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English director Joe Wright overcame his Jane Austen prejudice and took on the film version of Pride & Prejudice, doing lots of research, including how 500 people at an 18th century ball went to the toilet, which he reveals to Monika Agorelius, as the film is released on DVD.

In terms of the TV series and previous films, was there a conscious effort to make something different with this adaptation of the story?
Well, the first thing to say is that the television series was ten years ago, so it is not that recent. The only other film version was made in 1946. But yes, the television version is still present in peoples’ minds - it was a big hit. I have never seen the television version and that was a conscious decision. When I got sent the script I had been working in television drama for four, five years doing contemporary work. I thought I was far too cool and groovy to do something like "Pride & Prejudice". But I thought I’d better read it, it was a Working Title production so it seemed important. So, I took it to the pub with me one Sunday afternoon and started reading it and by the end I was weeping into my pint of my Stella Artois. It affected me emotionally and I was quite surprised by that. I realised that I obviously had some prejudice against Jane Austen. I thought it was all pretty frocks and sleeping around. Then I went away and read the book and was quite shocked by it. I discovered that it wasn’t at all what I expected and that it was probably the first piece of British realism. That suddenly excited me and made me think about ways that one could do a period piece adaptation. What surprised me first was how young all the characters were. Lizzy Bennet was 20 years old. Lydia is 15 when she elopes with Mr Wickham. Darcy is a 28 year old man whose parents have died and is planted with huge responsibility. You are dealing with really young characters and it made sense of their emotions and them falling in love for the first time. I had only ever seen these period adaptations where you have 35 year old actors say “I’m in love for the first time”. Suddenly here was a bunch of kids falling in love and feeling these emotions that they had never felt before. That felt real and true so that was the avenue I took and that is what attracted me to it. I wasn’t setting out to try to be different. I just realised that there was something different.

There were no opportunities for them to fool around before settling down because it was marriage or nothing…
Yes, finding the first boyfriend really is the story.

Can you talk about Keira and what you thought of her beforehand?
I thought Keira was too beautiful to play Elizabeth Bennet. I think that is a valid point. Other people might not feel the same. So, she wasn’t my first thought.

Who was the first?
I can’t say that. We had met a lot of actresses, in America they all have perfectly ironed hair and they all wear nice little skirts and sit like that and will tell you about themselves and how they like ballet and all this stuff. And you fall asleep. And then I went out to meet Keira in Canada. We were very late and got to this hotel at 11 o’clock at night and we had to leave at six o’clock in the morning, so we had arranged to meet in this hotel restaurant. And in walks this girl, it had been her 19th birthday the day before, and she walked in, this funny little angular thing with ripped up jeans and an attitude that was quite tough. She was basically a tomboy. She is really mouthy, kept on talking, was very strong in her opinions and I was shocked. So my prejudices were immediately exploded and I realised that the thing about Lizzy is that she just doesn’t fit in to the social norms of the period of what a girl should be. She is not pretty, she is not placid, she has got a fire in her belly and something to say and she doesn’t really think that much about the way she looks or about making herself attractive to men. She is who she is and you like it or not. And suddenly that made sense for Lizzy Bennet and it was on the basis of that, that she was the right person for the part.

The visual style of the movie is spectacularly beautiful. I was very struck with the scenes of mist and light. Did you consciously mix this beauty with the gritty countryside?
I think we definitely set out to make the film beautiful and not pretty. I didn’t want it to be pretty, twee or sweet. England is incredibly beautiful. You go out to Derbyshire and it takes your breath away. I think that excited me. One of the wonderful things about my job is that I get to go to places that I wouldn’t necessarily go to had I chosen another profession. We were doing a lot of location reccies as we were working on the script. I would see these places and rush back to London and say “this is fantastic, we have got to put this and this in the script”. Location recce is hard work. You are up at 5 in the morning and you are out every day until 9 at night. So you get to see dawn and dusk. It was about trying to use the light and the power. Landscape is a very sensual force and I think it reflects the forces that are happening in your heart as well. One wanted to represent all of that. Love is an elemental force as are the stars and the wind and the landscape. It is all the same thing.

Did you want to make something more contemporary and modern after this?

People tell me I should do but I love creating worlds. With period dramas you get the opportunity to imagine a whole world and that is a wonderfully exciting thing so…I would like to do something contemporary but I’m always drawn back to stuff where I can create worlds.

How did you like recording your DVD commentary for Pride & Prejudice?
It was horrible. It was so embarrassing. And then I got all emotional. It was just me and I started off being really flippant, trying to make jokes, they really weren’t funny, and then by the end of it I got all emotional.

Do you do re-takes of that or is it just one take as you are watching the film?
It is just one take because the film is two hours long.

It says in the production notes that you are a big romantic?
Oh, really? Yeah, I have got a bit of a romantic heart. I like romance.

What do you find romantic?
Travelling long distances to be near the person you love. That is a good thing.

Who do you regard as your contemporaries?
I look up to Lynn Ramsey a lot. I think she is probably the best director of our generation. She is incredible. I like David Yates very much. I am quite excited about the fact that there are a lot of feature film directors coming out of television now. It goes through phases. Sometimes all the directors come out of commercials and documentaries, but now it seems to be television drama which is exciting. The Americans are kicking some ass at the moment. PT Anderson and those boys are really exciting. But I think British film is a good place to be at the moment.

Normally you’d think there is a prejudice against TV directors, has that changed?

I think there is some great television drama being made at the moment. People like David Yates are doing some incredible work and I think that hopefully producers are opening up their minds to the fact that we can work on a bigger screen. People kept saying to me during pre production of this ‘You do understand the difference between film and television?’ And I would say ‘Oh, yes of course I do’ having no idea what the difference is. Just going around thinking “Oh, God what is it?” To be honest I don’t think there is much of a difference. I think you get more time, and your attention to detail has to be more acute. I don’t think there is a massive conceptual difference. I think probably if one is to look at the film I use more close ups than someone who hasn’t worked in television perhaps would. A theatre director might use more wide shots because they are used to watching a stage, whereas I love close-ups. A close-up of a human face is the most fascinating thing to me.

Matthew McFadyen (Mr Darcy) said that the set could get quite loud sometimes with all the women. Was it hard to get them to shut up?
No, not really. We radio mic’ed everyone and we had a multi track mixing desk. In the big ballroom scenes for instance, everyone is talking over each other all the time. But that was something important. Jane Austen’s dialogue is renowned as being the most beautifully crafted dialogue, but I didn’t want people to sit there and say a nice thing and then another clever thing. I wanted it to be more alive and real. So some of the dialogue had to be sacrificed for the sake of the atmosphere. Especially in the breakfast scene where everybody is constantly talking over each other and interrupting. But that is what families are like. I used to know a family of three daughters and the oldest would start a sentence and then the middle daughter who was always looking for attention would interrupt, but the eldest would keep talking and then the youngest would try and shut the middle daughter up and it would be this whole conversation that would happen. So the eldest daughter developed a technique to really extend her sentences so that by the end of it the other two had got all worn out and she would still make a point at the end. We wanted to create that kind of atmosphere of a family. I found it really exciting trying to create a family that was honest and real, and then when Darcy would come round to visit there would be the formal portrait of how a family should be. I am very different with my family when we don’t have guests basically.

What is interesting is the difference in class, how people behave and what houses they live in. What did you do to bring that out?
Yeah, definitely because it is the emotional key to the story. Everything is at the service of the emotion, so I wasn’t interested in a theoretical thesis on class structure of the period, but it served an emotional value. In the way that the courtesy has an emotional value, or the etiquette can serve that. I was definitely very aware of making sure that you understood where everyone was in the class structure. Although the Bennets have a nice big house, they were really on the bones of their arse, they’re in a pretty bad situation and therefore Mrs Bennet is justified in her fear for her daughters. When Mr Bennet dies, (and he is older than her), they’ll be left with nothing and that is a terrifying prospect for five young women in the late 18th century. Also I love looking at the period detail. When we were researching the ball sequence for instance… OK, around 500 people would come to a ball, so that is a lot of people. Where do they all go to the toilet? Because you didn’t have toilet plumbing, so people used chamber pots, and you couldn’t have 500 chamber pots for all your guests so the men were fine because they could go to the bushes. But where do the women go? I asked a lot of historical advisors about this and none of them knew the answers. And finally we found a small scratch of historical evidence. Basically what they used to do is that the women would take diuretics all day prior to the ball, something to stop you peeing. And then they went to the ball and if they needed to go to the toilet when they were at the ball they’d have to go home. That would be the end of the night. And other ridiculous things like, if you went to the ball and the hostess had invited 200 men and 300 women by mistake then 100 of the women would be asked to leave. Because you had to create a balance between the men and the women. Ridiculous theories. When Darcy and the Bingleys arrive at the first dance because they were of a higher status, the dance would stop and they would be led through the crowd. If you were that person of the higher status it must have been a terribly embarrassing thing to have to walk through the people. And then you would be put at the best table of the house which was called the presence and all the dancers would then dance facing you.

It is the same today, you go to a film premiere and then the celebrity of the day walks down the red carpet, everyone staring at them.
Absolutely, or if Prince William went to Shelley’s night club on Brompton Road, people would stop dancing and stare at him. There are equivalents today. It has become less about class society and more about society hierarchy which is a bit different. What I find interesting are the similarities as well. We still fall in love, we are still prejudiced against people, still find it difficult to accept that you are in love with someone sometimes. All those emotional cords are exactly the same. Sometimes you need the looking glass of historical context to be able to see those more clearly. It is like a fairy tale in the true sense. Or a fable, sometimes you can see the emotional trades more clearly when they are in the distance.

Is that what you are trying to reach, a younger audience with this film to see their own lives reflected in…?

No, I see my life reflected. I don’t try and teach anyone else.

Which character are you closest too?
Elizabeth Bennet! (Laughs) I am a young 20 year old girl falling in love for the first time!

Published March 23, 2006

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Joe Wright


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