The lush, Gothic and over-the-top look of “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera” reflects the sumptuous look of the worldwide theatrical hit. Directed by Joel Schumacher, whom Lloyd Webber had earmarked as director right from the start, it’s a glitzy blitz of sight and sound.
“The word Joel used to describe what he wanted was ‘sexy,’ ” says production designer Anthony Pratt, who immediately locked onto the director’s vision, creating a look that was on one hand disturbing, on the other deliciously decadent.
“I was very influenced by the strangeness of the original story, the idea of this girl who thinks her dead father’s calling to her,” Pratt says. He went for designs that were voluptuous and sexy, adding a “slightly stuffy, Victorian claustrophobia of that sort of environment.”
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The film’s elaborate sets were constructed in 14 weeks and shooting took place at London’s Pinewood Studios, with one exterior filmed in Windsor Great Park.
“One thing I thought from the beginning was nothing should be too real. It had to be stylized and exaggerated,” says Pratt, particularly the Phantom’s lair, a mysterious yet sumptuous cave dwelling deep in the theater’s sewer system.
For the theater’s auditorium and the lavish masquerade in the theater foyer, the film’s most elaborate sets, Pratt referred to paintings by Edgar Degas, who often painted the Paris Opera, as well as photos from 1800s Paris.
Costume designer Alexandra Byrne also immersed herself in the period, researching original costumes, referring to paintings and visiting Paris and the opera house to absorb that world. Pictures, inspirations and ideas would go up on a “mood board” she used as a visual reference that was continually evolving as she exchanged ideas with Pratt and the director.
Byrne, who also did costume design for “Finding Neverland,” found Schumacher, who began his movie career as a costume designer, very receptive to her ideas. “There was a fast track in terms of dialogue” between them, she says.
As a former theater costume designer, Byrne adapted to the project seamlessly, coming up with 300 original costumes for the principal characters and adding 2,000 more from stock for the theater patrons and masquerade performers within the story’s three operas and two ballets.
But her piece de resistance was the masquerade costume for Christine: a big pink dress in which she dances a fast waltz. “I wanted it to be light and buoyant, and it had to have movement,” says the designer.
The character of Christine took the most work, since she is seen in her own clothes for only one short sequence (in the chapel scene) and wears theatrical costumes the rest of the time. The designer tried to take her on a visual journey that often required multiple changes, even within a single scene.
“As Christine goes down into the lair, Joel wanted her look to become more magical and mysterious, which meant more shine to the fabric, more sheer and exotic,” she remembers.
On the film’s $50 million budget, the slice allocated for design was “quite good,” says Pratt. Even so, he found himself having to cut corners, using polystyrene instead of plaster for some of the theater moldings, for example.
Her background in theater costume design meant Byrne wasn’t intimidated by budgetary concerns. “In the theater you have to be constantly aware of budget. It can make you make some very good decisions,” she says.