Hanna, hitting theaters on Friday, is a twisted sort of modern-day fairy tale in which the titular young girl (Saoirse Ronan) is raised in the snowy north by her in-hiding assassin caretaker (Eric Bana). She grows up completely disconnected from civilization, learning about everything from love to electricity as concepts described in books. Her only practical training comes from Bana’s character, whose talents lean toward stealth, espionage and the combat arts. All of it is meant to prepare Hanna for her eventual sojourn into the larger world, for reasons that eventually become clear.
It’s an action movie, and it’s not. Filmmaker Joe Wright seems like an unusual choice at first glance, an impression that he himself shared when Ronan first brought him the script in the hopes of working again with her Atonement director.
“She was on board and had read this script and thought it was good and, for some weird reason, thought I should direct it,” Wright told Spinoff Online at WonderCon in San Francisco. “I think maybe I might have just been the first name that came to her head, because it was rather perverse casting on her part.”
Wright admits that he didn’t immediately say yes, instead mulling it over for a time. He weighed the pros and cons in taking a gig that seemed on the surface to be so far outside of his typical comfort zone.
“I was very interested in working with Saoirse again because I love her and I think she’s brilliant, but I wasn’t really sure if I could pull it off,” he admitted. “At the same time, I was kind of scared of it. I find, often, when I’m scared of something, it means it’s something I should do.”
The fear came from the film’s action elements, which, despite Hanna not being a genre movie, are on display quite a bit. “I’ve never done action and I wasn’t sure whether I could do it,” he said. “I didn’t want to make just another another action film, I didn’t just want to make some piece of popcorn crap.”
“So I was kind of nervous about whether I could actually elevate it slightly above that. Not much above it, but slightly above it.”
Elevate it he does. Wright might not have had much in the way of experience with staging action, but it’s hard to tell when you’re watching the movie. The presentation is unexpected, it’s true, but it stands well with its own, unique style.
Wright recalls someone — who, he can’t remember — giving him good advice before he set about making Hanna: “If this seems like an obvious thing to do, do the opposite.” He carried that advice with him into the production, particularly with regards to his approach for the action.
“The obvious way to do [action] is the Jason Bourne tradition, [the] barrage of fast cuts and all that stuff,” Wright said. “So I knew I wanted to step away from that.” Instead, much of the action in Hanna unfolds in sweeping, single shots. Rather than energizing the audience with a fast pace, things slow down, allowing viewers to take in every last bone-shattered detail. Wright admits that his inspiration for taking this path came from an unusual place.
“Basically, the closest thing I’d done to action/fight scenes was dance, because I’d done some dance scenes in Pride and Prejudice. So I thought I’d try to apply what I learned doing those sequences in this.”
“So it was about trying to see it purely as the organization of figures in space, which is the definition of choreography,” he continued. “Treating in that kind of abstract realm rather than thinking about selling punches.” The punches sell themselves, frankly, largely because you see each and every one of them coming, and feel their impact when they connect.
What really drew Wright to Hanna, beyond working with Ronan again that is, were the fairy-tale elements of the narrative. “It was inherent in the structure of the script, but a lot of what you see in the script wasn’t in the script when I first read it,” he explained.
“So I kind of saw that the structure as being a classic fairly tale. Obviously the first 15 pages set in a log cabin in the forest, a child grows up, that’s obviously fairy tale. And then what followed was less fairy tale.”
“I was interested in the notion of what becomes of the fairy tale in contemporary society. It was really a matter of keeping one’s eyes open to the possibilities in the locations we saw. We really kind of went around looking for fairy tales.”