Fiona Crombie: Invention in Production Design

December 23, 2018
Australian Production Designer Fiona Crombie discusses the visual design on Yorgos Lanthimos’ awards season contender, The Favourite.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite takes place in the court of England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). In the dark satire, the focus is on the scheming rivalry between royal cousins, Lady Sarah the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and her less-fortunate cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone). Abigail, once a lady herself until her father gambled away their fortune (and Abigail into marriage), journeys to the castle seeking employment. Put to work as a scullery maid, she soon sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots. And so, begins the tussle for the Queen’s favour.

Poised as an early “favourite” of the upcoming 2019 award season, The Favourite premiered to critical acclaim at the 75th Venice Film Festival, taking home the coveted Grand Jury Prize and dominating the British Independent Film Awards, winning a record 10 awards including Best Production Design.

Crombie graduated from NIDA in Production Design in 1998 and has since worked extensively as a set and costume designer in theatre before moving into film and television. Her better-known work includes production design for Snowtown (which she also co-costume designed), Sydney-shot Truth, Una, Mary Magdalene and Top of the Lake.

The decision to work on Yorgos Lanthimos’ film was an easy one for Crombie.

“By page 2, I knew the script was unique,” she tells us of the screenplay by fellow Australian Tony McNamara. “The writing has a very particular tone – tart and acerbic, but also painful and moving. It made me laugh, wince and have a lump in my throat. It had complexity. I also recognised that the language and story details were anachronistic, which meant there was going to be invention in the storytelling and that was very appealing.”

With little knowledge of the 17th century English period, Crombie took herself to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to get a crash course on the period.

“I knew that we would have freedom to invent a visual language, but I also knew that we had to understand what would have been. When Yorgos and I first met about the project, I showed him a selection of references that illustrated my initial impulses. There were period illustrations alongside contemporary photographs, all of which showed cavernous, ornate spaces that were relatively empty. I had instinctively hit on an idea that Yorgos had about people isolated in vast spaces. We brought this into the film through the scale of the rooms and the wide-angle lenses which were key to showing the isolation. Rooms were sparsely furnished and there was a lot of empty space around objects.”

Once the two settled on the approach to the film’s look, Lanthimos left Crombie to her own devices.

“It was important to him that there was space in the rooms so that the camera could move with the actors. He was only ever concerned that the spaces or props would be actor friendly. He wanted me to make key decisions about the palette, the textiles, the finishes and details. He was very relaxed and very trusting.”

Three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell and Lanthimos made the decision early in the process to have monochromatic court costumes; Crombie then had to find a way to bridge the costumes and historic locations together.

“Given that we were shooting on location, I realised if I was too naturalistic in my design, the film could look confused. My Set Decorator, Alice Felton, and I spent ages trying to work out the best approach and then we realised it was completely obvious – keep it simple. After we saw the camera tests, we realised that every frame was going to be full of information. If we had too many colours, we ran the risk of overwhelming the performances. We decided to strip our palette back and to repeat shapes and motifs. I think the economy of colour takes the film out of the classic ‘period’ world, which would never have suited the style that Yorgos was trying to make.”

The Royal Court is comprised of gold textiles, warm wood tones, blue and white china and black and white tiles. Pops of colour come from tapestries, sugary treats and floral arrangements. The kitchens and servants’ quarters have chalky white washed walls, scrubbed wood, copper pots and aged denim.

“I never wanted the Royal Court to look cosy, plush or comfortable,” Crombie says. “We didn’t just want it to look beautiful for the sake of it. It needed to have a freshness, playfulness and also a starkness. At the same time, I wanted it to look exquisite and fit for a queen. We chose not to have any rugs on the floors because I felt that would soften the environment. Instead, there is something very hard about the shiny wooden floors. Our furniture was very upright for a similar reason. Nothing too cushioned. The only real softness was in the Queen’s bed, which had four mattresses and layers of linen bedding. That was her sanctuary. We wanted to show a Royal Court that was the pinnacle of luxury, but not necessarily a comfortable place to inhabit.”

Crombie, experienced with working on indie films, was selective when it came to spending the film’s production design budget.

“We put money into making beautiful objects, which may seem like a luxury on a tight budget, but it was money well spent. The film is largely comprised of extreme wide shots and tight frames. We paid a lot of attention to the details that would be seen close up. We had glassware hand blown, the bed hand carved and painted, and books hand made.

“The other economic decision we made was to take full advantage of our key locations – Hatfield House and Hampton Court. Both are architecturally amazing and have great screen value, but they didn’t fit our story. We had construction in almost every room and on the exterior. We used the location as our key resource. We were surrounded by extraordinary architectural and design details. The art directors catalogued the carvings, the painted motifs and the joinery and we used them as inspiration for our designs. The intention was that the audience would never be able to recognise what was the location and what was the set.”

Crombie and her team had to come up with unusual solutions while on set. Most memorable were the moments involving animals. In the film, Queen Anne had 17 rabbits as pets running around the palace to replace the 17 children she birthed and lost.

“We had to work out how to stop the rabbits from peeing all over the costumes! The answer: adult nappies sewn into gold lap cloths. Motivating the ducks to race was interesting problem solving too. Ducks really don’t have a desire to run, so we had a handler in the centre of the ring throwing sprats for them to eat. They really liked those sprats.”

The Favourite is released in cinemas on Boxing Day, 2018

Read our interview with Yorgos Lanthimos.

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