Set Decorator Véronique Melery SDSA and Production Designer Mark Tildesley made a commitment with his friend Director Fernando Meirelles to bring to light the story and the humanity of two diametrically opposed popes, each with strong convictions about the direction of their church and the possibility of change...
We talked with Mark at an exhibition of the film's design and set elements - including the mock-up of the Sistine Chapel, which they built full-size at Cinecittà Studios in Rome. And then followed-up with a phone conversation.
Véronique is on another project in Europe, so we checked in with her via email. Lots of emails late at night after a day of sets! Sincere thank yous to both of them!
Here are a couple of highlights from our conversation with Mark:
"...This is a story about honesty, essentially, so we felt a duty to be as true to the real thing as possible
“It was an amazing script to receive...to find a story that has reconciliation and forgiveness, and witnesses a couple of people struggling with their life and their faith
“We went on our own journey into the lives of these people
They literally journeyed to the actual places, and as Mark says, tried to find the humanity in each and then convey more than just buildings and reproductions of events.
We have generous and genuine details and insights from both Mark & Véronique below and in the captions above.
Karen Burg, Editor
Your connections with the story and the telling of it...
[Who is from Belgium]
“I grew up in a Catholic family. Even if not entirely convinced by the religion, my father (more communist than Catholic!) and my mother (more superstitious than real worshipper) had decided that I was going attend a Catholic school. I was 4-years-old when I pushed open the door of the Institut Sainte-Ursule and 17 when I left.”
“This kind of teaching and upbringing leaves traces of all sorts of beliefs, rituals, music, hymns, and a certain image of the church:
power, ‘absolute truth’, long past, stories...but also beautiful philosophy.
The pope was shown in my Catholic education as a pure spirit. No questioning, no doubt.”
“Of course, these images and myths had evolved and gone over the years to leave only some spiritual directions. But, almost instinctively, I was deeply familiar with the world we were talking about, with its images and its rules.
“So, having to go into what could be the ‘real’ life of two popes full of guilt, sorrow and regrets has been immensely interesting and has put my strongly built agnosticism in doubt.”
[Who is from the UK]
“First, this was an amazing script to receive...to find a story that has reconciliation and forgiveness and witnesses a couple of people struggling with their life and their faith. It really rang home for me. I’m one of 7 brothers and sisters, and my mother dragged us out, to try to keep us in touch with everything to do with our tradition, our faith as Catholics.”
“You know, I’ve had all sorts of wonderful experiences [Editor’s note: Including the opening ceremony of the Olympics!]...this film was probably the best experience I’ve had...”
“It was cathartic, in a sense...in travelling to Rome and seeing all that’s involved...standing back behind the pope and looking at the world and what they have to deal with, and also to think about their positions, because I was reasonably angry about them and their attitude towards subjects and various things. It’s been a great breath of fresh air that this pope finally arrived. I see my mum’s heart lifting. So, I was very glad to show it to her. And it was wonderful, she and a few of the older ladies from the parish came up for a private viewing in town with the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
“I absolutely love working with Fernando, because he always chooses such lovely subjects to deal with...and the experiences. You know, these moments, they do affect your life."
"It’s a wonderful experience to work on a film and be so engaged...and be going into all aspects...because this new pope’s early life in Argentina, was troubled and, he’s not without difficulties...
And to see that modern history unraveled in front of you, and to listen to people’s stories...it’s quite something."
"It was a great pilgrimage, a great journey...As they said in the scene in the garden, 'To find our way, we have to continue the journey
.' I think that’s the trick.
And, you know, Fernando was coming from a very sincere position, he’s from a Catholic background, and we’ve all struggled with it...It’s deeply rooted in us and we just have to deal with it."
“We met 10 years ago and working with Mark on the first project was like working with an already old friend. I do so like his immense power of imagination, his ceaseless sense of humor, his dedication to the work, his generosity as a human being and as a colleague.”
“He has shown confidence in me all along throughout our working together...I like the Set Decoration part of our job, he is a superb Production Designer.
We work well as a team. It’s immensely precious when you can combine this match with the respect and friendly love of each other.”
I had two different teams in Argentina and in Italy, both absolutely enthusiastic, generous and fun. They knew their subject so well...helped to understand the context of the two parts of the movie.
I can never thank enough the teams I have the privilege to work with, certainly on this movie!”
“I think Véronique is, honestly, one of the greatest set decorators on the planet, without a doubt. The story of the Good Shepherd is that he just leads from the front, you don’t chase the sheep. And that’s the whole idea of my life, that I gather amazing people around me, and one of them is Véronique, who is sensational, in her worldliness, her love of life, of people, and understanding... she’s an incredibly wonderful human being. So I always enjoy, whatever the subject is, to work with her.”
“We’re Yin and Yang, which is quite good. I’m not makeshift & mend, but I’m more like that, and she’s not. She’s like the perfectionist. I make sure it’s done in time, and she puts the flourish on the end.”
The making of the film...
"Rome is a dream city to live and work.
The town is bearing the weight of its glorious past in every corner, the studio at Cinecittà is a mythical place, where the pine trees haven’t changed since Fellini worked there...
The craftsmen were amazing, they have inherited the experience of all these amazing productions being shot over the years in Italy.
We went to shoot in some other locations in Italy to find ancient palaces used to re-create the jigsaw of our Vatican."
"Buenos Aires is the new world, in comparison: messy, noisy, lively, not bending under the weight of a history of imperial power, but a vibrant politically engaged place...with the gigantic slums included in the center of the mega city, close to the obscenely rich neighborhoods.
Cordoba and its region offers dramatic landscapes, with vastly open horizons.
A rough, wild and magnificent land of untouched nature.
You do feel humble and elated at the same time.
It’s a place that talks to the soul.
Italy talks to your sense of manmade beauty."
“With Fernando and César [Fernando Meirelles, and DP César Charlone] and the whole team...we went on our own journey into the lives of these people.
“We went to all the places from Bergoglio’s early life in Argentina. We went to the school, the tango club...we went to the seminary, the library...We actually stood in all these places, so we sort of journeyed.”
“In the Vatican, we were very privileged with Enrico Bruschini, who is this sort of master historian for the Vatican and who’s grandfather was a sacristan in the Sistine Chapel. He gave us the tour, which was off the scale amazing, and then served as our Vatican expert.”
“We made a point to make it very, very real. It needs to work.
And it seems to have worked!
Many people wondered how we managed to film inside.
‘How do you do that?’ ‘Well, we build them. We make things.’”
“Although, the process is like a journey trying to understand these characters and their real places. And in fact, in Fernando’s style...he’s not building edifice, he’s always trying to film the real place and peel things back to the essential thing that exactly you need as a prop to tell that particular story.”
“I always say that the best sort of design comes from the character to the walls, not the walls to the character. You need to understand who this is in this building...what color are their eyes, and what do they feel...so you can build that in, for them to live there. We really do try get under the skin of whatever has been given in the script...and think through what comes, rather than making some incredible set to have it be meaningless.”
"I think if you take the Pope’s summer residence, Gandolfo, there’s a wonderful melancholy...The colors are green with red, so it has this Papal feel...but it’s tired and it’s slightly institutionalized. In a way, it’s a very glorious old people’s home. You’re looking at the humanity of it all, of the life of these superstars who were heroes. They’re alone, they drink Fanta. They live in these places. Like my grandma, they turn the telly up super bright, it keeps them warm and comforted...”
“We did the interior at one of the other palaces around Rome. But in the end, you get a sense of the feeling when you stand in these places, of what they’re about. And once you get the truth, or the honesty of what it really is, I think that gives you the potential to move the design on and a little bit more towards what you think might be needed for the piece. Some of them feel like a museum and not what you’re really wanting in that room...but with his old magazines and his Fanta and his bits and pieces...all the stuff that tell you about the life of the human who’s living there...the things of his life style.”
“That’s the real trick with Véronique, to pull the life back into these places. You can get the right mood and color, but then really with film, it’s so much done with the closeup, isn’t it? Basically, there’s the spectacular wide, wow. And then you get into all the bits and pieces in the room that make it feel home.”
We asked Véronique to tell of the set decorating details that helped create the atmosphere and glimpses into character...
Paintings and Sculptures:
“The paintings dressed on the set are all religious subjects, of course.
The real Castel Gandolfo has the most amazing artwork, and I was wondering how to re-create this kind of richness with our props. Thanks to the Italian assistant set decorator, Livia Del Priore, I met the manager of a small private museum of religious art and we were able to rent there the most interesting paintings I could have dreamt of having.”
“San Michele/Saint Michael Killing the Dragon
I choose to dress on the wall behind Benedict’s
desk. I love the idea of this subject. It is giving a very dramatic presence to his inner turmoil during the night sequence while he eats alone.”
“The subject of some other paintings selected (Saint Anthony of Padua, Jesus with St. Anne) is showing naked babies and very young children under adults’ scrutiny to emphasize the sub-context of the scandal of pedophilia in the Church.”
“There are also portraits of older popes and cardinals, looking severely at the inhabitants of the palace. Benedict
is under surveillance of his ancestors...”
has retired and lives in Castel Gandolfo permanently in the white rooms seen at the end of the movie. The art here, are mainly icons, as per some iconographic references showing a meeting between the two real popes...images that Mark, Fernando and I liked very much. Benedict
, being detached from his former life, formerly surrounded by pomp and oppressive surroundings, now has chosen this ethereal ambiance to spend his last days. He is in peace, and the luminous ambiance is, in a way, the spiritual light in which he bathes.”
“The sculptures came from various sorts of places: museums, antique galleries, churches.
I have been extremely privileged to receive these rare artworks and be able to use them on sets.”
“In Argentina, the artworks were from local artists, or 18th century Cuzco’s school of religious paintings. These last ones were imported from Peru. The artworks on the set in Argentina were mainly naive.
Again, I had the opportunity to meet collectors of local ancient art who agreed to rent some magnificent and very touching pieces for the movie.”
“These were echoing the bold and wild murals seen in the shanty town during the opening sequence of the film. We painted many of these ourselves, as we wanted some particular subjects and themes around the slums.”
“The contrast between Argentina
, and Rome
It was interesting to mark this difference.
It has almost been like doing two different movies, with two different, opposite ambiences.”
“Argentina: Modest if not sometimes very poor places in Buenos Aires and Cordoba, where the furniture came from secondhand shops, charity shops, Salvation Army...”
We are mainly looking at the past, the black and white 1950s in the tango club, the streets and churches.
Then we go through terrible times in the ‘70s.
Very mundane interiors shot in the chaotic way of the events related.
The poor places of Cordoba…”
“In the Vatican
, we enter a totally different world.
The pomp and richness. The past, glorious and heavy.
The gilded frames of the paintings, the ancient sculpted furniture of Benedict’s
We wanted to show how much Benedict
loved these signs of power. He lives in heavily painted rooms from the 16th century, where every object and detail shows his power.
is alone in his bubble. He seems to relish this world. In fact, he is isolated and deaf to the people and to God.
The beautiful bed, the ornate altar, embroidered fabrics, all very ancient and delicate...they were real antiques.
I mixed them with contemporary lights, sound systems, computers, printers and exercise bike. He lives in our contemporary days!”
“The idea behind the set dressing of the music room in Gandolfo
is to show the place of an old intellectual person surrounded by comfortable furniture, his favorite music, many books and his piano. Not too much gold here, but a large TV and some nice small paintings. And the fresh roses from the garden…there’s a poet behind the severe facade. This is the place where he can relax, be himself to the point of watching bad TV – he actually watched the REX series!”
“We had some difficulty to find the right piano, like the one always referenced on pics with Benedict
. A simple, good size, good quality-sound piano.
Anthony Hopkins being an accomplished musician, we wanted to offer him a good musical instrument.
There were moments of delight when he played some music while I was still working silently in this room!”
“There are a lot of clocks surrounding Benedict
. Time is ticking for him.”
Decorating the Vatican...
“After Versailles for MARIE-ANTOINETTE, and the White House for JACKIE, I wouldn’t have imagined ever having to dress another iconic place of the world!”
“What I found interesting and amusing here, was to add the odd ugly props in the magnificent Sistine Chapel
or Control Room
! A 1990’s grey speaker with cables hanging, the bright red fire extinguishers, the folding cheap metal chairs for the wardens! This is the ugly real modern life existing amidst the sumptuous artwork.”
“The Room of Tears
is a faithful re-creation, as are the two dressings of the balcony (for each Pope’s appearance), the funeral of Jean Paul II. I tried to copy the reality as much as possible to help the audience getting lost in their emotions, and not checking the furniture or the curtains!”
“This is true as well for the Conclave
sequences. The props and furniture were all made as the real ones used during these two elections. We had to invent the designs of the ballot bowls, as nobody could show us a photo of the real ones. No one can enter the Conclave
room, no one can report anything.”
“However, the bibles and graphic elements are precisely documented, and all we had to do was to remake them as luxurious as they are in reality. In total contrast with the cheap plastic writing pens used for the votes! The other props are re-created in the most realistic way...the stoves, their pipes for the Papal smoke...”
“I also asked to have the most perfect copy of the chair used for the Conclave. Again, no distraction. And there were many of them.
The fabrics covering the tables were, I think, of better quality than the real ones, but I was trying to get this sort of discreet luxurious look for these sequences.
We are at the Vatican
has to be impressed by the rich feeling of everything.”
The most challenging...
“I suppose that the most challenging part of the work has been to recreate the living quarters of the pope. We don’t know what these rooms look like, how he lived in this secret place. Finding the right mixture between some known rare images and the ones made by my imagination, in order to create a real place of life. We are not in a museum, this pope doesn’t live in the 17th century, even if he is surrounded by the elements of the past! He is also surrounded by what we all live with: computer, portables, cables, chargers, televisions, remote controls, records, DVDs…”
And finally, what was the most fun!
“Every part of this movie-making has been great fun.
Working in beautiful locations, with amazing teams and production designer, a lovely and talented director, superb, kind and humorous actors, on a great humanist subject…the making of this movie has been joyful from the first till the last minute.
We have been a team enjoying moments of life together. Life, not only work.”