'King's Speech' designers conjured world on a budget

Costume designer Jenny Beavan was dubious when she started reading a script about a king and a speech therapist. “I thought, ‘Oh fine,’ ” she recalled. “But by the time I finished it, tears were pouring down my face.”

That same day she met with director Tom Hooper, who was developing “The King’s Speech,” about the ascension to the thrown of Britain’s King George VI on the eve of WWII as he battled to overcome his stuttering.

Following that initial meeting, Beavan heard nothing for several weeks until she got a call with good news — “Can you start prepping tomorrow?” — and scary news — “We’ve only got 5 1/2 weeks.”

“I didn’t know anything about George VI except that he smoked, died of lung cancer and had a stammer,” she said. “It was a crash course. I had to learn history, what everyone looked like, get all the clothes together and get everyone fitted.”

Production designer Eve Stewart, a self-described history geek, already knew Hooper through her work with him on “The Damned United” and HBO’s “Elizabeth I.” She, too, was thrilled when the helmer asked her to work on the project.

Stewart and Beavan had both done period work in the past. In addition to “Elizabeth I,” Stewart had designed “Nicholas Nickleby”; Beavan had done costumes for Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility” and HBO’s “The Gathering Storm,” which was set in the same period as “Speech.”

For “Speech,” Beavan plumbed a bounty of reference material, including photo archives of the royals as well as the family album of Lionel Logue, the king’s Aussie therapist, played in the film by Geoffrey Rush. But alongside such research, Beavan focuses closely on the characters.

“Actors don’t often look like the person they’re playing, so I go for the spirit of that person,” said Beavan. “Colin (Firth, playing George VI) was desperate to look thinner. The king was a small man; Colin is nicely built and around 6 feet, so we cut the suits to give him the leanest silhouette we could.”

To coordinate the look of the film, Beavan visited Stewart at her workspace at Elstree Studios outside London to study the designs and color palette being developed. Stewart’s aim was to capture the combination of opulence and decay that characterized the royal palaces of pre-war Britain and persists to this day.

“The royals inhabit these big buildings that are crumbling, and they haven’t got enough money to do the upkeep,” Stewart said. “Even now they live in about four rooms in the back of the palace … they can’t afford to heat everything.”

Capturing the period realistically was one of the most challenging aspects of “Speech,” said Beavan, because everything was under scrutiny by an army of history buffs and people who still vividly remember the era. There was no room for failure.

The biggest challenge of all: creating an impeccable sense of time and place on a tight budget — for which Beavan’s resourcefulness came in very handy.

“The producers were slightly naive about doing a period film,” she said. “We had very little money, but I managed to find great bits and pieces for the costumes in Shepherd’s Bush Market.”

Bookings & Signings

Innovative Artists booked d.p.’s Joseph White on Darren Bousman’s “11-11-11,” Tim Suhrstedt on MTV pilot “Patito Feo” and Fox pilot “Dear Annie,” Alex Nepomniaschy for additional photography on D.J. Caruso’s “I Am Number Four” and Doug Chamberlain on Carter’s “Maladies.”

Dattner Dispoto has signed d.p. Javier Aguirresarobe (“Twilight: New Moon”) and commercial production designer Justin Dragonas — repping both for TV spots. Agency’s recent bookings include d.p.’s Jeff Cronenweth on David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Trevor Forrest on Jon Wright’s “Grabbers,” Eric Maddison on Josef Rusnack’s “Ghost Vision,” Danny Ruhlmann on James McTeigue’s “The Raven” and Ben Smithard on Simon Curtis’ “My Week With Marilyn.” Agency’s TV bookings: d.p.’s Russell Fine on HBO’s “Luck” and David Stockton on NBC’s “Chase” and production designer Eve Stewart on BBC’s “The Hour.”

peter.caranicas@variety.com For more Bookings & Signings, visit Variety.com

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