As production days notch upward across Paris, crews both local and international can sometimes find themselves competing not only for personnel and materials but also with a separate industry that predates the invention of the camera by several hundred years – the tourist trade.
In 2019, France was the world’s leading travel destination, hosting 90 million international visitors. Though obviously such numbers took a substantial hit when global travel tapered off in early 2020, much of the infrastructure and protocols meant to serve that older industry have very much remained in place.
To see one such challenge this creates, one need only look to the Château de Versailles, which keeps traditional museum hours, remaining open to the public six days a week. As the producers behind the upcoming Canal Plus series “Marie Antoinette” quickly learned – and those prepping the Johnny Depp-led, Maïwenn-directed Louis XV project set to shoot there later this year might soon find out – the palatial estate only opens itself to productions one day a week (on Monday, to be exact).
And so projects looking to open a window onto France’s Ancien Régime have to do so with a good degree of ingenuity. In the case of the lavish historical drama “Marie Antoinette” – created by “The Favourite” screenwriter Deborah Davis and due to air on Canal Plus and the BBC later this year – that meant splitting up production days between found and studio locations.
Some Mondays the crew would make the trek to King Louis’ stomping grounds in order to take best advantage of the sculpted gardens, the marble courtyards and the iconic hall mirrors that were simply not replicable anywhere else. Other Tuesdays, they headed to the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, a Baroque palace that not only served as the architectural inspiration for Versailles, but also had the additional benefit of being closed to the public two days a week. Though for the most part, the production kept with built sets.
Beginning in April 2021 and running through until today, the $23.8 million production has been set up at the Studios de Bry-sur-Marne, a production facility 10 miles from the heart of Paris that boasts seven sound stages and a total area of 20,000 square meters (215,000 square feet) – making it one of the largest and best equipped facilities in the region.
Presenting the project at a panel organized by Paris Images Online, the series’ creative team spoke in no uncertain terms about the benefits of shooting at Bry.
“The real luxury is that we had everything in one spot,” said production manager Jean-Baptiste Leclerc. “From the carpentry, painting and costume workshops, to the production offices and stages, everything was there. So it was very easy for everybody to go from one place to another in five minutes.”
For Pete Travis, who directed episodes 1-4, the space on hand offered a key creative assist, especially when mixing and matching with scenes shot on site. “[We used the space to recreate] the beautiful light you had on location,” Travis explained. “Sometimes it’s easy to tell the difference between a studio set and a real location, and usually that’s because in a real location the light comes from the windows, whereas on stage a lot of the time it comes from above. We decided against that.”
Instead, the crew used the ample space to recreate the palace’s bedchambers, private apartments and secluded nooks, painstakingly lighting each set through the same window schemes found on site, creating what Travis called a “seamless match.”
“I defy anybody to tell the difference between the real places and the sets,” he added. “You can’t. They’re lit the same, the camera movement is the same, and everything feels like it’s real. That’s what we really wanted to do.”
Implicit in each statement was the recognition that not all productions have similar good fortune. The recent uptick in production has made studio space all the more valuable, and though public and private actors have already invested in new initiatives to help alleviate growing demand, ambitious projects require time and resources to get off the ground.
Which might be why each speaker emphasized the overall benefits of sufficient studio space. “It’s so important to have your own place,” said series producer Claude Chelli. “Studios are so convenient for very long projects like this. Could you imagine driving all over Paris, trying to get all the actors and crew to this or that place on time? It would be a nightmare.”