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