21CF Chats: Fiona Crombie talks production design for Fox Searchlight’s Golden Globe-nominated ‘The Favourite’

The economy of color, transforming Hatfield House and 17 rabbits on set for the acclaimed film

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Nabbing a record 10 prizes at the British Independent Film Awards (BIFA), 14 nominations at the upcoming Critics Choice Awards and five nominations at this weekend’s Golden Globes, Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos’ unpredictable tragi-comic period satire “The Favourite” is shaping up to be a hot Oscar contender for Fox Searchlight. Besides enthralling film critics, art-house movie audiences have also found the lascivious palace intrigue endearing: During its limited-release debut weekend, it earned the highest per-screen average (for specialty box office) since “La La Land” in 2016. In her first collaboration with Yorgos, production designer Fiona Crombie (“Macbeth,” “Una” and TV series “Top of the Lake”) brought to life the royal court of mercurial and gout-ridden Queen Anne in 18th century England.

Congratulations on winning Best Production Design at BIFA! What was it like to work with director Yorgos Lanthimos for the first time?
I was very excited because I have admired Yorgos’ work for years; his films are singular. We had met in 2012 and shared a couple of laughs, so I knew he has a sense of fun and real warmth. We had initial meetings and made broad decisions together about the look of the film; but once those decisions had been made, he essentially allowed me to go for it and get on with doing my job. I felt free to design and detail the film as I saw fit.

(Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved)

The film famously subverts the period drama genre in many ways. Lady Sarah’s leather suits and the Queen’s wheelchair aren’t historically accurate but they play a role in setting the outlandish tone of the story while maintaining the period texture. Why was it important to have these relatively modern elements in the film?
Each anachronism in the film is there to bring the audience closer to the story and the characters. We were careful with our research so we were educated in our decisions to deviate. The idea behind the wheelchair was more crucial to the film than historical accuracy – it shows Anne’s frailty, her reliance on others and the power play. The script is full of these ideas – the rabbits painfully demonstrate Anne’s grief and desire to love and be loved. The anachronisms are in the language of the script and in the movement of the actors – in many ways, I think they have given the film a playful liveliness and accessibility that may not have been there had we played by the rules.

North-facing view of Hatfield House (Photo taken by Allan Engelhardt)

What went into the decision to use Hatfield House as the basis for Queen Anne’s court?
On a creative level, Hatfield House is a beautifully preserved, period-accurate building with exquisite detailing. “The Favourite” is a low-budget film, so in order to stay within my budget, I needed a location that gave some sense of the scale and grandeur of the Queen’s court before we had spent £1. Hatfield House gave us that, so my job became about making it fit the story of Queen Anne and the aesthetics we envisioned.

On a practical level, choosing Hatfield House became essential to the viability of making the film we wanted to make. Not only was it available when we wanted to shoot (many historic buildings undergo refurbishment during the winter/spring), but the Hatfield owners and managers were incredibly supportive of us. We were allowed to empty rooms of priceless art and antiquities and build and construct sets within almost every space. They also let us use candles – the film is entirely lit with natural light and candlelight, so it was essential that we had a location that allowed us to do so.

(© 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved)

Did any of the original architecture or designs of Hatfield House and Hampton Court make their way into the film?
Both estates inspired the look of the film. The chalky white walls of Hampton Court were carried through into the set built for Abigail’s bedroom. The wood paneling of Hatfield House made its way into the secret passageway and to the walls built in Sarah’s bedroom. Carved and painted motifs from around the house were then reinterpreted for the painting on the Queen’s bed and the carving on the bedposts. Our art directors cataloged every detail and we introduced them into our designs. The goal was that the audience would never be able to recognize what the location and set were.

What was it like to strip out certain parts and build additions to reconstruct the historical Jacobean estate into what we see on screen?
Hatfield House and Hampton Court are historically and culturally invaluable, and the restrictions placed on working in those environments reflect that. We had to be very organized – we emptied every room we used at Hatfield House, which required furniture and art removal specialists, and building crates and temperature-controlled storage. The majority of construction and painting were done off-site and then sleeved and wedged into position to minimize the risk of dust and damage. We shot the kitchen scenes at Hampton Court, where we were not allowed any food that may stain (beetroot, strawberries) or any substance that may spill onto the floor (flour, grain). We couldn’t have any contact with the walls. Our sink and shelving units were built with millimeters to spare.

How did you decide on black, white and gold for the color palette of the Queen’s court?
[Costume designer] Sandy Powell and Yorgos had decided very early on that the court costumes would be black and white, with pops of red and blue for the politicians. It was a brilliant concept and it had considerable impact on the production design of the film. One of my primary challenges was resolving how to bridge the stylized costumes with the existing locations. The answer was simplicity: In the same way that Sandy used a very tight palette, we decided to be equally tight. The design details of Hatfield House provided so much texture that we decided to keep our dressing and detailing to similar colors and motifs. We took our cues from the house and highlighted what was already there – the black and white floors, the gold and dark wood. We only used gold textiles in the drapes and upholstery, only carved wooden furniture and there is only blue and white china. Other colors come from the tapestries, the floral arrangements and the pyramids of sugary treats. The economy of color was one of the best decisions we made. Each frame was going to contain a lot of visual information and by controlling our palette, we were not going to overwhelm the scene.

Queen Anne’s bed was custom-made in Northern England (© 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved)

Was there a difference in how you wanted the Queen’s chambers to look compared with the other parts of the palace? What did you do to bring out her sense of desperation and isolation?
Queen Anne’s chambers came to us very quickly when we settled on Hatfield House – we wanted her to have the largest and most ornate room. At first, we discussed removing many of the tapestries originally in that room to simplify the look. But in the end, we kept them and in fact added more tapestries to cover the walls entirely, which made it look like she is in an ornately padded cell.

Yorgos and I wanted to keep the rooms relatively empty. In many of the references from that period, we saw cavernous spaces furnished only with a scattering of objects, some oversized and often placed against walls. They were not plush, cozy spaces. We wanted Anne to look tiny in the enormous room as she rattled around filling her days. Her room is dominated by her towering 14-foot bed, which was her sanctuary and could be as messy and undone or as meticulously made up as the Queen herself.

There were no rules to the layout of the room – nothing had its place, the rabbit cages moved, the seating changed, suddenly there was a lobster race course. The room was to be as fluid and changeable as the Queen’s mood. We created a document called “Anne’s State of Mind,” which charted the scene-by-scene evolution of the room. There is a subtle story being told in the food and floral displays. In the beginning when Sarah is in charge, the food is healthy and the flowers restrained. As Abigail started to assert her influence, the food became sugary and colorful, the flowers frothy and frivolous. By the end, the room had a somber tone – less dressing on the tables and the flower arrangements became darker and tighter.

What did you have to do differently knowing that cinematographer Robbie Ryan was going to shoot with extremely wide lenses to emphasize the sense of alienation and isolation in these women?
From the outset, Yorgos knew he wanted movement with the cameras. We wanted the light dressing and emptiness in the rooms to also serve Robbie’s cinematography. In each set, we provided Robbie with uninterrupted avenues to walk so he could move about fluidly with the actors, stop and swing around. The movement of the camera is one of the defining characteristics of the “The Favourite.”

After watching the camera tests, I knew we were going to see every inch of the sets. I always aim to have 360-degree sets, so I didn’t necessarily do anything differently, although I did give more consideration to what was high and what was low. The Hatfield Great Hall has a custard yellow wall with three large, out-of-period artworks hanging on it. With traditional camera work and lenses, we would not have seen much of that wall. But with Robbie, I knew that the yellow wall would be enormously distracting. So we built a 43-foot-long canvas, painted it with trompe l’oeil and then positioned it over those paintings. I’m so pleased that we made that decision. When the camera is tilted up, our eye isn’t drawn away from the actors. The background just drops away and looks as though it has always been there.

A royal ball in Hatfield House (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved)

What challenges came with shooting with candlelight – 80,000 candles on set – and having 17 rabbits running around on set?
The main challenge was making sure we were in no danger of burning the house down! We had to keep the candelabra a certain distance from the walls and the heat from the flame was measured with a special device. This was particularly important with the tapestries. We also had to invent invisible mechanisms to catch the wax to avoid damaging the floors. Floor pieces were built under the standing candelabra and false table tops so we didn’t damage the furniture. We had two full-time candle attendants who constantly rotated the candles and took care of the wax. In the ballroom scene, we needed so many candles to light the room that we hired almost every candelabra available.

As for the rabbits – well, their deposits needed to be managed. We had adult diapers sewn into gold cloths so that if a rabbit relieved itself while sitting on the Queen’s lap, it would not ruin the costumes. Other than that, the rabbits were very well behaved!