Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA
Production Designer John Paul Kelly
20th Century Studios
“There needed to be a sense of unease, the unexpected is always simmering in the air.”
— Kenneth Branagh
Director and star Kenneth Branagh relied on the design and set decoration of Production Designer JP Kelly and Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA, and their teams, to create this hauntingly mysterious atmosphere he described, as well as the moldering beauty of a centuries-old Venetian palazzo for the 20th Century Studios feature film A HAUNTING IN VENICE.
“It is all Hallows’ Eve in an eerie Venice in the years following World War II, where celebrated sleuth, Hercule Poirot [Kenneth Branagh], now resides. At the behest of his friend, mystery writer Ariadne Oliver [Tina Fey], Poirot reluctantly attends a séance at a decaying, haunted palazzo owned by famed opera singer Rowena Drake [Kelly Reilly]. When one of the guests is murdered, the detective is thrust into a sinister world of shadows and secrets.” --20th Century Studios
Having worked with Kenneth Branagh on several productions, Celia knew the quality he envisioned, that is her paradigm, but she also was aware that he wants the sets to be experiential for both the actors and the audience. Once again, something she could relate to and, with her teams, convey. Here, she graciously responds to a few [or more!] questions from SET DECOR.
[Editor’s note: Thank you to SDSA Executive Director Gene Cane for his notes re: the film, some of which have been incorporated into the questions & captions below.]
SET DECOR: Tina Fey, says, “The level of detail in the sets was incredible, and the fact that they were contiguous was so impressive...you could really walk through the entire house.”
We agree the level of detail in the sets was incredible, hardly surprising when the set decoration was from you and your team, but please tell us about the layout of these huge sets.
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: Once Ken Branagh and Production Designer JP Kelly had decided that the palazzo set would be built in its entirety at Pinewood Studios, they decided to use one stage with two composite sets for the upper part of the palazzo. The boathouse, the tank and the lower stairs leading to the piano nobile were on another stage. The flooded basement was on yet another.
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios © 2023. All Rights Reserved.
So, Tina Fey is correct in that once she had climbed the stairs to the piano nobile, the actors moved around the palazzo seamlessly between library, dining room, kitchen, music room, the Antiquarium and the long corridor. The set with Alicia’s bedroom, the chapel, rooftop garden and loggia were on the same stage, but one did have the sense of being on the upper floor and moving from room to room for those as well.
SET DECOR: Tina adds, “...And it was very dark. I have never been on a set with more candlelight and open flames.”
Lanterns & more lanterns! Candles, fascinating variety of lamps and sconces range in every room from beautiful gold leaf scroll base to iron torches from antiquity. What can you tell us?
Piano nobile entrance details. Note the limited light, thus the need for the torch-like sconces and standing candles, as well as the huge hanging lamps. Detail from photo by Rob Youngson © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: The lighting evolved over the weeks of building the sets. Initially, Haris Zamboulas, the Director of Photography, was keen to use discreet LED light sources, but Ken was adamant that physical lighting would be used. We hired period theatrical lamps. I justified this as I felt Rowena [Kelly Reilly] might have borrowed lighting from the Fenice Opera House in Venice, where she had worked. We hired as much as we could from the wonderful hire companies in London. We purchased a lot, as well. We found several suppliers who only bought from Italy and found wonderful things.
Some of the lights were just pairs, so we made further ones to use on specific sets. By only using one bulb in a two-light wall fitting, we tried to give the effect that Rowena could not afford many electrical bulbs.
Originally, there was to be a lot of candlelight, but the hurricane lamps we bought gave greater flexibility. Gas lighting was used in the Antiquarium, giving an eeriness to those scenes. Again, in the Boathouse, gas was used, as well as more industrial bulkhead electrical lighting.
An intrinsic part of the lighting was ensuring that we used “correct for period” Italian light switches, socket plates and cloth-covered flex for everything in the palazzo.
SET DECOR: Sourcing. Did you bring anything over from Italy or were you able to source everything in the UK?
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: Early on, we decided to buy all the door furniture from Italy for the interior of the palazzo, except for the locks of the black iron gates, which were made in England.
The gondolas used in the Boathouse set and in the tank outside it were shipped from Venice. Afterwards, they were then shipped back to Venice for the exterior filming. At Pinewood, we had interior furniture made that was more suited to our period. However, we used the traditional brass decorations that were supplied. We had the lanterns made for the gondolas in Venice, and these went back and forth.
Arrival by gondola. In the murky night sky of Venice, gondola ferry guests to the palazzo for a Halloween evening that goes from entertainment to murder. Scene still courtesy of 20th Century Studios © 2023. All Rights Reserved.
We bought a fair amount of period furniture from a house which was being cleared outside Rome. This was all in a decrepit state – perfect for our use.
SET DECOR: What was the biggest challenge for this film? Afterall, you’ve dealt with THE MARTIAN and THE CROWN, and so much more! But each production has some challenges.
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: Possibly the biggest challenge was getting the Adam and Eve clock designed and made to work. KB [Kenneth Branagh] was very specific and detailed in his requests. The longcase clock was based on an Italian clock of 1790. I liked the simplicity of this design.
Detail of the loggia. Adam & Eve longcase clock, with the apple connotation. The remnants of the wall fresco thinly reveal cloaked figures and apples…again foretelling events. The hall shows much nicer sconces with gold leafed swirled, electric wall lighting, while tall standing golden candlestick with well-used candle is at ready to be lit. Photo by Rob Youngson © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
We added the astrological clock to the face, based on the Clock Tower in St Mark’s Square in Venice. The figures of Adam and Eve, the tree, serpent and animals were based on a painting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, by Lucas Cranach (circa 1538). It really was very intricate with the figures moving in and out, Eve proffering the apple and Adam raising his hand, in addition to the nodding of the animals and the moving serpent.
SET DECOR: We see Alicia’s bedroom in the kept-as-day-she-died-aspect and also in flashbacks. It was quite fitting for the daughter of a renowned singer that her bedroom had an operatic quality, and redolent of Venice, a fantastical underwater-like atmosphere with frescoes of undulating feathery trees cloistering the domed ceiling and creating this dichotomy of a claustrophobic beauty.
Please tell us about the furnishings, especially the dressing table and chair, the rather amazing bed and the pair of slightly curved “corner” pieces...
Alicia’s bedroom. Painted tree wall decoration artistically follows the film’s bird motif with feathery leaves. Foliate carvings on the fireplace brackets and entablature also have feathery foliate carving. Electrified lighting for this special room include a parrot base lamp. Bird figurines adorn the curved corner cabinets. Photo by Rob Youngson © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: This was a lovely set to dress. JP Kelly suggested the painted woodland walls to KB, and it worked very well in the room and had a wonderful ethereal quality. The bed was built in. I wanted to bring femininity to this set and the Jean Munro fabric worked well achieving this. It was a nineteenth century design taken from an old document.
The curved corner pieces were made by our clever Prop making department. We discovered the painted columns at one of the prop suppliers and were determined to use them. The kidney-shaped dressing table was dressed with a gathered skirt in the same material as the bed. We found the three-part dressing table mirror and painted it. Rugs on the floor were hired. Again, rather worn and faded.
SET DECOR: Birds seem to be thematic, certainly her pet is key. Please tell us about the bird imagery throughout the palazzo.
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: As you rightly point out, the pet cockatoo, Harry, did inspire us to choose parrot lamps and candlesticks. [Editor’s note: See the Library set further on for more re: birds]
SET DECOR: And we must talk about the fabulous practical lighting elements throughout! This room alone had such a variety, including: the chandelier, the standing lamp near dressing table with the flounced shade, the standing lamp near fireplace with red cameo shade, the sconces, the table lamps, from small pair for dressing table to white figurative on chaise side table and more...
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: The chandelier was found in Sussex. A lovely Italian metal one with vine leaves and grapes. This was nicely distressed, as indeed were all the lampshades. Some of these were hired, others bought...Lovely shapes from the twenties and thirties with trimmings glued back on in places, some with water damage which helped with the aging of the palazzo.
SET DECOR: Part of Alicia’s Bedroom became the setting for the Séance to “connect” with her spirit, and through the landing was a small chapel with the candlelit altar.
Alicia’s bedroom. Concept drawing shows the landing where the séance was held, between the small chapel in the background and the bedroom part of the suite. The cello, with its feminine figurine aura, reflected the love of music she shared with her mother. [The boy standing in the unlit fireplace is part of a plot point!] Courtesy of 20th Century Studios © 2023. All Rights Reserved.
We understand that some of the Séancescene effects happened in real time, with the actors not expecting them. How did that impact set decoration?
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: The revolving chair on which Mrs. Reynolds sits spins violently during the séance. We had this rigged. Originally, the séance scene was to have been candle-lit, but the hurricane lamps were safer and more controllable.
SET DECOR: It was clever to include as part of the story that the small tables that had been stacked after the children’s party were brought to the bedroom area when the medium wanted to move the site of the séance.
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: Yes, we used the distressed card tables, which had been in the Halloween party scenes for the orphans. The little chairs were very ordinary and mismatched. The typewriter was correct for period. It was an IBM, similar to the one which was used in the Potsdam Armistice meeting of 1945.
The Séance: (Facing front, L-R): Jude Hill as Leopold Ferrier, Camille Cottin as Olga Seminoff, Michelle Yeoh as the medium Mrs. Reynolds, Jamie Dornan as Dr. Leslie Ferrier, and Kyle Allen as Maxime Gerard. Kelly Reilly as retired opera singer Rowena Drake has her back to the camera, to her left is Riccardo Scamarcio as Vitale Portfoglio. Not pictured: Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot and Tina Fey as Ariadne Oliver. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 All Rights Reserved.
The little chapel was very scaled down and plain. Again, KB wanted to give the impression that anything of great value (religious statues, candlesticks etc.) had been sold off to cover the blackmail payments.
The Music Room...
SET DECOR: This is in classic tones, not the watery green. Of course, Rowena, the famed opera singer, would have a substantial music room. She is in complete control here, as we discover. Please tell us about this room, and any clues it might be holding if we were to look deeply enough.
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: We lined the walls in a red and gold damask. None of the decoration of the palazzo had been done by Rowena. We aged down the damask as much as we thought we should. Throughout, we wanted to imbue the sets with a sense of the luxury that there once had been. Originally, we had dressed this room quite heavily, feeling that it would have been Rowena’s domain and that she would not have wanted to part with her things. However, KB wanted it as bare as possible, to convey her current situation, so we stripped it back to the furniture that was essential: sofa and chairs for the actors to sit upon, the piano needed for the party and one music stand as a memento of a possible string quartet which had performed in the room. Obviously, we needed to keep the globe on the stand which housed the telephone.
SET DECOR: The library is rather all a tumble, with stacks of manuscripts and books creating a different sense of claustrophobia, emphasized in the apple bobbing scene. The armillary sphere quietly reminding us of the history of this place. Please tell us about everything in here!
Library. Contents of the library...manuscripts, folios, perhaps librettos and scores of Rowena’s operatic triumphs...are wrapped and tied in bundles possible for future sale. Recurring themes of distressed wood with the ceiling beams and parquet floor frame the room, with taxidermy fowl en cloche scattered throughout. In the center, the basin of apples for bobbing. Photo by Rob Youngson © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: This started out as quite an ordered library with shelves emptied of books. These books were piled on the floor, waiting to be packed into crates to be sold. KB liked the piles so much, he asked me to build them 5-feet high! He wanted the set to be claustrophobic and strange, as this is where Dr. Ferrier hides. I put in an austere leather chaise longue, like one belonging to a psychiatrist to emphasize his disturbed mind and PTSD. I also “dressed” birds in glass domes to accentuate the feeling of captivity. Small paintings and sketches in frames were leant against the bookshelves, to break up the continuous lines of books.
The loggia of the Piano Nobile...
SET DECOR: We first see it candlelit and crowded with children, lined with tables laden with food and treats. Gracious, at some point it seemed children were coming out of everywhere, please tell about that scene!
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: Trestle tables were laid out and dressed with period toys and games as if Rowena had thought to entertain the children. Much of the food was dressed into the dining room but moved here when they were shooting. We researched the toys thoroughly and had a variety of zoetropes and praxinoscopes, which are of the Magic Lantern world. We had spooky animation rolls to play, like the skeleton, to emphasize All Souls’ Eve/Halloween. We set up a screen with circular convex mirrors for the children to peer into, but we hoped, too, for the cameras to use them in filming the room.
SET DECOR: After they leave, it transforms more into its true self...Please tell us about this amazing space and the curated set dressing, especially the little alcove at one end of the loggia...and the case clock. And, of course, the chandelier, a character in itself! [How many versions did you have?] And the magnificent hanging pendant lamp that looks as if it has been there from the beginning...
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: In general, the piano nobile of a palazzo was the great room where guests, professional people, business acquaintances and middle-class tradespeople would have been ushered into. The room was decorated with the best furniture that the family could afford, with wonderful frescoes and chandeliers.
Our piano nobile has a leaking ceiling, the frescoes are damaged by the damp and age, and the furniture has been sold off by Rowena to pay her blackmailer. In order to convey what would have been a grand interior, we kept the grand chairs and the pedestals to furnish the set in the sparest way possible. The little area under the beautiful lantern [See photo at top of article] was dressed with a period suite of Venetian chairs and a sofa, so that the actors could sit comfortably.
Piano nobile. Concept drawing showing the water leaking to the point of slightly flooding one end of the room. Buckets and brooms appear to be taking over this elegant room. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 All Rights Reserved.
The justification for Rowena not removing and selling this was the difficulty that she would have had in having it physically taken away. Similarly, the great room still had to be lit, hence the lantern and the chandelier remain.
We started off thinking we would hire a chandelier and have Special Effects copy it. Then it was decided by KB that he would manage with one, so Special Effects set to work!
SET DECOR: Masks are watching, shadows from the statues are like interlopers, more wood furniture damaged from the elements (worktable is a favorite), plus fabulous furnace. Please tell us about this unique and impactful set!
Antiquarium. Masks keep eerie watch over the disused art studio while shadows cast from statuary intimidate along the deteriorating roughhewn walls. However dreary, the Juliet balcony and quatrefoil window show glorious hallmarks of Venice architecture. Photo by Rob Youngson © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: This was a strange set to dress. Obviously, the statue was needed to impale Mrs. Reynolds. We, therefore, needed to have a number of statues to justify this. I turned the space into an artists’ studio. There was a lot more dressing in here, but it was decided that Rowena had sold much of it. The trestles came in useful to lay out the dead. To give the very tall room light, we decided to use gas lights here. These had been newly acquired by a prop house and suited our purpose very well. The masks on the wall were something JP and KB had seen on one of their scouts to Venice and we had ours made by a potter. Again, the masks accentuate Rowena’s subterfuge. The upper gallery was dressed with a hotch-potch of old picture frames, a birdcage, other items...a dumping ground for things which Rowena could not sell.
SET DECOR: Incredible wrought iron torchlike sconces + tromp l’oeil bench...
Boathouse/cavana. The elements and time have weathered the wood, brick and stone. Trompe l’oeil bench back over distressed bench is reminiscent of the elaborate furnishings up the creaky stairs to the piano nobile of the palazzo. Photo by Rob Youngson © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: We hired the wrought iron wall sconces. Again, gas lighting helped in this large barn-like cavana. [Editor’s note: A cavana/cavanna is a covered shelter for boats, emblematic of the city and lagoon of Venice.] The bench is typical of Venetian palaces. They were usually placed in the piano nobile for visiting tradespeople, professional and businessmen to sit upon whilst awaiting an audience with the owner of the palazzo.
Boathouse/cavana, a concept drawing we’ve included for you to picture how large this landing space is. That is the Venetian canal through the portal in the center with the hanging iron gate. Note all the rigging involved as well as proper seating for guests. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 All Rights Reserved.
Kitchen & pantry...
SET DECOR: We do wish we had a photo, this is another favorite!
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: A favourite of mine too. We built the kitchen range from a photo of one in a Venetian interior. Fortunately, it did not have to be fully practical. KB had seen a kitchen when scouting and asked for the chimney piece to be dressed with copper lids.
When we were sent photographs of an Italian country house contents for sale, the kitchen in the house had a beautiful stone sink. Obviously, we could not have that, but we had one made. However, the cupboard in the kitchen did come from there and is very traditional in Italy. We sourced most of our kitchen dressing from prop suppliers in Rome to give authenticity. The pantry was dressed with an ironing table. Again, this was a way to anchor the dressing into our period and additionally with various Italian hired ironed softs.
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: The lighting here was found at an antique supplier in Sussex. It was very ramshackle and apart from the electricians making everything safe, we just hung it up. The central table was Spanish and had a lovely colour and patination. We found a worn green rug for the floor.
Little green bathroom with goldleaf framed mirror...
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: This little set was a cheat. A tiny room with a period basin and pedestal and one of my favourite mirrors from a prop supplier in London
Basement with children’s skeletons and age-worn toys...
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: This was dressed with little beds and chairs all tangled together with cloth dolls. The lower part of the set was dressed with ropes and trailing green weed, but in point of fact, the set was flooded high and much of the detail here was lost to the camera. The buzzing beehive in the chest cavity of a little skeleton was beautifully made and also quickly shot.
SET DECOR: Did you go to Venice for the exteriors or did you send a team?
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: Absolutely, I did. I went on the scouts and then I went with my assistant set decorator, Sandro Piccarozzi, to Rome to hire props to use in Pinewood and in Venice, including from esteemed vendor E. Rancatti. We hired a lot from a prop house in Mestre, on the mainland from Venice. There was a lot more filming in Venice which was not included in the film.
Exterior: The plaza bench with the notice board and the small market being set up behind Poirot & Ariadne...
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: This Venetian square did not have a lot going for it from a period point of view. However, it was where the children, Poirot and Ariadne embark in gondolas to reach the palazzo exterior. Since this story was set not long after the war, the Art department had a WWII monument constructed to the memory of Venetians. We placed noticeboards with photographs and biographies of the missing and dead behind them. This was carefully researched and produced by the Graphics department.
The rest of the square had a lot of modern changes to the buildings lining the square on one side. I had a wonderful reference taken from a documentary film of Venice in the 1940s showing a square filled with sheets drying, hung on rope washing lines supported on freestanding poles. We did this and it camouflaged the worst of the modernity.
Poirot’s Venetian rooftop with table and chairs...
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: This location was on the roof of the Musical Conservatory of Venice. I placed the metal structure there and had a canopy made. On the day, the weather was kind and KB was able to use the drone shot that he had planned.
Editor’s note: To end the film, the drone shot was a long pull-away from Poirot on a rooftop to a beautiful 360 of Venice in the daylight reflecting its inherent magical qualities and a sense of timeless well-being.