Anna Karenina: About The Production

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Writer-director Bernard Rose says that he is glad to have encountered Anna Karenina for the first time as an adult. "When you mention this novel, everyone nods and says, 'Oh, yes, I've read it,' but when you ask them to be more specific, they admit they were supposed to read it in school, but few really did," says Rose. "When I discovered this marvelous story as an adult I could experience it as something fresh and new; it was riveting."

Rose was directing "Immortal Beloved," about the life of Beethoven, when he became interested in Tolstoy's work. "Tolstoy had written The Kreutzer Sonata, which I used as a reference in 'Immortal Beloved,'" recalls Rose. "It was my first exposure to Tolstoy's writing and its power blew me away. I developed an appetite for more of his writing, and Anna Karenina seemed a natural next choice."

Rose became enthralled by the scope and intensity of the novel, and particularly about what it revealed of Tolstoy's own inner self. "I immediately thought this would make a wonderful movie because the characters were so psychologically powerful. And because of the parallel stories of Anna and Vronsky versus Levin and Kitty, it seemed as if Tolstoy had, by the end of the book, explored virtually all the possibilities of romantic life.

"Levin is, essentially, Tolstoy himself," explains the director. "His life is factually just like Tolstoy's -- he's a wealthy rural landowner, disenchanted with society but full of intellectual passions. I actually used part of Tolstoy's writing from A Confession, which is autobiographical, as the opening for this movie, because it merges the novelist and his character's temperaments and outlooks so perfectly.

"On the other hand, Anna is also a personification of Tolstoy -- she represents his sensual, physical side, the side he feared and wrestled with all his life. Tolstoy not only married and had 13 children, but he also had many children out of wedlock; he constantly struggled to merge his desires with his ideals."

Once Rose became interested in filming Anna Karenina, he began watching versions of the story that had already been filmed. "Of course, I saw the Garbo version, which has many wonderful moments, but the story had a central flaw for me," he says. "Neither it nor any other filmed version gave much consideration to Levin and Kitty's part of the story; there was no parallelism, and much of the meaning of the whole book was lost."

As Rose considered this, he became committed to writing the script for his movie himself. "I went to see Bruce Davey and Mel Gibson at Icon Productions," he recounts. "We had worked together very comfortably on 'Immortal Beloved,' and when I told them about my plans for writing and directing a film of Anna Karenina, they were immediately interested. So I went home and began writing."

Says Bruce Davey, "Bernard had just done a very fine job for us with 'Immortal Beloved' and he was excited about making Anna Karenina his next film. It was clear that the time was right for a story like this one -- just look at the recent screen success of Jane Austen's novels.

"Anna Karenina is a very powerful story set at a dramatic period in Russia's history. Despite all of its formality, this period is probably the time that Americans and Europeans feel most comfortable with -- a time when Russia was at its most cosmopolitan for the privileged few who could live as aristocrats. And the story itself is a great classic, one that can be created again and again on the screen."

Icon Productions gave Rose the go-ahead and he began finalizing his screenplay as he and Davey considered casting the roles.


The filmmakers immediately recognized the importance of finding the ideal actors to play the roles that have captured generations of readers the world over.

Emphasizes Bernard Rose, "Despite the massive scale of this movie, it is actually a very intimate look at four people and their innermost thoughts and desires. A story like this can only succeed if the actors completely reveal themselves in the characters they're playing. In addition, we needed actors who were comfortable in a period drama, who could move and speak convincingly in a 19th-century setting of incredible lavishness. I think we were very fortunate in attracting a wonderful group of people to meet these challenges."

Rose continues, "One of the interesting aspects of casting is that, in 850 pages of his novel, Tolstoy tells us virtually nothing about Anna Karenina: we never meet her parents, she is unknown by her past. This, for Tolstoy, made sense because he saw Anna as a version of Levin -- she is the physical and he is the philosophical, and his history is the only one the reader needs, since Anna defines herself by her actions, not her ideas.

"So we needed to find an Anna who could communicate a great deal without a history -- who had a gorgeous, eloquent face and a mystery about her, aristocratic yet vulnerable. A woman who could drive a man to a grand, dangerous adoration, but who seemed to live without any calculation. Mel Gibson had recently worked with Sophie Marceau on 'Braveheart' and he suggested that we meet with her."

Marceau, a French actress who has enjoyed a successful career on stage and screen in her native country, had recently had a baby, and Rose felt that this enhanced her qualification for the role even more.

"I don't think you could cast a childless woman as Anna," he explains. "There are too many aspects of the story that deal with her children and her separation from them; I think only a mother can really give them resonance. In addition, the fact that Sophie is French was very helpful, because Russian aristocrats of the day were frequently educated in Paris and spoke French even after returning home. In fact, as we show in the film, Russian was primarily spoken by the nobility only to their servants; to one other, they spoke European languages, usually French."

Comments Marceau on the lasting appeal of Anna Karenina, "The book is a masterpiece; the fact that people still read, feel and talk about this book shows what a classic story it is. It owes its longevity to the fact that it deals with people, people who go farther than anyone else. Yet it's so close to reality that we can recognize ourselves in all the characters."

In considering actors to portray the handsome, socially agile Vronsky, whose carefully planned career is cast to the winds after he encounters Anna Karenina, director Rose quickly thought of Sean Bean.

"Sean is a wonderful, vital actor with a very masculine energy," says Rose. "He also -- and this is not a small thing -- looks natural and appealing in uniform. Not all contemporary actors can carry off the military carriage and demeanor that a uniform, especially an imperial Russian uniform, requires. But I had seen Sean in a British television series called 'Sharpe's Rifles,' and I knew he'd be perfect for the part of Vronsky.

"The uniform is the essence of what Vronsky represents -- a man who lives for the pleasures of society, who can be calculating and even a little brutal in his relationships because he is a soldier at heart. But when he meets Anna Karenina, Vronsky is transformed -- and finally, even though he becomes wiser and more compassionate, he is ruined."

For the complex role of Levin, the filmmakers were extremely pleased to cast noted stage and film actor Alfred Molina. Explains Rose, "Fred has a unique ability to look physically big and strong at the same time he projects the air of being lost and uncertain. I wanted someone who was on a journey of self-discovery, who learned a lot about people and who faced his personal demons -- but he had to be a strong and intelligent person right from the beginning. Fred was exactly the man I had in mind!"

Responds Molina, "So much of the story is told from Levin's point of view...we understand Anna and Vronsky and Kitty and all the other characters through him. What's really interesting is that Tolstoy writes in a very visual way; he describes people physically, and those characteristics are the real clues in terms of how you are going to play them.

"Bernard's adaptation is very pure; there are many occasions when the characters in the film use the novel's dialogue exactly. And this is the first time the full content of the book has been explored on film, so I think it's a very important version of a classic work."

Mia Kirshner, a young actress whose film career has already attracted favorable notice, portrays Kitty as a woman who grows from childish self-absorption to a remarkable maturity after her marriage to Levin.

Says Kirshner, "Since Tolstoy saw himself in Levin's character, he also saw much of his wife, Sophie, in Kitty's character. Sophie edited Tolstoy's work and it was almost a love letter to her -- he writes 'there are two classes of women: all other women and then Kitty, who is in a class of her own.' So I felt it was important to show what qualities both Tolstoy and Levin admired in these women. Kitty really had to grow in the course of the story."

Bernard Rose was pleased to cast James Fox, a veteran actor who has amassed a varied list of screen credits, for the role of Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, Anna's husband and a high-ranking Russian Ministry official.

"I wanted a handsome man for this part," explains Rose. "He had to be physically attractive, because I didn't want people to think that Anna has been married to some kind of ogre. She wasn't; she had simply made the kind of marriage that most wealthy people of the time made. She had joined her future with the most successful man who proposed to her, and romantic love had nothing to do with it. I don't think she even understood how much was missing from her life until she met Vronsky.

"James Fox plays Karenin as a man who is obsessed with the proper and appropriate, no matter what feelings lie behind the actions. Yet, as the events of the story unfold, he emerges as a very sympathetic character. That's essential to the story I wanted to tell."

In addition to the starring roles, Rose was able to induce writer-director Danny Huston, son of legendary writer-actor-director John Huston, to play his first speaking role, as Anna's licentious brother Stiva. The other supporting roles of Stiva's wife Dolly and the scheming Lydia Ivanova were filled by the respected British actresses Saskia Wickham and Fiona Shaw.


"Anna Karenina" has been filmed several times in the past, but this production is the first Western film to be made entirely in post-Soviet Russia, utilizing the ornate architecture and expansive vistas of one of the world's most picturesque and little-seen cities as a natural setting for the action of the story.

"We spent six months in St. Petersburg and the surrounding countryside making 'Anna Karenina' and it was a truly remarkable experience," says Bernard Rose. "We, as Westerners, know so little of what this country actually looks like; during the Cold War all we saw were photos of drab grey buildings and bundled-up people in lines. It was impossible to know that some of the world's most beautiful palaces and public spaces can be found in Russia. But once audiences see this movie, they will certainly know what they've been missing."

Continues Rose, "Imperial Russia was the richest empire in the history of the world. It had the wealth of an entire continent flowing into its pockets, because the feudal system was still alive in the 19th century there -- the aristocracy actually owned its workers. Like all pre-revolutionary societies, Imperial Russia was lavish and decadent for the few who could enjoy its riches. But after World War II, the city of St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad), which had suffered heavy damage, was rebuilt, so the palaces and public buildings are still standing today and most of them are in quite beautiful condition."

Bruce Davey, Bernard Rose and line producer Jim Lemley worked in cooperation with the Len Film Studio of St. Petersburg, which provided facilities and helped obtain access to certain sites.

Among the locations used in the film are Catherine the Great's lavish Winter Palace; the legendary art museum The Hermitage; the Peter and Paul Fortress, which actually pre-dates the construction of St. Petersburg by a year; and several other historic palaces, including the Marinsky, Marly and Wedding Palaces.

"The scale of this lavishness served a symbolic purpose for the Russian aristocracy," says Davey. "It reduced the significance of an ordinary individual to almost nothing, which further emphasized the power of these inherited bloodlines. Room after room of gold-encrusted decor, crystal chandeliers and tapestries -- only the enormous, majestic proportions of these rooms saved them from being gaudy. Instead, they're simply amazing to look at."

Bernard Rose acknowledges that filming in Russia during the early days of its post-Communist economy brought certain unique aspects into the movie-making process. "In the first place, everything had to be done with cash," he laughs. "Russia is a totally cash-based economy right now, and American cash is much better than Russian. But in general, people were very cooperative, even more than we expected them to be.

"One day we were filming in the Cathedral Square in front of the Kremlin. We had gotten permits to film there, but in the middle of the day, Boris Yeltsin himself came out with some of his aides and asked us to leave because the noise was disturbing him. Well, you could say this was unfair, but on the other hand, can you imagine if someone wanted to come from Russia and shoot a movie in the Rose Garden of the White House? It would be impossible! So I had very few complaints.

"The Russians have a deeply entrenched film culture and the supporting cast were all local talent. The dancers in our ballroom scenes were actual Russian ballerinas, who showed up in ordinary street clothes and were transformed into princesses in our lavish ballgowns. I don't think anyone can look bad in one of those dresses, and they certainly knew how to move in them.

"Our horse race was also filmed with Russian riders and their own horses -- they rode at breakneck speed and actually wanted to stage those falls as a test of their nerve!"

The legendary Russian weather lived up to its reputation -- St. Petersburg is just at the edge of the Arctic Circle -- but since the production filmed from February through July, the filmmakers also benefitted from the long Arctic summer days, which often provided up to 20 hours of light.

"The growing season in that part of the world is astounding," says Rose. "They get two crops in a very short summer, because the light makes everything grow so fast. It was perfect for filming, of course!"

One of the scenes that Rose felt was central to the story of Levin's evolution is the grass-cutting scene that occurs on his farmland. Using scythes, a team of men cuts a rhythmic swath through a gorgeous field of golden-green grass, illuminating to Levin the cyclical nature of life and need of people to help one another to survive.

"I think that scene is a moment of epiphany," says Rose. "It is the beginning of the change in Levin's life -- the moment when he goes from being lonely and unhappy to making the decision to seek happiness with Kitty. And we actually cut all that grass by hand; it's one of my favorite scenes."

In addition to the classic scenery, costuming and language used in "Anna Karenina," the Imperial Russian culture was evoked still further with a musical score composed by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, conducted by Sir Georg Solti and performed by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra.

Concludes Bernard Rose, "This is a timeless story about some of the most universal desires that inspire human behavior; it seems appropriate that timeless music, also composed during this romantic and lavish era, should enhance our film."

Warner Bros. Presents An Icon Production of A Film by Bernard Rose: "Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina," starring Sophie Marceau, Sean Bean, Alfred Molina, Mia Kirshner and James Fox. The music director is Sir Georg Solti; the film editor is Victor Dubois; and the production designer is John Myhre. The director of photography is Daryn Okada and the executive producer is Stephen McEveety. The film has a screenplay by Bernard Rose, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy. It is produced by Bruce Davey and directed by Bernard Rose. Distributed by Warner Bros., A Time Warner Entertainment Company.

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