Sometimes an eagerly anticipated film gets swept under by critics’ responses, which can definitely affect the number of people who actually see the sets...which in actuality may be quite wonderful. Such is the case with SEVENTH SON whose sets were given kudos, even though the film was not. The studio proffers:
“In addition to the natural beauty of the locations, the film truly shines with Production Designer Dante Ferretti’s extraordinary sets, some of the largest ever built in Vancouver. To realize his vision, Ferretti relied upon a dream team consisting of Set Decorator Elizabeth Wilcox [SDSA], Supervising Art Director Grant Van Der Slagt, Art Directors Michael Diner and Ross Dempster, Construction Coordinator Doug Hardwick and all their crews. At any one time, an impressive 200 to 300 people were building or dressing the sets.”
“Mother Malkin’s [Julieanne Moore] castle atop Pendle Mountain is a crumbling array of thick stone pillars, massive carved heads reminiscent of Nemrut Daği in southeastern Turkey and an elaborate carved wall similar to the qibla wall that one might find in an ancient stone mosque. Behind its doors lie Malkin’s private quarters, which, with a wave of her cursed hand, are restored to their former opulence…dressed to resemble the lush world captured in the Orientalist paintings that once captivated the imaginations of Europeans…”
“In keeping with Ferretti’s theme of large and intricate, the Walled City set rivaled the Pendle Mountain set in its scope and objectives. With its thick walls of grey brick, latticed windows and dirt streets, the Walled City resembles a medieval European town, except that this is a city at the crossroads of cultures—one with Byzantine, Turkish and Eastern European influences. Its inhabitants seem to have arrived from all corners of the globe and different eras.”
“…The scene of the massacre during market day—when Malkin’s lieutenants attack—is the largest and most ambitious of the film. The level of detail is astounding: dried fish hang from racks, spices are piled into neat cones of color, wares are displayed on the door of a candle maker’s humble abode. In one corner, caged birds squawk; in another, pigs are heard squealing. There are sacks of grain and nuts and vegetable and fruit stalls. Here, there is a place to buy carpets; there is a jewelry stall where Indian bangles glitter in the sun. A man sharpens knives next to a flower girl; a vendor sells brass pots beside an elderly woman selling carded wool. The list seems never-ending.”
Knowing well the seemingly unending list, Wilcox, veteran of many large films including the recent GODZILLA and RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, smiles when remembering this fantasy-tale project, which she happily undertook to work with multiple award-winning PD Ferretti, who most often collaborates with his wife Set Decorator Francesca LoSchiavo SDSA.
Wilcox gives us a lovely first-person account of the making of the film...
I first heard about SEVENTH SON in summer 2011, when it began prepping in Vancouver. I thought, “I would love to work on it,” but of course no chance, Dante always works with Francesca. I started on another project in the Fall of that year and put SEVENTH SON out of my mind. Over Christmas, I was away in the Caribbean when I heard that my project had been shelved. Reluctantly, I came home to a bleak January in Vancouver.
However, the day after I returned home, I had a call from the supervising art director of SS asking if I would like to interview for it—that afternoon! I didn't hesitate. I ended up starting the following Monday, 10 weeks out from filming, a bit of a daunting task.
Thankfully, Dante had done beautiful large oil pastel illustrations for the sets, so we had a clear direction. However, because the film was a medieval fantasy, we had to start from scratch for virtually everything.
Having worked on other large projects that were supposed to be set in multiple locations helped me to dive in and get going. I have a terrific team, and they were all very excited by the project. We started immediately, setting up workshops, gathering materials and starting to build the things like the carts and lanterns that we knew would be required.
I hired a buyer in England, Annie Gilhooly, and together we organized a container of dressing from the English prop houses. I wasn't sure exactly where we would use it, but I knew it would come in handy as filler and I needed some help only having 10 weeks.
We also had Buyer Jeeda Barford in Turkey, where we resourced a lot of our hides, raw materials and fabrics, as well as some unusual pieces for the market scenes.
Fortunately, we started with some of the smaller sets, i.e. Tom’s family farmhouse which we built on location…both exterior and interior at the ethereal Minaty Bay, on the eastern shore of Howe Sound. I think Dante thought it was a good idea in concept, but when it came to being on location in winter in Vancouver, I'm not sure he enjoyed it too much…we got him a heated jacket!
Simultaneously, we were dressing the Tavern at another location, also cold. For this, Dante had referenced a photo of a net loft and was interested in having nets covering one entire wall and draping down into the set. Nets were flown in from all over the Pacific Northwest! I found a reference for a lovely period chair with a back fashioned out of a piece of bent wood, and we had several of these made. This was one of my favorite pieces from the film. It was a charming little set to work on and a great way to get to know Dante. He visited all of the sets daily, so that he could make adjustments as they were being built.
Heading into Pendle Mountain and the Throne Room, we realized that the architecture of the exterior set stood on it's own and really required very little dressing.
Dante had done one of his beautiful illustrations for the Throne Room, so, combined with the orientalist paintings he was referencing, that was enough for us to go on. This set was a lot of fun to do. We bought and rented a quantity of Moroccan pieces, including chandeliers, a chaise and the inlaid dressing table. I love fabrics and had a great time finding the right ones and getting the large asymmetrical drape exact to our plan. Another piece that I thought particularly pertinent was the stuffed peacock…I loved it sitting by the dressing table.
Everything was going well until the build got behind and we were right down to the wire. I was sitting on the set sulking a bit because there were still 10 painters and 2 lifts in the set the day before it was due to shoot! My people at ready, all our stuff to go in and be dressed and then tweaked…and we’re on hold! Dante asked, in his charming Italian accent, "What’s the matter?" I just about bit his head off in frustration, listing all that had to be done in now an almost impossible time frame. He replied, "Don't worry, it will all be perfect!" And it was!
Master Gregory's lair was another beautifully illustrated set. The challenge here was bringing a sense of history to this cave belonging to the last of the ancient knights, showing that he had been here for years and giving added dimension to his character. We searched for medieval experiments that we could reconfigure as if he had been working on them, and had several built. They were in the entrance to the set, which unfortunately didn't get much on-screen exposure, but they did help establish both the character and the set.
The wall tapestry was another challenge, a 14’ x11’ piece that was story-specific. We worked with a graphic artist and then started experimenting with print on different fabrics. We determined that pre-aging the tapestry in the graphic and then printing on a textured raw silk would work best. It did turn out very well, except it still needed that threadbare look. I took my nail file to a tiny piece of it, which produced the effect we wanted, and the team took over the aging from there!
The Walled City was our largest set and, at first, it seemed like an insurmountable task. Once we got into the planning, working out the individual stalls and businesses, referencing the markets of Turkey and Morocco, it began to take shape and develop a life of its own. We started buying, sourcing dressing from Turkey, England and Los Angeles, and things fell into place.
Having the dye vats in the middle of the town added a lovely element of color with all the fabrics drying and gave great texture for Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel to shoot through. By this time, it was Spring…Dante was a little happier…and this was the last set of the movie. The weather cooperated and we had a lot of fun dressing this vast set, detailing out the spice vendor and the blacksmith, hanging carpets and bedding out of the second and third-story windows, adding wood shavings to the ground outside the barrel maker, having the candles hand-dipped for the candle maker…and on and on it goes.
They shot for 3 days 2 nights, and then it was over.
Working with Dante was a lovely experience. He has a great sense of humor and is passionate about and dedicated to his work. His passion is infectious, which made for great teamwork…we were all so happy to be there. Since he has done epic films so many times before, he was always calm. Because of his illustrations you knew what he wanted, so as long as that is what he got, all was good…and he enjoyed collaborating over the fabrics and the drapes.
In fact, “enjoy” is a key word for the making of this film. It was such an enjoyable experience for my entire crew…a once-in-a-lifetime. I think they would all say it renewed their love of their work and the world of filmmaking.