"I think it is more and more
important to trust collaborators. It is important to have a good cast of
collaborators and not impose a sole vision, no matter how clear in your own
mind things might be."
- Director Alejandro Amenabar
Director Alejandro Amenabar brought Production Designer Guy Dyas and Set
Decorator Larry Dias SDSA to the other side of the world to help unveil the
little known story of the brilliant 4th century astronomer &
mathematician Hypatia and her fight to save the wisdom of the Ancient World and
the famous Library of Alexandria.
and Dyas converse with SET DECOR re: the fascinating unfolding of this ancient
world and its congruence with today.
Production Designer Guy Dyas:
The story of Hypatia, one of the
most renowned astronomers and mathematicians of her time, is a part of our
history that hadn’t been told in film before. Director Alejandro Amenabar
wanted this film to be a voyage through time and space, a historical recount
that also speaks to us about the present day and how humans and civilizations
keep repeating their mistakes.
Alejandro is an exceptional director
and he takes on many roles—he writes, directs and very often composes the music
for his films. It’s quite unusual for European directors to come to Los
Angeles to hire key crew, but from the very start, Alejandro conceived this
film as an international co-production. I enlisted my frequent collaborator Set
Decorator Larry Dias SDSA, and together we set out to put together the team who
would be entrusted with re-creating the legendary city of Alexandria circa
Pre-production took place in Madrid,
while the film was entirely lensed in Malta over the course of 5 months. By
Spanish, and even by Hollywood standards, the physical side of this production
SET DECOR: Your collaboration in
conveying ancient & mythical structures for INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM
OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL seems a natural prerequisite for the re-creation of the
great 4th century cultural center of Alexandria. This time, though,
it’s in the cradle of civilization at the decline of the Roman Empire. How did
your preceding work help you prepare for this film?
Designing a second film back to back
with Larry was a huge asset. AGORA is a very ambitious film, and the trust and
shared experience you accumulate with your key crew becomes vital on
challenging projects like these, especially when you land in a distant
location. Like me, Larry had to rely on his ability to adapt quickly and lead a
foreign crew. The fact that we already had a shorthand between us really
helped, no doubt. We chose to set up the production on the island of Malta in
order to capitalize on a disused fortress at the edge of the sea. We both
realized very early on that we were going to have to be extremely resourceful
in order to fulfill Alejandro’s grand vision and to re-create 4th
century Egypt within the constraints of our budget. I can truly say that having
Larry on board made the task more manageable!
Set Decorator Larry Dias SDSA:
Even though INDIANA JONES was
obviously a different genre of film, it did have its historical aspects, and as
Guy pointed out, it was beneficial for AGORA because we had developed a
language in how we get things done. Guy is an incredibly hard-working designer
who has his hands and eyes on everything. He is very collaborative and
encourages me and my department to bring things to the table, whether it be
research, found items or concepts that can be incorporated into key set
dressing and/or story points.
Guy fought very hard to get me on
this European-produced project, which motivated me all the more to take it on
with a vengeance. Initially, I had hoped I might be able to bring a few key
people I was accustomed to working with, but as it turned out, I went alone and
did the film in the European method—I oversaw all props, including action
props, ran a staff shop, sculpting, paint, greens, carpentry and prop
manufacturing departments. We dealt with all the animals, including Egyptian
Ibis imported from Africa, and created the tack for the horses and camels in
Alejandro’s comment about
collaboration is the absolute truth—he had complete trust in Guy and he
immediately trusted me. He is a dream to work with—gentle and sincere, yet very
clear and concise about what he wants. He treats everyone with grace and
respect, which I find brilliant because it inspires the crew. There is nothing
I or anyone on the crew would not have done for him—the common goal was to give
him anything he asked for.
SET DECOR:Tell us about the difference between adding some historic aspects to a
wild adventure romp and creating a realistic portrayal of a key place in human
Both projects had their unique set
of challenges, but by its own nature AGORA required far more in depth and
scholarly approach to the original historical material. Alejandro wrote the
script, as well as directed. During several years, he researched his story by
immersing himself in archives and history books. He spoke to astronomers and
traveled to the city of Alexandria with his producer Fernando Bovara.
For me, the design process for this
film had also begun prior to joining the project. Alejandro provided me with
his script a year before the start of pre-production…I was able to let our
ideas flourish and really have the entire look of the film in my head before we
Adding to the extensive research
accumulated by Alejandro and co-writer Mateo Gil, Dominique Arcadio Dyas
compiled an immense amount of research that made us sort of layperson experts
in the field. With such a grasp on all the dressing and props being used in the
film, Dominique took on the role of on-set Art Director—a huge asset to our Set
Decoration and Property department.
I was also blessed with a brilliant
European crew. I was introduced by my property master, Graeme Purdy, to Lisa
Chugg from London, who came on board as the assistant set decorator. She was a sort
of mentor to me in the ways of European filmmaking. She is wonderful to work
with, dedicated to the project, with an impeccable eye. She made my transition
into this new process seem effortless.
note: For more about Dias’ crew, see below.]
SET DECOR: Amenabar says,
“AGORA is the story of a
woman, of a city, of a civilization and of a planet…Alexandria symbolized a
civilization slowly destroyed by different factions, specifically religious
factions. For many, the period in which Hypatia lived marked the end of the
Ancient World and the beginning of medieval times.”
How did you convey the time period
and this great upheaval through the sets?
Alexandria was built on knowledge,
and at its heart was the greatest library of Antiquity. It formed generation
upon generation of scholars, philosophers and inventors who made huge advances
in mathematics, geometry, astronomy and medicine. There were actually two
generations of the library. The first was burned during the time of Julius Caesar.
Here we tell the story of the second, and of Hypatia, a scholar who fought to
preserve it from destruction.
Alexandria was a cosmopolitan city,
a mix of cultures and languages, so we really felt that this needed to be
reflected in the architecture. Sadly, hardly anything is left today in
Alexandria from that ancient period. Also, there are few historical records of
the buildings that formed the library complex, but we do know that it coexisted
with the older architecture of the city.
We constructed our library to be
next to an ancient Egyptian temple. We built extensive sets that mixed
traditional Greco-Roman esthetics with Egyptian architecture and other
influences—that’s the way cities evolve, even today.
To convey the sense of tension and
the growing possibility of Alexandria’s collapse through religious wars, we
opted to use an array of architectural styles that purposely created clashing
esthetics. The ancient Egyptian structures are shown deteriorated and falling
into decay, their facades are painted in faded colors to mimic the bleaching of
the Mediterranean sun. We imagined that 4th century Alexandria offered its
residents the same abundance and accumulation of art and architecture as modern
From a decorating perspective, we dressed,
then redressed sets symbolic of the decline of a sophisticated society that
then digressed to a level of barbarism.
The Library was taken from its
glorious pristine state as a place of higher education and literally destroyed
on film by the Christian mob, which was a bit painful to watch in person. The
next time we see it, it is a deserted place of early Christian worship that is
in shambles and infested with nesting pigeons. Hypatia’s classroom becomes a
stable with goats and sheep occupying the steps where her students formerly
What I find most fascinating is the
timelessness of the story of Hypatia and Alexandria, how this type of thing
still applies to situations in our world today. We still have groups and
cultures that feel their existence can be threatened by the knowledge or
advancement of another culture or religion.
SET DECOR:Historical accuracy…please tell us about working with experts on the
I met historian Justin Pollard prior
to working on AGORA, when I was designing ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE in London,
for which he was the historical advisor. I soon realized that his area of
expertise extended far beyond 16th century England. During one of my early
concept meetings with Alejandro, he mentioned a book that he was reading, the
incredibly detailed THE RISE AND FALL OF ALEXANDRIA. I had also read the book.
Justin was the author! Shortly after that, I introduced Justin to Alejandro and
he became our historical advisor on set.
Besides portraying the living,
spiritual and political environments, we also manufactured the Apollonian cone
and all of the scientific instruments. Often, obtainable research can be very
difficult to verify—is it actually representing the correct period? For
example, Victorian paintings that beautifully depict domestic life from the era
but are rife with improper period details—so it was invaluable to have Justin
and the other experts available to answer questions and guide decisions.
SET DECOR:Amenabar declares,
“Guy is a perfect combination
between research (he uses many real references) and imagination. Today, there
are things I still recall with amazement, like Orestes’ throne, an original
idea of his, with lions inspired in an ancient design.”
Please tell us about creating this,
from vision to essence to physical reality.
Guy is a genius with the pencil! His
remarkably detailed drawings facilitate my job by removing a lot of guesswork.
Orestes’ throne is something he came up with after we had gone through some
research trying to find examples of thrones and of lions that were carved in a
very specific style. He took bits of research away with him and later that
afternoon showed me an amazing sketch. The sketch was given to Roland
Stevenson*, my sculptor, who then sculpted the mirrored-image lions and the
wreath seatback. The gilded-thread embroidered cushion was hand stitched in
SD: Tell us about the other sculptures!
From gigantic statues to small icons…
At the beginning of pre-production,
we agreed that all of the statues over two meters would be the responsibility
of the Art Dept, while anything under would be Set Decoration. Surprisingly,
the number of statues that fell under two meters was well over two hundred! I
got more than a little pleasure ribbing Supervising Art Director Frank Walsh
about how a lot of statuary seemed to hit just at the 1.9 meter mark! Most of
the statues were complete sculpts, with a small number of them rented and brought
in from CineArs, a wonderful staff shop stuffed to the rafters in Cinecittá in
SD: There are so many significant
sets, please tell us about…
The Library of Alexandria
The scrolls and codices were all
manufactured by hand with the interiors designed by Graphic Designer Trey
Shaffer. It was a sight to behold in the workshop—miles of paper being
hand-dipped and hung to dry, then hand-lettered by Maltese calligraphers. Since
we had so much action in the Library, the scrolls had to have text so they
could be used as action props. The library shelves were built in my carpentry
shop with the moldings sculpted by Roland and his crew, then gold leafed and
aged by my paint crew. Because they were to be destroyed on camera, Art Director
Charlo Dalli drew them to be built in a traditional way so they would appear
properly built when pushed over by the mob. Toni Murer and Luca Giampoli*
manufactured the most beautiful sconces in a hand hammered brass that were
mounted on the shelves. They were truly exquisite.
Hypatia & her father Theon’s
The furniture in Theon &
Hypatia’s set was mostly brought in from Rome from Rancati, an exceptional
family-owned prophouse that has some beautiful Roman furnishings and lighting.
I also rented Italian and Egyptian furnishing and lighting from various hire
companies in London. We built the planters and fountain statue from research—I
love the intertwined winged female figures that hold up the rain gutters meant
to collect the rainwater to fill the pool.
The astronomic and scientific
instruments were manufactured by my prop-making crew, based on research
compiled from science museums in Paris and Florence. The table bases were
rented from Rancati. We manufactured the table tops and my amazing Italian
painters applied an incredibly realistic marble faux finish on them. The floor
tapestries are from Eccentric Hire Co. and Farleys in London. The smalls are from
hire companies in London, Paris, and Rome.
SD: What about
access, the shipping & transportation of set dressing & materials?
All of our set dressing was trucked
from other parts of Europe to Italy and then brought over to Malta on barges.
On Malta, we used flat bed trucks to transport the dressing from our shop, a
twenty minute drive away. Most of the fabrics were brought in from London and
Rome. We also bought bulk amounts in Florence at OB Stock, a source given to me
by Gabriella Pescucci the costume designer. A phenomenal place.
SD:Challenges particular to this film?
They were endless.
They are endless! It is one of the
most enriching experiences I have had. It started out feeling like I had taken
on something insurmountable and ended up being a film that I am really proud to
have worked on. I also made some new friends, people that will remain in my
SD: Your take-away from this film, this experience…
Flexibility and trust in one’s crew
are the key factors when working remotely. Actually they are the key to working
Note from Larry Dias re: his truly
The level of “old world”
craftsmanship that exists in Malta is amazing. I had leather workers,
calligraphers, bookbinders, glassblowers, wood carvers, sign painters and
Gaia Zambelli from Rome and Lucy Van Lonkhuyzen from
Dublin were my buyers. Gaia was integral to our shopping trips and
making production rental deals in Rome. Lucy has done some great work on
period films in Europe and was a huge asset to me.
Roland Stevenson from Scotland was my senior
propmaker/sculptor and is an exceptionally gifted sculptor, who along with
Sophie Tarver, the mould shop supervisor, made for an unbeatable
My prop shop was supervised by Toni Murer, along with
Luca Giampoli a third generation Italian Mint trained metal worker who made
metal seem completely fluid.
My lead painter from Rome was Vittorio Di Persio, a man
that can paint the most amazing faux marble and verdigris finishes I have
My drapers, Mauro Masotti and John Gouder, produced
exquisite drapery from a leaky cavern of a workshop.
My greensmaster, Danilo Rossiello, is the second
generation of a greens family in Rome and was brilliant.
I started out with a driver, Ruth Ancilerri. It turns
out she was an awful driver, but could draw beautifully! She became my
junior draughtsperson, at which point I learned to drive on the “other
side” of the road.
I know I am gushing about my crew,
but they were truly an inspiration and provided some great learning experiences
for me working in this multi-cultural environment. At one point Guy said, “I
didn’t know you knew how to speak Italian.” To which I replied, “Neither did