APDG member and Academy Award nominee, Fiona Crombie, is interviewed by APDG Vice-President Fiona Donovan.
In relation to The Favourite how do you find your way into the world of the film? When you receive the script what is the process you go through to get to the first day of filming?
The first read of the script is often the most informative because it is when I am completely instinct driven. Most of the time I haven’t even got the job, so I am reading it without the baggage of what is feasible and achievable. It is just about what is inspiring, what am I imagining and what I would like to express in the design. My first read of The Favourite heavily informed the look of the film. I imagined ornate, cavernous spaces, long corridors and sparse furnishings. I imagined a constant play on scale – tiny chairs next to enormous windows, the Queen’s looming bed, Abigail’s little bedroom. The script was witty and sharp, full of anachronisms both in dialogue and storytelling. I knew that the design had to match that. It had to be playful. Unknowingly I had hit on ideas that were important for Yorgos and how he envisaged the film. In many ways the first meeting with Yorgos set out the parameters for the look of the film and from there it became about details. We researched the period so that we understood the court of Queen Anne and then made educated decisions when to ignore the history. The main goal was to create a coherent and cohesive world for the film so that the deviations were not distracting. We secured our key location, Hatfield House, very early so we were always creating with the location in mind. The palette and textures of the film were built around Hatfield as the centrepiece. We studied the architectural details of the house and transplanted them into our set builds so that it was all neatly integrated. The locations outside of Hatfield had to offer contrast to the royal court so we spent a lot of time finding the right places for those sets. Once our locations were locked, we started detailing and refining and the next thing we knew, we were on set… From memory we had a swift 6 week shoot finishing in May of 2017.
Who made up your team on The Favourite and how did you work with them?
The first film I made in the UK was Macbeth. In 2013, I had the good fortune to meet two key collaborators with whom I have worked ever since. Phil Clark is my Visual Researcher and he is a very important part of my development process at the beginning of each project. Phil and I start by bouncing ideas back and forth and growing concepts together. It is such an important collaboration because it is through that process that we find the visual framework for the film. The references we choose express the look of the entire film and communicate the vision. Phil and I usually have 3 weeks developing on our own and then he continues into pre-production for another 4 weeks as we go deeper into the design. My other key collaborator is Alice Felton. We are currently working on our fifth film together. I am very detail driven and I am drawn to Set Decoration because of my theatre background. In theatre the designer is the Set Decorator! Alice understands my taste and the tone of my designs. We work closely together on the main directional choices. Alice has an incredible eye for quality and she elevates every set she touches. Alice works closely with Lizzie Bravo who was the Assistant Set Decorator on The Favourite. Lizzie is now our Action Prop Buyer and on The Favourite we credit Lizzie with all of the beautiful and considered details. She is meticulous in her research and creative with her execution. I remember the detailing of the hot chocolate tray. It was so beautifully considered with cacao nibs, fresh cream, steamed milk, shaved chocolate…
My Supervising Art Director was Lynne Huitson with a team of one Art director, Caroline Barclay and two junior Art Directors, Jamie Shakespeare and Chelsea Davey for the duration of the film. We had a couple of other people pop in to fill gaps as we needed them but essentially it was a small Art Department. Lynne ran the budget, the team and kept everything moving. Caroline was responsible for the set construction drawings and Jamie and Chelsea worked on the elements like the rabbit cages, the Queen’s bed, the leg braces and the model of Blenheim Palace. The model was entirely hand made in paper by Jamie and Chelsea. It was intricate and exquisite work.
Our Prop Master was Muffin Green and Standby Art Director was Laura Conway Gordon. Our Graphic Designer was Charis Theobald. We also had the floral artist Jenny Tobin, the scenic painter Rohan Harris and the Home Economist Katharine Tidy. I am mentioning all these names because the work that Phil and I did in the first weeks would have amounted to nothing without the talents of this team. We were a small group, but I had incredible support from beginning to end.
I also had the great pleasure of collaborating with costume designer Sandy Powell, Hair & Makeup Designer Nadia Stacey and Cinematographer Robbie Ryan. Through Yorgos’ very concise direction we were all able to be on the same page very quickly. We were all making the same film and it was an uncomplicated and enjoyable process.
What were the biggest challenges on this project?
One of the biggest challenges was money. The Favourite was a small budget film and my department had around £1.2 million pounds. It may sound like a nice sum of money, but it was very tight. We were fortunate to have a location that gave us scale and production value but that came with its own complications. We were carefully monitored and chaperoned as we moved around the house. Construction was painstaking as each wall had to be sleeved into position. There was no painting on site. We emptied the house of art and furniture, much of it priceless, so there were lengthy negotiations about what was moving, where it was moving to and who was handling it. We had to build special containers to house the objects. This meant we had to be extremely organised, well in advance. There was no doing anything on a whim.
Hatfield House is one of the few stately homes that allows for the burning of candles which was one of the key reasons we chose to shoot there. The film was only shot with natural light and candlelight. Not only were we supplying the candles (70 000 across the shoot) and positioning the candelabra, we were looking for ways to bounce light where possible. We used marble surfaces, we refurbished the floorboards so that they gleamed, we used fabrics that had bounce and we put mirrors in each room. It was a challenge to have all the lighting in camera and for it to be subtle and elegant.
How do you communicate your ideas throughout the process?
I rely heavily on reference to communicate my ideas. I think it’s important to have references that display the tone of the project as well as specific design details. I will collect thousands of images through the course of a production. I also tend to draw and design some of the detailed pieces myself. The main thing is always talking, checking and being available to the crew to ask questions.
What does your art department office look like during the project?
My Art Departments always have walls that are absolutely plastered with images. They are organised in groups for each set and are in a rough story order so that the ‘travel’ of the film can be seen. We will also have a wall with location photos in story order for the same reason. It is good to track what will happen visually as we move from one location to the next. And there are always racks and racks of sample fabrics, big pieces of floor and wall samples and lots of turmeric tea.
How do you put your mark on each project?
It is hard to know how I put my mark on a project because I can’t really see what is particular about my designs. I came through theatre design and so I don’t approach my work with a technical eye. It is always instinct driven. I am sure I have an aesthetic and a palette but essentially, I try to be true to the story and the director’s vision. I see my role as part of the storytelling, so I enjoy investigating characters and representing facets of them through their environments.