You could feel the magic of Hollywood, old and new, as the Variety Screening Series of ‘Atonement’ kicked off in L.A. Wednesday night. After a special screening, audience members were treated to a lucrative Q&A panel consisting of the pic’s director, Joe Wright, lead actors Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, veteran actress Vanessa Redgrave, and screenwriter Christopher Hampton.
“I first read the book when I was lying on a beach abroad,” recalls Hampton. “So I called my agent and told her I’d like to do a screenplay for ‘Atonement.’ She said ‘there’s a very long line. ‘ ”
The film, based on the best-selling novel by Ian McEwan, is a sprawling epic that could pose a threat to even the most talented of filmmakers. Director Joe Wright, however, was no stranger to elusive adaptations. His previous jaunt was 2005’s Oscar nominated ‘Pride and Prejudice.’
”Actually, after ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ there weren’t a lot (of offers),” he noted, “and a lot of them were kind of girly pictures. All of them Keira Knightley projects, it seemed,” he said, prompting a cool grin from Knightley.
”Doesn’t sound like a good thing,” the actress joked.
Wright soon recovered.
”But when I read the book,” he continued, “there was a film that happened in my mind. A lot of people at the time were saying to me, ‘Well, you need to do a contemporary piece next or an original screenplay next,’ but what fascinated me about this script was that it was a story about happy endings and about story-telling. My agent, I’m embarassed to say, said something very wise. She said ‘if there’s one story you know a secret about, then that’s the one you do.’ And I knew in my mind that this was the next project for me.”
Knightley, who plays the role of Cecilia Tallis in the film, said the project got off to an emotionally awkward start because Wright, whom she had worked with before on ‘Prejudice,’ had originally approached her to play Cecilia’s younger sister in the film, Briony.
”The script made me sob and sob and sob and I just completely fell in love with Cecilia,” she remembers. “So we (herself and Wright) had this rather awkward lunch where I tried to pitch Cecilia and he pitched me Briony (instead) and then by the end of the lunch, I totally wanted to play Briony and he wanted me for Cecilia!”
The evening, which began with a standing ovation for Vanessa Redgrave, soon turned into a lovefest for director Joe Wright, who was given nothing but praise by the actors, including star James McAvoy.
“I feel like he empowers people. Not just the actors or the key crew but the entire crew. He affects all of us.”
Redgrave agreed. “Maybe the others have a different experience but you make a wonderful atmosphere where it’s OK to laugh and yet it’s quiet and respectful. It’s not like anything heavy like lead on one’s feet for an actor. It’s light hearted and beautiful, really.”
Wright attributed much of the film’s cohesiveness to rehearsals, which he says are vital for any film. But one scene in particular, the continuous five and a half minute war shot in France, made a lasting impression. The scene was filmed entirely in one day on the beach with Wright directing 1,000 extras for what critics now proclaim as the film’s best shot.
“It was incredible,” McAvoy recalls in his thick Scottish accent. “Joe made a point of going to talk to every single one of those guys. The success of that war scene is a testament to those 1,000 supporting artists who responded to a guy they’ve never met before. He made them all see the direction he was going in and, I know it sounds easy, but man, it’s really not.”
Wright agreed. “It was pretty humbling. Getting everyone involved in the emotion of the story. I think James said it best the other night: it was like a microcosm of filmmaking.”
‘Atonement’ opens in Limited release Dec. 7