Stranger Than Grimm

By Arielle Sallai, with additional reporting by Amanda Martinek

For most of us, a childhood surrounded by puppets is the stuff of nightmares. In the mind of an innocent, the methodical movements of marionettes, ever suspended on their nimble strings, turn the dolls into zombies — life-like forces capable of “Chucky”-style treachery, even as they depict happily ever afters.

Joe Wright, director of the upcoming film “Hanna” (as well as the Oscar-nominated “Atonement” and “Pride & Prejudice”), was born into this dichotomy. His parents founded the Little Angel Theatre in the Islington borough of London, where they presented classic fairytales through the strange and sometimes eerie medium of marionettes.

If his own creative work is any indication, the paradox of the nightmare and the fable held a lasting effect on Wright. “Hanna” follows the plight of a 16-year-old girl, played by “Atonement”’s Saoirse Ronan, raised in the isolated wilds of Finland by her ex-CIA agent father, Erik (Eric Bana). Erik trains his daughter to be the perfect assassin, eventually sending her out into the real world to kill or be killed, tracked by a stilettoed CIA operative (Cate Blanchett).

Joe Wright, dressed in a blue suit with gray oxfords (no tie or socks), spoke with the Guardian at the Se Hotel in downtown San Diego about this twisted, modern-day fable, as well as his own humble beginnings.
“[Fairy tales] teach young people about the potential hurdles they might face and the darkness in the world,” Wright said. “I like those elements… and I wanted to invest ‘Hanna’ with that.”

Following the Brothers Grimm narrative of the heroine breaking free of parental (or supernatural) restraint, Wright crafts Hanna as a contemporary Rapunzel, exploring the real world for the first time. Only, Hanna’s ditched the romance for Angelina Jolie-style action. Wright further modernizes the parable through an explosive Chemical Brothers soundtrack.

“I went to their first London gig in 1992 at a nightclub called Ra Ra’s above the Saxon Shoe Shop in Islington, London,” he said. “They blew my mind. I’ve followed them ever since. I’m a bit of a groupie, I’m afraid. So when I had the opportunity to work with a modern score and a modern band, [that] was very exciting to me. So I called them up and they came on board.”

Wright’s own involvement with the film came through Ronan, who brought the script specifically to him after their previous collaboration on 2007’s “Atonement.”  Wright often chooses to work with the same group, such as actress Keira Knightly, who has appeared in two of his works.

“I like working with the same people, including those behind camera as well as in front of camera,” he said. “I like the family feeling and developing creative relationships with people, rather than having to start again every time you work with someone.”

Unlike his character Hanna, Wright was not reared in the desolate, snowy woods — though he still had his fair share of adolescent hurdles to overcome. Wright suffers from dyslexia, a learning disability that impairs a person’s fluency in reading and writing. He said that, though the disability was initially challenging, it eventually proved to be a gift that contributed to his love for cinema.

“Because I couldn’t read, I sought education in other areas,” he said. “I looked to film to educate me. I’m told dyslexics see patterns in alternative ways. We find other ways of organizing the world that other people don’t.”

For Wright, who was always interested in the visual arts, directing was a natural career choice — though some of his earliest motives weren’t so highbrow.

“When I was 16, [I thought] I might be able to get a girlfriend if I was into films,” he joked.

Wright eventually ditched the problems he had with language by interpreting it through the camera lens. Apart from “Hanna,” the director’s feature films have all been literary adaptations. His next project, “Anna Karenina,” starring Keira Knightly and scripted by Tom Stoppard, continues the trend.

“Being dyslexic, it was assumed I was stupid or lazy when I was a kid,” Wright said. “Doing these adaptations is a way of disproving that point. And also, learning about language and literature is something I love.”
He also finds working with set material more satisfying than complete creative freedom.

“I like working with book adaptations because they set a boundary for you. And I find limitations liberating sometimes,” Wright said. “Whereas with an original screenplay, the options are so infinite, that one sometimes suffers from an ‘options for options’ paralysis, where you don’t know what to do or where to move.”

After 14 years of directing, Wright can’t see himself in any other seat but the director’s chair.

“I tried to be a furniture restorer for a while but the dust got to me, so I had to become a film director instead.”