At a time when many directors are locked into a single style, British director Joe Wright, 39, is breaking the mould by following three prestigious dramas – Pride and Prejudice, Atonement and The Soloist – with an all-out action film. Yet Wright’s Hanna isn’t multiplex fluff, but a fun, smart take on the Bourne-style Euro-thriller. Its heroine is a 14-year-old girl (Saoirse Ronan) who has spent her life in isolation, training to be an assassin. On the phone from California in the days following the film’s US release, Wright sounded relieved – his film had just debuted at number two at the US box office.
Have you hit a comfortable place in your career, where you can pick and choose what you want to do? Since last weekend, yes! We had a meeting with the studio yesterday, and it would have been a very different atmosphere in the room had Hanna tanked in the US. It always depends on whether you’ve returned their investment, which is fair enough. I think the film industry gets quite a bad rap sometimes. But what I love is that they know that I like to experiment a little bit with my films, and they still let me do it, which is great. I am very, very lucky.
Was this a genre in which you had always wanted to work? Not really. But I was excited to step out of my comfort zone, test my craft. The action genre is pure cinema – it couldn’t be done in any other medium. But what really got me was the character of Hanna. I love the kind of ‘holy fool’ archetype: a character from another place who can show us our world in a slightly different way.
Did you develop Hanna, or were you brought in as director? Saoirse Ronan brought the script to me, which was a strange turning of the tables. She’s extraordinary, and I was intrigued to work with her again after Atonement. It had been written by a young Canadian called Seth Lochhead, and was this weird, out-there piece of action surrealism. The studio tried to tame it, make it more of a procedural drama, so I went to Seth to take it back to what it was. I like to stick my oar in!
How did you go about learning to direct action? I love the choreography of actors. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about directing: the organisation of figures in space. I’m interested in how to express emotion or character through movement, so I tried to see the fight sequences as an extension of that. And one can be elliptical with action: you don’t have to see Hanna move from one point to another, she’s just there. Playing with temporal reality in that way was terrific fun.
Did you make a conscious decision to avoid CGI? I did, but partly because we didn’t have enough money. It’s an action film on about a third of the normal budget and about a third of the normal schedule as well. It was a very tight shoot. I was naive!
How did you and Saoirse humanise Hanna? There’s a risk she could have been quite cold and distant. I don’t know if Saoirse knows how to be cold and distant! It reminds me of a story I once heard: an actor – I can’t remember exactly who – says to a director: “What’s my motivation for falling in love with this woman?” The director looks at him and says, “Because she’s Audrey Hepburn.” Had we cast anyone else, we might have been in trouble. But Saoirse is so expressive, you can’t help but sympathise with her.
Is this a feminist action movie? Well, Hanna’s never met any other women, so all her relationships once she leaves home are about discovering women. I wanted to look at a woman’s place in society and I specifically wanted to avoid ‘sexing up’ Hanna. I didn’t want her in a mini-skirt or crop top. I’m very alarmed by the continued sexual objectification of young women.
Did you shoot mostly on location? Almost entirely on location. We started in Finland, where it was -29°C. Then we went to Bavaria, Berlin and Hamburg, and ended in Morocco, where it was very hot. So it was a challenging shoot. But it’s one of the things I love about my job: I get to go to amazing places and meet amazing people.
But it must have presented a few logistical difficulties… We would sometimes arrive at a location we had seen four months before and discover that it actually looked completely different. So the shoot was improvisational, which was quite unusual for me, and very refreshing. It was exciting to think on my feet.
Do you think Hanna is a story that could be continued? Maybe. I love the character. I think I could make a better second film. I feel like I was just getting to grips with what Hanna can do. I love seeing the world from her point of view.