This story first appeared in the standalone awards issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Joe Wright never uttered the words, "Get me a rewrite."
But two months before Anna Karenina's September 2011 production start, the director experienced an epiphany that required a wholesale overhaul of the film's course. In a hazy state of sleep deprivation thanks to a new baby at home (his first), Wright arrived at the bold idea of setting Leo Tolstoy's tragic love story against a theater backdrop -- an in-your-face visual motif that would carry throughout the movie.
"I was reading Orlando Figes' book Natasha's Dance at the time," recalls Wright, a London native who grew up steeped in the theater and whose parents founded a popular puppet playhouse. "He describes Russian society of the period living their lives as if upon a stage. They were very concerned by how they appeared to each other."
In fact, the elite of late-19th century St. Petersburg emulated Parisian high culture. They spoke French, dressed in Paris fashions and read etiquette books about how to behave like proper femmes et hommes. Although risky for a $31 million film, Wright became convinced that a stage setting served as the ideal metaphor for exploring the confines of that society.
"I just felt that if I were to make the film in the naturalistic form, I would be treading ground that I and others had tread before," he says. "That I found quite disheartening."
Wright and the producing team of Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster were determined to differentiate the Focus Features movie from their own ample filmography of period dramas (the four previously had collaborated on Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, the director's previous awards contenders, though discussion of this current foray might focus more on below-the-line and acting categories). Wright also wanted to bring something daringly original to the oft-adapted Anna Karenina, a novel that has traveled to the big screen dozens of times, from a handful of silent films dating to the birth of cinema to a 1997 English-language version starring French actress Sophie Marceau.
"Joe didn't want us to research any of them," says cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who, like most of the team, deliberately avoided the predecessors, including a 1935 classic starring Greta Garbo. "With this film, I think he wanted to have a completely distinct feel from the other previous versions."
Perhaps it's no surprise that a director so attracted to a protagonist who flouts convention like the adulterous Anna would buck convention himself. Oscar-winning screenwriter and playwright Tom Stoppard, who penned the adaptation, initially was skeptical of Wright's 180-degree turn but eventually embraced his vision.
Longtime collaborator Keira Knightley took more convincing. "Joe phoned me up and said, 'I think you need to come round to my house,' " recalls Knightley, who also teamed with Wright on Atonement and Pride & Prejudice (the latter earned her a best actress Oscar nomination). "I walked in, and he was like, 'There's a slightly new concept.' He had pictures all over the wall of this weird theater-land that he was creating. I think my first response was, 'Oh, f--.' And then, 'Well, I guess we might as well give it a go.' "
Stoppard's screenplay actually needed little in the way of nips and tucks. The script still contains such lines as:
EXT. KITTY'S HOUSE -- DAY
LEVIN pulls up outside of KITTY'S house.
The difference is that "exterior" looks nothing akin to an outdoor scene in a typical film. Instead, wide shots reveal dollies, catwalks, lights and stagehands milling about. No scene is more deliberately jarring than a sequence set at a horse race, where real 2,000-pound creatures gallop inside the theater -- an emotionally charged moment that coincides with Anna inadvertently revealing her illicit feelings in public.
"There was one [scene] in particular that kind of epitomized the whole theatrical conceit, and that was the races," notes McGarvey, who had little time to prepare for the film after wrapping the blockbuster The Avengers just two days before starting work on Anna Karenina. "There's a nice merger of theater and the real. But it required a lot of preplanning in terms of the visual effects, second unit, main unit. The lighting of the whole thing was tremendously complex."
For Wright, the theater construct served as an opportunity to get closer to the emotional story of the characters, which include Count Vronsky (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Kick-Ass fame) as the object of Anna's obsession and Anna's long-suffering, publically humiliated husband (with two-time Oscar nominee Jude Law playing against type).
"That's the lovely thing about it -- by setting myself the limitation of the theater, I was then liberated to be able to be more expressive," says Wright, citing a scene that featured Anna approaching her young son's bed, a piece of furniture seemingly adrift in the middle of a stage. "I wanted this sense of him being a tiny figure in the tiny bed in this vast, cavernous space. So I was able to find those images to express those feelings."
Still, several members of the below-the-line team grappled with the switch. When costume designer Jacqueline Durran first boarded the project, it was firmly rooted in a naturalistic setting. Once Wright embarked on his new path, Durran found herself tossing out her sketches and returning to the drawing board.
"In some ways, it shouldn't have affected the costumes at all because I should have just been able to carry on," explains Durran, twice nominated for Oscars for her work on Wright's Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. "But what I realized was that when you are imagining a costume, you automatically imagine an environment."
The course change slowed down Durran for a few weeks until she began to wrap her head around it. Production designer Sarah Greenwood and Wright, known for his obsessive storyboarding, helped translate how the omnipresent stage would now manifest.
Likewise, composer Dario Marianelli remembers the preproduction period as being particularly intense.
"There are several scenes that are shot to music, and in which you actually see musicians playing," says Marianelli, who won an Oscar for Atonement's original score. "Those pieces had to be composed beforehand. It felt quite a daunting task, especially because I wanted those pieces to contain the main themes of the rest of the score."
Once the 12-week production began on a stage at the famed Shepperton Studios in the U.K., the intensity only ramped up. The ball sequence, which conveys through movement Vronsky's first seduction of Anna, proved to be physically exhausting, with even the professional dancers taxed to their limits. The scene, choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, shot over four days for roughly 12 to 14 hours each day. "I kept going to Joe, 'Is there any way you could get me a double?' " says Knightley, who spent three weeks rehearsing the scene. "He's like, 'No, I need to see you.' "
As shooting wrapped in February 2012, Wright says he felt vindicated by his decision to follow his aesthetic, and let cinematic mores be damned.
"It was frightening, and to be honest, it's not come out yet and it's still frightening," says Wright. "But I find that life's too short, really. You might as well take those risks."