INTERVIEW: ‘The Favourite’ Production Designer Fiona Crombie Talks Working With Yorgos Lanthimos, Hatfield House, And Period Pieces
Locking in ten Oscar nominations, The Favourite has already left its mark on the film world. Not only is it littered with incredibly quotable lines, gorgeous camera work, and brilliant performances, it also dawns some of the most lavish and detailed production design of 2018. Behind that design is Art Director Guild winner, BAFTA winner, and Oscar nominee, Fiona Crombie. We talked with her about working with Yorgos Lanthimos for the first time, her career working in period pieces, and becoming a production designer.
So first of all, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. This is awesome for us, and first I do want to say a huge congratulations on your BAFTA win! I thought your speech with Alice Fulton was awesome and was a really great message. So I just wanted to say congratulations on that.
Thank you very much.
And the other thing I did want to say was congrats on being an Oscar nominee for The Favourite. Which leads me to my first question, how did it feel when you found out that you were nominated?
Ah, I mean it was completely thrilling! I mean it was a bit surreal. There’s a certain degree of countdown, like you’re aware that there’s talk about the possibility and you’re doing calls and interviews and things like that, but to actually have it like announced, it was actually kind of surprising how emotional it was. I think it caught both Alice and I off guard. And then you get this kind of unbelievable outpouring of congratulations from like every corner. Like all these people from your life just suddenly get in touch with you. It’s a really amazing experience!
Yeah, that’s awesome. So The Favourite. Now, The Favourite was one of my favorite, you know, no pun intended, movies of last year. Yorgos I think is an incredible director, but one of the things that really stood out to me was the production design. So I was wondering how was pre-production on it because I feel that’s a part of the movie-making process that could either make or break a film. So how intense was it, especially since it was your first time working with Yorgos on a project?
Yeah. It wasn’t a straightforward pre-production to be honest. I mean, what was good was that they gave us quite a lot of time and so it felt like a healthy amount of time. I remember I started just before the end of the year. So sort of the last two weeks of December. And then I think we started shooting around March. So we had a nice amount of time. But the thing for us was that The Favourite is a low budget film, we didn’t have much money. There were things that needed to be addressed in order to make the film like doable. And so there was sort of script alterations. So it wasn’t, it didn’t feel locked when we were in pre-production. There were things that were still having to be resolved and that can be quite tricky when you don’t have very much money. So it’s sort of a catch 22 as the reason that you’re having the conversations about changing things is because there’s not enough money. But equally then that kind of, you don’t want to start doing things too early because that means you might, you know, head down a path and waste money. I remember that it was quite a tricky thing, how to manage the scale and scope of the project with the budget that we had. In terms of working with Yorgos though, it was very straightforward. I mean, he was very hands-off in a way, very trusting. He was happy with the direction we sort of embarked on really early on in the process and just effectively left me to make a lot of the kind of creative decisions about, I would always consult with him, but he gave me a lot of freedom and trust.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about the low budget because it doesn’t seem like a low budget film at all. Because of how grand it looks in every single frame. And a lot of that has to do with the location you guys were at, which was the Hatfield House, which must have been incredible to work at. Can you maybe talk a little about getting the location and the restrictions that, were had, because it’s an actual landmark where people live? So there must’ve been some complications in that.
We were very fortunate to have to be allowed to work at Hatfield House, they are film-friendly location. But what we were doing there was new for them. Like I don’t think they’ve ever had a film that was there for the length of time that we were there. And they also hadn’t had a film come in and like remove all their artworks, remove all their furniture, and build within their spaces. So we had to negotiate that and we also had to be very, very clear with them about our intention. So we couldn’t like he couldn’t come in and say, Oh, I had this idea, I’m just going to, you know, like put these here.
We had to, you know, work like well and truly in advance because they had to have specialists handlers to move their furniture. We had to have temperature controlled storage units built. There was a lot of, a lot of sort of organization and you know, preparation that went into us taking over the house. To be fair, they were so accommodating. We all were always watched. There were always people in the rooms with us, so they were watching my construction crew because obviously, we were building within spaces, so my walls would be going up against their walls and you’ve got to be careful that there’s no damage. I would say it was painstaking to be honest.
Like it was really careful, careful work. I sort of maintained that we use the brains of that building and it absolutely had screen value and then we brought it into our film because you can’t shoot that movie there just by walking in. There’s no secret corridor or there’s no secret entrances. There’s like, there’s all these things that we had to create. What I loved about it is the text is in the patterns and the whole, you know, the sense of history that comes in the scars of the building, the genuine age. And in fact, what we did with our construction with, we aged it so it’d match. We broke panels and bent panels and made them look scarred. So it all sort of blends together and you can’t really tell what my wall is and what the actual wall is.
Yeah, that’s amazing. Because one thing that immediately sticks out to me was how each individual room seems really lived in and unique to each character. Like Queen Anne’s room looked like a room that Queen Anne would stay in. So did you have a favorite room to decorate or maybe one that was a little bit more challenging to set up?
The most challenging room for us was the mud bath. That was a really tricky one to sort of pull off without money. So I remember having lots of conversations about how we were going to, you know, to achieve it. It was such an important story beat that all really fought hard for it. And that’s one of the few sets in the film that’s not 360 degrees, you know, like everything else is 360, but that one, I mean it’s a Victorian kitchen, that room. So we did all the marbling and the cladding and built the floor. And I had to say to Yorgos and Robbie, like I can’t give you the whole room on this one. You know, there’s a massive Victorian oven just out of shot. That was a really tricky one, but I feel like it sends such a nice beat in the film because you, you leave the court and it gives you a sense of the world outside.
I remember that scene because every other scene the cameras would be in these like nooks and crannies and have that wide angle lens, but that one was really focused on, on them. So in doing my research on you, I did notice that your other work which includes movies like Macbeth and Mary Magdalene, which I’ve seen also by the way. It really stuck out to me that you’ve really liked to work in this period piece sort of setting. Is there something specific that draws you to that time period?
Well, do you know what, I guess maybe it’s because coming from Australia, the opportunity to make period films like Macbeth or like The Favourite or Mary Magdalene, I mean they just wouldn’t be made in Australia. So for me, the first time I came to London was to make Macbeth and I couldn’t believe the access to resources, whether it’s going into higher houses or going to markets, or getting access to fabrics that come from Europe. Australia is isolated and I was just blown away by the opportunity to have these amazing resources but also craftspeople. So I haven’t intentionally gone down a period path and I personally would like to break that. You know I’m not really wanting to be sort of focused in a particular direction or genre at all. For me, it’s more about the story and it’s more about the director and it just so happened that the last like four films, I’ve made….or three? Three or four? Four!
Yeah, the last few films I’ve made have been period. Yeah. And I mean after The Favourite I remember saying, you know, I want a break from periods, sort of a bit tired of talking about characters and swords, and then of course I did The King, which is the 16th century. That’s also kind of reflective of the films that I made in the United Kingdom as well, and Europe, but I’m quite keen to, to spread my wings again. Go back to either contemporary or sort of like more contemporary work.
Yeah. Like would you be interested in doing like a super futuristic sci-fi where the world is yours to create?
Yeah, totally. Yeah, absolutely. I would love to do stuff like that. I mean, the thing is, like I say, it’s always about the words on the page, you know, and it’s always about the director and my aim is to collect experience as I make my movies. So I love being around people, it’s great working with different directors and seeing the different methodology and then also you end up having different techniques or the way that you work. Like the way that I work with Yorgos is really different to the way that I’ve worked with Justin Kurzel or Garth Davis, you know? They each require different things. That’s what I’m trying to pursue, is just great directors.
So a little bit diverting, but growing up was production design something that really stuck out to you or was it just something that you found yourself going into within the film industry? Because that’s always been something I’ve been curious about in terms of production design. How does someone break into that field?
Yeah. Well, I mean, basically my father was a film director. So I spent my young years visiting his sets and being drawn to the make believe. I love seeing the front facade of the house. It looks completely convincing and then walking inside and seeing that it’s just plywood. And seeing the structure, I was, I didn’t have the word, like the language for it. I didn’t really know that there was such a thing as production design. I was just fascinated by these kinds of art of it and the kind of craft. And equally, I was always fascinated by costumes as well. I was always like creative, like I was always drawing things and making things. So I didn’t think that I would necessarily be a production designer.
My film history family really tried to get me not to be in the film industry, because it can be such a precarious existence. But then what happened was I went to university and I was actually studying art law and I was just really unhappy. And so I wound up applying for theater school in Australia. So I went to a school called NIDA and I studied theater. So I was a theater designer for 10 years before I made my way into film. So yeah, I sort of, I think it was always there, but you know, but I never went to film school or anything.
So, my last question is, I think production design and a lot of the below the line parts of film making are one of the big things that go under appreciated, because production design isn’t just about like moving furniture around. Which a lot of people think it is. So what’s one piece of advice that you would give someone that is maybe wanting to pursue production design or any of the art departments in the film industry?
The thing I say to people that there’s something you have to identify with yourself why you need to be the designer. And don’t be afraid to exercise that. So I think it can happen that people decide that they need to work their way up and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. They get into the art department or their assistants, but actually, the production designer is a creative communicator. So much of our work is done with creative impulse. Yet I don’t know why I choose certain things. It just feels right and exercising that it’s really important because you just have to have faith in your particular vision. And so I always tell people if they can be the designer – be the designer, even if it’s a tiny little short film for no money. Practicing the design rather than sort of facilitating other people’s work, cause that way people will recognize your singular voice and why you need to be the designer.
I think you’ve managed to do a fantastic job in that department. I’m really excited to see the next things you work on. I’m obviously going to be watching The King when that comes out. So thank you so much for your time Fiona, it was a pleasure to talk to you.
Thank you for having me. Thank you so much.
Be sure to also check out our interview with The Favourite‘s Cinematographer, Robbie Ryan – and our ★★★★★ review of the film from London Film Festival last year.