In person, Saoirse Ronan is slight and delicate-looking, even more than on screen. When we interviewed her about her new film, Hanna (opening tomorrow), we were wondering how she becomes one of the world's deadliest superhumans.
Ronan explained to us how she became a killing machine, and what it's like to play a character who knows everything about violence but nothing about the real world. And Hanna director Joe Wright (Atonement) told us how he approached the film's science.
Minor spoilers ahead...
So in Hanna, Saoirse Ronan plays a young girl who's raised in the tundra by her father (Eric Bana), and trained to be an ultimate killing machine. And then she ventures out into the dark, dangerous real world, on a mission to kill Marissa (Cate Blanchett) — or be killed. Along the way, Hanna is forced to confront a world of music and culture and sexuality and weirdness that she's never dreamed of. It's very much a dark fairy tale, with references to the Brothers Grimm sprinkled in here and there.
Hanna is the anti-Sucker Punch:
Wright clearly thought the main point of the movie was a critique of the objectification of women in our society, and the sexualization of underage girls — something he mentioned to us during roundtable interviews, but made a much bigger point of at the Wondercon panel. Watch Wright's searing rant about things like push-up bras for eight-year-old girls, and his none-too-subtle jab at Sucker Punch, from the Wondercon panel. The fireworks start at around 1:15 in the video below:
Ronan told us she had just been to an "all-girls screening" of Hanna. The audience included a lot of mothers in their late thirties. "And what they got out of the film was a sense of empowerment." The fact that Hanna is young and female, but has such great strength and the ability to overcome so much "is very exciting to see," says Ronan. "It will be great when Katniss Everdeen comes out" in the Hunger Games movie, she adds. "I remember reading the book and thinking that this is a character that girls are going to look up to."
Hanna is "weird and she's a little bit of a misfit and and she's got strength."
Hanna is a killer who is totally innocent
One of the most captivating, unusual things about Hanna is that she's a stone cold killer, who's totally innocent and untouched by the world. We asked Saoirse Ronan how she went about playing that dichotomy, and she said:
I think Hanna is someone who's always very focused, whether it be on her fascination with everything that's new to her [or on her fighting.] Only when she starts to fight, only when that switch is flipped — that's when she turns into an animal. And we really did treat her like an animal, didn't we? We treated her like a wolf. I don't know how I balanced [the two sides of the character] out — really, for me, it was about instinct and being able to basically wipe your memory of anything that has happened to you, and everything you've ever experienced. Because she's never experienced anything, so everything seemed quite beautiful and wonderful.
At times, when she stepped into a desert courtyard full of camels and natives, Ronan really was seeing all this stuff for the first time. So she was able to empathize with Hanna's feelings of wonder at the newness of everything.
Ronan spent a couple of weeks training at the Ino Santo academy, and Hanna's fight choreographer, Jeff Imada, had worked on the Bourne movies among other things. Hanna was designed to have a "mixed-style" approach to fighting, and her fighting style was specifically designed for her. Most of the people she fights are men, "so I needed to use their energy and strength against them," says Ronan.
Wright said that in a lot of movies, they impose a fighting style on the character, but it was really important to him that Hanna's fighting style say something about her. "It was all about finding the character through her fighting style and the fighting style through the character."
There's one huge fight scene where Eric Bana takes care of a group of guys in a subway station, which was clearly shot as a single take. Even though all of Wright's movies have included at least one long single-take sequence, he didn't want to have one in Hanna — but then he was running into a time crunch for filming. And that Bana fight scene would have taken days to shoot if it had involved 40 different setups. So instead, he decided to gamble on being able to rehearse the scene all day and then get a few takes of the whole scene in one go.
Perhaps because he had the same fight choreographer as the Bourne films, Wright was determined to make Hanna as different from them as possible. He wanted the violence in the film to feel a bit unreal, and "quite sensational," to underscore that it was a fairy tale.
The science of Hanna
Spoiler alert: In the course of Hanna, you discover that her amazing strength and fighting skills are not just thanks to years of training in the wilderness. She's been genetically altered in the womb, to make her a super-soldier.
Is Hanna an anti-science film? We asked Wright, and he said he would hate to think so, "because I kind of believe in science."
At the same time, he wasn't interested in delving into the film's science, or explaining it at all. "I'm actually very not that interested in the science of the movie, and I think that possibly shows in the wafer-thin explanation of it."
The original screenplay by Seth Lockwood "was completely without explanation." And then before Wright came on board, there were subsequent drafts that layered in more explanation of what had happened to Hanna, and turned the film into more of a "procedural story" about the CIA and espionage "and backstories, and where and why." But when Wright signed up to direct the film, he brought it back to Lockwood's original idea as much as possible.
Wright would have liked a version where "the whole thing was unexplained, really." He thinks it's interesting to see the development of storytelling from Hitchcock's theories of the MacGuffin to David Lynch's "complete refusal to give any explanation for his plot other than complete poetic truth." He thinks Hanna, in its final version, sits somewhere between those two things.
"Fairy tales are dark and they're very violent," says Wright. "I'm sure you know that in Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, she commits suicide... the whole point about fairy tales is they're dark... to prepare children to come up against the cruelty and deceit in the world."