Despite the fact that Tim Hatley had never created scenery for a film, Mike Nichols chose the accomplished theater production designer to construct “Closer.”
“Mike Nichols took a great leap of faith in asking me to do this film,” Hatley says. “I asked him if he was absolutely sure he wanted me to do it. He said ‘(never having designed a film) is exactly why I want you.’ That instilled me with confidence. It was a big help to me.”
“Closer,” which tracks the volatile relationships of two couples, requires the opposite of intimacy in its design. Patrick Marber’s play, which he adapted for the screen, is cynical and stinging. The spaces and colors in the film had to reflect the great distance between the characters and their damaging interactions.
When Hatley began to transform Marber’s play into a film, the designer behind legit offerings such as London’s “Private Lives” and Gotham’s “The Crucible” used what he knew best — stage design.
“I always develop (stage) ideas through models,” Hatley explains. “It is the clearest way to communicate space to people. So I made a lot of models for (Nichols) and just took it step by step.”
Hatley also stuck to his standard practice of relying on words for inspiration.
“The reason for doing the work is the text,” says Hatley, who read the play 15 times before starting to design. “My job is to be another character in the story, and to work with the other characters in telling that story.”
Anna (Julia Roberts) lives and works in a huge space that becomes more domesticated as her relationship with Larry (Clive Owen) progresses. Dan (Jude Law) and Alice (Natalie Portman) share a flat with a look that could be described as “early college grad,” reflecting their unstable and immature coupling.
The colors are cold and gray; black is prominent in the clothing. Even a flower in a bud vase looks supersaturated in a decayed way.
Anna’s apartment is one example of how Hatley used space to illustrate personal transformation.
“Anna’s studio is full of her thoughts and influences that give clues to her lifestyle; i.e. the open plan layout, the sofa she sits on, the computer she uses, the reorganization of the space as time passes in the film with the addition of the bathroom and new kitchen.”
The characters also inhabit a London that won’t be seen in a Richard Curtis movie. The production designer mirrors the scabrous, volatile relationships of the film’s quartet not only in the interiors, but also on locations around the city.
“I wanted to show the London I live in, not the touristy London — the picture perfect London,” he says. Locations include the glass and steel buildings of Canary Wharf; Postman’s Park, a little-known memorial to unsung heroes; and Charterhouse Street in London.
A costume designer as well (“Stage Beauty”), Hatley collaborated with the pic’s veteran costume designer and longtime Nichols’ associate Ann Roth. “Ann and I worked closely trying to figure out what colors (the four characters wore) and the space they lived in.”
Hatley also hired supervising art director Mark Raggett (“The Hours”). For the pivotal scenes in the strip joint, the duo researched London’s gentlemen’s clubs for inspiration, wanting a more “upscale” representation.
Ultimately, it was the characters and their stories that brought the club to life.
“I wanted (the club) to feel otherworldly,” Hatley says. “A real place — but also a fantasy. The main part of the scene takes place in an inner room. We are in that room for several pages of text, and I wanted to create a wall that was translucent to allow the visual stimulus of the rest of the club, rather than simply relying on sounds.
“The wall allows us to see movement and light — it allows the scene intimacy — yet we always know the real world is not far away.”