by Connor Dalton

With each new Hercule Poirot adventure comes a bevy of new talent. This is primarily displayed in the A-list ensembles that star and director Kenneth Branagh gathers together. But it also extends to behind the camera. For A Haunting in Venice — Branagh’s third film centred on the Belgian detective — there is a significant change in the role of production designer. Jim Clay, who worked on the previous two films, is out and replacing him is the seasoned John Paul Kelly (Tristram Shandy, Stan & Ollie, Operation Mincemeat to name a few), and his assignment is a big one.

With a story mainly set inside a decaying palazzo during the dead of night, Kelly had his work cut out. He had to design a location with plenty of personality, was faithful to its period, and offered viewers a clear sense of geography — all without much light to aid his cause. It’s an almighty challenge, but one that he managed perfectly. His palazzo is an impressive accomplishment. It is brimming with gothic and historical detail, and each room has a unique identity, so it never strays into cliché haunted house territory. One looks like an ideal setting for a telling of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, while another looks like clouds sit where a ceiling should be. In an extensive career, it is some of his finest work.

We spoke with Kelly about building the palazzo, his research into post-war Venice, and the joys of being able to do his job in its entirety.

This is your first time working with Kenneth Branagh. How were you two connected?

“As I’m generally connected to directors, it’s through the body of work that I’ve done before that they become aware of and also by people you get to know and work with. The same names come up, I think, for all of us. You kind of find yourself with matches in this business. It’s obviously a really intense relationship over quite a short period that you build with a director, so it’s important getting it right. But it was through all of the above that I met up with Ken.”

What were some of the initial conversations that you had with him?

“The mood of the piece was very important. I think there was a danger that because the film is set completely in one building, it could feel monotonous and that you’re just in one space. One of the big discussion points that we had was how to make this world, which we built entirely. Everything was created, which was a great opportunity to make it exactly what we wanted it to be. But also, to create a lot of different moods and atmospheres as you moved around this building and through the story. That was one of our first talking points.

“Our very first talking point was how the hell do you do it? You’ve got this very complicated script with a lot of special effects and drop-in chandeliers and so on. How do you achieve that in real Venice? We worked out pretty quickly that wasn’t going to be a possibility and that these beautiful 500-year-old buildings really don’t lend themselves to a film crew, in any shape or form, turning up. Let alone a large film crew with a huge cast and a lot of special effects and specific requirements. Once we decided to build it in Pinewood, I was able to step away with all of Ken’s notes and our discoveries together that we’d made in Venice and design a set that tied everything together.”

Being a period piece, was there a lot of research involved?

“Of course! There’s kind of two layers to that, I suppose. One is the layering of history in Venice. That’s something we really wanted to play with. We liked the idea of the palazzo having been built on the remains of a former monastery or a church or something, which wasn’t something we saw a precedent for necessarily in Venice, but it definitely existed. The city is built layer upon layer upon layer over centuries and centuries, so that was something I really wanted to reflect in the design.

“And the setting of the post-war was very interesting. Venice hadn’t been bombed during the war. There was an agreement between both sides, pretty unbelievably, that it would be spared. Given what else was happening in the war, it seems pretty extraordinary, but that was the case. It wasn’t bombed, but as a result, it was home to a huge number of refugees. And the story follows the journey of some orphans from the war, so the poverty that existed in Venice after the war was something we really wanted to get across. It wasn’t a tourist city at that point — it was a crumbling port that had just risen its head out of the water after seven very tough years of war. So, we wanted to show a real Venice for that time that doesn’t feel like this more picture postcard Venice that you see nowadays.”

To bring it back to something you said earlier, most of the story takes place in the palazzo. It’s also a very dark film, visually. As a production designer, does that affect your choices when your light and locations are limited?

“It does, but film is a very collaborative process. It’s also a process that changes as you move along. So, we start with ideas of colour palettes and how we would like the sets and so on. Then we do tests, and they continue right through, even once you’ve started filming.

“There was a lot of discussion as to how to light a palazzo that was essentially abandoned when there’s a storm outside. The trickery film way of lighting for night is through windows with moonlight, so you get this kind of blue light that comes through. But if you’ve got a storm outside, it’s much harder to buy that. We had real rain slashing on windows, but we really didn’t want to create a cliche of a haunted house in terms of candlelight. Ken felt very strongly that that light would maybe give a warmth that we didn’t always want when we wanted to feel more austere and abandoned.

“There were various ideas played with. One of them was because the character who owns the house is an opera singer, maybe there were theatre lights from the 1930s or 40s that she could have borrowed for this party she was throwing. A lot of it was lit in that way. But it was something that evolved as we went along. The colour palette was something [myself], the costume designer [Sammy Sheldon], and the cinematographer [Haris Zambarloukos] agreed on, and those tones of petrol blues and teals were really imagined to create a cooler tone to the whole film. In terms of how dark it ends up feeling, when you start out, you’re not quite in control of or know exactly how it’s going to look, I suppose.”

Even though this film is a big tonal departure from Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, did you ever feel like you had to maintain a style established by Jim Clay?

“Not really. I think if there is a consistency, it’s through the Poirot character. But the environments are very different, and this is a very different theme to the others. I think they stand alone. I think Ken always imagined it would have quite a different visual style to the other two films. I mean, if we wanted to carry through, like the other films, the setting is very grand and opulent. So, we wanted to make sure that was reflected and that it had scale and drama to it, which, hopefully, the sets did.”

Finally, you’re very accomplished in your field, but was there anything you learned from working on this film?

“You learn on every film, I think. What was great with this was to create a complete world. That was helped by the fact that Ken is both the star and the director, and actors, understandably, like their world to be a 360 complete world around them when they’re performing. It’s much nicer than staring at a green screen, so that was a lovely opportunity for me. It felt like getting to do the job in its entirety. At every moment of every set that you stood in, you couldn’t tell that you were on a set when you looked out the windows. There was real rain hitting the windows; all the ceilings were in place; all the floors were in place. There were no missing fourth walls, and there were no floating walls. You were in a palazzo.

“That was done very deliberately and requested by the star and director. It was an opportunity that I don’t always get to achieve. But as a designer, it’s your perfect storm to get to create the world in its entirety rather than in little patches, which is very often the case. [Usually] we’re running around locations where you have to very quickly make something, or if you build sets, you only get to build two of the four sides of a room, but it wasn’t the case with this. It was a lovely experience.”

A Haunting in Venice is in cinemas September 14, 2023