How's that for a headline? All that is promised shall be delivered.
I recently interviewed production designer Eve Stewart, currently enjoying her second Oscar nomination for The King's Speech, and it was a completely delightful experience. Some of her spirit must have rubbed off on The King's Speech, which is, whether one is rooting for it at the Oscars or not, a much livelier viewing experience than what anyone might have expected reading a plot description months ago. "If you just hear about it on paper, it sounds..." I begin to admit after becoming acquainted.
"...a bit boring?" she finishes my thought for me, matter of factly, with no hint of offense. "In the end i just thought 'GOOD GOD!' people are going to be looking at this room for 20 minutes. It better be interesting."
And so it went throughout the interview with Eve Stewart's merry recollections of The King's Speech, the intense work on Mike Leigh films, and her excitement about a new HBO project coming up. Here at the Film Experience we like to begin interviews with behind the scenes movie players by asking them to describe their job.
Moviegoers, including we film bloggers, have differing and sometimes spotty ideas about what each of a film's players bring to the table.
Nathaniel: When I think of production designers and art direction I think of people maybe looking at color palettes, approving sets, looking for props, talking intently to the costume designers. How would you describe what it is that you do?
Eve Stewart: I would describe my job as to support the story visually and to make sure that the world in which the story is set comes to life and creates a 'Bubble of Belief' around the characters which kind of transports the viewer with them.
Nathaniel: When it comes down to the nitty gritty like set constructions and prop work. Do you have a bunch of minions that you're bossing around?
Stewart: Oh I'm really hands on. My team is very small. I did painting at the Royal College of Art. I did opera and stuff like that so I didn't really do the normal film route. So the people I work with are sculptors, painters, fine artists that I've worked with since I was young and they all have a massive role to play.
Nathaniel: Do costume designers report to you since the visual look is your job?
Stewart: They don't report to me but i'm really collaborative. In the end you are responsible for everything that is seen, all that gets photographed, so you have to make sure it all pulls together. I mean, It's terrible if you're designing a building and it doesn't look like the people live there because you haven't communicated with the costume designer. And also with color, you have to work together and compliment each other.
Nathaniel: The obvious standout set to me is the speech therapist's office, which I like to describe as a "dilapidated diorama"
Stewart: (laughs) Good!
Nathaniel: I love that it feels a bit like a stage. I mean part of that is the way it's shot but it pulls out for us that Logue (Geoffrey Rush) is a theater person at heart.
read the whole interview for more on The King's Speech, her Mike Leigh movies and Marlene Dietrich for HBO after the jump
Stewart: That was really important. To make sure his theatricality was represented. It becomes a performance piece for Logue in the way be cajoles and gets people to come out of themselves and perform.
Nathaniel: And that WALL.
Stewart: The director and I were looking around buildings and we saw a little bit of an incredibly distressed wall, which is what it was. There were layers and layers of decorations, hundreds of years in London from the 1700s and such. We loved it so much that I remembered it and we replicated it in there with lots of different treatments and old paint. It was layers of lacquers and wax and bits of paper. It was meant to represent all that time had come before but they're stuck in this garret* creating something.
The wall -- we kept going. There was so little light in there while we were working; there's no electricity in half of these old buildings. We were doing it in very dim lights and kept going and going and there was a point where I thought "Oh my god. what have i done??? (laughter) and then they turn the lights on and it was beautiful but I was a bit scared of being quite so daring.
[*Editor's Note: "Garret" means "attic" -- yes, I had to look it up. It's here were we had the brief discussion noted in the intro, about the film being more visual than people expect when it seems, in description, to be an actor's piece.
It's not just the wall but the speech instrument props too. They tracked them down or created them. All of them authentic...]
Stewart: I was deeply involved with the Speech Therapists Society and we got all the historical stuff out.
It all worked as well.
Nathaniel (surprised) It did???
Stewart: It did. We made sure it all worked. I worked with Mike Leigh a lot before working with Tom [Hooper] and so that kind of hung over. Everything has to work and be proper otherwise you get yelled at. (laughter).
Nathaniel: I wouldn't have suspected that Mike Leigh was a yeller.
Stewart: Not horribly just rather challengingly.
Nathaniel: Your work with Mike Leigh, Topsy-Turvy (1999) in particular, is just so gorgeous.
Stewart: That's so nice. That was just -- You get a chance to spread your wings in a world that you know. Having done opera and theater and grown up in that kind of world. Well, I was being taken to the music halls since I was about two. I love that kind of color and make believe.
Nathaniel: That movie is so intricate and authentic-looking it had to have cost $100 million.
Stewart: (laughing) It didn't. We had nothing. We had so little money. We started with more and then they lost half of it on the Asian Stock Exchange while we were filming.
Nathaniel: God. So do you ever see Hollywood movies and think "How did this cost $100 million?"
Stewart: I do! I do. I'm fascinated by it. Of course it sounds absolutely brilliant to have that much but in a way I've now grown up so long being challenged by the lack of financial resourcesthat it really distills what you can put there. It makes me really really conscious of the fact that every thing visual that I put in is a character in itself. It gives a bit about the history of the people you're showing. Nothing is arbitrary or for my ego.
Nathaniel: (teasing) Would you say your ego is large?
Stewart: (laughter) No it's really small (reconsidering) well not small. I always put myself second to the story.
Nathaniel: Vera Drake is my favorite Mike Leigh film.
Stewart: Mine, actually as well. I think because it was a period that was so close to people's hearts around family and friends. It was so particular and challenging. If I put a teapot on the set I'd have some great aunt ringing me up and going "What are you playing at? You wouldn't have a teapot like that." You must always be careful.
Nathaniel: How early does Mike Leigh involve you?
Stewart: Very early. We did these things called "character interviews" where each actor would spend an hour with me talking about their character and about the history of their characters. So by the end of that period I would know, for example, what Vera would have got as a wedding present from her Auntie Mabel in 1936. Then I would go out and try and find that thing as best i could. I mean, it's all make believe but when they come into the set it's everything that their character would expect to be there. Things are in the cupboards. It's down to the details of what's in their pockets, I'd print bus tickets for example, so they're completely submersed in the world... so that when they're improvising nothing will jar them out of it.
Nathaniel: It really shows. His movies are immersive.
Stewart: Completely in that reality, yeah. We used to laugh -- he has to say "come out of character" to the actors at the end of a day's shooting. We used to all laugh 'What if he forgot one evening? Would they stay in character?'
Nathaniel: That's terrible. His characters are so sad!
Stewart: (Laughing) I know. They're so miserable. It's funny because he [Mike Leigh] is so funny.
Nathaniel: I know you didn't work on it but have you seen Another Year?
Stewart: That's a bit more jolly.
Nathaniel: Do you plan on working with him again at any point?
Stewart: I don't know. It would be lovely but I think he was trying to get back to the essence of him and things had become a bit visual.
Nathaniel: I have to ask this because you do all these period dramas and then suddenly a Guy Ritchie film? It just seems so... well, how would that come about?
Stewart: That was just because we got on in an interview. We share the same sense of humor I think. But yeah. It's very interesting how you quickly get siphoned into being a 'Bonnet Movie' person.
Nathaniel: It's the same for actors. Typecasting.
Stewart: But I'm a bit of an anorak so I do really love the research and the kind of bringing to life of old details that some people go 'Ooh i never knew that.' It becomes really fascinating.
Nathaniel: Is there any genre that you haven't done that you would love to attack.
Stewart: I would LOVE to do a futuristic alien something. For the sheer fun of it. God, that would be good.
Nathaniel: Like an Aliens HR Giger thing? You could let your imagine run wild. Lacquer as many walls as you want!
Stewart: I know. Who would know that it wouldn't happen? They'd all end up like that. (laughing) It would be pretty grotty in my head, a layer of grime and many insects.
Nathaniel: What are you working on at the moment?
Stewart: I'm just about to do the story of Marlene Dietrich with Gwyneth Paltrow for HBO.
Nathaniel: Oh. You're returning to De-Lovely (2004) then, to Old Glamour Hollywood.
Stewart: I am. I seem to be going in kind of little circles. My knowledge of these periods; I'll be able to write a big book about it when I'm old.
Nathaniel: Have you already started working on it? I'm surprised actually because some Dietrich bio or another has been in the works forever and we never see anything.
Stewart: Oh as soon as someone mentions something I start the work. I'm obsessed. There's nothing I don't know about Marlene's Nazi past now. I'm thrilled. I think Gwyneth Paltrow is going to be brilliant. Did you know that Marlene spent 14 years on her own in Paris in one room at the end of her life? She peed in a bucket!
Nathaniel: That sounds very Greta Garbo… (laughter) well, apart from the peeing.
Stewart: That's the bit that got me. It's going to be brilliant. I'm trying to make Germany with six pounds and a bucket in London.
Nathaniel: (laughter) Can't wait. I know we need to wrap up. I did want to say "good luck with the Oscars" I know you've been there once before for Topsy Turvy.
How was that?
Stewart: Thrilling. Mainly to see all those people. I saw Clint Eastwood and nearly passed out. [Pause] My dad thinks it's in France. "Isn't it marvelous? You have to go to France again."
Nathaniel: (Much laughter)
Stewart: He's a bit dotty.