Congratulations! Set Decorator Katie Spencer SDSA and Production Designer Sarah Greenwood were awarded the BAFTA [British Academy of Film and Television Arts] Orange Award for Production Design for their work on the film ATONEMENT, which also won the BAFTA for Best Picture. They have been honored as well with nominations for the Academy Award for Outstanding Art Direction and the Art Directors’ Guild Award for Production Design of a Period Film.
Opening with a dreamlike sequence in the luxurious English countryside on the hottest day of 1935, Director Joe Wright’s film ATONEMENT, based on Ian McEwan’s best-selling novel, crescendos into the surrealism of the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940.
The disquiet of summer doldrums infects the Tallis household, building as the day unfolds. A restive quality hangs in the dense, torpid air. Everything has reached full bloom. Flowers are bursting open, fruit pungently ripe, grasses are knee-high and filled with the drone of insects, nerves are put on edge by the incessant heat. The chintz-covered sun-drenched rooms and dappled hallways are becalmed, dust motes static. In the underbelly of the house, deep green walls intensify the kitchen’s oppressive humidity; heavy glutinous mist rises from pots of steamed puddings. Upstairs, light plays through floral motifs and delicate colors, while shadows fill the recesses. The sets not only depict character, they tell volumes and hint at more. Tallis House
While digging through Country Life magazine archives for British home decorating styles of the 1930s, Set Decorator Katie Spencer SDSA and Production Designer Sarah Greenwood found photographs of Stokesay Court during that period. They further discovered that in 1994 the furnishings had been auctioned off and the estate sold. When plans for use of another country estate, Tyntesfield, fell through, the production was able to take over Stokesay, converting it into the manor setting for the 1930s segment of the film, Tallis House.
Unlike Tyntesfield and several estates used for their Academy Award® nominated work on the film PRIDE & PREJUDICE which are administered by The National Trust, Stokesay was privately owned and subject to few restrictions. However, the condition of the estate required extensive repairs, refurbishing, grounds work, a larger fountain and wallpaper and paint. “Happily, this place was a blank palette,” describes Greenwood. “All the rooms were empty.” They used parts of Tyntesfield for inspiration. “The kitchen and the back corridors are all that horrible color of arsenic green, absolutely virulent. We loved it because it had something of the color of poison, but it equally had a verdancy about it, a summer greenness. So we painted everything in Stokesay that green and terrible cream. Then Katie spent hours going through original chintz fabric, searching for patterns that best conveyed both the time and a floral imagery of the peak-of-summer. Notice how the blossoms in the designs are often fully opened.”
There were specific requirements from the director as well. “For the very beginning of the film, Joe wanted to play with scale,” Spencer explains. “The opening shot reveals a dollhouse in little Briony’s Nursery that looks exactly like the Tallis House, so at first you’re not sure whether the house is real. The print in the nursery had to be over-scale so Briony would seem smaller, sort of an Alice in Wonderland effect.”
“Cecilia’s Bedroom was quite fun because both Joe and Keira [Keira Knightly plays Cecilia] wanted it completely messy, out of control. So it quite often did look like a mush, without any sort of distinction between anything. But, I think it works, actually. Her isolation and her loneliness read through the stuff just piled on top of each other.”
“The house was lovely to do,” Spencer reflects, “…A real gem to decorate because of the light and the dark.” The almost gossamer colors of the Drawing Room, Nursery, Playroom and Bedrooms are later offset by the heavy, deep wood tones of the Library and the foreboding, paneled Entry Hall. Greenwood notes, “As our story goes through the house, it starts off in the drawing room and it’s all very light and lovely and then as the story progresses during the day, it actually gets darker and darker.” St Thomas’ Hospital
The film shot chronologically, so the next sets were in London. According to Spencer, “Oddly enough, the Hospital Ward, a build, was one of the most difficult sets. Sarah had to design this huge hall because it was supposed to be St Thomas’ Hospital right across from Parliament, and then we had to fill it! You can find one or two period beds, but a ward-full?” Greenwood adds, “We wanted a Hospital Ward that was 120ft long and had that monumental quality. For Katie and her lot that was an immense feat, trying to get 40 or 50 beds the same, plus all the period instruments and equipment in the numbers we needed.” London sets also included Cecilia’s Apartment, the Tea House, Nurses’ Quarters, Bomb Shelters and the Television Studio. Evacuation of Dunkirk
The greatest challenge of the film was the Evacuation of Dunkirk. After Greenwood’s research visit to Dunkirk she was certain they could find a perfect location in which to re-create the Northern French town along the eastern coast of England. She and Location Manager Adam Richards drove the entire coastline, discovering the town of Redcar in a sandstorm.
Greenwood remembers, “What struck me about Dunkirk was the fact that you have a massive port right next to this incredible holiday beach resort. That’s what McEwan had written, and what Joe really loved: the idea of the two next to each other, the surreal element of Robbie at this holiday resort in the midst of this horrible war. That was the look that we very much wanted to paint as it was described in the book, including the fact that the whole evacuation of Dunkirk was touted as a victory in England at the time when, of course, it was a complete disaster. We wanted to capture that scene of total chaos and sadness and the horror of it against the seaside resort.”
“The East coast of England has this amazing watery-grey light that’s very like the light that you get in Dunkirk. Redcar not only has the heavy industry, the steelworks beyond—which we do in fact go into--but also in the foreground there is a large building with an outline like a French roofline, and it has a cinema on the beach. Also, there is the fact that when you go to a place like Redcar, they are so welcoming. The people of Redcar were incredibly helpful.”
One thousand local extras were required for an epic five-minute uninterrupted traveling shot of the wounded and dying UK soldiers stranded on the beach at Dunkirk while awaiting safe passage home. 300 crew members worked together to create this sequence.
“It was daunting,” Spencer admits. “We started with what major pieces we could afford: the bandstand, a working Ferris wheel, the tin barge, boats, tents, vehicles; and then we created scenario details, vignettes.”
“We talked with some Dunkirk vets. They remembered it as ‘absolute mayhem.’ Other soldiers pointed out that, ‘Whatever war you’re in, what you do is nest. You try to make a home for yourself, with pictures, keepsakes…even in foxholes.’ When soldiers were bored they would literally bring everything out. At Dunkirk, they sat in deck chairs on the beach with guns across their laps. Our Dunkirk scene showed the boredom and the wastefulness of war without a single gun being fired.”
One day was given to rehearsal and the next day the long tracking shot was filmed. Everything had been so well planned ahead and executed that no real changes were made. Greenwood knew where the best angles were on the beach and Spencer’s people filled them accordingly. For a reference point they used a huge tin barge, which they beached to look as if it were ready to sail. Greenwood recalls, “We thought, ‘Oh that will be easy. We’ll sail one up and we’ll just beach it.’ And of course, you can’t because of the rocks out to sea and other nautical problems. So Katie worked it out and eventually it was delivered in four parts, with the largest crane in the world lifting it onto the beach from the road.” Other boats, tents, vehicles and thousands of bits of set dressing were brought in to add realism to this surreal scene.
“This is where Joe is great,” states Greenwood. “He has great faith and trust in us. We’ll give him as much as we possibly can, and you know he’ll work with it. We only had one day with a thousand extras. It was amazing. Everybody just brought so much to that. And it could only have ever been with that amount of effort that everybody put in.Collaboration
Collaboration has become second nature with this team. Wright works in the repertory company paradigm, thus many of the key crew members have been involved with several of his productions. Greenwood points out, “It’s a very creative way of working. With Joe and Seamus McGarvey the DP, and Jacqueline Durran the costume designer, and Katie …it’s a blending of ideas. Everybody brings everything to the table. There’s a lack of fear, a freedom to stretch further creatively.”
“Katie and I have worked together for over 10 years, so there is a shorthand and a kind of knowledge we share. We both trained in theater, which translates as everything we do comes from the script, or the story, or is character-led. Those things are absolutely, absolutely crucial. Out of knowing the script, the story, the characters, you then get the design. It is NOT re-creating a period. It’s about how the characters would live in that period, whether historical or contemporary. One thing that is fascinating and absolutely fantastic, for which we’ve always been complimented on any films that we’ve done, is Katie’s eye for detail…for very, very particular details…to do with what each character would have. That adds so much depth to each project.”
“What’s also sort of fabulous,” Greenwood concludes. “Is that when working with someone so closely for so long there’s a creative growing up that goes on as well.”
Director Wright, Production Designer Greenwood and Set Decorator Spencer are currently collaborating on their next production, THE SOLOIST
. Spencer & Wright’s work on MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY
, set in the London society world of 1939, will be in theatrical release March 7th.