How Joe Wright's vision of Anna Karenina was brought to life

Daunting challenges had to be met to get the costumes, sets and camera angles right

Sarah Greenwood, production designer

It may have been an ingenious creative and financial solution, but Joe Wright's big idea on Anna Karenina – to stage most of the film inside a Russian theatre – posed a herculean challenge for his long-time production designer. Rather than shooting the film on location in Russia and England as planned, "We had to reconceive the whole thing and build this theatre from scratch in Shepperton with just 12 weeks to go till shooting and no extra budget."

Luckily, this was not Sarah Greenwood's first collaboration with Wright. She had worked with him right at the start of his career, on his 2000 TV debut Nature Boy, and on his subsequent feature films (receiving Oscar nominations for her work on Pride & Prejudice and Atonement), so she trusted his judgment and he trusted that she could pull it off.

"Framing it in this derelict theatre was a fantastic concept, given the theatricality of high society in St Petersburg and Moscow at the time," she says. It also allowed them to move between scenes – from restaurants to ice-rinks to racecourses – with dizzying fluidity: rarely has a production designer's work been so foregrounded in a film.

Only Levin's story brought them outside the theatrical frame and into the "real" world, which meant shooting some wintry scenes on location in Russia. The famous scything scenes were filmed on Salisbury Plain, "the closest we could get to massive open Russian plains here in the UK – Salisbury hasn't really been touched in 200 years because of the army base".

Was all the mayhem and hard graft worthwhile for Greenwood? "With hindsight, it would've been dull had we just done a period drama," she says. "This was much more exciting."

Jacqueline Durran, costume designer

Like many of the crew members on Anna Karenina, Jacqueline Durran has worked with Joe Wright several times in the past and with considerable success – she was Oscar-nominated for her costume design on Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. The closeness of Wright's team is liberating, she says, because people aren't afraid to speak their minds; it also helps that Wright is more fashion-conscious than most directors. "His interest in costume comes from puppets – his parents had the Puppet Theatre at the Angel Theatre – so he has always been aware of the possibilities of costumes and how costumes move."

For Anna Karenina, Wright wanted Durran to concentrate on silhouette rather than surface detail. "He didn't want to end up with naturalistic 1870s costumes or to get constricted by the period. As the Russian aristocrats were obsessed with French culture in the 19th century, we came up with the idea of tweaking it a bit and using the heyday of couture from the 1950s to emphasise Anna's modern streak. That really helped Keira understand Anna."

Historians and costume purists may quibble with the odd anachronism or cultural mash-up, but Durran is unapologetic: the film's theatrical framework meant that historical accuracy was low on their list of priorities. In the case of Levin and his peasants: "We might have muddled up the regions, north and south," she says cheerfully. "No money was spent on a Russian expert."

Instead, she threw her energies into realising Wright's ultra-specific vision. "Vronsky's uniform had to be absolutely white – but hardly any wool is made white; it's made cream or grey. That proved to be an absolute nightmare. But we got there in the end."

Seamus McGarvey, cinematographer

When Seamus McGarvey photographed Atonement for Joe Wright in 2006, they devised a moment at the centre of the film that became one of its major talking points: an extraordinary five-minute tracking shot through a military camp on the beach at Dunkirk that captures in sweeps and pirouettes the surreal horrors of war. There may be no single moment in Anna Karenina that compares to that shot for virtuosity; rather, the whole film is a virtuoso act by the acclaimed Northern Irish cinematographer, whose recent credits include We Need to Talk About Kevin and Avengers Assemble.

McGarvey joined the film just before shooting began and had little time to get to grips with its unorthodox theatre setting and the fact that certain scenes were designed to change right before our eyes, without the camera cutting away, like a stage set being rearranged in the middle of a performance.

"One sequence goes from Oblonsky's office at closing time and takes you through the streets of St Petersburg, where you see Levin looking for a restaurant, and suddenly the camera swirls around into the restaurant and the scene begins – all in one shot, without leaving the room."

It's rare that a cinematographer on a big digital-age production is asked to create effects in-camera rather than relying on computers to fill in the blanks in post-production, but on this movie McGarvey used mirrors, Georges Méliès-style, to realise Anna's premonitions, and filmed with a stocking over the lens to imbue certain scenes with a particular glow.

"I relished it," he says. "Working with Joe, you're always presented with difficult challenges; he really pushes every department to do their very best. He won't settle for average. The best work I've done has been on Joe's films as a result."


Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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