Lights, camera, action!
Confession: when I lived by myself – in Paris, in my early twenties – I went to a movie almost every single day, after work. You see, Paris is a wonderful town for movie buffs. In addition to the wide array of large commercial movie theaters all over town, there are numerous small art-house venues – some almost exclusively dedicated to a specific director or genre. I remember a place that only showed Robert Altman movies (I must have seen Nashville there at least half a dozen times), another that was dedicated to the oeuvre of Ingmar Bergman (never really my cup of tea, though I tried....). Of course there was a nightly showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and in that same vein another theater only ran Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Though I have no idea how some of these places stayed in business - ticket prices were a pittance - I loved discovering a new movie every day. I did not care if the film was new or old, in English or French (or any other language), and I explored all genres and styles. Some I liked, some not – and every so often I came across a gem made it into my personal top ten. I often watched these several times, especially if there was a visual aspect that intrigued me – I worked in the design field after all!
Fast forward a few decades and it's a brand new world: Netflix is my new Paris – my current obsession being Norwegian cinema (surprisingly good). I still keep an eye out for outstanding production design, very often a source of decorating inspiration. Here are some favorites.
When I was 8 years old, I stayed home with the flu one day. My mom let me watch TV (not usually allowed during the day) and I stumbled upon 1965's Dr Zhivago, directed by David Lean – what a wonderful way to spend 3 hours and 20 minutes, especially under the influence of fever and cold medicine. I was transfixed the whole time, but the most memorable scene was of course the one that took place in the frozen “ice palace”: eerie and romantic, beautiful and foreboding. Fun fact: the frozen effect was achieved by covering the set's furnishings in beeswax.
Though I claim to be indiscriminate when it comes to movies genres, I do have a soft spot for science fiction. This blogpost could not be complete without a mention of the 1982 classic Blade Runner, with its groundbreaking sets, often filmed in Los Angeles locations. Some of the city’s best architectural sites got a beautiful, dystopian makeover. The Ennis-Brown House built by Frank Lloyd Wright was the source for the main character's apartment.
I've been a fan of Wes Anderson's work ever since Bottle Rocket, though his more recent work seems to hone in on the story-telling power of well-considered – and stylish – production design. Both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel are visually striking and unique, and the sets are as much a contributor to the story as the actors are. Case in point: the dramatically red lacquered elevator interior of the latter, in sharp contrast with the purple bellhop's uniforms – a riot of color absolutely befitting the slapstick events to follow.
Another contemporary director whose work heavily relies on knock-out visuals is Baz Luhrman. His remake of The Great Gatsby is an great example of how production design, in this case Art Deco, which exemplifies the 1920s, is essential to making a period film come to life. Production designer Catherine Martin, successfully created truly a believable and desirable world that respectfully depicts a cherished American novel.
Director Sofia Coppola collaborated with K.K Barrett for the sets of Marie Antoinette: he prefers to be a minimalist when considering the production design and takes aspects out of the production that he deems unimportant. Coppola’s highly stylized interpretation was intentional in order to humanize the historical figures involved. So the film isn’t exactly a documentary and showed a modern treatment and interpretation of Marie Antoinette’s story.
The sets of Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl – designed by Eve Stewart – beautifully explore the contrast between the cold light and spare, masculine Swedish interiors of the early part of the movie with the joyous colors and chic patterns of the Art Nouveau Paris apartment later on in the story. The latter was actually filmed on location in Brussels, Belgium which still has a gorgeous cache of Art Nouveau buildings and interiors.
Finally, I would like to include a TV show: Hannibal. Though it only ran for two seasons, and its subject matter is certainly not for the faint of heart – or stomach – the set design is, according to the LA Times, “so good, it's scary”. Not only is the main character a talented cook – the food styling alone is a reason to watch this show – he happens to have exquisite taste (pun intended): chic, precise, and superb as shown here in the set design for his office. I'm a bit obsessed with the two-tone curtains (ice blue and blood red) and the eclectic mix of antiques and modern pieces.
I will leave you with a few more “honorable mentions”, definitely worth checking out:
Amélie (2001), a romantic comedy film directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
The Golden Bowl (2000), a drama directed by James Ivory
The Wings of the Dove (1997), a U.S.-British drama film directed by Iain Softley
The Cell (2000), a science fiction psychological thriller and the directorial debut of Tarsem Singh
Far from Heaven (2002), a drama written and directed by Todd Haynes
Gattaca (1997), a science fiction film written and directed by Andrew Niccol