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On Location: Setting the stage for 'Anna Karenina'

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Production designer Sarah Greenwood shares the process of building a theater from scratch for some of the filming of the Leo Tolstoy story.

November 15, 2012|By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times
  • Sarah Greenwood on the set of Joe Wright's movie "Anna Karenina," a Focus Features release.
Sarah Greenwood on the set of Joe Wright's movie "Anna Karenina,"… (Laurie Sparham )

The oft-quoted phrase "All the world's a stage" from Shakespeare's "As You Like It" might well have been the guiding principle for production designer Sarah Greenwood's work on "Anna Karenina." The veteran British designer was faced with one of her toughest jobs to date when she was tapped to work on director Joe Wright's ambitious film, opening Friday from Focus Features. The movie, adapted from Leo Tolstoy's epic novel by Tom Stoppard, highlights the lavish society of imperial Russia in the 1870s. But most of the story takes place on and around a single theater stage, one that was built from scratch.

How did you get involved in this project?

This is our fifth film together, and I've known Joe for about 10 to 12 years. It gives us a real shorthand and understanding, and a certain freedom to try things because we all know and trust each other. And when you have to turn something around on a sixpence, you're not scared when you need to make a big change.

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And what was the big change on this film?

When we started out, we had this incredible script from Tom Stoppard. We were going to make a relatively conventional costume drama. We were going to be shooting in Russia six weeks on a stage and six weeks on location. We scouted in Russia and the U.K., but things became slightly tricky. In the U.K., you have very good relations with good historic houses. Over in Russia, you got the feeling they didn't want you to take the bloody ropes down. It was just too expensive and restrictive.

Wright took the novel approach of setting most of the movie inside a theater. What inspired that decision?

We just realized we needed a very big idea to make this work, and that's when Joe came up with this concept of setting it all in a theater. Joe found this book, "Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia," and it described Russian society as living their lives upon a stage. The whole of their life was a performance and it was fake. The idea of putting it in a theater was a very good analogy for how they were living their lives. It was a brave attempt to represent an epic and amazing book in a different way.

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You considered filming at a derelict theater in London called the Alexandra Palace. Why did you decide to build a theater from scratch?

We realized we had to build the theater for us to be able to control it. We had a lot of fantastic imagery to deploy. The overriding conceit of the setting of the derelict theater is that this is a society on its way out, decaying, heading toward unrest under the rule of aristocracy. They did like their gold leaf, so gilding was important to have. But everything within is fake, paper-thin.

So how long did it take build this theater?

It took us 12 weeks to design, draw and build this enormous theater. The stage alone was 50 feet by 100 feet. It was a full-scale Russian theater. If you stop and think about it, it's not possible, but we didn't stop and think about it. I studied theater design and worked in theater for about three years in the BBC drama department, so that was very helpful.

You used four stages at Shepperton Studios to build not only the theater but also other sets, such as the Karenin home in St. Petersburg. How did you link them?

These sets had subtle architectural links echoing the theater, such as the same style of doors, which helped make the transition as seamless as possible.

How did you manage to create a horse track and skating rink inside the theater?

A lot of that was done with CG [computer-generated] work. We filmed the horse-racing scene at night on an old airfield and covered the ground with the same surface as the stage. We had the real horses in the paddock in the auditorium for a scene when [Vronsky's mare] Frou-Frou falls over a fence and breaks his back. For the ice rink, we got an ice rink company to build an ice rink in the theater. It took three nights to freeze it.

richard.verrier@latimes.com

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