Elizabeth Bennet. So that was a hurdle for her to overcome. Although she also had the same experience when she read the book. It’s very rare that you get—as you know, it’s very rare that you get leading roles for women, especially ones that are that strong and that powerful. Keira has amazing strength. I think if you were to describe one quality of Keira’s, I’d say it’s strength. And Elizabeth is a very strong woman.
Heart-strong too, though. I’m just thinking about that. How everyone says headstrong and not heart-strong. Strong is good, headstrong is slightly detrimental, and heart-strong just isn’t used.
So, you talk a little bit in the press notes about the period clichés—the carriage riding off and how that wasn’t interesting. Are there other period clichés that you’d point to?
Yeah, I mean the fact that period films are usually shot in widescreen because the filmmakers are interested in showing off what lovely houses they’re in or what lovely environments they’re in because they think the audience is going to be interested in that. But I think, personally, audiences are interested in emotions and characters and that’s what grabs their attention. Also, I was trying to find cinematic equivalence, if you like, to Jane Austen’s prose. When you’re adapting a novel, especially one as beloved as Pride and Prejudice, you’re trying to stay faithful to the narrative events of the story, but you’re also trying to stay faithful to the tone and the atmosphere in the book, which comes obviously from the prose. I looked at the prose and felt that the way Jane Austen studies people very, very carefully and the minutiae of developing social emotions, and so I felt that one way to express that cinematically was to shoot a lot of the film in close-up. So that’s not often done in period films.
You use zooms, too.
Yeah, I like zooms because I don’t like telling actors necessarily when they’re in close-up. Because I think sometimes if you say, okay, we’re going to go for a wide-shot now then you get a wide-shot performance. Then you say okay, I’m going for a close-up now and then they give an often quite mannered performance in close-up. I quite like just if someone is doing something interesting that that’s what I zoom in for a close-up. You can catch moments, you know? And also I think it’s the grammar of documentary filmmaking, and it’s the grammar of social observation. I felt that that was particularly Jane Austen’s kind of realism, social realism.
Your background, you say, is in social realism?
I’ve got a kind of funny background. My parents were puppeteers. They’ve got a puppet theater in Islington in London. So I grew up with fairy tales, and then I went to a sort of rough comprehensive school, I think they’re called public schools here. It was quite rough, and I went to a drama club after school where we did improvisation, drama workshops, which is all very steeped in that kind of British tradition of social realism. So I had those two influences of fairy tales and social realism. One of the things I was interested in doing with this film was bringing those two influences together. A lot of the imagery is quite fairy tale-like. For instance, the Bennet house has a moat around it and I loved the idea—it seemed quite fairy tale-like. You’ve got five virgins sitting on an island and they have to get off that island—or these men have to get on that island or something. So that’s kind of a fairy tale image to me, but then to shoot it in a realist style.
So, the mud and the pigs—
That’s also partly from research. It was that muddy and if you weren’t quite rich you’d only have a bath once a week.
You didn’t require the actors to do that. [Laughs.]
No, I didn’t. But I made sure that none of them wear any makeup because they wouldn’t have worn makeup. No, none of them wore any makeup and their dresses were lifted and they didn’t wear the most up-to-date fashions of 1797, they wore clothes that they had for a while. The girls had hand-me-downs, so there is a sense of history there, as well.
I love when period films get dirty.
Absolutely. Although the whole makeup issue is really annoying because we tested the makeup issue and everyone looked perfectly great without makeup on. Except the problem was Keira is that Keira has a natural eyeliner. It’s really weird. She’s got these dark lines around her eyes. So the only makeup that was worn was by Keira, which was to paint out her natural eyeliner so that she’d look like she wasn’t wearing makeup, because otherwise it’d look like Keira was wearing makeup and no one else was. That’d be really crap.
The humor in your film, especially in the portrayal of Mr. Bingley, I’d say, is definitely different from other adaptations.
Yeah, that’s just Simon [Woods]. He’s got such a sweet humor, Simon, and it’s kind of like that. Simon is just silly.
Was that something that you wanted for the character?
It just kind of happened, really. You certainly going to a film thinking I kind of want this, I want that, but also a large part of my job is about creating an atmosphere in which people can express themselves and hopefully realize the potential in people and realize the potential in a given moment. So once you’ve cast an actor you can’t force them to do something that isn’t natural to them. You have to see what they bring to you and work with what they give you. Mr. Bingley, in that sense, that was what Simon was bringing in and I hopefully realized his potential. And bits I didn’t like I threw out. Strangely, he and Rosamund Pike, who plays Jane, were boyfriend and girlfriend.
Really? Before they were cast?
Before they were cast, and then they split up like a year before we started shooting. So the first time they’d seen each other since they split up was on the first day. It added to their story, really.
In your film Mr. Collins is a lot shorter than Darcy, and there’s a lot of humor that comes out of that.
I didn’t specifically set out to cast a shorter actor.
Although that one long shot of the two of them in the ballroom—
That was, again, realizing the potential of the situation. [Laughs.] A lot of actors came in and read for Mr. Collins. They generally played him exactly as I had imagined him, except for one that came in and did a brilliant impression and played him as Tony Blair, which was genius, which was a really good, but I felt that was making a bit too much of a statement. But then Tom came in and played him as this weird fucked up little freak of a pervert and I thought that was incredible. It surprised me, like I literally, as he was reading, was going “What are you doing? This is so strange, what you are doing,” and loved it. I think what I’m often looking for is originality or imagination in actors and that’s certainly what Tom brought to it.