Rita de Brún looks at the role of set design in movies and how the same techniques can be used in a home.
BASED on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name, Brooklyn, the movie, has a screenplay written by Nick Hornby, Corkman John Crowley directing, and a cast that includes Saoirse Ronan, Julie Waters and Domhnall Gleeson.
The meticulous excellence of the Irish interior set design too, is no less than you’d expect, given that it was largely the work of the hugely talented Jenny Oman whose flair has been showcased in productions such as Albert Nobbs, The Tudors and Becoming Jane.
“Sets portray lifestyle and social status, but they also portray the back story; that which brought the characters to where they are when you see them on screen,” explains Oman.
As for her modus operandi, she says: “The first thing I do is research the period. After that, I investigate the social history and etiquette of the time. That done, the production designer and I meet the characters and assign each one a colour; one which reflects their personality and lifestyle and which may change as the story develops.”
Of course, interiors may also change as the film progresses. “Yes, a room may be introduced as a light-filled space; one in which the curtains are open and a vase of fresh yellow flowers is on display. If events dictate, that room may later be portrayed as darkened, with the curtains closed or even hanging off the rails. Flowers, if there are any, may be wilted.
“A shawl that the character is now using to keep warm may be darker than the one she wore across her shoulders earlier in the story. Interiors reflect the characters’ internal landscape. If they are in turmoil, the room may be portrayed as chaotic or in disarray to reflect that fact.”
Production designer Emma Lowney is another who has worked on several Irish films and TV productions.
She also worked as a buyer on Brooklyn and she has just returned from working in Belfast on The Lost City of Z which was produced by Plan B [Brad Pitt’s company].
Of that film she says “The interiors, which were set in 1915- 1920 were stunning. Using autumnal, almost wintry colours to reflect the period, we used lots of zany wallpapers, feathers, ornaments and wonderful fabrics and rugs. Because rooms back in those days were warmed by fires I think they were often cold so a lot of effort went into ‘warming them up’ through the use of heavy furnishing and drapes.”
hen she thinks of room interiors portrayed on the big screen, which film stands out for her as truly awesome?
“Ex Machina,” she replies without hesitation. “The billionaire’s home was the perfect Scandanavian contemporary building. Set in the middle of a forest it was totally modern, with its glass walls bringing the beautiful natural views inside.”
Admitting a bit of a penchant for homes with glass walls, Lowney explains that when she worked on Dollhouse with Kirsten Sheridan, she designed the sets for a glass sided house which overlooked the sea: “When designing the sets for houses like that, you have to keep it simple. I’d pick maybe eight pieces of furniture for a room and perhaps a few pictures. Ornaments don’t tend to work well in this sort of space. Because the architecture is the feature, you don’t want to detract from that by over-decorating.”
Nobody could ever suggest that Patrick Bateman’s white, minimalist apartment was over-decorated in American Psycho. Of that, Oman says: “The calm, peaceful decor lulled the audience into a false sense of security, so when the shock came it had maximum impact.”
This brought the conversation to the colour red. “Cinematographers like this colour it because it’s easy to light and when used as a backdrop against an actor who has pale white skin it’s not just flattering, it’s spectacular,” says Lowney.
Is it a colour she uses herself at home? “I’m not ballsy enough for red,” she laughs. “But I have patches of it here and there.”
What room interiors from films would she admire but refrain from emulating at home?
“The sets in Amelie were wonderful, as were those in all of the Wes Anderson movies, but I couldn’t live in rooms like those, as the colour schemes are so bright and intense.”
What about the colour purple? “It’s true what they say,” laughs Oman. “When the screen goes purple in a movie that usually means that someone is going to die.” While colour plays a role and dialogue informs to a point, the setting in which the characters are shown has many functions according to Oman.
“It elaborates on the story, attempts to fill in the missing links; the paragraphs that would have been written in the novel, but are not in the screenplay.”
Her point is exquisitely made in Cracks, a movie directed by Jordan Scott. Set in a 1930’s elite boarding school, the décor of the room owned by the teacher after which the film is named, is a tribute to Oman and her team.
“Miss G was a bohemian type, so her personal space echoed that fact,” she says. “There were three doors in her room, reflecting the extensive layers of, and the expansive nature of her character.We created the set by adding layer upon layer to it. One day we’d place an exotic oriental fan, then an African mask; the next, a sewing machine and a mannequin displaying a half-finished garment.” While that process sounds engaging if not hugely enjoyable, sometimes the tasks faced on sets are entirely challenging.
When the late great Pierre Guffroy was working on The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he learned that the crew would be unable to film in Czechoslovakia because of the Prague Spring. Undeterred, he built an entirely realistic skyline of that city which was visible through the set’s apartment windows and in doing so made Lyon became Prague.
Yet despite all the work that went into that, one of the most memorable sets in that film centres around a space in which there were three simple props: a bed, a mirror and a bowler hat.
That set design - which in fairness was faithful to the scene described in the Milan Kundera novel from which the film was adapted — is unforgettable, in a way that the plain rooms that featured in Betty Blue were.
Despite or maybe because of their simplicity and the depth of passion they contained, the rooms depicted in the Unbearable Lightness and in Betty Blue are memorable in a way that the hugely clichéd Red Room featured in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie will probably never be.
Like it or loathe them, the Fifty Shades movies generated huge returns but chances are there was less than a stampede towards interior design shops from those keen to create a Red Room of their own.
As for the trend towards emulating movie interiors at home , Oman says: “Most people tend towards the conservative when decorating their home, so when they see interiors they admire, they think “I’m not quite brave enough for that”.
“To them I say: “Be brave. Choose that colour. Try the darker version. Remember it will be lighter on the wall than it is on the paint card”.
“If you must stay neutral, consider placing a vibrant coloured armchair in the room. Also if there’s an antique piece of furniture you like, but are fearful of buying, ask the seller if you can bring it home and return it if it doesn’t work. Many will allow you to do this.”
Sometimes the tasks faced by the production designer are complex and subtle in ways that aren’t easily apparent to most of us watching the film. Describing the nature of the challenge she faced when designing the Irish sets for Brooklyn, Oman says: “Our job was to set the scene so the audience would believe they were in 1950’s Ireland, whilst at the same time playing that down, so that when our lead character arrives in Brooklyn, New York, the contrast would be all the more pronounced.”
The Lacey’s sitting room is decorated with modern wallpaper. “We sourced that from Little Greene” says Oman.
“The wallpaper comes in various colours, but we chose the bland, cream background as we were looking for a more muted palette over all of our Irish sets.
“Had we been using it on the American set (part of the film was shot in Canada), we might have chosen the turquoise coloured background as that would have been more evocative of the 1950’s pastel colour palette.
Original wallpapers from the era were also used in the film. We sourced those online from http://www.thevintagegalaxy.com”
As for why the Lacey’s house feels confined with the dining table taking up a small space in the sitting room, and being almost on top of the ‘good china’ cupboard, Oman explains: “This was done to reflect Eilish’s life in Ireland.”
As for Nettles Kelly’s front room, she says the goal was to create a space that seemed stuck in time.
“To achieve that, I decided that instead of going for a 1950s’ feel, I’d opt for Victorian instead. The furniture in the room was deliberately chosen to be as uncomfortable as the conversation taking place. It was also layered to the point where it is claustrophobic.”
So, this conversational scene was particularly important?
“Yes,” says Oman. “It was a pivotal point for Eilish; the moment she realises she has to go back to America.”
* Brooklyn comes to Irish cinemas on November 6. Cert 12a
Fancy renting out your place to film or television companies — here’s the low down:
“The fee paid depends on the hassle. If there’s a big crew you might get €1,000 per day. If not it might be €300 (at minimum), or anything in between. Sometimes all that is required is just one room, maybe a kitchen for a day.”
Kate Bowe; www.photolocations.ie
“You might be offered something between €200 and €1,000 per day. Or you might be offered €50. If there’s no budget available you might be invited to allow filming free of charge. Sometimes what’s needed may entail just a few minutes footage: maybe of someone walking up the garden path and back down.”
Kieran Hennessy; www.irishfilmlocations.com
“There’s a temporary moratorium on our accepting locations since the Film Commissioner moved to a new job, but many of the film offices around the country are accepting locations and they’re listed on our website“
Mags O’Sullivan; www.irishfilmboard.ie
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