Joe Wright:

December 18th, 2012 by Karen Burg

Main Photo
Director Joe Wright On set filming ANNA KARENINA… Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2012 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

“All the world's a stage...”

William Shakespeare 


“In the intelligently ecstatic new adaptation of ANNA KARENINA…all the world’s a stage,” enthuses Time critic Richard Corliss, referring specifically to a dilapidated 19thcentury theater whose ornate confines are the setting for scenes taking place in elite, Parisian-styled St. Petersburg and in the older, former social and political center, Moscow, the heart of Russia.

The staged settings also reflect Russian society of the time, the upper class almost desperately affecting western European culture, to the point that their lives were performed, not lived. Artifice was an art form…French was the language spoken and the accepted decor, anything Russian was considered peasant class…and class was everything.

Thus, the unstoppable tragedy of the once perfect Anna Karenina plays out onstage, while the unfolding love story of the landed gentleman Konstantin Levin, who chooses the more natural agrarian world, is depicted on his country estate in actual exterior locations. 

Director Joe Wright, as he always has, turned to his friends, award-winning Production Designer Sarah Greenwood and Set Decorator Katie Spencer SDSA, along with Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran and Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey ASC-BSC, to bring about his vision for the film.

“The beauty of making a film,” shares Greenwood, “…is everything is possible!” She, Spencer and their teams created the decaying massive theater at Shepperton Studios from scratch, and developed the countryside exteriors in Russia and the UK.

The theater was designed as a formerly opulent, worn-but-working theater from the mid-1800s, each part representing a different class of Russian society, the two great cities and their prevailing cultures.

“The rules of a period film have been broken,” states Keira Knightly, who plays the title role. “This is taking style to a whole new level. Joe’s concept to set it in a theater was completely brilliant…you know as soon as you enter a theater that you will be required to use your imagination. You know that reality is going to be suspended. Your sense of space changes…and, just like that, the set completely changes! With all the changing sets…once, it totally became an ice rink, we felt we were there…for one of Betsy’s soirees, it’s suddenly filled with chandeliers…we would forget that it was a theater…”

Wright agrees, “We basically built this great, sort of 19th century theater set and it became this magical space.”


Wright chats with SET DECOR, sharing the essence of the filmmaking process for this innovative, theatrical cinema experience.

SET DECOR: As Keira points out, “The film is both modern and classic at the same time.”

Wright: I like exploring the form and being expressive. One of the things I enjoyed about making PRIDE & PREJUDICE and ATONEMENT [with all of the aforementioned team, including Knightly] was that each of those films had a large portion shot in one location, which engendered a lot of creative freedom. So I decided I wanted to set ANNA KARENINA in one location, and create a kind of quite stylized experience. That was partly due to my reading of Meyerhold, the theater director, and his suggestion that stylization is about subtraction rather than decoration, kind of anti-décor…

SET DECOR: All the more challenging for the set decorator…!

Wright: Exactly! And by doing that, by taking stuff away, you try to get closer to the essence. So I decided to set it in one location, and then the question was what would that location be? And the theater seemed like an appropriate metaphor for the way in which society operated at the time…omnipresent, beautiful but decaying…and also for the characters…especially performing the role of dutiful wife that, once she meets Count Vronsky, doesn’t really fit Anna anymore…

So I was playing around with those ideas…and one of the big challenges of the film generally was the horse race…how to do that horse race. So when I thought, “Well, what if you just had 17 horses gallop across the stage?”…That was when I felt that I had to see that happen!

SET DECOR: Let’s talk about using different aspects of the stage defining different aspects of the story

Wright: Well, Sarah and I locked ourselves in my studio and we put up post-it notes all the way around the room. Each note had the scene number and was color-coded by whether it was exterior or interior, or St. Petersburg or Moscow. Then we started thinking about the essence of each location and where might that be best suited to set. So we were thinking, for instance, about Oblonsky’s house and the idea that, since the affair, the children have run riot and the whole house has kind of fallen apart and is a bit crazy, you know…and so the prop room seemed a good place for that to happen. And the props are like toys…

SET DECOR: And it’s filled with life. The scene is filled with life, with them coming and going, and that’s the part of the theater that is filled with aspects of life…

Wright: Exactly. Yes!  So that was the choice there. And then we thought about where the lower-class people might live, and we thought that up in the gantries there was a kind of atmosphere of gloom, so we decided to put them up there.

SET DECOR: And that made such sense because the upper-class didn’t even see them…

Wright: Exactly! And the working class were kind of like the stagehands…they moved everything around. Also during that process, we did lots of drawings and found picture references, and thought about the transitions and how you might move from one set to the other.

SET DECOR: The turning of things, transitions…Oblonsky’s workplace into the restaurant…that magic that starts it all…

Wright: It is magic, isn’t it? I was brought up in a puppet theater in Islington, in north London. And I always thought that the audience missed out because as far as I was concerned, the most exciting thing is behind stage and the quick changes, and the scene changes, so those we worked out very carefully. And a lot of what Sarah was doing was working out not only what the sets would be like when they were formed, but also how we would get the sets in and out…very much like a theater design, you know.

SET DECOR: Sarah and Katie actually determining a choreography of the set change as well as doing the set?

Wright: Exactly. It was just another layer to have fun with, really.

SET DECOR: You were also dealing with the juxtaposition of Moscow society and that of St. Petersburg being even more elitist…

Wright: Yes, and St. Petersburg is a really interesting place. It feels like a set. You know, it was built very quickly and it was very much a copy of Western classicism, and so it felt like that they had built a kind of set in which to perform their version of European modes of behavior. So there is a big difference between St. Petersburg and the far more old-Russian world of Moscow, the original capital.

SET DECOR: Thus, the colors, the palettes…

Wright: Indeed, very much so. St. Petersburg is rather soft and gentle pinks and far more Neo-classical, whereas Moscow itself is quite rich and gold and lovely, with reds and greens, and has an almost Byzantium palette.

SET DECOR: A couple of details that were amazing in their use…mirrors, for one. Of course, they were prevalent in that society, but the use of mirrors, the way Katie and Sarah incorporated them and you shot them…

Wright: Well, there was this lovely idea we made use of that when in St. Petersburg, the ballrooms would be completely mirrored, so they would be able to observe and scrutinize their own performances as they were engaging in social interaction. They were constantly observing themselves and judging themselves. And so the idea of using the mirrors came from that, really…this idea of a sort of self-reflection of their performances…and also the kind of splintering of persona.

SET DECOR: They were used so effectively…something as simple as a hanging mirror Anna looks into…and throughout the film, distinctively  different mirrors reflecting not only where she is at the time, but also the state of her emotions.

Wright: Exactly. Yes! Sarah and Katie and I have used mirrors quite a lot…there is a sequence in PRIDE & PREJUDICE when Keira [portraying Elizabeth Bennet] looks in the mirror as she hears Darcy’s letter.

SET DECOR: Yes, anyone who has seen the film will remember that scene vividly!

Wright: So there are these moments that are vastly important.

SET DECOR: You were talking earlier about the minimalism aspect…with that, the use of these singular forms becomes even more significant, each piece you use has more importance to it…

Wright: Yes, it has more meaning…and, too, there’s a very definite meaning behind each choice.

SET DECOR: That also must apply to the exquisite chandeliers and lighting, and the different types of lighting.

Wright: Totally. And it’s great that Sarah and Katie and Seamus, and Jacqueline, and all of us, have worked together so much, because we know and trust each other…and Sarah and Katie know what Seamus would like, and they know what I like as well! Our aesthetics are very, very close now. And there’s this lovely thing where we often don’t know whose idea was whose. “Was that my idea, or Sarah’s, or Katie’s?” It doesn’t matter. There is a wonderful collaborative spirit where everyone is allowed to come up with bad ideas and not be dissed for them, although we do laugh about them!

But the minimalism thing is interesting because, although it was about stripping everything back, one didn’t want to create a kind of DOGVILLE effect which is very austere. One wanted to still suggest the luxurious surroundings they lived their lives in…

SET DECOR: And you had to show the layers of society effectively…

Wright: Totally.

SET DECOR: And the effect of a single chandelier over the lovers…or someone being lit by one sconce on the wall…again, it makes it no less set decoration…it actually elicits a focus on certain pieces even more.

Wright: Yes, definitely. And you know, what I love about my team is that we are all at the service of the story, and we’ve worked together long enough know to get our egos out of the way…we try to anyway…and we roll up our sleeves and think about how we can create something that is expressive of our feelings.

SET DECOR: Whereas you want it to be accurate to the period and place, at the same time there’s that very artful part of letting it be the essence that comes through…

Wright: Absolutely. I think one of the choices we made was, having decided we were going to set it in the stylized form, we then also decided that, nevertheless, the film was set in an 1870’s world. We chose not to set it in a contemporary theater…the theater works by pulleys and ropes, and is lit by gas. That was vital, really, that choice.

SET DECOR: And we have, Anna’s son Sherozha’s bedroom as a miniaturized version of the theater…

Wright: That was important…although the Karenin house was accessed via the foyer stairs and up into the balcony, almost like the offices of the theater, I was aware that we could be a little too far from the whole theater idea. People might get confused and think that wasn’t in the theater, so I decided that I liked the idea of this nook where his bed was…and the idea that it was a miniature version of the theater. That then played into the idea that after Anna left the house and then later goes back to see her son on his birthday, we put the bed on the real stage…and so you’re playing with scale, in that it’s a cozy little environment when she’s there, and when she’s gone, he’s kind of marooned in this vast ocean of stage. This lonely little space…it made him seem more lonely.

SET DECOR: And then the opposite, you show the naturalism, where you actually step out of the theater for Levin’s world. Sarah and Katie did say something about a hovercraft and snow-covered island…

Wright: [Chuckles] Yes, well, we spent the last four days shooting in Russia on an island called Kitchme, which is a UNESCO site. It’s a day-trip holiday destination for Russians in the summer, and we visited it first in the summer. When we went back to shoot late in the year, it was minus-28 degrees…and you have to get a plane to St. Petersburg, overnight train from St. Petersburg to a small town, then a 6-hour bus journey through the snow…and then a hovercraft across the lake! We stayed in these little log cabins that were meant for summer occupancy, so we had an electric fan heater and… [Chuckles] Yeah, it was pretty ragged.

SET DECOR: Was that a build, or were those all existing structures?

Wright: No those were all existing buildings. There was a bit of snow shoveling…um…yes, well…but it was basically the exteriors of Levin’s house in the snow…and the sleigh.

SET DECOR: And the fields? And Anna’s meadow?

Wright: That was all in England in the summer. We started with that stuff, actually a good few weeks before we started the main shoot, and then we went into the theater Sarah built at Shepperton…

SET DECOR: You usually like to shoot somewhat chronologically…

Wright: Yeah. I try to as much as possible. I find it helps me keep tabs on the storytelling.

SET DECOR: It helps everyone, doesn’t it?

Wright: Yeah, it does.

SET DECOR: Now…the ice rink!

Wright: Ah! We were very excited to find we could cover the place in ice.

SET DECOR: So this was the very same theater stage set? It wasn’t with a scrim/translight on a different location?

Wright: No! No, we iced it over. That was the first thing we shot on that stage, because it took a lot of preparation to freeze it. It was the same people who did “Dancing on Ice” which is some reality TV program, and they were very proud of their achievements in ice. It was one of those crazy things that we thought, “Okay, we’ve got to see if we can do this.”

SET DECOR: And Keira mentioned that you really felt that you were there…

Wright: Well, that’s one of the amazing things about what Sarah and Katie do, they don’t just dress to camera, they create for us a complete 360 degree world. And certainly by the second or third week, it felt like that theater was our home and had always been there…even down to the smell and all that. I remember when we were working on PRIDE & PREJUDICE, they would always light the fires in the morning, so you had that kind of smell of the house. They do a lot of things that will never appear on the screen, but still give us a sense…and they’ve become very playful…they even hide things on set…great little mind games, really.

SET DECOR: Oh, it makes all the difference doesn’t it? Those kind of details can make such a difference for the actor…and the director. It gives another layer of credibility all the way around…to the performer, but also to the audience…as you said, there’s an essence there that comes through that we don’t necessarily visually take in at that moment.

Wright: Absolutely. It’s where magic lies, I think…beyond the audience’s immediate comprehension… that they sense that those details are there without actually seeing them, and therefore they sense the magic…

Photo 3
Train Station Anna Karenina [Keira Knightly] at the fateful train station... Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2012 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 4
Keira Knightly and Joe Wright On set filming ANNA KARENINA… Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2012 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 5
Karenin residence The very correct Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin [Jude Law] and his beautiful wife Anna [Keira Knightly] in their Neo-classical St. Petersburg manse... Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2012 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 6
Karenin residence Karenin [Jude Law] strides through the imperial hallway leading to the bedroom… Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2012 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 7
Karenin residence Anna’s dressing room reflects the stark propriety of the entire residence... Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2012 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 8
Karenin residence Dressing room detail…photos of her son are among the few personal objects in Anna’s dressing room... Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2012 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 9
Karenin residence Their son’s bed tucked into a nook… Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2012 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 10
St. Petersburg square A city square is turned into a skating rink where the elite are promenaded in elaborate sleds as others skate past… Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2012 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 11
Train compartment Countess Vronskaya [Olivia Williams] determines the lovely, guileless Countess Karenina [Keira Knightly] should meet her son Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2012 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 12
Moscow Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky [Matthew Macfadyen], known affectionately as Stiva, lives larger than life... Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2012 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 13
Oblonsky’s office Oblonsky [Matthew Macfadyen], Anna’s brother, has a deep appreciation for the richness of life…and often lives beyond his substantial means... Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2012 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 14
Moscow elite restaurant Oblonsky [Matthew Macfadyen] gives courting advice to his good friend Konstantin "Kostya" Dmitrievich Levin [Domhnall Gleeson] in a private dining room… Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2012 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.


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