We have all heard the cliché that Australian films look grungy. Like all clichés, it’s partly true. But the latest local films to feature the work of production designer Felicity Abbott could not be further from that generalisation. Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade was a slick (and partly grungy, but in a slick kind of way) vision of a near future driven by technology, and the upcoming Ladies in Black, directed by Bruce Beresford, is a ‘50s set drama with its central location, the department store of yore. It’s quite the one-two punch, which will see the department head in high demand, so we thought we would catch her for a few questions before she totally blew up.
Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a production designer? Specifically, was this something you always wanted to do, and what were the major turning points in your career?
I have always gravitated towards the arts. I completed a fine arts degree and have been an avid watcher of cinema since I can remember. The work of the great production designers Ken Adam (Barry Lyndon, The Madness of King George) and Alexandre Trauner (‘Round Midnight, Rififi) inspired me to study the craft of production design. I was fortunate enough to train with Stephen Curtis at the Australian Film Television and Radio School and later at La Fémis in Paris. When we’re passionate about something, hopefully our learning is open-ended. Upgrade was a turning point in my career and the first time I had been given the creative freedom to contribute to world-building at a cellular level.
Upgrade and Ladies in Black are very different assignments, can you describe your approach to each?
I had maybe a month after Upgrade before I engaged with Bruce (Beresford) for Ladies in Black, which is set in 1959. The design process requires time and conversation to allow ideas to develop. There is a similar process for each film in terms of the design methodology, and for period films it’s largely informed by historical research and the social history of the time, whereas Upgrade was more about free-form world building. I start with key concepts and develop a sustained logic and palette.
What was it like working with Bruce Beresford and Leigh Whannell? Did they have different approaches to production design, and how closely did you work with each of them?
I had designed a Benjamin Britten opera (Albert Herring) for Bruce in 2016, which was set in 1900. An entirely different process than filmmaking, but Bruce’s approach to the design was very specific; he is very particular about period detail and layers of authenticity. I was thrilled when Leigh asked me to design Upgrade. I was drawn to the script and the opportunity to work with Leigh who is an accomplished writer/director and actor. Leigh is very generous in his collaborative approach and we worked very closely to create a world that is unique, developing the logic and narrative points together.
What were the main notes for the look of Upgrade?
Leigh imagined a dynamic world that sits at the interface of high and low technology, so it was immediately appealing to me as a world to visualise. He wanted a unique look for the film, avoiding some of the common references that you see in this genre. The visual style reflects a reality that we understand from our contemporary experience, with an enhanced view of current technologies rather than a departure from life, as we know it.
How did the future setting inform the film’s look?
Leigh always described the world of Upgrade as ‘near-future’ and he clearly articulated the vision that he wanted to create. We see both the old and new world and the real-time impact that technology has on human life. Leigh embraced my idea that this near-future would be dark and visceral, but also sculptural and beautiful.
What do you look to when designing a character’s world? Do you look at other films or art that inspires your approach to PD?
Each project requires unique inspiration, but I look first and foremost to the script for the visual cues and the descriptors of the poetics of interior and exterior space and how it relates to character development, coverage and drama. I use a combination of research material depending on the specifics of the narrative; painting, poetry, architecture, photographic archives, music, theatre and cinema.
With Ladies in Black, is there a particular tonal theme you are trying to create?
I wanted to capture the contrasting landscape of post-war austerity and pre-‘60s Sydney and to faithfully create the essence of the time that was so rich with an emergence of culture, texture, cuisine and fashion.
Were there any particularly difficult sets or constraints? What kind of environment were you looking to create?
Creating a period department store has many complex challenges in the absence of being able to shoot in a location. All the cabinetry and decoration of the period was recreated. Fortunately, there is a vast array of extraordinary archival imagery that I sourced during the research phase that informed the tone and style of the film. Ladies in Black is unique
in that so much of the film takes place in the store set pieces. Achieving period authenticity in a modern city such as Sydney comes with obvious constraints. We were committed to achieving in-camera solutions where possible to preserve the integrity of the world, rather than relying on visual FX to solve these issues in post-production.
What did you look towards as inspiration?
I spent considerable time researching the period, the look of department stores worldwide and specifically women and couture of the era. We looked at the Todd Haynes film Carol and also Brooklyn as recent period film references that feature department stores.
Is working on bigger budget productions something you’re enjoying? What’s your relationship with CG and can you cite some examples?
I enjoyed a close working relationship with the VFX supervisors on both Upgrade and Ladies In Black. Upgrade, in particular, had very specific VFX requirements and a substantial shot count. I was involved throughout the process, from very early discussions about the visual style and the balance of VFX to live action shots. We generated the majority of motion graphics and visual effects concept (for drones, nano-bots etc) within the art department during the production period.
You’re now branching out to work overseas. How are you finding it?
I’ve been based in Los Angeles since 2017, which has been a very rewarding experience and I’m enjoying the exposure to a large industry and the access to filmmakers that it brings. I’m currently working on a UK project in New Zealand [Working Title UK’s adaptation of the Man Booker prize-winning novel The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, an epic tale set in the 1860s goldrush on the west coast of New Zealand], which is where I’m from originally. Such is the circuitous route one takes in the development of a career. It’s a great honour to work as a production designer in New Zealand for the first time.
Upgrade is available on DVD and Blu-ray from September 12, 2018. Ladies in Black is in cinemas September 20, 2018