To paraphrase George Orwell, all Oscar races are equally hard, but some are harder than others. The one facing the team of production designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer may be the hardest of all, for one simple reason: Not only are they facing stiff competition from the teams behind “Blade Runner 2049,” “The Shape of Water” and “Dunkirk,” but they’re also competing against themselves, since they’re nominated for both “Darkest Hour” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
“It’s pretty unheard of, and we were shocked,” says Greenwood of the double nominations (which mark her fifth and sixth noms, both shared with Spencer). “Obviously it’s a great honor, but it’s also horrible to be up against yourself.”
The two have worked on a number of movies with “Darkest Hour” director Joe Wright, “but it was the first time we’d worked with [“Beauty and the Beast” director] Bill Condon,” she reports. “Working with Bill was like hitting the jackpot. Even though it was this massive Disney production, it all came together very smoothly. The studio was very supportive, and we had the time and money, which doesn’t happen very often.”
Immediately following “Beauty,” shot on stages at Shepperton Studios near London, Greenwood and Spencer, who’ve worked as a team for more than 20 years, began working on “Darkest Hour.” “It was kind of like going back into the bosom of your dysfunctional family,” Greenwood says. “We didn’t have a lot of time, the budget was pretty tight and the big challenge was trying to make a movie that’s on a pretty big scale and dealing with these epic themes, but with quite limited resources.”
While the team built and dressed a number of sets, including the maze-like War Room and the House of Commons, which was built at Leavesden Studios, also near London, “Hour” was far more of a location film.
“We were on stages for ‘Beauty and the Beast’ for 18 months, which is very long,” the production designer explains. “So it was nice to get back on the road and deal with making some old house in Yorkshire double for Churchill’s home or the interior of Buckingham Palace.”
And while both films are period pieces — “Beauty and the Beast” is set in 1740s France, “Darkest Hour” in World War II England — they’re quite different in tone and intent. “The first is a fairy tale,” Greenwood notes, “while the other is [based on] reality.”
“I’d never really had the opportunity to work on a great movie with a great actor in a serious story.”
Makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji
Although the two productions differed greatly in many respects, the creative process was very much the same, Greenwood says: “I always start with visual references and try to find the key to what makes it work.”
She adds that juggling two such different movies back-to-back made her appreciate each.
“Working on just big studio pictures would be too rich a diet, but then struggling over budgets and schedules on the smaller films isn’t great either,” she allows. “Ideally you want that balance, which is what we got with these two films.”