Spotlight on Production Design
Talk to four-time Oscar-nominated production designer Sarah Greenwood and it soon becomes clear that the key to her success does not just lie with her visual flair. A regular collaborator of Joe Wright, Greenwood has also worked with Guy Ritchie, Susanna White and Bill Condon, among others, and must juggle ingenuity and adaptability, inspiration and pragmatism on a daily basis. These traits mean she is equally at home on a lavish Disney extravaganza such as Beauty And The Beast and a small-scale UK period piece like Darkest Hour, Wright’s forthcoming account of Winston Churchill’s role in the early days of the Second World War.
It also helps if you can think on the hoof when working with UK director Wright. Take Anna Karenina, for example. The film was originally planned as a relatively conventional interpretation of Tolstoy’s sweeping novel, with a six-week shoot in Russia to be matched by a further six weeks on sets in the UK. Greenwood and Wright had already visited Russia in preparation and were dazzled by the possibilities of St Petersburg and Moscow. But then the budget was calculated and there came a moment of reckoning: a Russian shoot would be expensive. Prohibitively so. “So it came down from six weeks to four weeks to t w o weeks to 10 days to a week,” says Greenwood. “Then it was like, ‘OK, can we shoot this in the UK?’ Then it was, ‘Can we do it within the M25?’” It was around this time that Greenwood had a late-night telephone call from Wright. “‘Sarah, I’ve got this idea.’ I was like, ‘Oh God,’” she recalls.
Wright’s idea was to use the performance arena of Russian high society as a touchstone, and set the entire story within a theatre. Greenwood and Wright spent a week brainstorming and drawing on the references hoarded during their research trip to Russia. The resulting film, created with just 12 weeks of prep and shot almost entirely on a set at Shepperton, was a thrillingly inventive take on a classic novel. It earned Greenwood an Oscar nomination and won her the Art Directors Guild prize for excellence in production design.
Stage to screen
Although Greenwood originally trained in theatre design, Anna Karenina is the closest she has come to the stage since the early days of her career. After studying at Wimbledon College of Art in south-west London, she worked for approximately three years in theatre before, as she puts it wryly, she “sold her soul to the devil” and jumped ship to film and television. “This was a long time ago, but the [Wimbledon] tutors didn’t approve of film and television. It’s interesting, because there’s always been this cross-fertilisation between theatre and other media with actors, but not on that side.”
It was during her work in television that Greenwood first encountered Joe Wright, who would go on to become one of her most significant creative partnerships. They worked together on two BBC mini-series, Nature Boy (2000) and The Last King (2003), as well as Bodily Harm (2002) for Channel 4, before Wright made his feature filmmaking debut on Pride & Prejudice (2005), with Greenwood at his side. “I love Joe to bits; equally, we fight like brother and sister sometimes,” says Greenwood. “There is a joyful creativity with Joe. It’s a collaborative thing, a tempering thing — how can we make this better? You can speak freely and say, ‘I like that, I don’t like that; this works, this doesn’t work.’ And it’s on all sides. Joe allows that to happen. Whatever he says, there’s always a nugget of something really good in there. So when he says, ‘I’ve got an idea — maybe we can set it all in a theatre,’ your heart sinks because you’ve just spent bloody months doing all this work, but you know there’s a kernel of something in his idea. Then you have to pan for gold, prise that idea out. In that sense, he’s great, very lovely to work with.”
Old and new
Production design Greenwood style is a job that frequently involves learning new skills and tackling fresh challenges. And that includes embracing digital technology where appropriate. “I think of them all as pencils, they’re all tools.” Greenwood would be the first to admit the spectacular look of Beauty And The Beast would have been impossible to achieve without the flexibility of CGI. The exterior of the Beast’s rambling gothic pile of a castle, for example, was a massive 4D model. “It ate so much computer memory, with any changes we would have to leave it to munch away overnight,” she says. “But that was fantastic.
Without that facility it wouldn’t have developed in the way it did. If we’d made a physical white-card model, that model would have become precious and it would have stopped there. Whereas, actually, having the incredible skills of the draughtsman and art directors who could operate it — you could say, ‘That tower is too tall; can we put that over there.’” Beauty And The Beast also employed more traditional methods. “Because it was all French rococo, everyone was drawing in pencil,” Greenwood continues. “It was all going to the sculptors and the modellers. It was a really strong mix of classic techniques and cutting-edge technology.” And a first for Greenwood and her regularcreative partner, set decorator Katie Spencer, was the opportunity to design and develop some of the characters — specifically the candlesticks, clocks and furniture that come to life.
From Beauty And The Beast, Greenwood went on to Darkest Hour, a film she describes as a counterpoint to Christopher Nolan’s forthcoming Dunkirk, a large-scale account of the same period during the Second World War. “That’s what was happening in France; what we are doing is what was happening in London. How close we came to capitulating. It’s all about unpreparedness, make-do and mend. It’s mind-boggling. You go to the real war rooms and you go, ‘How on earth did we win the war?’” The look of the film, she says, is dense and claustrophobic.Greenwood and Wright have already had their own take on Dunkirk, albeit on a smaller scale, with an arresting single-shot beach battle scene in Atonement. But what many people assumed was bravura film-making on the part of Wright was, in fact, an example of inspiration resulting from problem solving. A week before the scene was due to be shot, with the town of Redcar doubling for Dunkirk, they realised that tides, light and the availability of extras meant the planned montage sequence would not be achievable. The solution was to shoot in a single take. The biggest challenges of any project are not curve balls like this, however, they come at the very start before the design framework has started to take shape. “I am just starting on Mary Queen Of Scots [directed by Josie Rourke], and the challenge is how to do it. Once you know what you’re doing, then you can go, ‘OK, we need this, need that.’ But figuring out the look of something, where you shoot it, that’s difficult.