Emma Holly Jones: MR. MALCOLM'S LIST

July 11th, 2022 by Gene Cane & Karen Burg

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Director Emma Holly Jones re behind-the-scenes, the making of her Regency rom-com and the detailed sets bringing about her vision. Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Freida Pinto. Inset: Director Emma Holly Jones. Photo by Ross Ferguson © Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

Plans go awry in this Regency rom-com...as they would!
But Director Emma Holly Jones talks about the many things that went right, especially the fabulous sets! She shares the story of her vision for this Regency Rom-Com being brought to life by the sets and locations, particularly the details that spoke beyond the basic story, and the great team who brought those details to fore: Set Decorators Jenny Oman SDSA & Emma Lowney, Production Designer Ray Ball, Cinematographer Tony Miller and their resourceful and creative crews. Shot in Ireland in the Spring of 2021. 
SETDECOR: Not to let the pandemic overtake our attention to the film and its beautiful images, but this was your first feature and you had to shoot during Covid. Trial by fire!
Are there any comments you would like to make about its impact on your production? 
Director Emma Holly Jones: It limited access to locations, as people were rightfully concerned about the number of bodies that would have to come into their locations, so we had a lot of dropouts, sometimes just weeks before we were due to shoot. But then also, we got access to some beautiful heritage locations... Castletown House, Powerscourt...much more easily, as they were so quiet, due to the lockdown.  
SD: What was the biggest challenge??? 
EHJ: Directing with just my eyes. Losing half your face is a huge challenge when communicating to so many different departments of people.

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First time director Emma Holly Jones sets up a scene in the Thistlewaite salon. As she points out, it’s a tough process having to communicate with only her eyes... Photo by Ross Ferguson © Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

SD: Your “Creative Departments” building: We love the idea of everyone nearby [properly Covid-spaced, of course]. That easily facilitates the collaboration of palettes and directions, and allows room for whimsy at times!
EHJ: It was amazing, really. Upstairs was the Art Dept, downstairs the camera and costume, and it was amazing as everyone could wander and see each department's inspiration walls and research, we basically turned this old car garage into a real life pinterest board. 
We were a prep-heavy crew. I'm a prep-heavy director. And I love my prep time with my departments. It was really spectacular, because it meant that every department got to work with each other and meet up for lunch and show things like, “Do the costumes work with that color palette?” Does that work with the walls and this set?” Every single thing was considered, and I think I probably drove most half-insane with how detail orientated I am, but it was truly remarkable.

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Art gallery set at the Irish Georgian Society...Behind the scenes: Director Emma Holly Jones converses with Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, who plays the titular Mr. Malcolm. Jones and crew behind her wear masks during strict Covid protocols, a standard in film production these days. Photo by Ross Ferguson © Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

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Art Exhibition 1818...Filmed at the Irish Georgian Society in Dublin, Set Decorator Jenny Oman SDSA was charged with bringing in period correct cleared artwork. While some of the paintings were rented, much of the art was created digitally, printed onto canvas, then set in beautiful, aged frames. Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù as Mr. Malcolm, Frieda Pinto as Selina Dalton. Photo by Ross Ferguson © Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

SD: In terms of your vision for the film, did the sets meet it? Were you surprised at what you were able to do? 
EHJ: If you look at Production Designer Ray Bell’s* original designs for the opera, the casino, all these places, the sets are almost mirror images. They smashed it.
I wanted there to be three worlds—Selina’s  world in the countryside, Julia’s  in London and then Hadley Hall,  the Malcolm estate—and each to sort of build in scale as we went along. 
The first thing we did when we started pre-production was create color wheels for each one. Obviously, the country is the greens, the mustards, the reds, the olives, the browns. London had the cool tones coming in: the blues, the purples, the reds. Then into the end, the manor house which went into the golds and the whites and the blacks, and we finished with the dark greens and browns as well. It was a wonderful thing to work with these heads of departments, and they made every day exciting for me. Every day, I came in and saw something that I couldn't believe was actually happening, so I adored them all. I want to go shoot my next movie in Ireland as well.

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Thistlewaite salon...A black lacquer Chinoiserie sofa-back table holds Ivory Chinese Emperor/Empress figures. The books show the educated standard of the well-placed family. Image courtesy of Bleeker Street.

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Tea...A spurned Julia Thistlewaite [Zawe Ashton] invited her childhood friend, Selina Dalton [Freida Pinto], to spend the Season with her in her London home. Tea service is such a necessity, various elegant services are a running theme throughout the film. Photo by Ross Ferguson © Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

As happens, the exteriors were very different locations to pretty much all the interiors. An exterior of Hadley Hall  was shot at an amazing property, Castletown House, which is just outside of Dublin, and government owned. As you know, there are a lot of rules when you are shooting in these “trust” heritage site buildings. The scenes shot there couldn't be candlelight scenes, because you can't put flames in those spaces, and we had to have used rooms where there is no art on the walls because you're not allowed to show the art that is owned by these trusts.

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Orangery...Unintentional meet for Selina Dalton and Mr. Malcolm. The orangery was an extant location, but brought to life with lush greens, urns and seating by Set Decorator Jenny Oman SDSA. The arched windows allowed for a beautiful shot of the characters silhouetted beneath them. Photo by Ross Ferguson © Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved

So we did mostly exteriors at these magnificent places, and for many of the interiors, we ended up looking for private manor homes that had become available. These are actual living, breathing old Country homes that have been passed down through people's families, and now a big source of income for these houses is as film locations. Killruddery House has not only the mansion, they've built farm-to-kitchen restaurants on the grounds, they keep the gardens alive, and they still live there. So, we were really using people's actual homes as the interiors.
The Thistlewaite  dining room, was shot at Killruddery House. I think that room was incredible, that wallpaper is real, that fireplace exists. We just came in and our amazing set decorators really brought it to life.

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Thistlewaite dining room...Julia Thistlewaite [Zawe Ashton] reads correspondence at the breakfast table. Brown and white eggs, plain cake and warmed buns carry on with the color palette. The Renaissance print floral wallpaper, extant in the practical location house, works seamlessly with the chosen colors. Photo by Ross Ferguson © Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

SD: There were so many interesting cultural details in the Thistlewaite  drawing room and the salon...amidst Chinoiserie and French accents, the striking almost deconstructed look of the linen & tack-upholstered settees, and a mud cloth pillow. That was just such a nice little touch.
EHJ: The whole team was incredible! They really took this sort of vision and direction. It's all very deliberate and it means the world to me that people like yourself catch it, because, you know, all of these things, and all of these details were so carefully placed and considered. Julia Thistlewaite  and Mrs. Thistlewaite...a mixed-race black lady and an Asian lady...their cultures being embedded into these sets were really, really important to me, to make it really feel like their own.

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Thistlewaite salon...The linen tufted settees were a prop hire from London, the exposed nail head trim and open back add visual interest. The seating pair was chosen even before the location, they were just so perfect. Candles of varying lengths sit in multiple candelabras, while wall mount girandoles would add extra light pre-electricity. The mudcloth-inspired pillow on the settee, and Chinese jardiniere and urns, give nods to the family’s mixed cultural and ethnic backgrounds, as does the Thistlewaite portrait created for the film. Image courtesy of Bleeker Street.

A fun fact for you: the big Thistlewaite  portrait painting, is of Naoko Mori who plays Mrs. Thistlewaite,  and our since-passed Mr. Thistlewaite  was portrayed in the painting by my new father-in-law!  
[Editor’s note: Last month, Director Emma Holly Jones married fiancée Franklin Leonard, founder of THE BLACK LIST.] 
Also, for Mr. Malcom...the Malcolm  family portrait in Hadley Hall  is actually of Sopé Dìrísù’s dad, the boy is Sopé as a child. We use real photos of real people in our lives to build out all the artwork.

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BTS Portrait hanging...Set Dec crew hangs the Malcolm ancestral painting at Hadley House. Gold and black are the main color theme of the Malcolm manor house. Framed fabric and an elaborate fire screen follow the theme of carved gold gilding, along with the enormous mirror framed in ornately carved pastoral scene of putti and animals. Photo by Ross Ferguson © Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

We based Hadley Hall  on it being Sopé’s version of Mr. Malcolm’s Hadley Hall.  So it was massively about incorporating African color schemes and aspects, like a zebra skin as a rug in front of the fireplace and more. The Set Decorators were amazing for each set to find props and artifacts and things to dress each different character's home to really make it their own, and take it, maybe, somewhere new.

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Hadley House Sitting Room...Gold damask tuxedo stripe settees anchor the room that holds additional décor from Malcolm ancestry, including zebra skin rug over carpet and drums on hearth. Ormolu chests, gleaming gold candlestands and elegant armchairs complete the room. Everything about the room states wealth and status. Photo by Ross Ferguson © Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

SD: There are a couple of shots of the dinner at the Thistlewaite  townehouse where the room was sort of smoked, as it would have been from the soot from the candles through the air. That was lovely.
EBJ: Yes, those dinner party scenes! We knew the continuity was going to be challenging. That many candelabras in the room at some point, you just have to open up the doors, get the fans and move all the smoke out, because it is indeed smoke, it exists. It’s not just effects.
I've also got to talk about the candles. There were two people on who were with me every day, as candle wranglers, one a lovely lady, Tracy, who was in the art department. I swear, watching that team deal with the candles throughout this film—the continuity of the candles, working with the script supervisor and those buckets of candles! Going around checking the different lengths and then blow torching them and getting them to the exact size and drip, as the shot before...then to the cutting down...and oh, we’ve got to go again! Which meant we would have to wait for the candles...like the whole thing of the candle. Phenomenal. And I take my hat off to all these people, because for the life of me, I can’t remember how long the candles were in any shot!
SD: Another candle note: The candelabra and the candle holders subtly progressed from in the country, where there were only two arms, two candles, to multi-armed in London and candelabrum increasing in size and number at Hadley Hall.  Details like that are quite fantastic...in the background, just giving you quiet visual information.
EBJ: It really is absolutely fantastic that you noticed! 
I remember walking into the office one day and Jenny saying, "I'm going to pitch you something, and don't think I'm crazy. It's something that is very subtle, but there is a bird theme throughout the entire movie. There is imagery of birds throughout." And it is! That was completely Jenny Oman. "Julia  has a pet Budgie." That was Jenny's idea. I was like, "I love it. Have at it.” There are ducks. We got ducks and put them in the lake for the scene where Selina is walking down the lakeside. There is a pheasant in Julia's  hat. There are little ceramic birds, there’s a small mechanical sculpture, and even Julia’s  bedroom wallpaper has a bird.

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Julia’s eclectic bedroom style matches her personality. French faux bamboo armoire stands next to English shield cheval mirror with web splat armchair at her writing desk. The pale blue wallpaper shows a highlighted bird among the pale tree branches. Zawe Ashton. Image courtesy of Bleeker Street.

And the budgie in Julia's  drawing room is such a lovely detail, even though we had to keep moving it in and out of the room because of the sound! But it also enriches the sound of the film so much, you know, because when you're in a long scene, like we are in some of those scenes in the drawing room, it's nice to break it up with horses outside or the budgie chirping at the right moment of comedy. The editor was incredible, taking all those things and then using animal noises to really punctuate comedy, punctuate the life, alongside Ben Baird, who did the sound mix. You know, all those horse grunts, the horses were not actually grunting. They're all added in, and it all richens the film. It's fascinating how much detail goes into it.

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Julia’s Bedroom...Close up on stamped leather top, inlaid wood vanity table dressing, porcelain bird figurine, along with feather quill continue the motif of birds throughout the film. Antique bottles and silver comb and brush finish the tableau. Photo by Ross Ferguson © Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

SD: And true collaboration, as you said, it's full collaboration.
EHJ: Yes, definitely. It was a real joy to work with all of them. I couldn't speak more highly of the department heads on this. I keep saying it, but you know, they all made me look very, very good. And it's them, they deserve all the credit.
*Editor’s note:
There's more! For additional photos & details about the sets they reveal,
Click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below.
Thank you to Production Designer Ray Ball for his invaluable input and to Gene Cane for the charming captions.


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