Joe Wright: interview
British director Joe Wright shot to prominence with 2007's award-winning Ian McEwan adaptation 'Atonement'. His latest film, the Hollywood-produced 'The Soloist', stars Jamie Foxx as a homeless musical prodigy befriended by Robert Downey Jr's LA Times journalist. Dave Calhoun spoke to Wright on the eve of the film's UK release.
‘The Soloist’ is a film about madness and, to tell the truth, is a little bit crazy itself: it centres on a Los Angeles Times journalist, Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr), who makes friends with a schizophrenic homeless musician, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), and struggles to connect with him while writing columns about the experience for his paper. If it sounds like a typical, corny story of a friendship across the social divide, thankfully it’s not as simple as that. Wright is more interested in the reality of madness, the transcendental power of music and the psychological clutter of the modern world than he is in easy character journeys and story arcs. Which means ‘The Soloist’ is a difficult film – but also a much better one than it threatens to be.
We meet in London while Wright is on a break from preparing his latest film, ‘Indian Summer’, which he’ll shoot in India next spring and which he’s been writing in a friend’s house in Tuscany.
I ask him what he wanted to achieve after ‘Atonement’. What did he want to try that he hadn’t before, either with his last film or ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or the television work he was doing earlier this decade? ‘I was interested in expressing an extreme reality,’ he says. He himself has a knack of sounding a little crazy and totally together at the same time.
‘I wanted to make a schizophrenic film and see if I could get away with it within the Hollywood system,’ he adds.
It was a good time to try, surely, having sent Keira Knightley up a hundred red carpets? ‘Yeah, certainly,’ he nods, rolling a cigarette. He’s dressed smartly for our photoshoot but has kicked his shoes off so he’s barefoot. There’s something of the ballsy, clever London art school student he used to be in the frank but thoughtful way he talks.
‘The success of “Atonement” meant I could get away with a lot more than I might have been able to otherwise. One example of that in the film is the two-minute, abstract light show sequence set to Beethoven.’ In that scene, Steve takes Nathaniel to watch an orchestra rehearse in LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall and we watch bright colours dash around the screen as Ayers is transported mentally to a place he hasn’t been for years. Another example sees Wright’s camera take its cue from the music and fly high in the air above LA with the birds.
Wright begins our conversation by giving me a lesson on schizophrenia and how those with the condition (he hates the term ‘mental illness’) have a system that doesn’t allow the brain to prioritise information. ‘So to them everything has meaning,’ he explains. ‘And this film is also about a search for meaning, without wanting to get too heavy about it. It’s also a piece of entertainment, I hope.’
He says he was in a weird place when he was sent an early version of the script, written by Susannah Grant, while he was editing ‘Atonement’. ‘I kind of lost my marbles a bit during the post-production of that film and scared myself. So I was interested in placing those fears. Mental illness has always been the thing that has scared me more than anything else and I’ve always made films to confront my fears.’
Why was he feeling so bad? ‘I’ve no idea. I think it was a general mounting of responsibility. With “Atonement”, I put a lot of pressure on myself and then I made an advert for Chanel which broke the camel’s back, emotionally.’
He tells a story of how, while editing ‘Atonement’, he had a meeting with Stacey Snider, former head of Universal Pictures and new head of Dreamworks. ‘I was having a bad time but decided I was going to do this meeting. I was practising as I walked to Claridges, saying to myself “I’m fine, I’m fine, how are you?” in a typical LA-bullshit kind of way. I got there and she said “How are you?” and I just said “Oh, I’m in a real state.” She’d had similar experiences and we talked about mental health.’
He laughs at the irony of what came next. ‘A few weeks later she sent me a script about a schizophrenic. Sadly it also happened to be a film set in LA, which meant I had to go live there for a year, which was all right, you know?
But it’s not a place I’d choose to live.’
I’ve heard rumours that the post-production period of ‘The Soloist’ was not entirely smooth. It was supposed to come out last autumn but was released in the US this April (it took a respectable but lacklustre $31 million during a three-month run; it cost around $60m to make) and opens here this month. Wright doesn’t mention any antagonism, but you sense he has a heavy antipathy towards Hollywood. We talk about how he insisted the studio employ 500 people on the film, as extras or consultants, from the Skid Row community where much of the film was shot. The studio agreed and he spent a lot of time in the area, learning from the people there.
‘It’s terrifying when you first go down there,’ he recalls. ‘We have an idea that people who are addicted to crack would sooner stab you than look at you. But what you realise is that it’s far less scary than Beverly Hills or Hollywood, and the people there are far less likely to do you any harm.’ You mean that someone might not pull a knife on you in Beverly Hills, but… He interrupts, laughing. ‘But they’ll stab you in the back!’
It’s clear Wright gained a lot from working with the people of Skid Row and especially the Lamp Community, an organisation for the mentally ill and homeless, which is central to the film. But is he satisfied with the end result? ‘It’s not all about the product,’ he muses. ‘The process was as important. But it depends what mood I’m in. A friend who’s a theatre director gave me a postcard with a Beckett quote on it: “Fail again, fail better.” And I think every film is a failure, so that’s why we try again. ‘Having said that, I’m someone who can put it to rest and move on. I never take photographs on set because I’m already taking 24 frames a second when I’m filming. It’s a snapshot of time.’
'The Soloist' is out now.
Author: Dave Calhoun
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