Behind the scenes of A Haunting in Venice with production designer John Paul Kelly
Retired and living in self-imposed exile, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot reluctantly attends a Halloween seance in new murder mystery A Haunting in Venice. When one of the guests is murdered in the host’s palazzo, it is up to the former detective to once again uncover the killer. This time around however, the house itself is a potential suspect.
Set in Venice just after World War II, and loosely based on the 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie, production designer John Paul Kelly set out to convey a Venice quite different to the usual associations of the Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge which we know today. This is a world of shadows and secrets.
Produced, directed and starring Kenneth Branagh, A Haunting in Venice depicts the dilapidated grandeur of an iconic palazzo, yet this one was built and shot almost entirely in the UK. Kelly tells us that in order to achieve the feel of a setting in the backwaters of Venice canals, as well as an interior that was right for the story, he and his team decided to build their own haunted palazzo at Pinewoood Studios.
Discover more about the design of A Haunting in Venice and take a view of behind the scenes concept art and drawings below.
Film and Furniture: Can you share with us an overview of your design for the film?
JP Kelly: Starting with historical accuracy as always, the director Kenneth Branagh and I spent a lot of time in Venice researching and looking at palazzos. We were particularly drawn to the huge time span and style variations in so many of the palazzos. Doge’s Palace was an aspirational starting point for so many houses that it felt appropriate for us to do the same.
Into our palazzo, we incorporated the famous Venetian melting pot of styles, ranging from Byzantine, to Asian, to North African and of course, to Classical Italian Renaissance.
F&F: What was your approach to designing the house and why was it important?
JPK: Whilst historical accuracy is one vital aspect, it is not the only consideration. Primarily, as film makers, we are not documentary makers but storytellers. With this in mind we added layers to our build to help create the right atmosphere, drama, tension and deceit within the story. For example, we added a (not impossible) conceit to our palazzo that it was built over the remains of a monastery or church. This allowed us to create secret passageways, the Antiquarium and cloisters that help tell the story.
F&F: The house itself is a murder suspect, so how did you create a character for the house?
JPK: We wanted the palazzo (like the cast) to reveal more of itself as the story progressed. We liked that each environment and different floor added a little more to our knowledge of the house, enhancing its position as a suspect.
The ground floor and boat house, feeling dark, dank and haunted in a traditional sense.
The Piano Nobile (first floor) feeling cathedral like and intimidating, as though the seraphs and frescoed angels ten meters above could look down on the cast conspiratorially. The Antiquarium, ancient and crumbling, steeped in history.
We designed the Piano Secondo (second/bedroom floor) to be labyrinthine and confusing, a maze with nods to an enchanted forest where the girl had once been locked in her bedroom, like a caged bird.
F&F: Why did you decide to build the palazzo in a studio?
JPK: It quickly became obvious that shooting for any length of time in a real palazzo was impractical especially considering the script requirements, of beating rain, crashing chandeliers and the like!
The exterior and interiors of the Palazzo were built to enable to filming of the crashing of waves against the walls, shutters slamming in the storm, and so that gondolas could come directly into the building.
F&F: How and why did you choose the furniture and lighting pieces which are seen in the film?
JPK: We dressed the world of A Haunting in Venice carefully. Each piece carefully considered to help reveal a little more of the story gradually.
This cumulated in Alicia’s bedroom where the dressing reveals the truth of what happened in the room.
The set decorator was Celia Bobak who was responsible for the wonderful dressing. She hired many pieces from Italy as well as London prop houses, Number 8, Classic and Farley.
F&F: The incredible wall décor in Alice’s bedroom and Piano Nobile caught our eye. What’s the story?
JPK: The inspiration for the Piano Nobile fresco was the Wedding of Psyche by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. It hinted at a culprit in the film, which felt like a fun game to play. It was a good example of mixing the truth with storytelling as the scenic artist Rohan Harris changed the piece to look as though 16th century but in reality the source reference was 300 years later!
The inspiration for the bedroom murals was an enchanted forest. We liked the idea of the room having an almost hallucinogenic quality to it.
Watch the featurette on the design of A Haunting in Venice and the development of the palazzo as a character in the video below.
A Haunting in Venice is showing in cinemas now.
Key Art Dept crew:
Production Designer JOHN PAUL KELLY
Concept Artist EVA KUNST
Supervising Art Director PETER RUSSEL
Senior Art Director RICHARD SELWAY
Art Director CHRIS STEPHENSON
Standby Art Director RICHARD USHER
Set Decorator CELIA BOBAK
Assistant Set Decorator HAMES HENDY
Graphic Designer MEGAN JONES
Construction Manager JO HAWTHORNE
Construction Company PLANK
Miniature JOSE GRANELL MAGIC PICTURE COMPANY
Sculptor NEIL HEDGOR
Scenic Painter ROHAN HARRIS