‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Production Designer Re-Creates Period of Opulence

In the 1974 version of “Murder on the Orient Express,” adapted from the classic Agatha Christie crime novel, a plethora of big Hollywood names came aboard, including director Sidney Lumet and stars Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery.

The same can be said for this year’s version, set for release by 20th Century Fox on Nov. 10. Kenneth Branagh directed, and the stars include Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Penélope Cruz.

To surround the top-shelf actors, BAFTA-winning production designer Jim Clay (“Children of Men,” “Great Expectations”) gave the story a look to match the grand history of the railroad and Christie’s beloved book.

Clay built the Orient Express train from the ground up. The trick was to make it beautiful and luxurious yet still camera-friendly. The crew built one set of train carriages for exteriors and interiors at Longcross Studios in London, and another set only for interiors. The carriages were made 12 inches wider than normal train cars, and floating walls and roofs were installed to facilitate the movement of the crew.

The camera team, led by Haris Zambarloukos, shot on large Panavision cameras with sizable lens boxes and 65mm Kodak film. “That’s a lot to carry up and down the corridors,” says Clay. “That’s why we edged it out a little bit — but every other dimension was accurate to the original. I think [Branagh] wanted full control of the environment as opposed to going out onto location with a real train and real carriages, which we could have done, but then we would have been subject to all of the unpredictability of trains on tracks and weather.”

Clay studied the 1974 film and decided that the new version needed a more modern look — “a more current style of shooting,” as he puts it.

“We tried to pare it back,” he explains. “The 1974 version and lots of the television versions that preceded us were quite ornate, art nouveau, slightly Victorian, with floral patterns etched on the windows and into the fabrics. Ken’s style is more minimalist, so we edged ours toward art deco and lines that were more geometric rather than floral. He was very conscious of keeping the backgrounds opulent and rich but not distracting.”

While this was Clay’s first collaboration with the veteran actor-director, the two have already begun work on Disney’s “Artemis Fowl” together. Clay is happy with the relationship. “[Kenneth] thinks big and shoots dramatically, which is a great thing for a production designer.”

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