New York Comic Con: Joe Wright on His Action Fairy Tale ‘Hanna’

By  · Published on October 12th, 2010

Hanna could best be described as what a David Lynch action film would be like, and that’s how director Joe Wright describes it himself. Immediately after seeing the surreal (and rather impressive) footage from Hanna that comparison immediately came to mind. Wright is best known for his epic period dramas, and from the looks of it, he’s bringing that epic scope into the action world in a new light. There was a fluent and dreamlike quality to what Wright showcased and from what he says below, especially when he mentions lots of long steady-cam takes, it sounds like Wright will deliver heavily on the action front.

But Hanna actually isn’t an action film, or at least not completely. Instead, it’s better to be described as a twisted fairy tale. Hanna, the main protagonist, is a fourteen year old assassin and one of the only books she’s ever read is Grimm’s Fairy Tales, so we’re basically going to be seeing the world clearly through her eyes in a heightened way. There are the fairy tale archetypal characters involved and the world Wright seems to have created feels like a modern day fairy tale.

And finally, if you want to read my full impression of the footage make sure to head over to my NY Comic-Con reaction piece. Here’s what director Joe Wright had to say about crafting action, the fairy tale nature of the story, and even a little bit about the Chemical Brothers scoring the film.

You mentioned at the panel how you consider this to be a fairy tale, is that surreal feel we got from the clips going to be represented throughout the whole film?

Yeah, exactly. I think one of my main influences; one of my favorite filmmakers is David Lynch. I’ve always loved David Lynch since, I guess, I first saw Blue Velvet when I was about fifteen. I thought it was just the most magical and extraordinary film that I’d ever seen, and then I went back and watched Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. I’ve never been able to play with those influences because David Lynch isn’t really appropriate for Pride and Prejudice, but this was an opportunity to do just that.

There’s an atmosphere to it that is somehow surreal and it almost comes from the subconscious. Like fairy tales do, they deal with archetypes and the film characters are very much archetypal characters. Eric [Bana] being the strong father like the woodcutter and Blanchett’s character is very much the wicked witch, wearing the red and green. There’s kind of a darkness to those fairy tales that I always appreciated. It’s quite a dark film in a couple of ways. There are some laughs to it…

It seems to have a dark sense of humor to it.


It’s a bit difficult to call this an action movie based on its surreal feel, but would you call it an action movie?

I don’t think I would, really. It’s a fairy tale, action movie, drama, and kind of, yeah. It’s a really difficult movie to describe and I think it’s gonna be quite difficult for the marketing department to market it as well. If they market it too much as an action movie, people wont get what they want. I think one has to be quite careful in that respect.

Did you pitch the film? I’d imagine it’d be difficult to do that.

I didn’t have to pitch it. They came to me. They came to me with a script that I then worked on quite extensively with Seth Lochhead, the young writer; he was only twenty-four when he wrote the first draft. We kind of work on it together, to bring out the mythic qualities of it as well as to even trying to figure out the C.I.A with how they talk.

Tonally, the film sounds tricky. The idea of a child assassin could end up being goofy, but it doesn’t read that way at all in the footage. Where did you find the right tone in that aspect?

A lot of it comes down to the actors. I’m sure there are many actors of Saoirse’s age who couldn’t have pulled it off. I think one builds a reality for that character and that reality has to be total and all encompassing. For instance, on The Soloist with Jamie Fox’s character, who’s a schizophrenic, we never talked about his character being mad. We talked about his reality being his truth. Likewise with Hanna we never talked about how we might make this believable, of course it was believable because it’s Hanna and Hanna knows how to shoot a gun and can kill people.

We’ve seen characters busting through a door before but never quite shot the way you did it. Can you talk about how you went about staging the action sequences?

Well, I think action is one of the purest forms of cinema. It’s a form that cant be done in any other medium. You can’t do action on stage the way that you can in film, whereas drama can be done on stage. I really enjoyed playing with the montage of action, but also tried to avoid the present trend of handheld and fast cutting. There are quite a lot of action sequences with plenty of steady-cam sequences as well, which put a lot of pressure on Eric and Saoirse [Ronan]. I was really impressed by the hallway fight sequence in Oldboy, although I think some people got quite seriously hurt in the making of that.

I’m sure you get asked a lot about doing your first action sequences, but did you find them any different than say the beach scene in Atonement? That moment has a lot going on and was technically difficult, just like action.

It was certainly a challenge, you know. But I tried to calm my fears and see it as dance, basically. I tried to think of it as a piece of dance and to get that visceral impact.

How meticulous are you when it comes to your shots? Do you storyboard a lot?

I would love the time to, but unfortunately the demands of preproduction generally means one isn’t able to. We storyboarded a considerable amount of it, but left other areas to chance.

Do you usually have a clear vision for what you want in each scene?

Yeah, I usually have a key image or two for each scene and a kind of a key moment. [Spoiler Alert] That neck snap moment you saw in the clip there was very much a moment I had in my head for some time. [Spoiler Over] I really liked the image of Hanna on faux Marissa’s lap sort of straddling her like a five year old, and I like that as kind of a strange image. Those were things I then developed further. I liked the idea of using that orange costume in that concrete type of environment. The shape of a circle is a motif that runs throughout the film. So it builds slowly.

What does the circle stand for?

It doesn’t really stand for anything; it’s just kind of something that is a visual motif and not a metaphor, necessarily. Sometimes one uses things to give oneself a sense of symmetry to the visual style of a piece. If people want to read something into it, they’re welcomed to, but I’m not about to start talking about the circularity of life or anything like that.

Do you do that in all of your films?


Can you give an example from one of your past films?

Well, in Atonement there are swallows throughout the film. Briony had a swallow under her dress. When Robbie and Cecilia meet at the coffee shop it’s at the Swallows Coffee shop and there are swallows on the table cloths. The cinema on the beach is the Swallows Cinema. You know, I kind of played with that thing. I always put things in my films that people will hopefully never notice, because I like the idea if there’s something beyond the audience’s recognition then there’ll feel like there’s something beyond, even if they’re not consciously aware of it. I think that kind of gives a sense of magic.

And if they do notice on the tenth viewing, it makes the film a richer experience.

Yeah, exactly. They find more in it every time.

Going back to the action set pieces real quick, did you do any previz?

We didn’t do any pre-viz, didn’t really have the money. That thing is quite expensive and this wasn’t a film with a Hollywood action budget. It’s quite a low budget, in terms of action movies.

Was it difficult on set without that type of prep, already having limited time, and when it’s already difficult as is shooting action?

Time was limited, and that’s why I often played shots in single takes steady-cam. Action takes a long time to shoot. At the time, I would’ve died for a bit more time to shoot, but now you look back and think these obstacles and pressures do mean that you have to think on your feet and perhaps be more inventive.

Something that seemed to get a great reaction at the panel was the news of The Chemical Brothers doing the score, what can we expect from there?

You can expect an extraordinarily loud, thumping, deeply funky score that will not disappoint. Have you heard the new album?

I have not.

It’s stunning. Buy the new album.

I’ll make sure to. You also mentioned at the panel how fear is a big theme in your work, but what about the theme of family? That’s as well a major in your films.

Well, I think that family is something that is integral to all of our lives. I’m getting to a point in life when I’m thinking about setting up my own family. In fact, I’m having a baby in february. When one gets to [their] late thirties you start thinking about parenthood and what it means to be a parent. And therefore, that makes you reflect on your parents as well. You know, these are the personal things that one thinks about while making a movie and influence the movie itself. I try to keep a kind of relationship between my own personal thought process and the work I make, I don’t see much separation between the two.

Final question: Do you have a final running time?

At the moment, the cut is about one hour and fifty-five [minutes], but we’re not at the end of that process yet. We’ll see.

Hanna hits theaters on April 8th, 2011.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.