• NIGHTINGALE: An interview with Alexander Holmes

Alexander Holmes speaks to the APDG about his work in the recently released film Nightingale.

In relation to ‘Nightingale” how do you find your way into the world of the film?  

When I receive a script, I try to read it at least a couple of times. Each read digs you deeper into the story. So much time, sweat, tears and thought has gone into the writing that I feel one has to take the necessary time to read and understand it thematically and emotionally. That gives you the best possible emotional starting point to develop thoughts and feelings about how production design might contribute to the story. A script is essentially an emotional chart hung around a plot and I find as a designer you’re always looking for ways you can help describe character but also amplify that emotional journey.

For most films once I’ve got some ideas about the what the essence and tone of the story, I start looking for images that resonate – images that inspire on a broad aesthetic level. They can be quite abstract. Often, I look beyond film imagery to paintings and art photography as a starting point. Jennifer Kent and I had this in common. Both of us like to look at painting and art for inspiration as well as stills from other films. Paintings can be a more focused way of arriving at a colour palette, because colour palettes and mood are often more clearly discernible in a painting. After that I start looking at other films that I think resonate with my feelings about the project.

In the case of Nightingale, there was obviously a lot of period research that had to be done simultaneously. In researching the early 19th century, I had to do as much “reading” as “looking”. Being a period that predates photography, it wasn’t always easy to find images that told me what I needed to know. Drawings, etchings and especially paintings from the period were very informative, but I also found books, autobiographical diaries were very informative in terms of understanding the smaller details of everyday life in colonial times.

On the set of Nightingale – Image provided by Alexander Holmes


When you receive the script what is the process you go through to get to the first day of filming?

Generally, the above process mostly happens before official pre-production starts. Then it’s building the crew. 1st it’s finding a great Art Director to help do budgets and figure out the scope of the work that is going to have to be done. Together you build your team. Pre-production in the Art Dept is all about bringing together all the talented people you need to achieve what needs to be done. Then it’s the doing phase as the art department machine springs into action to achieve the vision as locations and sets are gradually locked down. Some of it will be studio sets, some of it location based. All needs plenty of work and thought. As a Prod Designer, much like the director above you, the job is to always keep the big picture in mind and make sure all the talented people working with you don’t stray off ‘vision’, which is very easy to do when budget and logistical issues come to bare on the process. 

Who made up your team on ‘Nightingale’ and how did you work with them?

I was blessed to have Sophie Nash as the Art Director, who came with so much valuable experience. Together we built a team that at its core consisted of a Set Decorator, 3 buyer Dressers, A runner, Set Designer, Prop master, Art Co-ordinator and a Greensman. We had a number of people working for us remotely on graphics and previsualisations. We also obviously had a full-time construction team. I stayed in close contact with all of them at different times, with the exception of the buyer dressers who mostly reported back to the set decorator on this one. Geographically we were very disparate as a because so much of our time was spent travelling long distances between sets and locations. Much time was spent driving a car!

On the set of Nightingale – Image provided by Alexander Holmes


What were the biggest challenges on this project?

I think the biggest challenge on this project had to do with the kind of wood we need to construct wooden frontier shacks with. In the 1820’s most huts were still being constructed with SPLIT WOOD as opposed to machine cut planks. Cutting machines were not in use until the 1850’s, so wood at this time was either pit sawn or split with a wedge and maul. Frontier shacks were split. Split wood has a very specific look and in the end we had to find the only 2 guys left in Tasmania who still knew how to do it. They split enough wood for us to construct ONE of our huts from. Believe it or not we then recycled those planks in different configurations for 3 different sets. We started calling our 3 wooden huts the “Turducken”. They had to be scheduled in order so that the last one could be burnt down in shot!

How do you communicate your ideas throughout the process, from concept through to as you are filming?

When necessary, previsualisations are very helpful to help communicate with the team and with the director about what you have in mind. Mood boards, and prop layouts are also very helpful. Very often communication is simply verbal but usually those discussions are most effective when combined with visual references.

On the set of Nightingale – Image provided by Alexander Holmes


What does your art department office look like during the project?

It’s usually plastered with imagery, reference and location pictures. I usually have one section of wall dedicated to those early references a gathered – art photography, film stills etc – a kind of mood board. Then each other section of wall in the place is usually dedicated to more specific visual reference for each ‘set’. There are usually location shots taking up lots of real estate too. It’s great for everyone to be able to see what we are doing up on the walls.

How do you put your mark on each project?

I think any ‘mark’ I might put on a project, is more unseen than seen. I suppose coming from a painting and drawing background, means I feel I can sometimes bring some of that sensibility to bear on a project. But for the most part I just try to adapt my design to suit each individual project. At the end of the day, it’s about serving a specific story and a specific director’s vision. For many screenplay’s or tv shows, production design needs to amplify mood and character without being noticed. With other types of project – like for instance THE BABADOOK – the production design takes on a completely foregrounded role.  The role of production design on each project is always different and because of that so is the approach.

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