Producer Paul Webster talks about Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina at a special Q&A in London.

On Monday, the British Library hosted a Q&A session with Anna Karenina’s producer Paul Webster.

“I hope I don’t come across as defensive,” Webster began the event. “What we’re showing you today is a few clips, just to contextualise.”

Webster joked about the development phase, stating that having read the book and speaking with writer Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright, they all agreed it’s “unadaptable”. “It’s an 800-plus page masterpiece being condensed down to a couple of hours of screen time.”

One of the most problematic issues was that “film pays no attention to prose, prose is irrelevant. Basically, the camera speaks the prose for the viewer.” Webster added: “It’s daunting not least because of its scale, but in crude Hollywood movie terms, because it’s a downer. You can’t get away from the fact that we all know what happens to Anna Karenina.”

So, he described, Joe Wright decided to “distil the essence of it”. Inspired by a quote from Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance, stating that Russian aristocracy were “living their lives as if upon a stage”, Wright decided to set the film in a “decaying 1870s Russian theatre”.  

Webster showed clips from the film, including a heated argument between Anna (Keira Knightley) and Alexei (Jude Law), Anna as a social outcast, and a sequence portraying Vronsky’s horse race in an actual theatre.

Commenting on the surreal setting, Webster said: “It is a broad metaphor of Russian society at the time, mixed with Joe’s desire to explore different ways of presenting period drama.” Wright’s parents were puppeteers and Webster added that “there is a strong theatricality to everything he does”, going on to praise Stoppard as an active “co-conspirator”.

Questioned about the challenges of the process, Webster revealed: “The film was very challenging to make, because of the confines of how we shot the movie. We shot all in one space - the theatre hosts a race course, an ice skating rink, a ball. There were 108 different sets in the screenplay, so that resuscitated a huge logistical challenge. In the four months of filming, there were people working 24 hours a day on the sets.”

He also explained the casting choices: “Joe has collaborated with Keira Knightley twice before with some success. There’s a lot of significant English actors, plus a sprinkling of European actors. The idea was ‘no Americans’. Officially, it is a British film – I like to think of it as an international film. What I hope you get from the film is that we have been true to the essence of Tolstoy.”

Webster summarised the message of the film: “It’s not simply a tragedy – it’s an exploration of different aspects of love.”

Finally, when asked about potential controversy, he stated “I think it will divide people, some will love it, some will hate it… but that’s healthy, isn’t it?”

Anna Karenina is released this Friday in the UK through Universal.