“Hanna has no preconception of what is beautiful and what is ugly. Everything just is what it is…Hanna judges no one. That’s anathema to most of us, as we are brought up and taught to constantly judge people, places, and things against ourselves, our aspirations, and our fears.”
—Director Joe Wright
Director Joe Wright, Production Designer Sarah Greenwood and Set Decorator Katie Spencer SDSA have collaborated for over a decade on films that are breathtakingly beautiful yet grounded in a vein of realism.
The perfectly realized worlds of Jane Austen’s PRIDE & PREJUDICE, and the torpid British country manor and outset of World War II in ATONEMENT were recognized with Academy Award nominations for Outstanding Art Direction, the later film also lauded with BAFTA and ADG award nominations.
Their current collaboration, the contemporary fairytale-esque HANNA leaps into the action genre, bringing us breathtaking moments with breakneck speed.
The surrealism hinted at in ATONEMENT grows into an elemental force throughout this coming-of-age spy-thriller, as Hanna [Saoirse Ronan] deals with sophisticated assassins as she tries to reach her master-spy father Erik [Eric Bana], whom she had known as a simple woodsman.
Life-and-death chases take us from the ice and snow of Finland to the searing desert of Morocco to villages of coastal Spain and Germany and the harsh cityscape of Berlin. Whether a geometric abstract of containers at a shipping yard, the pristine CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, a secret underground prison or a deserted metro tube station, everything is realistic, yet artistic…up a notch, sometimes several. The visual experience is enhanced without impeding the action.
Wright talks with SET DECOR about his collaboration with Greenwood and Spencer on this and their other standout films.
How did you begin the visualization process for HANNA with Production Designer Sarah Greenwood and Set Decorator Katie Spencer SDSA?
Oh, it’s very difficult to remember, really. Sarah and Katie and I have been working together for such a long time now that it feels like our kind of visual imaginations have melded and I find it very difficult when I’ve finished a project to remember which ideas were whose.
I think probably most of the ideas are Sarah’s and Katie’s...
As to where we began, Sarah and I always start way back in the script development by looking at locations before the script is finished. We went to Berlin and said to the location manager, “Show us what you think is extraordinary in Berlin.” We specifically said, “Don’t show us what’s written in the script.” So, they took us to things like the wind tunnels and the abandoned amusement park, Spree—and when we found these locations, I went back to Seth Lochhead and had them written into the screenplay. The wind tunnels are where we filmed Hanna’s escape from Camp G, and the park became an intrinsic part of the film’s climax. So it was really a matter of responding to the world around us rather than trying to implement, to enforce the script upon the world. There’s a kind of organic development, really.
This fairytale-esque story…the double-meaning of a Grimm tale…it always has another edge to it, another angle to it. Working with this prism, the film starts in Finland, in the snow. Can you tell us about the set aspects of this, including the cabin/hut?
Well, originally we were planning to shoot the opening sequence all in Bavaria. We had tax rebates available in Bavaria, so production was very keen for us to shoot there. But it soon became apparent that, firstly, there just wasn’t what we needed in terms of what we were allowed to do there, and, secondly, we realized that there was likely to be no snow. So it was a little bit of a disaster. And so very, very late in the process, Sarah suddenly said, “Come on, let’s go to Finland.” I think it was the perfect moment to make that decision, because if we had tried to force that earlier, the production company wouldn’t have gone for it. But it became a kind of crisis point, a crunch point, which allowed us to make that kind of bold move.
And I’m so, so grateful to Sarah and glad that we did do that, because I think it set the film off in a completely different tone. We were looking for somewhere that felt completely wild, and we just couldn’t get that in Bavaria. So the compromise was that we shot for a week in Finland, and then the actual hut, the cabin that stands in the forest, we built in Bavaria and used fake snow for that. Again, it was really just a case of responding to what we saw around us. And with the Finland scenes…it was amazing that you turn up in a location one day and say, “Okay, we can shoot here.” And you’d arrive the next day and, because of the way the winds swept the snow, the location would have changed completely! So it was really a matter of adapting at every moment.
The log cabin in the forest was built by local craftsmen in Bavaria and was a thing of absolute beauty. Built as Erik would have built it without resources to modern materials, it was crafted without the use of any nails…built entirely with found materials…everything was pegged. Sarah drew a very fine line in terms of not letting it become too fairytale, keeping it grounded in some sort of reality, and yet it was definitely a fairytale opening to the beginning of the film. And then the same house…the same shape of house is replicated in its kind of plastic form in Spree Park in the end. It was exactly the same shape and the idea was for it to feel like the same house, but now the fairytale had been…abandoned.
The interior of the cabin—getting the right combination of isolation and the modern world?
It was a matter of actually set dressing dictating backstory. You know, how much did Erik bring with him? Did he ever forage on the outskirts of civilization for plastics or metals, or knives or whatever? And so it was a very fine line Katie walked there, and I think she pulled it off brilliantly.
And then you moved to Morocco!
The actual shooting was tough because of the heat—in excess of 115 degrees!
The idea for me was that as Hanna progresses through the film, we have a kind of history of civilization, almost. So at the beginning of the film, she’s just got a sling and arrow and is kind of hunting and then the cabin, there are little bits of metal coming through, and, obviously, fire. Then in the desert, she starts to find community and then in the market, she’s introduced to money. Again, one had to be careful not to kind of make that market too primitive. I mean, it’s Morocco and it’s a modern country, although there still are camel markets and people often dressed in a very traditional way. But they sometimes wear a baseball cap with their traditional dress. One of the things I really loved about what Katie did in that sequence was introduce a man selling mobile telephones, which I thought was a lovely kind of touch…the attention to detail was fantastic.
Yes, absolutely, including 200 camels for the market scene! And in Morocco we meet the family in the camper van.
Yes. I was very descriptive about the camper van. Occasionally I get a prop or a set in my head and I don’t give Sarah or Katie much leeway on it. Some of those are for purely personal reasons and the camper van was very specifically a re-creation of my parents’ camper van from when we were children. I knew exactly what type of van I needed it to be and what color and how it should be decked out inside. So that was one that I do remember being quite specific with Sarah and Katie about. And what’s lovely is they know me well enough to understand that unless they think I’m going way off course on something like that, they know that that’s the time when they’ll just let me have my say on it.
That incredible collaboration you seem to have is evident on screen.
I hope so. We’re a family, you know. As I say, we’ve worked together now for 12-13 years and it’s certainly the longest creative relationship I’ve had. And the most important. I think that when people talk about a Joe Wright film, or a film directed by me, they’re talking about the director as really kind of a figurehead, perhaps…but they’re talking about my/our team as a group, as a collective…and that’s very important.
And so you were shooting camping in Spain in Morocco…in the mountains, on the coast, and in the winds…
Yes, it was a financial choice. Originally, I’d hoped we could all go on a jolly kind of road trip together and work our way up through Europe, but somehow, these days, the way films are financed/produced, it doesn’t quite work like that. So we shot a lot of the Spanish scenes in Morocco and, in fact, imported a whole group of flamenco artists over to Morocco for the flamenco scene. And it was slightly…well…we turned a Moroccan village into a Catholic Spanish village.
And the 50 tents…?
Ah…the tradition of camping that is sort of engrained in Britain, I love the whole kind of camping culture. Funnily enough, Katie was able to find an exact replica, in fact the exact tent that I used to have as a kid, the orange and blue tent that Sophie and Miles and Hanna sleep in.
A lot of the film, weirdly, had a kind of retro feeling to it, and I think that’s possibly because I was really inspired or referring to my own childhood with the movie. Tom Hollander’s character is a very retro kind of character, the tent is a sort of retro tent, the van as well—and I think that adds to the kind of surrealism. You never really know or are quite sure where or when the film is set…maybe where, but not when.
Yes. From that opening shot in the snow, it could be any time…Speaking of surreal, the Grimm haus and abandoned amusement park…!
Well, I think what people comment about the most is the abandoned amusement park. And it’s an amazing testament to Sarah and Katie’s work that in the numerous Q&A’s that I’ve been doing, people comment on the design of the film, on the locations…and not just the photography, but the actual design of the film. And I think that’s quite unusual, really. It is quite strong. And it is quite bold. The amusement park was an incredibly, sort of fortuitous find, and then Sarah and Katie really made the most of it. And the wolf certainly was one of the key images in the film for me. We tried to do as little to the park as possible, but that was something I think Sarah and Katie couldn’t resist making.
So not only the hut, but also the wolf’s-head tunnel was not extant? It didn’t exist as such? It was created?
Yes. The actual wolf’s mouth was created. There was a tunnel, obviously, coming out of the mountain, with the railway tracks on it, but it was just an opening cut into the rock…and I said to Sarah, “Wouldn’t it be great if there were some jaws, some teeth...”
And then Sarah took that and turned it into a wolf’s head with open jaws. And in a way, that’s a perfect example of our working practice, in that I come up with an idea…it’s a nice seed of an idea…but then Sarah takes it and turns it into something better…and then Katie takes that and makes it even better, you know.
So I still get lovely surprises.