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Is all the world a stage? Well, in Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina,” the stage became the medium through which the director retold Leo Tolstoy’s classic story. An unusual choice fraught with risks? To be sure. An extraordinary amount of potential? Equally certain. But production designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer were tasked with helping Wright’s vision come to fruition. We recently spoke to the duo about their work on the film.
“We started off relatively conventionally,” Greenwood says. But scouting Russia, they found themselves somewhat at a loss about what to build and where to shoot. “There were legal and/or cultural restrictions with respect to what you’re allowed or expected to do with houses,” she explains. “It’s not like England where they’re used to us coming in…there was also something sterile about the houses.”
Throughout this, however, Greenwood and Spencer felt they knew their director had a “hankering” to do something completely different with this adaptation of “Anna Karenina” – it was only 12 weeks from the start of shooting that he decided to use the framing device of a stage.
“The fantastic thing was that when we decided to approach it in this different way, it was a shot in the arm,” Greenwood says. “We were all struggling and then decided to rethink it. Everything was so false and so fake. And as for a premise on how to approach it, it was so creative and dynamic.”
Spencer says that the framing helped everyone in realizing how to build the story on screen. “Having been to Russia a couple of times and having done loads of research, I applied it to doing production in the theatre," she says. "I come from theatre and that kind of helped.” She particularly marveled at how the actors adapted: “They absolutely believed that they were in the ball or the races or the ice rink. They were absolutely in that environment.”
The duo recognized that the novel approach of their director came with risks. They accepted some people would not like it but wanted to ensure the project still felt cinematic. “You’re conscious about not making it feel like a movie,” Spencer says. “But it was never shot as a stage play except the opening scene. Parts of the theatre were parts of the movie.”
“We all bought into this idea but there were certain points where all of us – and I would include Joe in this – would say, ‘What are we doing? This is crazy,’” Greenwood says. “At various points we had our worries [but] it wasn’t just another typical, substandard version of ‘Anna Karenina,’ which is what we may have done otherwise.”
To some extent, they had gained confidence due to their longstanding collaboration with Wright. Greenwood first met him when they worked together at the BBC. “He is so collaborative and exciting to work with,” she says. “When he said, ‘Let’s put it in a theatre,’ there were some things he was very specific about. We spent a week together working it out and trying to apply this concept to a script.”
Spencer met Wright while working with Greenwood, which brought the duo to another topic: their 15-year collaboration with each other. “It’s great,” Greenwood says. “Katie is my right hand and to have someone you can be very, very honest and blunt with and share your insecurities with, that’s great. It’s an insecure world that we work in and to have the security of people around you who will say, ‘That’s rubbish,’ is invaluable.”
“I think one of the things Sarah does so well is working as a team,” Spencer adds. “There’s not a huge split between the art department and set decoration, and that extends to the D.P. and the costume designer and of course the director.” On the note of the below-the-line crew Wright has worked with so frequently, she adds “because we’ve known each other – Seamus [McGarvey, D.P.], Jacqueline [Durran, costume designer] – if someone is having difficulties with another department, you will help them work together.”
Greenwood echoes this fondness of the relationship with the other departments. “Had we not all worked together and knew each other so well, you might have gone down a route and not said what you really thought,” she admits. “But because we do know each other, we can say what we think and I think it opens a lot more and I think that had we not been such a cohesive group, we may not have been so brave.”
Their career has been on a high note since their collaboration on Wright’s directorial debut, “Pride & Prejudice,” seven years ago. After earning an Oscar nomination for that film, the duo earned a second nomination for Wright’s “Atonement” and a third for Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes.”
Spencer says the risks they took in “Anna Karenina” can largely be attributed to their growing confidence and experiences. “Only after learning to paint or to draw very very well can you go out on a risk with something so if I had done ‘Anna’ 10 years ago, I shouldn’t have done it,” she says. “Had we not done it 10 months ago, we couldn’t have refined what we did in the way that we did it.”
Greenwood is quite satisfied with their avant-garde approach. “Joe wanted to do something different,” she says. “And for him to formulate that and for us to follow was amazing and all credit to us for being brave. We did something that was much better than what we would have done had we gone a conventional route and made ‘another' version of ‘Anna Karenina.'"
She adds shortly thereafter, however: “To say you have made ‘Anna Karenina’ – that’s scary…I love it.”
Greenwood and Spencer’s amazing run over not even the past decade has in many ways reached an artistic peak in “Anna Karenina.” Their three previous Oscar nominations, though all deserved, were hardly assured, even the morning of the nominations. If they don’t find themselves among the final five in the Best Production Design category in January, it's safe to say most would be floored. And they may even ascend the stage at the Dolby Theatre to collect their first trophies.
"Anna Karenina" is now playing in a theater near you.
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