Far from Wonderland, Mia Wasikowska (“Alice in Wonderland,” “The Kids are All Right”) tackles yet another literary icon – the eponymous heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s classic gothic love story, Jane Eyre. Blast sat down with Mia and director Cary Fukunaga to discuss history, the challenges of literary adaptation, and why the 27th time is the charm.
BLAST: Cary, what draws you to shooting stories in foreign countries?
CARY FUKUNAGA: I don’t know, I’ve only done two so far, and they both happened to not be in America. Doing a movie in English is already a big step, isn’t it? I don’t know – I’ve always looked at work and doing work as an opportunity to go away rather than stay home so maybe that’s part of it.
BLAST: Is it the locations that draw you or the stories themselves?
CF: I’ve certainly never been dying to go to England in my entire life. It’s one of those things that just sort of happened. I love the story, the Bob Stevenson version of the film when I was a kid. I happened to be in the UK promoting “Sin Nombre” and had a general meeting with the BBC and found out it was on their slate and that’s how I crossed paths with it.
Prior to that, I hadn’t really thought about taking on someone else’s story or screenplay but as a classic, it seemed like a pretty interesting sort of second film rather than spending a year or two developing what I was already writing. It gave me the opportunity to direct almost instantly, so that was another attractive part about it. Then also, I love history – I was a history major as an undergrad, 19th century in particular was an area of focus for me, so I was familiar with it and we thought it would be exciting to depict it as well.
BLAST: It’s a story that’s been told 27 times on film.
CF: How many have you actually seen of those?
CF: I actually had no idea – when I signed on, I knew about the black-and-white one and that’s it. Then, as I started to do more research, to try and get a feeling for that style and that world, I was amazed that there were so many versions of the film. I’ve joked in a couple of the other press screenings that a movie should be remade every 5 years just to, you know, even it out. And I have no doubt that it will probably be made again.
Why? It’s the same question as why we do anything. It doesn’t have to be a movie, it could be plays – Shakespeare’s repeated around the world in different languages just because it’s good storytelling and at this point, it’s classic.
MIA WASIKOWSKA: The classics are always relevant.
BLAST: So did you know there were 27 Janes before you?
MW: I don’t know if I knew it was exactly 27. I didn’t watch any of them, actually. I was partially overwhelmed by how many there were – I didn’t know where to start – and then I also didn’t want to be influenced by anything, even in a way that I didn’t realize. Both of us had talked about not wanting to not do something because it’s been done a certain way.
My first introduction to the story – I was always aware of it, but I hadn’t actually read it until I picked it up in the middle of 2009 and I started reading it. I was halfway through and thought it was really incredible, so I got in touch with my agent and asked if there anything in development or if there was a script around. There wasn’t, and it was about two months later that she sent me the script, and then I met Cary and that’s how it went from there.
BLAST: We were amazed by the film technically: you shoot a lot in candlelight and you make it look so natural. It’s so different from your first film – technically, were there big challenges for you?
CF: It’s only hard for the focus puller. This film is different in that, in the last film, I wanted to do more of photojournalism and everything was handheld, even if it wasn’t shaky handheld, which allowed a lot of freedom. If I didn’t like a shot, it’s really quick just to readjust it for the next take; where in this, the camera’s often locked off, there was much of a sort of ballet-like choreography to some of the camera moves, which require laying track and committing to a shot. When you’re putting time in and your schedule’s compressed, there’s much more pressure to get it right the first time.
In terms of the lighting and the candlelight and all that kind of stuff, it was just trying to be as naturalistic as possible and not trying to make things look overlit in a sort of ‘Hollywood movie’ kind of way. Just keep it raw and simple.
BLAST: Did you have any challenges as far as the style goes?
MW: What the camera does doesn’t really ever restrict me or the lighting, none of that; I’m not aware of that stuff, but the costumes were a big constraint. They were a blessing and curse though, because it was good to understand the repression that women were under in that time and what that would feel like, and that was such a huge part, such a metaphor for the whole society and the way women were treated then. So that was useful and then also painful.
BLAST: Do you have an interest in class structure and how that plays in the film?
CF: I’m definitely aware of it. Will that be something I focus on as a theme in my other films? Maybe. It’s so interesting, because I was so unaware of class growing up in the Bay Area. I grew up in the ‘hip hop granola’ East Bay, and there were no racial lines, there were no class lines in Berkeley. Everyone went to school together. It wasn’t actually ‘til I was in high school or college that I became aware that there was a sort of aristocracy, even within San Francisco – the wine families and the Newsoms and the political families of the Bay Area. I had no idea that existed.
As I got more educated and learned more about history, that’s a huge theme, obviously, in the last couple hundred years in terms of the change of class. In the UK, that still lives today. There are hyperaware of class – the accents play a major role in class.
Being more sensitive to that, I started to pick up on peoples’ sometimes unspoken class prejudices. It’s interesting: the kids who go to private schools, public schools, what part of London you’re from, different parts of England, what kind of accents they have, when they try to hide their accents – it’s fascinating. So that makes its way into the film.
BLAST: Were you at all intimidated to work with Judi Dench?
MW: She instantly disarms you, so the intimidation doesn’t last long. She’s a young spirit, really modern and friendly and so cool. She’d go missing, and you’d find her in the corner, making shadow puppets in the lights. She’s really a lot of fun.
CF: There are some people who’ve just got it. I don’t think you can really define it, and it’s a charisma that is so immediate. Whenever she’s onscreen, every audience member is just sort of lightens up. It’s great. She’s my secret weapon.
BLAST: Was it different working with Jamie Bell again?
MW: I worked with Jamie before on “Defiance” a few years ago, so we’ve been married in a previous film. It’s fun being able to work together again, and it’s always really wonderful when you have some history with the cast and the people you have to be intimate with in that way.
BLAST: So the ending was happier, but in terms of the book, it could have been happier. Why did you choose to do that?
CF: I think it’s the equivalent, in cinematic language, of saying ‘Reader, I married him.’ It’s like a wink at the camera, and that’s just a different film. Every time I think that Charlotte addresses her audience in the book is like a departure – that was a unique sort of device at that time period, in terms of a literary device. But I think to be consistent in the film there has to be a consistent tone, especially over as short a period as two hours.
So what I wanted to do is end it in a way that, for the people who know what happens, it’s great, for people who don’t know what happens, there’s still this ‘what’s going to happen’ that shouldn’t be all buttoned-up and answered for them. It’s what makes the story live inside you after you’ve finished watching it. In a way, I think the weakest part of Charlotte’s book is the end, that last chapter, where she just say ‘Oh well, I’ve written 500 pages, I might as well sum this up.’ I was kind of disappointed in that part of the book, actually.
BLAST: Who did you go to to make a period piece like this work?
CF: The good thing about the UK is that there is a giant industry of period films and there are huge amounts of research available. The costume designers, the production designers, hair and makeup – they have done their work. Part of working in the UK and doing those departments is probably having done films that span all of English history. So you can rely on them a lot to provide information, but also you can ask them questions or create small challenges for them to figure out more details on specifics like charity-school girls.
Also, we had a historical adviser from Random House that was there at our disposal whenever we needed her. I would send her e-mails all the time with, like, seven questions as varied as ‘What kind of parlor game would they play?’ or ‘Would the potential bride and groom face the vicar or each other during the wedding ceremony?’ Of course, people say you don’t have to be historically accurate, but I prefer to have all of the information and change it if it doesn’t fit my vision. At least I want to know what I’m breaking, in terms of rules.
BLAST: Does any of this shift over to you in your acting, the historical details?
MW: I also like to be as informed as I can because it’ll always help you out when you have a bank of knowledge that you can draw on. And then there were a lot of things that informed my experience and Jane’s character: the costumes and the corset and understanding that restriction and that repression, and then also the locations and just being in those castles and feeling the isolation of them and the loneliness and how distant one estate is from another. All of those things help.
BLAST: Do you have any personal preference as an actress for playing a literary character like Jane or Alice (of “Alice in Wonderland”) versus an original character like you did in the “The Kids are All Right?”
MW: Well, with original material and an original character, the audience is going to take it for what you give them. But when you’re dealing with a character like Jane or Alice, they’re so well known by people and they’re so ingrained in peoples’ minds and they’ve lived for such a long time, there’s a bit more risk – you hope that people will accept your interpretation.
BLAST: You’ve played such varied characters – is there anything in particular that draws you to a role?
MW: I like doing things I haven’t done before so anything that’s different or anything that’s a challenge. It’s so important to do things that are different in order for me to remain interested in it and challenged by it. That’s the main thing.
BLAST: Do you prefer the larger-scale productions like “Defiance” and “Alice in Wonderland” or smaller works like this?
MW: They all have their pros and cons. I think often the restrictions make everybody pool their resources and make everybody work a little bit harder on the smaller things, even just to get it done. The big ones, you have a bit more time – you have the luxury of time because that’s so rare on the smaller films.
BLAST: Cary, in contrast to what Mia’s said — what’s it like to work with a larger budget for something like this after doing “Sin Nombre” and your short films?
CF: We didn’t really have a larger budget. After you go from making a film in Mexico to making a film in the UK, it’s almost like our budget shrank. We had two cameras on “Sin Nombre,” but we could only afford one on this film.
BLAST: What was behind your decision to go with the widescreen, the 1.85:1 frame size?
CF: It’s because I felt the story was really centered around the tête-à-tête between Rochester and Jane – it’s about their heads, not the rooms around them. And in 2.35, which would be the sort of kneejerk aspect ratio for historical films, you’d be missing so much more about what’s happening around them.
BLAST: Mia, we understand that you have a background in dance as well. How did that career arc go?
MW: I danced very intensely from the age of 8 to about the age of 15 and I was doing full-time dance, so when I was in high school, I would leave school at 1 and dance until 9 at night every day so it was about 35 hours a week. I thought it was really what I wanted to do and acting never dawned on me as a career until I came to the end of my dance life.
Dance was so much about achieving the physical perfection and I was watching a lot of films in the last year of dancing that were so much about the imperfections of people, and that seemed like a really interesting thing to explore. It’s a similar form of expression – acting and dancing. They’re just different industries.
BLAST: On the same note Cary, when did you find your passion for film?
CF: After my dance career? It’s one of those things. It sounds so cliché like, ‘I’ve always wanted to be a director,’ but I guess I always wanted to be a director. Since I was 10, I would make up little stories – I think my first one was a pirate story and I tried to use my mom’s humidifier as a fog machine. I wrote my first script when I was about 15, which was about these two brothers in the Civil War, in love with the same nurse who was taking care of them. That’s when I learned to type.
Then I kind of gave up on a film for awhile – I wanted to become a pro snowboarder – but I think when I was 23, I realized that I was over the hill. I’d still been doing film stuff on the side, photography, so a friend of mine offered me a job down in LA to work as a camera intern. That was my first set experience, on music videos for Destiny’s Child, those kind of things. I figured out pretty quickly the lay of the land on a set, I was doing AC [assistant cameraman] work, but I realized that you’d never be a pilot by being a flight attendant for 20 years. So, I applied to film school and then it all kind of worked out. For me, once I decide I want to do something, that’s just what I focus on and I do it.
BLAST: With the idea of writing versus directing, do you prefer one to the other?
CF: I like being a writer/director, even if it’s classical literature, just because if you want to change something, you just do it. Obviously, when you collaborate, you work with a lot more people and everyone has their opinions and things slows down and you get wonderful things out of that, but when you’re a writer/director, I think you have more control in the end. It’s an all-in-one sort of power, in the sense that you don’t need anyone else – you’re on your own.
BLAST: Mia, you’ve done a $200 million tent-pole and a Best Picture nominee – what is the experience like on the road, promoting these films?
MW: It’s a big contrast to being on the film sets. It’s a really interesting side bubble that everyone experiences, I think. It’s fun, I get to see different parts of America I haven’t seen before, but it’s strange – I mean, we’re focusing on Jane Eyre and that was a year ago and with “Alice,” it had been two years since I shot it. It’s sort of like you go back in time for a really intensive period, and you talk about something that seems like such a long time ago but is really only now becoming present. It’s a continuation of something you thought ended, but didn’t.
BLAST: What are you going to do next?
CF: I’m going to start spreading my focus out again, do a bunch of different things. Just to have the inspiration alive. I’m going to go home and maybe build a chicken coop or something.