Joe Wright
Photo by Maureen Evans

Joe Wright: “It’s a matter of feeling”

Short Profile

Name: Joseph Wright
DOB: 25 August 1972
Place of birth: London, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Film director

Joe Wright's new film Cyrano is in theaters 25 February 2022.

Mr. Wright, you’ve suffered from dyslexia since you were a kid, and also left school early. How did that struggle influence your career path?

It has affected me in terms that I feel probably less than. I know a lot of British directors who are Oxbridge educated and studied English literature, whereas I come from quite a different place. I think that it gives me a different point of view, which is good. I certainly think that I'm more visual than I might have been otherwise — but it's difficult to tell, you know, if I didn't have that dyslexic gene or whatever, how my character and work would be different. I'm desperate to learn! It's given me a thirst for knowledge and for overcoming the difficulties that dyslexia presents. As I can't read the patterns of words on the page, or it's more of an effort to do so, I've looked for other patterns in the world. I'm interested in the relationship between rhyme and similes and all those notions in the visual rather than the verbal context.

Your parents are puppeteers who ran a theater in Islington, London called The Little Angel Theatre. Did watching so many puppet shows as a child impact your storytelling style?

That's where I come from! The wonderful thing about puppetry is the requirement that the audience participates using their imagination. That's something I've tried to do in my films, which is to allow space for the audience to project their own imaginations, feelings, and thoughts. I remember my parents adapted The Little Mermaid using an exquisite puppet carved out of wood. Her face did not change, and yet, the audience perceived that in the first half of the show, when she's happy and meeting the prince, her face was happy, and in the second half of the show, when the prince left, the face was sad and heartbroken. The audience projected their own emotional response onto her face. I think that's incredible and powerful and tells us something about how we appreciate the world around us.

“Keeping the momentum of a narrative moving forward and, at the same time, making sure that you're allowing the audience space is a difficult balance.”

How did you bring that lesson to your cinema?

When I was starting out, I did a short film called Crocodile Snap. I was 25 at the time. There was a kid in the film with this amazing face. It was a sad tale about her mom going through a divorce and she was just watching this divorce unravel. And the audience congratulated me afterwards on this incredible performance that I'd gotten out of this kid. But I did nothing with her face, it's a completely blank face. I'd not gotten any performance out of her at all. This was the audience projecting their own emotions onto this face. That's the Kuleshov theory in practice, which is the classic experiment of cutting between a man's face and a bowl of soup and the audience think he looks hungry, and then you cut to a bunch of flowers, and he looks happy, but it's the same close-up.

What's the balance between giving the audience space to think and telling them a story?

Well, therein lies the rub. You know, Hollywood studios, American cinema, is always wanting to push the emotion and not allow space for an audience to think. I'm very interested in Brecht, and I've done some Brecht on stage at the Young Vic and so on. That idea of critical distance I find fascinating. I think people misread Brecht and assume that he didn't want any emotion. I think what he was doing was balancing emotion with thought because he wanted us to understand that we have political choices in the world around us. That balance between keeping the momentum of a narrative moving forward and, at the same time, making sure that you're allowing the audience space is a difficult balance. Sometimes, it's a matter of feeling. There's no formula. If there was, we'd all be doing it.

You’ve explored so many different genres throughout your career, and you’ve now even made a musical. How does that compare to other narratives?

I've always been interested in the musical form, and I've been offered a few musicals in the past. One of the problems I've always had with musicals was that I didn't like the music. I mean, I love Cabaret and Kurt Weill, but I was never really into the kind of eighties musicals. So with my new film Cyrano,  to find a musical that had such great music was exciting. I always saw my adaptation of Anna Karenina as being like a ballet with words, and there was a lot of dance involved in that movie. And I love dance, especially Pina Bausch, so it felt like a natural progression.

What music were you listening to while making Cyrano?

Obviously, I was listening to The National and a lot of American folk or folk-rock. I'm a big fan of Harry Nilsson and Townes Van Zandt. The song “I Need More” in the movie is a bit of a nod to the great female power ballads of the eighties.

Your films, including this one, often have a female central protagonist. What is it about that perspective that intrigues you?

I don't know. It's interesting, and it's not something I set out to do. I didn't think I was going to make female-centric stories, it's just something that's happened. It's what I've been drawn to! I believe that there is an emotional availability to female stories that chimes with how I experience the world, maybe? I feel quite uncomfortable in large groups of men, my father was quite distant. He was wonderful, but you know, he was a bit distant. And so, I spent most of my time with my mum and my sister. I think that probably has something to do with it. Often the female characters in my movies have somehow been about my sister.

“The priority is the story, second are the actors, and third is the directorial ideas you might have.”

Can you give me an example?

It’s often the characters played by Keira Knightley — like Elizabeth Bennett, I very consciously thought was Sarah, my sister. Maybe there's something in that! Briony Tallis in Atonement was definitely me, regardless of her gender. I'm now going to sound very contemporary or whatever, but I've always been a bit confused by the kind of binary nature of gender. I think that our similarities are greater than our differences, and I get kind of upset about this banging on about our differences. I find that I can project myself into a female character, just as readily, if not more so, than a male one.

How was it to adapt a stage production for this film, as opposed to adapting a novel like Atonement?

I think it's more challenging to adapt a theatrical piece to cinema than adapting a novel because the history of cinema has, to some extent, been an attempt to break away from the theater and the limitations of the stage, to really embrace what is special and specific and unique about cinema. It's quite tricky to adapt theater. Also, theater is so much about words, especially British theater, whereas novels happen more in your head. There is a kind of call and response between modernism in literature from the late 19th Century onwards to film that I think is really interesting in terms of the almost cubist nature of cinema.

Regardless of the medium, is there an essential ingredient to making an interesting piece of work?

Well, the priority is the story, second are the actors, and third is the directorial ideas you might have. I've not always got that order of priorities the right way round, but when I have, I’ve produced my best work.