Interview: Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, the behind-the-scenes artists of ‘Anna Karenina’
The award-winning production designer and set decorator have worked on eight films with director Joe Wright
More than a dozen screen adaptations of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel “Anna Karenina” have been filmed over the past hundred years—some of them magnificent adaptations and others bearing little resemblance to Tolstoy’s characters. Joe Wright’s breathtaking new version features a brilliant script by Sir Tom Stoppard and stunning performances by Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and others. Wright’s decision to set a good portion of the film in a decrepit theater is daring and, in my opinion, the perfect way to convey the artifice of a certain segment of society in 1870s Russia. This “Anna Karenina” is one of the most visually arresting versions you will ever see, thanks in no small part to Wright’s frequent collaborators, the multiple Oscar-nominated production designer Sarah Greenwood as well as set decorator Katie Spencer.
The talented artists were in town recently to pick up Sarah Greenwood’s second Production Designer of the Year Award at the conclusion of the AFI Film Festival. I sat down with Sarah and Katie next to the pool at the Beverly Hilton a few hours before the awards ceremony to discuss their magnificent work in “Anna Karenina.”
MSN Movies: I know you have worked together for ages and with Joe Wright on most of his films. That must make for a really nice shorthand between all of you at this point.
Sarah Greenwood: Oh yes, it’s a very historic collaboration—Katie and I have worked together for over 15 years and we’ve worked on virtually all of Joe’s films. It’s different for every production designer but for me the relationship is sort of hand-in-glove. When it works well you can’t put a piece of paper between what we all do, it just kind of meshes together in a kind of hybrid of ideas. And because we’ve all worked together for so long, we’re not afraid to share our opinions, either.
Katie Spencer: There’s a sort of understanding between us!
A period piece as sumptuous as this one has to be the most fun to work on, no?
Katie: Well, I think everything is a bit period in a way, don’t you? But for me, personally, I’m not such a big fan of computers, so for me, a police station or something like that would not be the most fun to do even though I’m sure you could do something quite nice.
Sarah: It’s interesting looking at something like the Bond movies and seeing how they use technology. I guess it would be fun to have a crack at something like that!
On this film, did you know from the get-go that Joe Wright was going to use this device of shooting many of the scenes inside the old theater?
Sarah: Oh no, not at all. We started with this amazing script from Tom Stoppard, this adaption that Joe had commissioned a year before. And we were planning to do a conventional period drama—well, as conventional as Joe’s period films are! So we set off on that route—we did tons of research, we went off to Russia to scout locations, and so on. But there was something in Joe, he was having ants in his pants about it, he couldn’t quite formulate exactly what it was. Then we were hitting crunch time financially, and creatively, Joe was still finding it frustrating and a bit flat. We decided to do less and less in Russia, we were building things in the UK to save money and people were saying, “Where can we find Russia in England?” I said, “Well, nowhere—Russia really isn’t in England!” And then, all of a sudden,Joe said he knew what we had to do—set the movie in a theater! This idea came just 12 weeks before we had to start shooting!
Wow! Did he have to do a big sell job to everyone on the production?
Sarah: Oh, yeah! Joe and I locked ourselves in a room for a week, working out how this could possibly work with the excellent script that we had—the only thing Tom Stoppard changed in the script was to add the line, “This all takes place in a derelict theater.” That was it—the only change! So then Joe and I had to do a presentation to our producer Tim Bevan and the whole team and everyone just went, “Wow, brilliant.” It wasn’t complete, we didn’t know exactly how it would work but there was something there that was really very exciting, everyone involved with the film really bought into it. But we still had to do it all in 12 weeks!
Did you find an actual theater to use?
Sarah: Oh no, we built that! So we had just 12 weeks to design, draw, build, and finish that set and on the first day of shooting we were doing the scene with the ice rink, so that had to go in as well! It was quite scary!
Katie: Just listening to Sarah talk about it, it seems more impossible than when we were doing it!
I have to admit I was skeptical about the theatrical element going in, but I just loved it and thought it was perfect for the story.
Sarah: Yeah, it’s challenging and I think you either love it or hate it which is fine as long as you have an opinion! I would be the first person to say some bits of it are more successful than others, some bits are maybe not as resolved as they could be—we had that window of time and made the best of it!
But again, it really works in terms of Tolstoy’s vision of these characters and this society.
Katie: Yes, absolutely. There’s a strong rationale as to why Levin lives in the real world in our film, because he is the true, authentic character, so he gets to be in Russia.
Sarah: The Levin story is often cut out of the Anna Karenina films, which is a shame because Levin is kind of Tolstoy, it’s his alter-ego, and because he is the only true soul, that is why he remains in the real world—he steps in and out of this artifice that Russian society was at that time. That artifice was absolutely a given—they spoke French in society, they spoke Italian when they were talking about art, they spoke German when they were talking about finances, English when they were talking about horse-racing and shooting, they barely spoke Russian at all except when they were talking to their servants. The society was full of artifice—you go around these houses in Russia and they feel like movie sets, you find this pastiche of English architecture in one room, cross over and you’re into the French style, then you go through another set of doors and you’re into Italian, but all done with a Russian flair!
I’m always amazed by the intricate details on such sets—the time you all spend finding these incredible artifacts that are completely true to the time period even though a lot of it may be in some corner somewhere, never seen by the audience. Did you obsess on such authenticity for this film?
Katie: Oh yeah, I think you have to, especially with Joe—
Sarah: You never know which corner he’s going to go into!
Katie: You always give Joe a full 360 as much as possible. And because it was done in this unusual away, using this derelict theater, we felt that everything had to be even more authentic! You had to have the correct period, the correct Russian things, even the correct part of Russia! You know, there was St. Petersburg society and there was Moscow—St. Petersburg looked to the west and to Europe and Moscow looked back, to the Ottoman and Byzantium Empires. So we always had to consider that. Karenin lived in this austere way, while the Oblonskys lived in Moscow.
Sarah: It gives a differentiation between the two families.
I love that attention to detail even if it goes over the heads of most moviegoers. Although I suppose we’d know it if you got it wrong!
Sarah: You would!
Katie: There’d be something where you’d think, “Hmm, I didn’t quite believe that!”
So ultimately the switch to the theater set was even more creatively exciting than doing it the traditional way?
Sarah: Yes, but you know, the fact that we had gone to Russia and completely immersed ourselves in that world, going around to all these houses, these art galleries, and so on, that was so helpful. The truth is, if we had known at the beginning that we were doing it in this heightened way I don’t think we’d have been allowed to go to Russia!
So it’s good thing you didn’t know until the last minute, as hard as it was to put together.
Sarah: Yeah! I really believe that what enabled us to do it in this heightened way WAS that we were so immersed in this Russian research—so we could take it all and refine it and get just the right bits of it in the theatre.
Katie: I agree. There’s no way we would have been able to go to Russia if we’d known what we were going to do and I think it was invaluable—as much as immersing ourselves in the actual novel!
When you watch other versions of the story, do you find yourselves cringing at some of the art direction?
Sarah: You know, if the movies are good, I find you just believe them and love them!
Katie: I loved the Garbo version of “Anna Karenina,” I think it’s fabulous! She’s amazing. There’s no Levin in that story hardly at all and it’s sanitized a bit, but I love the old movies. You have to accept that they’re a product of their time, just as ours is.
My favorite up to now was the the 1970s version with Nicola Pagett as Anna.
Katie: Oh, I loved that version, the BBC one, that was just gorgeous!
Sarah: Me, too! Of course that was episodic so they had the time to develop all the storylines instead of cramming it all into two hours as we had to do. Thank God for Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright for figuring out how to do that! It was amazing to have a script that was so good it didn’t change, that’s not very common.
I was reading an article the other day that was all about how gorgeous the film was and in the end they attributed it all to Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography and Joe’s direction. Forgive me for asking, but does it ever bother you when some (uninformed) people forget that people like you exist?
Katie: Ha! Not really!
Sarah: (Laughing.) Oh, it’s fine! We’re back room boys, and we’re quite happy being that. That’s why we’re behind the camera, not in front of it!
What’s next for you?
Sarah: We’re in development for “Tarzan,” which is going to be mad, all sorts of fun jungle stuff!
Oh yay, we really need a good version of that!
Sarah: That’s what we’re trying to do. This one will be directed by David Yates who did the Harry Potter films. But we’re in the early days, trying to make everything fit—dealing with a lot of green!
Katie: Maybe we’ll do this one in a theater, too!
Or maybe it should all be set in a gym!
Sarah: Oh, lovely, all these people swinging on the ropes!
“Anna Karenina” is in limited release and will be opening in many more cities in the coming weeks.