By Henry Turner
In the Oscar-nominated Atonement, Joe Wright and his crew have fashioned a film that effortlessly slips through different time periods to tell a tale of love, war and betrayal set against a backdrop of the British upper class and the horrors of WW II. Based on Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement is Wright’s second venture into feature territory, and showcases sumptuous cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, as well as the craft work of his Pride and Prejudice collaborators Catharine Hodgson and Paul Hamblin (sound and sound editing), picture editor Paul Tothill, Dario Marianelli’s music, Sarah Greenwood’s production design, and period costumes by Jacqueline Durran.
Told in flashbacks, the film is finally revealed to be a dramatization of a novel written by the film’s main character, Briony Tallis (played at successive ages by Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave). As a privileged young girl living in a huge country house, Briony has a crush on the handsome son of a servant, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), who is in love with her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Briony’s jealousy sets in motion events that lead to Robbie’s imprisonment and forced military enlistment, causing her to live under a constant burden of guilt and remorse.
Below the Line: Atonement is a lush, layered film. How did you plan this with your production designer, Sarah Greenwood?
Joe Wright: Sarah and I work very, very closely. We’ve worked together for ten years or so now, and she’s my closest aesthetic collaborator. During the development of the script Sarah and I start looking at locations, and then I like to involve those locations into the screenplay. In the first part, at the country house, we wanted a very verdant feel, a very lush and rich, textured frame. And a very full frame as well. We were playing with scale quite a lot. We were looking for wallpapers, for instance, that had a bigger scale pattern than normal, to make Briony seem smaller.
We start with her at the doll house to develop the theme of the right of the author. In the story she tells, Briony is in fact playing with characters like dolls, and therefore has the power to give them the happy ending that she feels they deserve. So we played with scale quite a lot to get that theme across. We start the film with a dollhouse, and the tiny toy animals, leading to the enormous scale of Briony herself, who appears in that first shot like she’s some kind of a god with these tiny animals following her.
BTL: Then quickly it cuts to her walking through an enormous hallway in the house, and it comes as a shock.
Wright: Yes, and we first show it with a shot which is an exact mirror of the shot of the doll’s house, but this time it’s the real house. And then we pan down to the lawn, and there are Cecilia and Briony laid out on the lawn, tiny, as if they’re little dolls. So you get a sense that they’ve become the dolls in the author’s narrative. Stuff like that we were playing with quite a lot.
BTL: The design of the house and grounds supports the story.
Wright: We wanted a slightly romanticized view to the opening section because it’s Briony’s imagination, it’s Briony’s retelling of the story. This isn’t necessarily how the house was, or who the characters really were. Robbie Turner might not be quite as angelic and heroic as he is in our story, because he’s been filtered through her imagination. That very full frame then gave way in the Dunkirk section to a very empty frame. We were looking at a lot of Ives Tanguy, the surrealist artist, and looking at blank spaces. It was quite difficult when Sarah and I were hunting for locations for that sequence. It was very difficult to train our eyes to look for nothing. Usually Sarah and I are always looking for an object to anchor the frame, a building or a mountain, but with that section we tried very hard to retrain our eye to look for and appreciate nothing. We were looking for just flat land, against which we could put our three characters, stumbling across a blank canvas. So that was in contrast to the verdant first section.
And then, at St. Thomas’ Hospital, we were trying to find symmetry and order and cleanliness in our composition. We hunted high and low for hospital locations to use, but unfortunately most of those buildings have been turned into luxury condos. In the end we had to build that set because I felt it was important that we got the scale. Then there are no reds in that section until the soldiers come back.
BTL: You haven’t worked with DP Seamus McGarvey before?
Wright: I worked with him many years ago on a short film that I made, and Seamus is a bit of a hero of mine. After leaving college back in the 90s I was working as a runner—I guess you’d call it a PA in LA—on music videos, and Seamus was a bit of a star. He worked with a director I admired very much, Richard Heslop. We became friends and I always thought he was just marvelous, a wonderful human being and a great, great cinematographer. And so he very kindly shot one of my short films for no money, which I was always so grateful for. Then when I went off into television, Seamus was over here doing Hollywood films and carving a great career for himself in features, and was never available to do the television stuff I would always ask him to do. So I went off on my little journey and finally we’ve come back together, and I’m sticking to him like, well, a very sticky, sticky.
BTL: Was there a cinematography plan from the start?
Wright: There were layers of thinking. One of the most important aspects of the first section was to try and feel the heat of that day, the hottest day of the year. As you know, English weather is changeable to say the least. We wanted a moving, slightly romantic feel, seeing through the eyes of Briony. Seamus suggested trying out some lady’s stockings, which I was slightly concerned about, until he explained that he wanted to try them over the lens. And after various tests he set upon some Christian Dior stockings, which gave the highlights and softness of the image that we thought was appropriate. In the second part, Dunkirk, it goes a lot bleaker and washed out and crisper. In the first part the camera moves are elegant and classical, and then in the second part we go into more handheld stuff. And then in the third part at St. Thomas we go back to almost renaissance compositions, static symmetrical compositions, which are then kind of exploded by the return of the soldiers from Dunkirk and the handheld technique of the Dunkirk section, meshed into the kind of formal compositional aesthetics of the third part.
BTL: What ideas did costume designer Jacqueline Durran, bring to the table?
Wright: Jacqueline is an extraordinary inspiration. What I love about her thinking is that she comes from a totally character-based place. Her questions both to me and the actors are all about character. So there’s real kind of truth to her costumes; they come out of very clear thinking.
BTL: There’s a lot of space in the house, and the later sections in Dunkirk have very deep backgrounds. Was there a lot of CGI used or set extensions?
Wright: There were no set extensions. The house is actually bigger than it appears in the film, so there’s house reduction, a wing has been removed. In the Dunkirk section, in the long Steadicam shot, there’s a plume of smoke added to the background, and there are a few soldiers in the sea added.
BTL: Dunkirk was done on sets, and John Moffatt, the visual effects supervisor, added details?
Wright: There were things like when they cross the bridge at dusk. That probably had the most work done on it. And the planes reflected in the water as the boys are walking past. John added those. A bit of work but not so much.
BTL: The editing handles the time repeats very well.
Wright: That’s from the novel. There were aspects of the novel that I was very keen to keep. I was excited by the nonlinear aspect of the narrative and what
it does to the themes of the story. And also I felt it was quite modern. Paul Tothill is an extraordinary editor and he certainly brought the most out of those devices.
BTL: It takes a moment to adjust to all of the jumps back in time in the film.
Wright: I think structure is something that filmmakers around the world are playing with at the moment. Obviously it started with Robert Altman with Nashville and Short Cuts. Magnolia plays with it, and certainly the Mexican directors. Structure is an exciting concern at the moment. Film is the perfect medium for it because it works in time.
BTL: How was the sound constructed?
Wright: It’s a very collaborative process. My key crew, we’ve be working together for about ten years now. Paul Tothill, my editor, is married to my sound effects editor, Catharine Hodgson, and she works with Paul Hamblin, the sound mixer. My cutting rooms are in the same building as the sound effects editing, and sound mixing studio, so it’s a constant conversation we have between us all. You don’t edit and then just hand it over to sound and they edit sound. Catharine is often coming into the cutting room and being shown scenes and we say to her what would you suggest for this, and so on. It’s an organic collaborative process.
BTL: Did you have any special intentions for sound?
Wright: I wanted staccato sounds. I’d come up with the idea for the typewriter during preproduction and asked Dario Marianelli to compose a concerto for typewriter, which he was kind of horrified by, but he composed this extraordinary piece, which is what you hear at the beginning of the film. So I had that during the shooting and I would play it to the actors, especially young Briony and the others, to give them a rhythm to the character. And Paul Hamblin had that while he was making the assembly edit, and then he took that further, and then we both added new ideas so it developed organically. I enjoy dropping little pebbles in a pond and then watching the ripples go out from there and develop through the other members of my team. Atonement, more than any other film I’ve done to date, has been the most collaborative.
Written by Henry Turner