Water for Elephants - Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon
Director Francis Lawrence lines up a shot on the set © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

Francis Lawrence made his feature film directorial debut with Constantine starring Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz. He followed that movie with the 2007 hit, I Am Legend, with Will Smith.

His new movie Water for Elephants, based on the popular novel by Sara Gruen, is set in the 1930s and follows the Benzini Bros Circus as it travels from town to town. Reese Withespoon portrays Marlena, who rides and trains horses and who is married to the tyrannical Ringmaster and owner of the circus, August (Christoph Waltz). When a young veterinary student named Jacob (Robert Pattinson) joins the circus, he is immediately attracted to Marlena, and attempts to save her from her violent husband.

What was it about this story that attracted you?

Water for Elephants - Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon
Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and a special elephant © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

I read the book in one sitting. It was such a great visceral experience, and the story existed in a very rich and detailed world. I loved the characters and the emotion.

The relationship between Marlena and Jacob that we build in the movie is really one of my favorite things. It’s a really nice slow burn. I think Jacob falls instantly for Marlena’s beauty, magic, strength and confidence. But Marlena is guarded; she doesn’t trust many people. Jacob starts to break through the wall and he becomes someone quite unexpected for Marlena in her world. I think she falls for his morality.

What do you like about that era?

For me, what I liked about that time and why I think the circus was so big at that time was because people didn’t know nearly as much as we know now. We didn’t have access to everything, and so there was still some surprise and still some magic and still something exotic beyond the borders that we’re all used to.

Now we’ve all seen the bottom of the ocean, we’ve seen the moon, we’ve seen outer space and every animal on the planet, and we have 500 channels and the internet, and I think when a circus rolled into town at that time it really brought magic, and I do yearn for a little bit of that.

What was it about Robert Pattinson that made him right for the role of Jacob?

Water for Elephants - Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon
Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and a special elephant © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

I thought Robert was Jacob Jankowski. It was difficult to find a young man of 23 or 24 who didn’t seem too young for the part. Rob was already a man. He is thoughtful, intelligent, empathetic, strong and confident.

What did you do to make sure that August wasn’t two-dimensional, or a simplistic villain?

I think for me and working with Richard LaGravenese, the writer, the big thing was giving a logic to August and, in a strange way, he shares a lot of similarities with the other characters in the story in that he experienced a lot of loss and he’s built a life for himself.

He’s built a family for himself, and built a business, and he’s protecting that business and protecting that family in the way he knows how to do best. And so you have a guy who’s doing what he thinks is the very best thing for his family at all times.

Christoph came to us with such love for the character and the story, as well as for its world and themes. He was perfect for the role because of his electric charm and is danger. He brings a key mix of intelligence, sharpness and humor.

What was it like directing the animals?

Water for Elephants - Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon
Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) come together through their compassion for a special elephant named Rosie © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

In terms of working with animals, I had done a lot of work with animals before and a lot of work with the dog in I Am Legend, and so I learned a lot from that. I went in doing a lot of research based on whatever animal we had a lot of work with.

I spent a lot of time with Gary [Johnson], our elephant trainer, figuring out what an elephant can and can’t do. Figuring out what kind of behavior the elephant’s capable of, and then together Gary and I would figure out what behavior we would have her do that would help sell an emotional value in a scene or sequence.

How did you shoot the scene where August is cruel to Tai, who plays Rosie the elephant, without hurting the animal?

The scene where August is beating Rosie, what you have is Christoph is in his own performance next to her, and she’s just listening to the trainer, and the trainer is running her through a series and a sequence of behaviors that in the context of the scene feels as if she’s being injured, when in truth she’s not even reacting to Christoph at all.

She almost doesn’t even know Christoph is there swinging his stick with the little ball on the end of it. She’s just listening to Gary say, ‘Bow your head, open your mouth, step to the side, duck down,’ just talking to her.

Do you remember the first time you saw a circus and do you think there is a similarity to what you do now in this business?

Water for Elephants - Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon
Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and a special elephant © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

My memories of the circus are nothing like this movie. I wish the circuses that were around now felt like they did then. I think they’re not quite as elegant or magical as they used to be. And I think there is something about the old tent shows and big tops and the canvas and the lights and the sawdust and hay and the animals that’s just kind of missing now.

Now it’s all sort of urbanized and maybe a little garish, it’s not quite the same for me.

The movie business, I think, and film crews, are a little bit like the circus in that we kind of travel around like a pack and we’re a big family for a finite period of time, and we sort of roll into some place and cause a bunch of damage and roll out. So there are some similarities.

Judy Sloane

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