Oscar loves period dramas, especially if they’re set across the pond, and this year Blighty rules the waves again with four films that together span some 400 years of glorious (and less-than-glorious) English history — “Anonymous,” “W.E.,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “The Iron Lady.”
Four teams of artists met the challenge of using art direction, costumes and makeup to depict the various eras, and three of the four directors of these films aren’t even British: Roland Emmerich, a German, tackled Shakespeare in “Anonymous”; Michigan-born Madonna examined Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson; and Swede Tomas Alfredson re-created Cold War England. Only “Iron Lady” helmer Phyllida Lloyd is a Brit.
There’s little left of 16th century London, so after extensive research in museums, “Anonymous” production designer Sebastian Krawinkel and his team decided to design and build everything at Babelsberg studios outside Berlin, including the Globe and Rose theaters and “a London street with 14 houses and a muddy road on the backlot, which gave us a lot of control.”
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Costume designer Lisy Christl made 300 costumes for the film. Like Krawinkel, she visited museums, archives and galleries, and talked to historians. When she returned to Babelsberg and began designing, “it was a bit like a puzzle, as I’d take a color from one source, and maybe a sleeve from another, and build something from the different elements.” Her biggest hurdle: re-creating the rich embroidery of the Elizabethan era. “You can’t do it today, so our workshops in London and Berlin came up with this faux-embroidery, which worked well.”
For “Spy” production designer Maria Djurkovic, family roots offered a window into the murky world of espionage. “I’m British-born but my mother is Czech, my father half-Russian, half-Montenegrin, so I have very powerful memories of childhood holidays behind the Iron Curtain,” she says. To re-create the world of the Cold War, “Tomas and I looked at photographs, visited Churchill’s War Rooms and made our own version of ’70s mess and clutter.” It also helped that she inherited an extensive library of period books and magazines from her grandmother.
Her greatest resource was access to “Spy” author David Cornwall (who wrote as John le Carre). He gave detailed descriptions of the practical workings of MI6. “At night all desk drawers were left empty, glass sheets used to write on so that no imprints were left,” she says. As for the use of sound-proofing foam in the conference room, “it was a bold visual of my own conceit,” she admits, “but made logical sense for the most secret heart of MI6, and the idea got David’s full support.”
To research the glamorous life of the duke and duchess, “W.E.” costume designer Arianne Phillips immersed herself in the ’30s and ’40s, reading “as much as I could about the British monarchy and London society, as well as the haute couture world of Paris,” she says. She also studied film clips, visited museums and sought out collectors of vintage clothing and jewelry. “Sotheby’s helped us liaise with some of the private owners of pieces famously sold at the auction,” she adds, “and talking to Sotheby’s employees was extremely helpful for the 1997 story line.”
After the research, Phillips focused on sourcing vintage fabrics, trims and notions. “It’s very important to understand the feel and touch of the real fabric from the time,” she says. “Often we’re limited to using contemporary fabrics since the vintage ones don’t always stand the test of time. We were lucky to be able to see and examine some of the real garments owned by the duke and duchess.”
Jenny Shircore, makeup and hair on “W.E.,” did research by looking at documentaries and contemporary magazines. To get the authentic 1940s look, she had the actors’ hair “barbered into the short-back-and-sides style of the day. A light dressing such as Brylcreem was then worked into the hair. It was then parted into a high side or middle break and combed into a neat, controlled ultra-groomed finish.”
The men were clean-shaven, and Shircore “occasionally applied a moustache or two in the style of Ronald Coleman to accentuate the ’40s look.” The ladies’ make-up was, “a flat powdered look,” she says. “Hair was always dressed close to the head, keeping a neat head shape, and either softly curled or shaped into crisp waves along the hairline.”
Although “The Iron Lady” is set in the more recent past, it still presented challenges for production designer Simon Elliott. “We were blessed with the fact that there’s so much archive footage of Margaret Thatcher during her time in office, but as the scope of the film took us from the 1940s through to the 1990s — with some of the decades only with us for a couple of scenes, it was essential that the audience very quickly have a sense of period,” he says.
Shooting in central London locations became, “a logistical problem of permission, road closure, and the sheer scale of set dressing,” adds Elliott. For one scene illustrating the stranglehold of the unions during a rubbish strike in the ’70s, “the only solution was a huge overnight dress with enormous amounts of artificial refuse delivered though the night for a dawn shoot.”
Terrific pix, period | Paris’ palette competes with L.A. duotone | Makeup magic turns Streep to Thatcher | Older crafts rise to the challenge of 3D