• The Invisible Man: Interview with Alex Holmes

APDG Members Alex Holmes production designer of The Babadook (2014) and The Nightingale (2018) and Katie Sharrock set decorator of Mad-Max: Fury Road (2015) and Ladies in Black (2018) worked on the recently released The Invisible Man. In this interview, Alex gives members insight into the creation of the ‘invisible’ suit, scouting and building the locations and his overall design philosophy for the film.  

What was your overall design philosophy for this film?

Very early on Leigh and I agreed that the film had to be completely grounded in the real. One of the things I said to Leigh in my interview and pitch, was that the previous horror/psychological thriller I made – The Babadook – used a design approach that would NOT suit his film. 

The Babadook was highly stylized – Gothically inspired. We were intent on creating a chilling and unsettling mood through very deliberate artifice. The design world of Baba was actually more of a psychological space than a realistic space. An extension of the mother’s deteriorating and depressed mind. We weren’t interested in straight realism.

We wanted The Invisible Man to be the opposite, very much grounded in reality – a completely different kind of SCARY. We talked a lot about how the film had to prioritise believability. Invisibility isn’t the easiest thing to ‘believe’ in, so we really wanted to find a way to make that side of things feel legitimate. We were going to treat it like a thriller or a drama. Not a horror film. We didn’t want to lean into any aesthetic ‘horror’ tropes. That meant no exaggerated wallpapers, colours, contrived spooky spaces. He also wanted to ‘turn the lights on’. This was a horror film that was going to be full of ambient light. The exact opposite to the chiaroscuro, gothic lighting of Baba. Leigh’s film was NOT about something lurking in shadows! It’s about somebody that’s there, but not there. How do you show that? by lighting the space! Most of the films we talked about as references were not horror. They were dramas and thrillers, films like Girl on the Train, Prisoner and Gone Girl

Another important visual theme we wanted to accentuate was that this was a film of CONTRASTING worlds, not a monotone world. Not a one world film. Moving from extreme wealth to normal middle-class reality. From sci fi tech labs to drab kitchens. The Babadook was more of a one world, monotone film. With the The Invisible Man we were in the business of deliberately heightening the contrasts between locations and sets. 

 

Primarily, the film plays more like a psychological horror/thriller, but there are some sci-fi elements too. Tell us about your work on the invisibility suit and Adrian’s tech Lab.

With regard to the suit – Leigh was very open to ideas. He really wanted us to collaborate to find the right design for it and philosophy to justify it.  The main thing for him was that he didn’t want something that felt very MARVELesque or Superheroesque. He wanted something slick and minimalistic without lots of pointless ‘techy’ design elements. Cutting edge, but real and functional; not sci-fi. And that idea tied into all the conversations we’d had right from the first interview I’d had with him about the film. We both agreed that it was extremely important that the sci-fi elements of the film felt believable and real; contemporary rather than futuristic. Again, it needed to be approached like drama or a thriller, not as a sci-fi film or horror film. So, while the suit needed to be something that had a sinister presence, we were very conscious of NOT wanting to lean into those classic visual tropes ‘sci-fi’ or ‘horror’. It applied not just to the suit, but to the production design overall – the sets, the house interiors, the world in general. 

So based on these big picture ideas, we all (costume designer, vfx supervisor, production designer) went away, gathered references and ideas and came together in a series of meetings to try to nut out what this thing would look like. 

In those earlier stages, I did a lot of research into the invisibility technology that actually exists today. There is some, but it’s generally a science based on ‘bending’ light around objects so that you then literally can’t see them because they aren’t reflecting light back at you. In the end, we decided trying to sell this sort of idea was not filmic. Not comprehensible enough for an audience; very hard to tell visually. Instead, we came up with the idea of using an optics philosophy. The idea of a suit made of hundreds of small cameras, all filming what’s around them whilst also producing a hologram of what’s being filmed on the opposite camera. So that a camera on the suit’s back is filming backwards, but the image it is filming is appearing on the front of the suit in the directly opposite position. So an image of what is behind the suit wearer is being projected on the front. This was an idea we felt we could sell visually…and it’s an idea that postproduction could do some great things with…. camera irises animating, holograms…a hundred little surveillance “eyes” all over the suit. This idea also fed into the themes of the film in a more integrated way – themes surrounding, control, surveillance and camouflage. 

To do this, we needed to consult with some serious scientific boffins both at the CSIRO (google it) and at the universities. Specifically we talked to Professor of Physics Jim Rabeau at Usyd.  They told us that in THEORY what we were proposing could be done, but not without 20 years development etc. That was perfect for us. We needed this to feel like tech that was just out of reach of today, but still believable and conceivable. Jim felt that although he couldn’t see this sort of technology being developed with perfect results in the near future, the basic premise of the tech was sound enough for a story/film to latch onto.

In the end, ODD studios did an amazing job on this suit, creating a rubber/latex suit that VFX then elaborated on in post. Given that we had to have about 3 suits it’s a wonder they got it all done in the time given.

The Lab was also one of my favourite sets. We looked long and hard for a space to do this in. It was so hard to find. We ended up doing it in a rich persons 8 car garage in Hunter’s Hill. It had all these amazing LED strip lights built into the ceilings and up the walls. It looked so sci fi, but still so real. The production value those lights gave us was invaluable. They really heightened the feeling in there. I then set about designing a bunch of safe rooms, climate-controlled lab type spaces that we built INTO that space. I painted them gloss BLACK for drama. It felt high end. Expensive. I based those designs on university labs I had seen and then did the rich man’s version, in a bespoke black colour palette. Katie Sharrock (set decorator) and Andrew Crichton (buyer dresser) overcame the huge problem of finding believable tech to dress into this space with help from UTS, from whom we hired a lot of very expensive optics related tech. That was a major challenge and took weeks to organise. It all came together in the end, but it wasn’t easy.

The actual hanger in which the suit was housed and the clean room it was kept in, was the weirdest space to conceive and build. A suit storage space for a suit you can’t see! It had to look sci-fi but also very functional. We didn’t want any sort of MARVEL feeling. Nothing superhero style. Just a thing that powers the suit as well as houses it while he is working on it. It was tricky to get right. We were seriously running out of money too. But I remember this was one set that I really pushed Leigh on to do something a little more interesting with than what he had originally scripted. 

The research led me down into places Leigh could never have gone writing it. So it felt right that this set evolved from the script into something new and exciting. Then, in consultation with Jim Rabeau at University of Sydney we got talking about how cool and weird it would be if when C walks into that space that houses the suit, she can see herself walk in on an iPad attached to the wall – and that that screen is projecting her image from the SUIT’S POV as she walks in. Effectively, Cecilia can see herself as if there is a camera in there, but she can’t see any cameras!  It felt like a GREAT way to introduce the suit in the scene. So this was an instance where the production design started to dictate the scene a bit. Leigh rewrote and reconceived the scene to fit what we had come up with and I hope it’s become a really great ‘moment’ in the film.

 

There’s a sense of claustrophobia in the movie. What was your thinking when it came to the domestic spaces in the film; what did you do to help heighten the tension and emotional impact? And tell us what were set builds and what were locations?\

We knew that for budgetary reasons Adrian’s mansion had to be a location. It needed to be a location that said everything we wanted it to say about Adrian’s domineering, soulless personality—an extremely wealthy optics pioneer, but also obsessive-compulsive sociopath. We briefed location manager Edward to look for houses that had a Brutalist style of architecture—with heavy, monolithic, uninviting shapes—a high-end prison of sorts. We spent a couple of months searching for this house. We wanted a colourless palette, almost entirely blacks, greys and whites. That way, when we moved out of it into James’ house, we felt a sense of relief stepping into a more organic space, where warmer, more human colours dominated.

In the end, Adrian’s house was created through a combination of four locations. Interiors for the home were shot in Pebble Cove, approximately 2.5 hours down the south coast from Sydney. The production ended up being the first film crew to ever shoot at this lush space on the coastline. It’s concrete and the floors were made out of these astonishing wooden floorboards reclaimed from a cathedral in England. Everything about it was bespoke. 

While Pebble Cove gave us a large part of Adrian’s mansion interior, Dovecote —another amazing property—served as the exterior. Adrian’s house was conceptualized as “out of town” and near the ocean, in a wide-open, high-security space.  Fortunately, we found it right next door on the same land as Pebble Cove. 

Leigh also had a particular geography in mind for the house; he wanted it to be backing onto a big forest with an imposing security wall keeping Cecilia trapped in. Our location had no such wall, so built a part of one, a huge concrete slab wall with a heavy timber automatic gate. In Australia, walls around large houses are not as common in the countryside as in the US. So this design element served to Americanise the property as well as serve important story purposes. This was the entry into Adrian’s high security lair. It was an extremely important element. Obviously, we only built a portion of it, and in postproduction extended the walls to look as if they were wrapping around the property. We also loved the endless-ocean views of these two locations. Despite being so close to limitless freedom, Cecilia was so trapped. And until the day this film starts, she had never dared escape, it helped speak to Adrian’s power over her.

The third locale was another house where the team created Adrian’s lab. It was an incredible garage that housed a collection of high-end cars. We used that as a shell and then built a bunch of hi-tech clean rooms into the space. The fourth and final space was in Coogee, a beach suburb in Sydney where we built the walk-in wardrobe and Adrian’s ensuite bathroom. We actually built these into the living room of this location creating what felt like an enormous ensuite.  In the end I was happy with the way these four locations seamlessly match, making it all feel like one house.  

So while Adrian’s house was a high-end prison of sorts, James’s house needed to be the opposite to Adrian’s. We wanted a sense of normality, normal middle-class mundanity. But we realised quite early on that James’s house needed to be a build in the studio. With all the stunts Leigh wanted to do in there, we needed the control of a studio, the ability to float walls, pop ceilings, throw things around, throw actors around! So we set about designing a house and building it.

It was a place that had to feel familiar, safe. A normal, everyday, middle class American home. In a way, it was the normality of it that added to this creeping sense that Cecilia might be going insane. An invisible guy? Here, in this drab living room? Who would believe that? That’s what Leigh wanted. He wanted the audience to feel what it would be like if this was happening to them. Not in a dark, gloomy haunted house on a hill, but in a beige house with pokey bedrooms and a crawlspace for an attic. Katie Sharrock and buyer dressers, Lauren Miller and Louise Galligan did a beautiful job fulfilling the brief of creating a folksy, organic, disordered everyday atmosphere in the house.  

When it came to the attic, we very deliberately avoided a large attic that you can stand up in – the kind we’ve all seen in a million horror movies. Leigh was adamant about that. He wanted the kind of attic most people have…. a shitty crawlspace that is awkward to crawl through. So we built one with a very low roof but plenty of walls to pop out. I think this added to the claustrophobia. Rather than creating cavernous spaces where the monster could lurk, we decreased the space around her to increase the tension created by the fact he could be right there behind her and she wouldn’t know it. The attic was a full set build too – impossible to shoot in a real one. But we did our very best to make it look as real and pokey as possible. Similarly the bedrooms were conceived as normal scale, lit spaces. Nothing special. Nothing weird. Just spaces that felt normal. It was really the threat of the invisible man being THAT close to her all the time that creates that sense of claustrophobia.

Leigh was all about getting the mental hospital to feel gritty and real. A ‘public’ hospital vibe. Scratched, scuffed and used. We even added little bits of left-over sticky tape to the walls here and there – the remnants of long-gone notices. We found an old cosmetics factory and turned that into the psych ward. It had these incredible fluorescent lights and an institutional grey blue palette.  But we had to add lots of detail to make it a legit high security mental institution. Door locks, suicide proof furniture, shower cubicle, etc. We had lots of great reference from psych wards around the USA. It was really the Set Decorators triumph. Katie Sharrock, whose attention to detail across the board and eye for creating these contrasts we wanted, brought so much to this set and all the others.

Photos courtesy of: Universal Pictures

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