Joe Wright Makes Jane Austen – Interview by Jennifer Merin

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As British director Joe Wright tells it, after he won a BAFTA for the highly acclaimed BBC mini series entitled “Charles II: The Power & The Passion,” (which aired in the U.S. as “The Last King”), he was called by Working Title Films producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner for a chat about directing their new film of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” and landed the job.

“The main thrust of my pitch,” says Wright, “was my conviction that the actors must be the ages of characters they’d be playing– the ages Austen wrote them to be. Elizabeth Bennet, her sisters, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley are young people experiencing romance for the first time. They don‘t quite understand what they‘re going through. If you cast Laurence Olivier as Darcy– as in the previous film– the “youngsters” are already in their 30s. The story doesn’t work well.”

MERIN: In both the Laurence Olivier version and several TV adaptations, Darcy is treated as the central character, but your film focuses on Elizabeth, her convictions and strength of character. You cast Keira Knightly, who was 19 years old when you shot the film. How did you know Knightly could carry the film?

WRIGHT: I thought Elizabeth should be a bit plain, and at first thought Keira might be too beautiful to play her. When I met Keira in Montreal, where she was on location, I was confronted by this scruffy little tomboy who wouldn’t shower, had an incredible sense of humor and amazingly independent spirit, and didn’t way what she thought you wanted to hear, but exactly what she thought. I know Keira’s said she thought our meeting went dreadfully, but I have a different impression. It stuck me that her qualities were exactly those that showed up in Elizabeth. So, I cast her on that basis. When we met again, I knew I’d made the right choice. I knew Keira would carry the weight of the film as though it were very light. That‘s exactly what was required.

MERIN: This is your first feature. It‘s a huge, lavish production of a beloved classic. Did you find anything about the project daunting?

WRIGHT: The whole thing. I’m fairly young, but I’d waited a long time to make a feature film. So I put quite a lot of pressure on myself when this finally came along. I care very much about being honest in my work, and that’s the most daunting thing– to find the truth. It’s too easy to be a liar in filmmaking. But if this film had been a lie, it would have been immediately apparent. We believed in what we were doing. This is a difficult time in the world. Things are pretty hard and brutal at the moment, and very cynical. To be able to go into a place where that doesn’t exist was really lovely.

When I was hired to direct the film, I became obsessed with the novel. Austen’s extraordinary. I was completely absorbed by her acute observations, by the way she studied people’s social interactions and emotions so closely and carefully. She seemed to me to be incredibly modern in a way.

MERIN: You’ve depicted her period in a fascinating way– contrasting formal, restrictive social behavior with her characters’ earthy way of coping with the grit and inconveniences of daily life. What led you to this interpretation?

WRIGHT: I tried to be historically accurate. I didn’t want to do a sanitized depiction of the period. People, if they were rich, bathed once a week. If they were poor, they didn’t bathe at all. They lived in close proximity with their rural environment. The Bennets had a great house, but they couldn’t keep it up. They could afford two servants, not ten– so the house was a mess. If we depicted an earthbound environment, Elizabeth’s aspiration for romantic love would seem more heroic– her feet are in the mud while she’s reaching for the stars.

History fascinates me. I didn’t get much education. With each project, instead of thinking I have something to teach, I’m interested in what I can learn. This was about Jane Austen and English literature and, more fascinating, the grand sweep of political and social history– learning that the French Revolution caused the English aristocracy to assimilate with the lower classes– instead of isolating themselves– because they thought that would protect them. That’s why Darcy and Bingley go to the Assembly Room dance– that’s historically accurate. The minutia of daily life is even more fascinating– they died pink ribbons with beetroot, and the day before a ball, took diuretics so they didn’t have to go to the toilet because there was no sanitation. Those details bring the period closer to me than grand historical or political statements would.

MERIN: There’s a pig that runs through the film. What’s the pig’s significance?

WRIGHT: I was very impressed by that pig. He’s a boar, actually. He’s another creature with his feet in the mud. He was brought in to cover the sows, so he had a big job. I was fascinated to learn that if you hired a boar to cover your sows and he didn’t perform effectively, you didn’t have to pay. The whole business– the mating ritual– is very animalistic. Actually, there’s a parallel– it‘s really what the Bennets are doing, too, in trying to marry off their daughters.

MERIN: I understand the American version of the film had a different– happier– ending than the British version. Did you find this a difficult compromise?

WRIGHT: Not really. A guy who makes champagne for Moet et Chandon once told me that the Champagne they market in America has 20 grams more sugar than in it than the Champagne made for European distribution. I guess in America you just like a little more sugar in your Champagne, and you like your film endings sweeter, too. That‘s the way I see it.

“Pride and Prejudice”
Directed by Joe WRIGHT
Opens November 11, 2005

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).