Film Studies 101: Being A Production Designer

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When she picks up the phone to Empire, Maria Djurkovic is at home, absorbing the news of BAFTA and Oscar nods for her work on The Imitation Game, juggling research for her next project, Gus Van Sant’s TV pilot New World, with packing and hopefully news of a US visa to deal with. There’s a Skype call coming in from Van Sant in an hour with the architecture of 17th century Massachusetts on the agenda. Such is the synapse-frazzling pace of life for an in-demand production designer that there’s barely been a moment to celebrate the nominations. “I’m in my sitting room, surrounded by my books,” she says. “I like to have everything around me, images wallpapered from floor to ceiling, because it’s about looking at a whole collection of things. I need a bigger house!”

production design is not, it's safe to say, a job for the faint of heart. There’s infinite detail to attend to, meticulous worlds to create and driven, fussy directors to accommodate, usually under extreme time pressure. And god help you if you stick a 1946 model car in a film set in 1945. You might think that, amid all that labour, a spot of gentle arson would come as light relief. You’d be wrong. “The minute you read ‘giant bonfire’ in a script, you’re just thinking, ‘Fuck!’,” laughs Djurkovic. On The Imitation Game, one of the designer’s biggest challenges was to furnish Alan Turing and his fellow Bletchley Park codebreakers with reams of top-secret paper to burn in a third-act blaze. “That was our biggest nightmare,” she remembers. Top-secret papers are, after all, hard to come by. “Someone in the art department was generating sackloads of papers, churning the bloody stuff out on the correct paper.”

In truth, Djurkovic’s folios of broken Nazi codes were just a tiny part of the film’s challenge. Morten Tyldum’s film, the kind of period piece that’s made Djurkovic one of the British film industry’s most respected designers, not only required three separate time periods but for her to achieve the impossible and make wires cinematic. “When Morten and I first went to Bletchley and looked at the facsimile of (Turing’s codebreaking device, pictured below) Christopher, it wasn’t that interesting,” she explains. “We thought, ‘We have to build it up a bit’.” Her solution was to “oomph up” the volume of the red cables spilling out of a now-enlarged machine. “We then decided to open it like a book so you can see its inner workings.”

Period work is about finding the balance between plausibility and visuals – between the ‘real’ and the cinematic. Ensuring the dial is at the right setting, as Djurkovic frames it, is key. “For Grand Budapest Hotel the dial is up to maximum, which is right,” says Djurkovic, “but for other things it would be completely wrong. On The Invisible Woman, Ralph [Fiennes] would say, “I don’t want you to sex it up at all.” Detail is important and she occasionally checks IMDb’s gaffes page on her film for period grumbles – “You don’t want people to go, ‘Jesus, what are they thinking? That sofa is Edwardian!’” – but there are limits. “I had a film set in 1870 and someone wrote in to say that Kristin Scott Thomas’s rifle wasn’t introduced until 1871! It has to smell right.”

"You don't want people to go, 'What are they thinking? That
sofa's Edwardian."

For The Imitation Game, the dial was set successfully between the two, offering an aesthetic that pepped up the standard murk of wartime flicks substantially and caught the eye of BAFTA in the process. She and her long-time set decorator Tatiana Macdonald will be in contention at this weekend’s ceremony. Over 25 years and 22 films, she’s earned her peers’ respect too. “Maria shows superb attention to detail,” notes Simon Bowles, production designer on Spooks: The Greater Good and Dad’s Army. “And she’s theatrical with character and themes.”

That theatricality was at play in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2011. The Swedish director proved a kindred spirit, visually literate and receptive to even the most out-there ideas, like the Circus's windowless conference room ("360 degrees of cack-coloured foam," laughs the designer). For the cell where Mark Strong is tortured, she went to her director with a pink and pale blue wallpaper flecked with yellow flowers. “Tomas just went, ‘Fantastic, go for it.’” She chuckles at the memory. “Many people would have called me a mad woman and asked why I was putting grannie’s wallpaper in a prison cell.”

Djurkovic's concept art for MI6's central command in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. "I sketch very fast," she says. "It's a good way of communicating what's in my head with the director."

The Laura Ashley-like décor on a blood-specked KGB cell wall might not be immediately obvious to the viewer, and you might not know that the fence posts enclosing the MI6 mole’s prison in the final act were copied from Auschwitz, but both details help lend sinister mood to the frame. Both locales “smell” of menace in a way that’s far from accidental.I sketch very fast with a pencil. It’s a very good way of communicating what I have in my head with the director primarily and the rest of the art department. Not everyone draws and I’m flabbergasted by that.

the decision to become a production designer came unusually early for Djurkovic. She was eight when she decided to follow her dad, a successful art director, into filmmaking. “I was a monomaniac,” she laughs. “I used to make period clothes for my Barbie dolls.” A trip to Bavaria to witness her dad work on a TV adaptation of The Pied Piper Of Hamelin sealed the deal. “Dad and the production designer shared a house that had an indoor swimming pool, and I decided I’d do the same job at that point,” she remembers. “The house with the indoor swimming pool has eluded me…”

"You've got to be a bit nutty to do this job. There are easier ways to earn a living."

Like most facets of filmmaking, work can come in fits and starts. Projects come together and fall apart. For Djurkovic, financial security comes with the help of ad work. “Commercials take weeks rather than months and enable me to pick and chose the films I do,” she explains, “but there are other, much easier ways to earn a living. You can have a good year or a bad year.”

The many good years have seen her craft Mamma Mia!’s Greek idyll, complete with 30 cypress trees, on the Bond stage at Pinewood, recreating Charles Dickens’ world, right down to the cut of the great novelist’s smalls, on The Invisible Woman and working with Woody Allen on Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream. The memory of working with Woody prompts a self-effacing tale. “I was offered the job without a conversation. Then one day I was in my kitchen, the phone rings and there’s this voice saying, ‘Hi, this is Woody, Woody Allen.’ I was like, holy shit, it’s Woody Allen! Pretty amazing. But I didn’t meet him until the first day of the tech scout, when the whole crew walks around with the director telling them how he wants this whole thing to work. I went up to shake his hand, said, ‘I’m a huge admirer of yours. Thanks for asking me to do your film,’ and he turned to his assistant and said, ‘Who is this woman?’ His assistant said, ‘Woody, that’s your production designer.’” She laughs at the memory. “But I wouldn’t have missed that experience for anything.”

Her advice to wannabe production designers is simple: be totally consumed by what you do (“You’ve got to be a bit nutty to do this job,” she says) and keep a kettle handy. “Don’t be snooty about making cups of tea,” she advises. “Jump at it.” Citing one of her own early jobs, as an assistant on the seminal BBC series The Singing Detective, she offers some tips on what not to do, too. “I’ve watched it recently and the gaffes I made were so overwhelming, I’m amazed I got another job. There was a chart at the end of Michael Gambon’s bed and I’d just done this zigzag on the chart! I was so terrible as an assistant.”