Hanna - Director Joe Wright
Hanna - Director Joe Wright on the set © 2011 Focus Features, Photo by Alex Bailey

For his movie directorial debut, Pride and Prejudice, Joe Wright won BAFTA’s Carl Foreman Award for Special Achievement by a British Director in Their First Feature Film. He went on to direct the acclaimed drama Atonement which was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress, Saoirse Ronan.

Joe and Saoirse have come together again to create another movie, the intense spy drama Hanna. Saoirse portrays the title character, a teenage girl trained by her father, Erik (Eric Bana), in a remote forest in Finland, to be an assassin, going out into the world for the first time, embarking on a mission she was destined for.

Saoirse told me that even when you worked with her on Atonement, you never treated her like a child, do you see anything different in her this time?

Hanna - Saoirse Ronan
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) in action © 2011 Focus Features

Yeah, she’s definitely evolved as an actress and as a young woman. I guess if I’d met her outside of the professional arena, then I might have treated her like a child. There are not many children in my life to be honest with you, so I have nothing really to compare it to.

What I needed from her was a performance and so therefore I just spoke to her as an actress on Atonement, and then this. I think one could be slightly more subtle with direction in this film and talk about more mature things.

She had more of a grasp on the philosophical aspects of the story we were telling here, whereas in Atonement one was being quite simple in the direction. I didn’t want to clutter her head with big ideas about the themes of Atonement, and so dealt very much with the here and now of every scene.

I think all artists, the first requirement is an imagination. An actor needs a dramatic imagination and what impresses me most about Saoirse is her fierce imagination. And that’s very refreshing as a director as well, because you’re not really dealing with someone’s person [baggage]. She’s not engaged in emotional recall or dragging up her own experience.

It’s purely an act of the imagination. She drops herself into character and then you call ‘cut’ and she’s at the sandwich table, so there’s no mopping up afterwards, which is great.

You shoot such incredibly long shots, the one on the beach in Atonement and the subway fight in this film. So much can go wrong in a shot like that, why do you choose to do those?

Hanna - Director Joe Wright
Director Joe Wright on the set © 2011 Focus Features

They’re kind of a necessity to be honest with you. This film was scheduled very much like a drama, and certainly had the budget of a drama, and so a scene like the underground fight sequence would normally, if you broke it up in separates shots, take about forty set ups.

I usually get about twelve to fourteen set ups a day, so I wasn’t going to be able to achieve that in the single day that we had scheduled. So you take a gamble basically and you put all your money on one shot, rather than spreading it across a montage.

We arrive in the morning and start rehearsing and at a certain point in the afternoon or evening you start shooting, and you cross your fingers and hope that you’re not going to end up with a lawsuit on your hands.

The same was true with the scene in Atonement. Actually it was even more risky on that one, because it was a matter of the tide coming in and out. We realized we actually only had a three hour window within which to shoot that scene, otherwise continuity would be completely out the window. So they’re kind of born out of necessity.

Having said that, there’s a certain bravado and swagger to them, rather like a gambler, I get heady with the danger and also I like the theatricality of them. And there’s a lovely atmosphere on set when you’re doing them. It’s a very focused atmosphere that everyone enjoys and gives us a real adrenalin kick, and towards the end of the shoot you certainly need an adrenalin kick.

How long did it take to shoot the underground fight?

Hanna - Director Joe Wright
Director Joe Wright accesses a camera angle © 2011 Focus Features

I think we did six takes after which everyone, including the steady-cam operator, were too tired have another go. It took about seven or eight hours setting it up. So you work it out very, very carefully and it does take pre-planning obviously as well.

Jeff Imada, the fight choreographer, is a great guy and we talked through the patterns of the fight two weeks before. He designed it specifically to work in a circle so that you’re hiding the misconnects of a lot of the punches behind an arm or a shoulder. It’s a dance if you like between the actors and the camera, and I like that kind of dance aspect of it as well.

What kind of director would you say you are?

I’d say I’m an English director! (he laughs) I’m still discovering that really and my work is a process of self discovery and also a process of learning. I was always very worried when I was younger by this kind of sixties’ thing, ‘You’ve got to have something to say, man.’

I was like, ‘What have I got to say? I’ve got nothing to say.’ And it was at a certain point when I realized that I had everything to learn and that that was the point really.

Every project for me is a learning process, and that is what I love about what I do. So whether I’m learning about Jane Austen and English literature or whether I’m learning about parenthood and Finland, every film I undertake firstly I have to be scared of it, and secondly I have to feel like I can learn something from it.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.