An insider tour with Set Decorator Gia Grosso SDSA...
Novitiate Assembly Room… “This room was great all on its own with the dark wood paneling and leaded windows. In some areas I used sheers, but left the bay window unobstructed so the pattern of the glass panes could directly relate to the pattern of the wood for a hard, more graphic composition.”
“Again leaving the windows unobstructed. I wanted this room to feel important, yet a bit more comfortable and softer than the hard surfaces in her office, where it’s all business. Showing a less severe side to her, with a touch of warmth, we kept the color palette dark reds, deep blues and browns, with a bit of greenery...”
“Scarritt Bennett Center, the fantastic Gothic chapel, refectory, buildings and grounds in Nashville, where we shot, were chock-full of great architectural details and furnishings that we took full advantage of—this particular building had herringbone wood floors and dark wood paneling, so I tried to keep all the furniture wood and used minimal soft goods to emphasize the more dominant hardness and rigidity of her character...”
“This office needed to contrast with the dark seriousness of the Reverend Mother's. The soft textural tapestry, plants and wall color add the lightness required. We found some perfect period lighting and desk dressing at the great antique shops in Nashville!”
The Reverend Mother [Melissa Leo], with a sea of nuns behind her, is incensed because the Vatican II changes will diminish the authority of nuns, which can be interpreted as a patriarchal attack on the one sphere of power women enjoyed within the Church...
“The location was actually a Methodist church, which had a giant organ across the apse and a large 1970s style wooden cross. Both needed to be less visible. Here you see the 25-foot Gothic altar-with-painting that was purchased and then constructed in place in order to obscure the organ...”
Refectory… “Fortunately, our location had an incredible amount of original furnishings specific to the architecture. We chose burgundy for the 18 sixteen-foot linen drapery panels, a very simple, bold and serious color combination with the nuns black and white habits and the warm medium tone of the wood elements. The architectural scale was so large, I placed tiny stations of the cross to further illuminate that scale, a sort of punctuation mark between each window...”
“For this room, simplicity and starkness was key, yet we didn’t want it to feel completely devoid of emotion. The mossy green walls and warm light help to keep it from seeming too cold and institutional...”
“Color played a big part in Nora's house. In contrast to the dark woods and deep jewel tone accents of the Convent, the robin-egg blues and mauve pinks are key to revealing the time period...as is the lighting...whereas, the convent is drenched in tradition, stuck in time with no relation to the current trends...”
“The canisters and cake container on counter were the homeowner’s! We then found so many great pots, pans, plates etc. at the Nashville antiques shops and I discovered the kitchen curtains at a local thrift store...”
“This location kitchen was great for what we were trying to achieve. The fridge and stove, which we added, really brought this look and time together, and we found a wonderful antiques place that had virtually untouched period McCormick spices, etc. for the shelf over the stove. We also placed vintage milk, egg, ice cream and butter packaging, and many more period products inside the fridge...”
Spanning over a decade from the early 1950s through to the mid-60s, NOVITIATE is about a young girl's first initiation with love, in this case with God. Raised by a non-religious, single mother in rural Tennessee, a scholarship to Catholic school soon finds the girl drawn into the mystery and romanticism, and consequently often harsh challenges, of a life devoted to the worship and servitude of God.
–Sony Pictures Classics
Set decorators are often visual anthropologists, finding elements and objects that define a time and culture, as well as the characters...
When Director Maggie Betts needed to bring about a quiet version of the film’s era,
she turned to Production Designer John Sanders and Set Decorator Gia Grosso SDSA.*
Grosso gives us insider notes in the photo captions above.
To give us an audience perspective of the film, SET DECOR turned to color expert, designer, educator and fellow set decorator,
Christy Addis SDSA Associate/ASID...
In the early 60's, during a time of upheaval in the Catholic Church, as Vatican II introduced significant changes to church practices, NOVITIATE follows the spiritual journey of a sheltered teenager, Cathleen Harris [Margaret Qualley], as she contemplates a life as a nun. Why does such a young girl seek such a cloistered life? Her simple wish is for love—not a love that requires no sacrifice, but an ideal love for which she must give everything. That wish proves elusive, as we follow the emotional quality of the story through secrecy, cruelty, denial, guilt, honesty, love, pain and understanding.
It would seem that the counterpoints in the story would be the young girl, who becomes known as Sister Cathleen, and the one she must answer to, the Reverend Mother [Melissa Leo]. But this is not the case; the true heavy hitters of the story are the Reverend Mother, and Cathleen's single mother, Nora Harris [Julianne Nicholson], who has been left behind. They only share one scene together, but you can feel their influential pull during the whole film, partly because of each of their narrative importance and also because of the knockout performances of Leo and Nicholson.
When the film opens we see Cathleen as a child, at church, at school and at home. Her home life is troubled by her parents' fighting, she finds relief in the orderliness of her parochial school and church services. Her mother, Nora, has tried to create a "homey" home, with soft colors and family dinners, yet it is more claustrophobic than pleasant, due to the ragged bitterness emphasized by the harsh lighting. In contrast, all of the scenes taking place in the chapel, church or abbey, are bathed in beautiful, luminous sunlight, which gleams on wood, and glows on skin...and this light serves as the underlying portrayal of divine presence felt throughout the film.
Set Decorator Gia Grosso SDSA and Production Designer John Sanders have emphasized the abbey rituals with their visual choices. We are told that once novitiates take their final vows, they will never leave the confines of the abbey again. This renders the abbey a place of escape, a refuge...and as such, it is quiet and dignified, with nothing to disturb the mind. What we see, the traditional forms of the architecture and the wearing of habits, reflects the ritualized practices, such as keeping silent and calls to prayer.
The Reverend Mother's office is carefully appointed, and it exudes the official power that she wields. Sitting purposefully in her office, she looks like a Renaissance painting. The novitiates’ quarters are spare and serene, with little to distract from prayer. The abbey church is formal and heavy, yet still a sanctuary for those seeking contemplation. One of the most intense scenes was a reunion visit between Sister Cathleen and her mother. Physically, it was only wire mesh that separated them, but the emotional barrier between mother and daughter couldn't have been wider or more impossible to bridge. The wire mesh reminds the audience that the abbey is not only a place of refuge but also a place of confinement.
One of the most noticeable design choices was the repetition of high contrasts within a scene, such as the black and white of the nuns' habits, or the bright pools of light against the dark wood. This seemed to reflect a Catholic notion of Good/Evil, or Guilt/Redemption. The only scene without the high contrast was the clandestine, late-night, forbidden connection between Sister Cathleen and Sister Emanuel, its palette and lighting dusky, hazy, soft, and desaturated.
The sets, the performances, the specifics of the rituals, and the nuances of the story all helped tell how Sister Cathleen, in her wedding dress, goes to take her vows to marry God...and comes to terms with her newly found self-knowledge.
*Editor’s note: Grosso and Sanders have collaborated often.
“We have been friends and colleagues a long time and there is a great exchange that happens, which was especially profound on this project.”