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Categories: Interviews

We chat with accomplished production designer Alice Normington ahead of our weekend masterclass with her; discussing past, present, future and the trials of being a working mother in the film industry.

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“Practical Secrets of Production Design for Commercials & Features – with Sophie Becher (Heineken, Gucci) & Alice Normington (Suffragette)” will be held at Cinema Jam HQ at Collective Temperance Hospital on the 29th and 30th of October, from 10:00 to 18:00. Tickets are £259. Readers of the The Spread can use the promotional code ‘Spread10’, for a 10% discount. Click here for more info.

What first attracted you to production design?

I trained in theatre so I always loved creating worlds. That was it for me, telling stories and creating worlds. When I was doing theatre it was much more make-believe. That’s what first attracted me to creating a set, a scene, a place that actors and people exist in. I just really wanted to create stories. I never wanted to be in front of a camera, or direct, so that was my way of creating worlds.

I didn’t really plan to end up in film; I thought I would probably end up in theatre. I just went down a path that started with theatre and led me to production design. But it’s still creating worlds, that basic premise is there. It’s such a diverse job; every project you do is so completely different. You’re learning things all the time. It kind of combines my love of everything; travel, people, storytelling, art, architecture, history, politics etc. It’s got so much involved in one job.

What is it that first attracts you to a project?

I think it can depend on where you are in a specific time in your career. It has to be a good script, a good story. With any project I’m looking for a good script and an interesting director. That’s the most important thing. But you might have a really good script that’s set in a world that doesn’t fascinate you, or interest you, or it’s something you don’t want to do at that specific time. For example, at the moment, I’m really trying not to do period as my next film. I love doing films from all periods but have done a lot recently. I’ve actually just taken on a really small job because it’s contemporary and it’s got a really interesting director.

But we don’t always choose projects. We’re not always in a position to choose everything we do. There’s usually projects that, as designers, we’d love to do but we don’t get offered them. It has to be an interesting director and a good story. It doesn’t have to be a certain type of director but you do have to connect with the script and the world it depicts. It helps to connect with the director and share a vision for the film. It’s very hard to go into a meeting about a script that you just don’t connect with in any way at all. However much you might want to do something if you don’t think the script is very good it’s hard to talk about it in a positive way.

When I read a script I think “What world is this? Is it something that I’ve done before? Is it a challenge? Is it new? What will I learn from this? Would it be exciting to design? Is this a world that I would get excited about creating?”. Sometimes you read scripts and they’re not necessarily exciting worlds but you think “this is a really good story, I want to do this” and the other side of that is you get something that maybe doesn’t have the best script but you think “this would be so fun to design”. It works both ways. Then, if I get offered the job, I think “does this director and their vision for the film excite me?”.

Then there’s the reality of “Where is it based? Is it in London? Is it abroad? I don’t want to be away from home right now”. There’s the practical elements that unfortunately become a much bigger factor when you have a family. You can’t travel as much. You look at all those things and think “Okay, it’s in London. It’s not a bad script. Quite a good director. That other one is abroad for six months. I’ll do this one”. If you’re very lucky, you get all the good things in one package.

Was there ever one big project that you really connected with that you couldn’t do because of either geography or time constraints?

There’s been quite a few I haven’t been able to pursue. My agent’s phoned, or a director I know, and said “it’s six months abroad” and I’ve had to not even consider it. That’s the reality of being a working mother, in any industry. But in the film industry it’s a lot more pronounced because there’s so much travel involved. That’s the truth of why there’s less women working in certain areas of film, possibly. Although perhaps not necessarily for production designers, we do have a lot of women.

Have you sensed any improvements in working standards for mothers in the film industry during your career?

I’ve never noticed it one way or another, if I’m honest, though my department has always been very male in certain obvious male dominated departments; construction, riggers and electricians. I think there’s a lot less of “alright love” and being called “darling”. I’ve noticed that but it’s probably because I’m older.

You’ve recreated Britain in several different time periods, which was the most challenging?

When you’re doing something that’s very old, Victorian or Georgian or earlier, you have to find locations that are really very period. For example, if you’re doing something slightly more contemporary, the 1930s/50s/70s, people think you can get away with going out into the street and shooting it as it is or with little changes but when you really start looking everything is wrong. Lampposts, lots of PVC windows, paving stones, aerials.

When you’re doing something that’s older it forces you to go to a location that has more of  those historic elements there. There’s a lot of challenges in London. I first started about 25 years ago and I’ve noticed that there’s less and less locations, it’s getting harder and harder to shoot period films in London. There’s places that have just disappeared, there’s been so much development. It’s hard to go to any street now without a Starbucks on it.

I think “remember what the Docklands was like back then?”. We used to shoot in all these amazing old warehouses and big buildings that got filmed in a lot for about a year and then turned into a hotel. The problem in London is that we end up shooting in the same places over and over again, it becomes quite dull. As filmmakers, you recognise them.

It’s a challenge financially; you don’t want to spend all of your money covering up what’s not right. By the time you’ve covered the bollards, dealt with the yellow lines and put the road covering down you’ve already spent a certain amount of money. I think it depends on each project and what you’re trying to do. With Their Finest (pictured below) it was really challenging trying to do World War Two London on a really tight budget. That was really, really challenging. You have to choose where you’re going to compromise and what you can afford to do.

Gemma Arterton films a scene for the movie'Their Finest Hour and a Half' in east London Featuring: Atmosphere Where: London, United Kingdom When: 16 Sep 2015 Credit: FameFlynet/WENN.com **Only available for publication in Germany and Austria**

Which do you feel more duty-bound to, the visual aesthetic of the story or historical accuracy?

I’d say it’s equal measures. It depends on the director and the style of film they’re making. Some directors are absolute slaves to historical accuracy. Personally, as a production designer, I think it’s a mistake to get it completely wrong but there’s so much history where people don’t really know what’s absolutely accurate. When you get into the 20th century, in a world where there is photography as evidence, you can be more specific. But when you’re doing period, who’s to say exactly what was there and what wasn’t. For me it needs to feel true to the story, and the characters and the world that you’re creating.

Ultimately we’re there to create a world that hasn’t existed. The whole process of filmmaking is storytelling, it’s a visual medium and there are many ways to tell a story.There are people who who look at things and pick it apart and say “they wouldn’t have eaten with that spoon”, I’ve worked with directors who want absolute historical accuracy and will have advisors for every detail like food etiquette. I’m slightly more down the middle, but I am biased to aesthetic, emotional, accuracy. If there is such a thing. It doesn’t excite me to create reality perfectly. Creating a unique world excites me more.There’s a place for it and if you get it completely wrong the audience won’t believe the world they’re in.

Is there a time period that you haven’t worked with yet but you would like to?

What I’d really like to do is modern, fantasy, or something a bit wild right now. Whether I prefer doing period work is something I get asked a lot at meetings and you can get pigeonholed quite easily. A good production designer can tackle any type of story, world or period but often directors and producers want to see “their current project” in style in your work. I’ve had interviews recently where it’s come up from producers saying “you’ve done a lot of period, is that choice?”. I love creating any period but, right now, I’d say my next film is definitely not going to be period. Ask me after a contemporary film and I’ll probably say the complete opposite, the grass is always greener .

The British film industry is often thought of as having costume drama and period drama as its main export, why do you think that is?

I know. That’s how we’re thought of. The Americans love it. I suppose also because we have so much history. We have, well all of Europe does, so much history to tap into. The more contemporary stuff gets overlooked. Maybe that’s what we do well, I do get quite a lot of period scripts. That’s why I’ve done so much, that’s what I get scripts for. There’s been a couple recently that I’ve passed on purely because I just don’t want to do another period film right now. I need some colour. Pink glitter. That’s what I’ll do next.

What would you say is the funnest part of your job?

Travel, interesting locations and people, is one of the great elements of what I do. You’re always seeing new places; you’re always meeting people that you wouldn’t normally meet. The last film I did I learnt about agriculture and met farmers. It’s fun but it’s also really interesting and a great privilege of doing this job, you get an insight into so many people’s lives. There’s a lot of fun to that as well, the diversity from  shooting in remote outdoor locations, historic buildings, a stately home or a council estate, and seeing it all come together, the world you’ve created, is great.

What would you say is the least fun part of your job?

There’s lots of that as well. Long, unsociable hours, I would say. Being away from home, which is one of the fun elements until you have a family. Dealing with difficult personalities is really hard. Stress is one of the hardest things to deal with in filmmaking; it’s a very stressful job. Tiny budgets and difficult people can lead to a lot of stress which, when you’re working sixteen hours a day six or seven days a week and getting up at five in the morning, is not a lot of fun. Even if you’re shooting on a lovely beach in Cornwall in the sunshine. People think it’s always fun and glamorous, and sometimes it is, but there’s another side to that coin that leads to a lot of stress.

What advice would you give to someone, particularly someone who either has a family or is expecting to have a family soon, who’s thinking of making production design their career?

I would say really look at the pros and cons of what we do. Because it’s not for everyone. A lot of what we do is about having the right personality. Being in production and running a department, liaising with all the people to work with, it’s not just about designing. When I started out, when I went from theatre to film, nobody really told me a lot of this. I just sort of learnt as I went, and if I’m being honest even if someone had told me I’d still have done it. For me the pros outweigh the cons. So I’d say be really passionate and persevere if you want to do it. If you have a family my main advice is get good childcare that fits with your life, your decisions. It is possible to have a career and a family .

I’ve seen a lot of people, women with families especially, who’ve not continued because it’s not what they want to do. You have to be quite committed to be successful. It’s a very common conversation I have with my female colleagues, and male but I suppose less so. I think dads somehow find it easier to go away and work. It’s something that I’ll talk about more at the class. There’s always a way to make it work. You can’t do this job if you don’t love doing it. It would break you. Talent is not the only factor.

There’s a lot of anxiety about the future of the British film industry at the moment, have you personally sensed any change in direction lately?

I think the mid-scale budgeted things have disappeared a bit. The big studio films, the Batmans and Harry Potters, soak up a lot of your big crew so when you’re trying to crew a film all the people are on those big films for eight months or a year. The in between films, the sort of twenty to thirty million budget films, there seems to be less of those. There’s bigger TV around too, there’s’ really great big-budget TV going on now. So those big projects will attract people who would normally work in film as well. Funding is always a problem, there’s never quite enough.

Speaking of mega-blockbusters, over the past 20 years the number of female directors making high-grossing films has dropped. Has that decline been noticeable in your career?

I’ve worked with quite a lot of female directors and that’s not by choice. I don’t set out to work with a woman and do a woman’s film, I just happen to have met some female directors. Sarah Gavron, Sam Taylor-Wood, Lone Scherfig. I’ve worked with a few. I’m not as aware of it because I’ve worked with quite a lot of successful women. I am aware sometimes, I look around the art department and I have said “God, we’re all women” but I’ve never really thought about it like that. It’s not a conscious choice, I’m not employing my team because they’re women, it’s just who I know or been available at that time. I’ve always felt it’s been very mixed and very equal actually. Sometimes I’ve actually thought we should try and get a couple of blokes in the art department just to even it out. You don’t want a whole department that’s all one way or the other.

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You’ve spoken before about how you used colour to define gendered spaces in the film Suffragette, would you say that colour is the best tool for showing differences on screen?

It’s a tool. It’s a very powerful tool. Very evocative. I think colour on screen says a lot, or not using colour can say a lot as well. I think it’s a tool that has to be used quite carefully and wisely. If it’s used in the wrong way it can be quite overpowering. It’s very good to create mood and feeling and emotion. But I wouldn’t say it’s the best. Space, architecture and shape are another way. Cramped, big, open, lonely. That has a lot to do with how I evoke a mood as well. Colour and texture and pattern are very big and powerful tools.

What would you say is the most powerful tool that a production designer has at their disposal?

That’s a hard one. I would say colour palette is pretty much up there. It gives a very strong feeling depending on whether it’s all monochromatic or bright or colourful. I think you often read a piece of work and it speaks a certain colour to you sometimes. Or no colour. There’s so many things you take into consideration when you’re designing a piece of work. I think architecture is also a very important part. It’s a tricky one. I’m going to think about that one for the masterclass.

Being a tutor has been a part of your career as well as production design, what’s your favourite part of that role?

It’s something I love to do and I do try and say yes as much as I can when people ask me to do it. I just think it’s great to give back to the new generation. I knew when I was studying and starting out that the more you can learn and hear from people that have been doing it the more knowledge you’ll gain and the more insight you’ll gain. Sometimes someone just has to say one sentence and you go “I’d have never thought of that”, it’ll just spark off a whole idea or a thought process.

I had some people come and talk to us while I was studying and it really inspired me. Or the opposite is also true, sometimes you can talk to someone and realise “God, that’s really not what I want to do” but you learn just as much from that. Hopefully something I say will inspire somebody and make them want to do it, to love it and be really good at it. To be honest, I can learn from students as well. I tutor one on one and I can learn from young, bright, filmmakers. It’s good to keep in touch with what everyone’s doing.

You can read the syllabus for our masterclass with Alice, and fellow production deisgner Sophie Becher, here.

Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a freelance copywriter and lifelong cinephile. For writing enquiries, you can email him at mark@cinemajam.com and you can follow him on Twitter @markwbirrell

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Posted on Oct 25, 2016

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