Luxury, licence and debauchery: Creating the world of The Favourite
A British period drama like no other, The Favourite is a dark, complicated yet comic tale of a triangle between three commanding women jockeying with raw abandon for love, favour and power. It presents a world that is familiar at first and then turns what we think we know on its head. We dissect the design and decor with the film’s Production Designer Fiona Crombie who reveals how she created a distinctive world for Queen Anne – a world full of extreme privilege, luxury, licence and debauchery.
Set in 18th century England and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster), The Favourite stars Olivia Colman as a frail Queen Anne encumbered by grief, gout and insecurity. Rachel Weisz plays her close friend Lady Sarah who governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and unpredictable temper, and Emma Stone plays new servant Abigail who sees a chance to return to her aristocratic roots by manipulating her way to becoming the Queen’s companion.
The film takes place in an insular world, largely within the confines of the Royal Palace’s walls where power plays, seductions, blood orange throwing and the occasional duck or lobster race transpire, detached from the realities of the outside world. “The language is extremely ‘colourful’, the dance moves are pretty wild and wheelchairs, leg braces, rabbit hutches and birthday cakes did not exist” says Production Designer Crombie (also of Macbeth). “Anne didn’t have 17 pet rabbits and duck and lobster races were probably not aristocratic pastimes. These script anachronisms invited us to invent, play and make ourselves laugh” she continues.
This approach is exactly why Crombie has recently won the ‘Period Feature Film’ Award in the Art Directors Guild Awards and why she has been nominated for multiple others including ‘Best Production Design – Independent Feature Film – Period’ in the The British Film Designers Guild Awards, best ‘Production Design’ in the EE British Academy Film Awards (the BAFTAs) and ‘Production Design’ (one of 10 nominations for the film) in the upcoming Academy Awards (the ‘Oscars’) on February 24.
The Favourite – location by location, room by room.
While honing the script with Tony McNamara, Yorgos Lanthimos knew he wanted to use the Palace architecture as one might use the rooms in a bedroom farce: “The way the Palace operated was really important to Yorgos visually and we used that in the storytelling,” McNamara explains. “Yorgos liked the idea that everyone’s rooms were connected and he liked the sense of Abigail starting downstairs and working her way up.”
The epic task of crafting the Royal Palace to match Lanthimos’ mind’s-eye vision fell to Crombie. “From the outset, I knew the design was to be its own thing and not at all concerned with what did or didn’t exist. We wound up with a mix. Some things truly sit within the period and others step out of it,” she explains.
The film was created wholly on location and as Lanthimos explains in a behind-the-scenes featurette, his preferred approach is often “to film in real places and figure things out on the spot”. To portray the Palace, the production utilised Hatfield House, a fine example of Jacobean style architecture in Hertfordshire, England, on land that has housed royals since the 15th Century.
Hatfield is no stranger to movies and television crews but has very strict usage rules. The present structure was built in 1611 by Robert Cecil, the Chief Minister to King James I, replete with grand staircases, capacious drawing rooms and crucially for The Favourite‘s production team, elongated corridors that stretch for miles. It is therefore much older than the period in which The Favourite is set and Queen Elizabeth 1 lived there when she was a young girl.
The decision to portray the Palace through Hatfield was made very early on in the process. In fact, an important element in the viability of making The Favourite at all was securing a location that not only worked for the period but also allowed the freedom to tell the story. This is considered a low budget film in movie land: The Art Department had about £1.2 million to create a world of extreme excess and luxury. It was therefore essential to find a location that went some way in telling the story before even £1 was spent.
Hatfield House is not only beautifully maintained but the managers of the estate were also open to what the production envisioned for it. In order for it to work for the story, the rooms had to be emptied of their antiquities, artworks, drapes and floor coverings. Construction elements were built in the majority of the rooms. The carpenters worked under the watchful eye of the Hatfield team. “There was a lot of artful edging and careful scribing” says Crombie. No screws or nails could be used to secure wall panels or doors. Any sawdust created had to be dealt with immediately and there was very little painting undertaken on site “unlike a studio build where you don’t worry about splattering paint around!” she adds.
The intention was that the audience would never be able to recognise what was the location and what was the set. “Arched windows were built along the entire front façade of Hatfield House but were so neatly integrated that even I forgot they were there!”. A 13-meter long canvas wall was built that ran the length of the Great Hall. It was hung from the upper level and balanced over three immovable paintings. “I remember being told the value of the paintings and an already complex manoeuvre became a white knuckle experience” Crombie says.
She continues: “The locations we worked in provided exquisite bones to build upon and endless inspiration for our detailing. We built wall panels and passage ways that matched the intricate joinery in the locations. We built secret doorways that disappeared behind our tapestries. Where the location ends and we begin should be seamless and invisible. The locations were emptied and redressed with our furniture, tapestries, drapes and art. We chose only to use shades of gold in our Palace fabrics with the pops of colour coming from the floral arrangements, the pyramids of sugary treats and, of course, the people”.
An overriding concept was for the Palace to represent a kind of playground: “You have scenes such as the game with the guy being pelted with blood oranges and the duck races and there’s just a lot of excess and a feeling of we’re doing this because we can,” observes Crombie.
Another concept Crombie kept in mind and which also mirrors the approach to photography, was fluidity: “The Queen’s apartment often changes and we had no fixed rules such as this is where that chair goes. I really like this idea that’s in the script that the Queen is carried on a sedan chair, so there’s a natural mobility of objects wherever she goes. I didn’t worry too much about explaining!”.
She continues: “Of course, we were incredibly respectful. Everything in there is so precious and so beautifully created. One of the biggest challenges we had was all the candles because as you can imagine, there are very strict protocols about managing candles. So we had to use an enormous number of wax catchers. But the people who manage Hatfield were very supportive and we negotiated and negotiated and we wound up being able to do the vast majority of what we wanted to do.”
Furniture was designed, hired in and bought from antique markets to bring the whole look together. We asked Crombie where she sources such pieces and her working relationship with set decorator Alice Fenton: “Alice Fenton and I have now worked together on four films, we get on very well and I’m very involved in set decoration because I love it! We found many pieces together in markets – such as Abigail’s bed and the pigeon house which we found in Sunbury Antiques Market – an incredible resource. A lot of the tea cups, jugs and glassware were also found in antiques markets. Palette is really important to me so we’re really collaborative in our process”.
The Great Hall
The chequered black-and-white marble floor in Hatfield’s Great Hall helped Crombie to develop the design palette for the film with a monochromatic field of golds, champagnes, pineapple and oak tones – an idea that came from (three-time Oscar winner and and eleven-time nominee) costume designer Sandy Powell. “We were all delighted by the way that the costumes sit in this gold and wooden warm world,” says Crombie.
The idea of changing everything up an using the space flexibly is shown in several scenes which take place in the Great Hall such as the duck race where 30 benches suddenly appear in the space. Crombie explains: “Its all about feeling free to flip the spaces… We don’t need to know where the 30 benches come from. Then next time we’re there it’s a ball and then all of a sudden it’s Abigail’s dinner and it flips again. There’s that possibility of things changing from moment to moment.” Set Decorator Alice Fenton adds: “There was some prop-heavy dressing on this film. Each set we’ve done we’ve had to do a big changeover”.
The film’s use of wide angle lenses and 360-degree whip pans were especially rewarding for Crombie, as it gives a new perspective on her team’s work. Crombie told Film and Furniture: “When you have these incredibly wide shots and cinematography that sees every square inch of the set from the floors to the ceilings, and then turns around and looks behind you, I’ve never seen anything like that. It made us very mindful of every single element as everything is in camera, so we had to be careful how to build within those rooms, how to dress those rooms, because there is no hiding. That was a really exciting challenge”.
“Part of my work was in bringing the eye to what I want the audience to see, like in The Great Hall we built an enormous long wall piece that runs the length of the room and we painted a trompe l’oeil which disappears the upper wall and brings your eye down to the room and to the characters on the black and white floor. So these are things you almost don’t know are there but they work to telescope and simplify the frame” says Crombie.
Queen Anne’s apartment and bedroom
Although the existing floors and walls were an inspiration, the production art department team ended up altering Hatfield as it had never been done before. “To create Queen Anne’s room, this room is usually very heavily dressed… we stripped out lots of incredible paintings, furniture and drapes so we could just put our own language into it. I feel that when you enter into the space of Anne just by virtue of her 17 rabbits, you’re already dropped into a language and a world that is its own kind of gem,” Crombie says. “So while we were mindful of furniture styles of the era, we were far more focused on looking for the shapes, structures and aesthetics that fit the characters.”
Queen Anne’s bed
The jewel in the Queen’s bedroom is her towering four meter tall bed, complete with four mattresses and layer upon layer of bedding. The intention was to create a luxurious sanctuary that could be as messy and undone, or as meticulously made up, as the Queen’s mental state.
The bed was hand built, hand carved and painted. “It was a fairly faithful representation of a bed a Queen might have at the time but we pushed the proportions, and as we knew she was going to spend a lot time in that bed, and that it would be seen a lot on camera, there was a lot of detailing with hand painting, hand carving and hand made bedding” Crombie told us.
The library at Hatfield House was turned into Sarah’s apartment.
Kitchen scenes were filmed at Hampton Court (built by King Henry VIII in the early 16th century) where no one was allowed to touch or lean objects against walls.
Cupboards, shelving and the sink unit were designed and built from scratch and all carefully sleeved into position. Construction was a slow and painstaking process but the benefits far outweighed the inconveniences. The art directors catalogued the carvings, the painted motifs and the joinery and used them as inspiration.
A unique take on an English story
We asked Crombie if she had a sense when working on this film that it was going to become something very special: “I identified very quickly that the way the script is written, combined with Yorgos Lanthimos at the helm meant that this was going to be a unique take on this story. I knew that we were creating something that had a freshness to it in the same way as something like The Draughtsman’s Contract for example, a mix of a period film with a modern sensibility – without being tongue in cheek or too forced. You’re constantly in the eye of the storm in a film like this with deadlines to meet and creations to achieve but when we saw the first camera tests, we all thought ‘a-ha!’ this is pretty special and indeed, a great opportunity for a production designer”.
And did the fact that this film is an interpretation of an English story by a Greek Director, an Australian’s Playwright and an Australian Production Designer have any effect on the outcome of the film – being that key players weren’t so attached to British history? “It allowed us to look at it objectively but to be honest the wider crew was mainly English and they were all just as creative and irreverent, and open to being as playful as we all were. Every film Yorgos makes is like a universe, his own capsule interpretation of the world and he really respects his audiences. He asks you to enter into a kind of agreement to understand his world without explanation: This is the court of Queen Anne, but we don’t know where her husband is (we don’t need to know either), this is the way they speak, this is the way they dance – you don’t need it explained” Crombie answers:
“What I really liked about what we were doing is that there was no fixed rule about any space, there’s a playfulness to this production design and that’s been really, really rewarding” she adds.
Incase you were wondering, 80,000 candles were used in the lighting of this film. And no less than 17 rabbits were continually happily hopping around.
And what does a multi-award nominated Production Designer have in the way of furniture in her own home? “I am a person in flux. I moved from Australia to London with my family three years ago and we’re not really embedded yet” she answers. “My husband and I have eclectic tastes but I have an amazing huge bookshelf I brought from Australia which we had made for our big house in Australia by Mark Tuckey. Bearing in mind the scale of an Australian home is quite different from an English home, this bookcase only just about fits in our new home but I’ll never part with it. We have a mis-matched series of pieces and a lot of plants which tie everything together”.
Watch The Favourite Production Design featurette below.