For London flower sellers, it was most certainly a red-letter day. More than 5,000 wilted bouquets — the leftovers normally thrown away — were bought up on orders from production designer Alan Macdonald to reconstruct the shrine to Princess Diana outside Buckingham Palace for “The Queen.” A 75-yard section of the famous gates had to be constructed so that actors Helen Mirren and James Cromwell, as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, could at last appear before the grieving public in one of the film’s most moving and memorable scenes.
Since the sequence cuts between newsreel footage and the actors, it might never occur to an audience that it took ingenuity and audacity to stage the authentic-looking scene.
And therein lies the problem for even the most talented designers, particularly those who work on contemporary productions: The better they are at what they do, the less likely it is that anyone will notice their work.
“Really good design should be seamless and only there to tell the story, not to show off,” says Art Directors Guild president Thomas Walsh. That’s the reason the guild created three categories for its own awards show: period, fantasy and contemporary (the latter for movies set within 20 years of the present).
While the Academy occasionally nominates a contemporary film for art direction, it hasn’t done so since “Amelie” in 2001. This year none of the guild’s nominees in the contempo category — “Babel,” “The Departed,” “Casino Royale,” “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Queen” — were recognized by the Academy.
“Can you think of any films more different than these?” asks “The Da Vinci Code” production designer Allan Cameron. “With ‘Babel,’ you feel you’re in a documentary environment, it’s so clean and pure and simple; with ‘Casino Royale,’ it’s showy and spectacular; with ‘Da Vinci Code’ it’s fiction and dark fantasy rolled in with the present. With ‘The Queen,’ there’s this remarkable sense of intimacy and a visual palette that pares it down to colors and textures relating to the emotion of the story.”
“I’m proud that (my work) is invisible,” says “Babel” production designer Brigitte Broch, who points out that she and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu built layers of emotional impact into the natural-looking sets.
“We made the look of the Moroccan village more aggressive, with lots of metal sticking out of cinderblock walls and metal trash, so that the people on the bus would feel threatened and want to get out sooner,” Broch says. “We put chalk drawings on the walls to enhance the strangeness of the culture.” For the colors, “I came up with a red thread throughout the movie as being the blood that unites humanity. For Morocco, it was red-orange, for Mexico it was bright red and for Tokyo it was red-purple. But it’s subtle. The red dress that the nanny wore in the Mexican wedding scene was very much a part of the color scheme.”
At least as subtle was the magic Kristi Zea worked on “The Departed.” Zea, who previously collaborated with Martin Scorsese on “Goodfellas,” had to infuse workaday police environments with ominous character. For the headquarters of the state police, she chose the Hurley building in Boston’s Government Square.
“It’s this ’70s cement architecture called brutalist that has a slightly futurist feel — there’s something ominous and also rock-solid about it. I wanted the feeling of a bunker that was impervious to corruption, and yet that was the very thing they had to rout out.”
Constructing the police station interiors on a soundstage in Brooklyn, Zea used glass walls to heighten tension and create a fishbowl effect, “so there was a dichotomy between the transparency of the walls and the duplicity and secrecy of what people were doing.”
Less concerned with subtlety, 18-time James Bond veteran Peter Lamont had a license to thrill with one splashy setting after another in “Casino Royale.” The sinking Venetian villa, constructed as two separate parts in water tanks at least 20 feet deep, ranks as one of the most complex efforts Lamont has ever mounted on the Pinewood stage, he says.
To create the casino itself, memory lured him to Karlovy Vary, a spa town in the Czech Republic he recalled as having “that look of the Riviera.” A local landmark, the Grand Hotel Pupp, became the Hotel Splendide, and an abandoned turn-of-the-century spa was restored for the Casino Royale.
On “The Queen,” the challenge was creating a convincing behind-the-scenes look at the living spaces of the very private royals without having access to their actual quarters. Intensive research yielded many clues, but even so, the emotional textures required for the story sometimes prevailed over reality.
For example, the rustic stand-alone cold-storage hut where the queen goes to view the dead stag was invented for the film. “Those kinds of hanging rooms aren’t legal anymore — you need a government-regulated cold-storage room — but we felt we needed something more traditional in this scene,” says Macdonald. “For the queen to look at the stag, it’s almost like a part of her is dying; it’s like the death of the monarchy, so we felt we needed a setting that was familiar and sentimental.”
Much detail also went into contrasting the informal, slightly sloppy home life of the Blairs with the orderly formality favored by the royals. “The story is so sensational already that I often went with understatement,” Macdonald says of his choices. “I think success comes when you believe what you’re watching and you don’t question it.”
When Oscar looks the other way on contemporary films, designers must rely instead upon endorsements from other channels.
Macdonald, for one, cryptically suggests that since the release of “The Queen,” he’s heard from various quarters that “the feeling among ‘certain people’ was that the film was oddly very faithful to the style and lifestyle of the royal family. We heard back that people — let’s not say who — were quietly pleased with its accuracy.”
Where: Beverly Hilton Hotel
“Babel” — Brigitte Broch
“Casino Royale” — Peter Lamont
“The Da Vinci Code” — Allan Cameron
“The Departed” — Kristi Zea
“The Queen” — Alan Macdonald
“Curse of the Golden Flower” — Huo Tingxiao
“Dreamgirls” — John Myhre
“Flags of Our Fathers” — Henry Bumstead
“The Good Shepherd” — Jeannine Oppewall
“The Prestige” — Nathan Crowley
“Children of Men” — Geoffrey Kirkland
“Pan’s Labyrinth” — Eugenio Caballero
“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” — Rich Heinrichs
“Superman Returns” — Guy Hendrix Dyas
“V for Vendetta” — Owen Patterson