An air of claustrophobia inhabits “Spencer,” Pablo Larraín’s psychological drama that follows a distressed Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) as she spends the Christmas of 1991 at the Royal Family’s Sandringham estate. That confinement spawns a sensation equal parts austere and foreboding despite all the opulence that surrounds it, one that veteran Production Designer Guy Hendrix Dyas meticulously crafted to mirror the unhappy noble’s headspace at a time when her troubled marriage to Prince Charles was nearing its end.
The Royals’ customary secrecy and privacy presented a research challenge for Dyas, a difficulty he overcame thanks to a reliable (and anonymous) royal advisor he worked with. Still, utmost accuracy wasn’t necessarily a crucial quality he pursued with his designs. “In Pablo’s words, this is an imaginative interpretation, a fairy tale,” Dyas explains. To realize the film’s fantastical traits that veer into a horror-like territory, the artisan thought of the film’s world as an elegant prison, a phrase that became his guiding principle in generating an atmosphere of stressful emptiness that sophisticatedly marries reality with emotions. “It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, creating something both aspirational [and] gives you a horrible feeling of not wanting to be there.”
Despite its expansiveness, the space consisting of 56 separate environments that Dyas built needed to feel restrictively circular. “Our Sandringham doesn’t match any [actual] blueprint. Many of the sets were arranged so that you could walk through a door into another door, and a room into another room, and find yourself exactly where you started. It was wonderful to see [Pablo and Kristen] utilize these sets and spaces,” Dyas remarks. “There are a lot of montages where we see Diana lost in herself, lost in her predicament [through a] sense of endless corridors. And this really comes from the soul of our director who works on another level when it comes to expressing emotion through his characters and trying to communicate those feelings to his audience.”
The toughest room Dyas has to conceive was Diana’s personal room, which was actually Queen Victoria’s suite at Sandringham that the Princess was staying in. “That became the hardest simply because I wanted to express some of what I knew about Diana in the room,” Dyas indicates. “I had to remain cognizant that it really was akin to a hotel room for her. She was someone who was visiting and even makes a comment that she’s in yet another different room, which is another very unsettling thing to happen to somebody. Imagine being changed around all the time, like musical chairs.” Elsewhere, Dyas purposely focused on fashioning an uncomfortable “Christmas without Christmas.” So he limited his use of red to scenes and settings where he couldn’t escape the emblematic holiday color, like the main salon where the family would unwrap presents. Instead, he favored an unnerving shade of sage green, a recurring core color seen on wallpapers, one of Diana’s silk dinner dresses (by Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran) and even food.
Representing the princess’s issues with and rejection of food sensitively and dramatically was a chief consideration—all the food had to be believably inviting even during moments of immense unease. The film’s Picture Food Coordinator Christoph Kappes delved into “Eating Royally: Recipes and Remembrances From a Palace Kitchen,” a book by Princess Diana’s personal chef Darren McGrady for recipes and inspiration. He also utilized his own experience—having worked as a chef at a famous 5-star hotel during the time period of “Spencer,” he knew the upscale trends of the era well. Understanding that food was sometimes an escape for the princess, he tried to make the meals and pastries as tempting as possible, while still ensuring that they looked realistic in the context of a factual, working palace. “A wonderful source of knowledge was one of Princess Diana’s personal butlers, whom I could ask for advice during the production. Guy Hendrix Dyas [also] exchanged a lot of his ideas and visions for the movie with me. So I knew what he wanted me to focus on,” Kappes says.
“I was so hands-on [with food] that when the military[esque] convoy first arrives with [it], I was ducked down and squirting dry ice into the boxes so the mist [would] lift off from the lobsters and all the exotic [cuisine],” Dyas remembers. One of the trickiest meal scenes to pull off for both Dyas and Kappes was a symbolically surreal one that involved Princess Diana anxiously eating a bowl of green nettle and pea soup along with pieces of her shattered pearl necklace. “I had to oversee very deliberate levels of food coloring and mixtures to give the soup the right viscosity. The pearls were little chocolate balls covered in [polished] icing. A lot of chemistry and culinary skill went into making [them],” explains Dyas. Kappes adds, “I put a little drop of mashed potatoes in the middle of the plate so the pearls wouldn’t sink to the bottom and [would] still be seen. The nettles for the soup (one of Diana’s favorite dishes) were cultured in a greenhouse, especially for the movie. I prepared it from scratch the same way I would have cooked it for the Royals themselves.”
Kappes also cooked a roast saddle of venison with lingonberry sauce, savoy cabbage balls and potato roulade, foie gras on beetroot carpaccio, a Christmas cake, a traditional Croque en Bouche and various sweets with raspberries, a fruit that Diana loved. The desserts were among the most exciting dishes he created for the movie, a rich selection that included a 5-foot-high macaron pyramid that consisted of 1,000 macarons he made for the Queen’s speech. “Desserts are my personal passion,” Kappes reveals. “I was lucky to work with a Belgian master pâtissier in the ‘80s. So when I was asked to be the picture food coordinator for “Spencer,” it was a dream come true. I could go way beyond and show all the delicious and tempting desserts [in] the life of the Royal Family.”