How a creative coupling sculpted the fantastical film sets of Poor Things

How a creative coupling sculpted the fantastical film sets of Poor Things

Surreal, sexy and brimming with imagination, Poor Things is a cinematic marvel. It takes us on a whirlwind adventure alongside the Frankenstein-esque, enigmatic and impetuous Bella Baxter (portrayed flawlessly by Emma Stone), through imagined places and spaces that typically exist only in our wildest imaginations or in the worlds created in film.

Bella’s declaration: “There is a world to enjoy, traverse, circumnavigate… Let us do this” sets the tone for a journey that is as profound as it is exhilarating. After a lifetime confined to the home of her brilliant unorthodox creator Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) – whom she calls ‘God’, Bella breaks free, embarking on a quest of self discovery and sexual liberation, with the debauched lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Raffalo). They traverse from London to Paris, Lisbon, Alexandria and beyond, and as Bella travels, she evolves with an increasing sense of purpose and new found lessons of equality and freedom.

Dr Godwin's Baxter's lab film sets of Poor Things
Dr Godwin’s Baxter’s lab in Poor Things

In the world of Poor Things, the collaboration of minds behind the scenes is as captivating at the tale itself: Directed by the visionary Yorgos Lanthimos (renowned The Favourite and The Lobster), and written by frequent collaborator Tony McNamara, this filmic tale draws its essence from the novel by Alasdair Gary.

What sets Poor Things apart is how the vision was brought to life through the film sets, by the dynamic duo of production designers, James Price and Shona Heath. Here’s where the magic unfolds: Lanthimos, the maestro orchestrating this creative symphony, ingeniously brought together two creatives with different perspectives. “I thought that if I put two people that have very different minds together, and if it worked out and if they got along it would be something very interesting” says Lanthimos. And he was bang on with that thinking!

James Price, with a background in production design and a portfolio spanning from BBC and ITV dramas to iconic films like Kill Your Friends and Paddington 2, made his mark as an art director before ascending to the throne of production design with Sean Durkin’s The Nest in 2018.

Meanwhile, Shona Heath, a visionary in her own right, emerged from studying fashion to leave an indelible mark as an art director and set designer, best known for her groundbreaking collaborations with the photographer Tim Walker.

Their partnership? A match made in creative heaven. “The dynamic between James and I was perfect,” says Heath. “We’re incredibly different but got on incredibly well.” Price summed it up: “You work from the detail up and I work from the huge buildings down, and we’ll meet in the middle.”

Together, they sculpted the fantastical film sets of Poor Things, seamlessly merging their divergent perspectives into a cohesive masterpiece. In the realm of imagination, where every detail counts and every brushstroke shapes the narrative, Price and Heath stood as architects of wonder, crafting a world where dreams and reality intertwine in the most extraordinary way.

Dreamlike decorative plaster ceiling film sets of Poor Things
The dreamlike decorative plaster ceiling in Poor Things

Delving into research, they set out on a journey fuelled by imagination and historical allure. Setting the stage for Poor Things meant diving into the annals of history and artistry, blending the past with the promise of the future in a dance of creativity.

Heath, drawing inspiration from Albert Guillaume’s Belle Epoque illustrations, unearthed a treasure trove of futuristic vision. “We envisioned this story nestled in a bygone era, yet painted with the brushstrokes of tomorrow,” Heath muses, capturing the essence of their collaborative vision.

Guided by the director’s eclectic palette, enriched by the likes of Egon Schiele, Hieronymus Bosch, and Francis Bacon, Heath and Price embarked on a creative odyssey to create Baxter’s world. From workshops to a multitude of collaged mood boards, from intricate sketches to digital renders, their journey culminated in set builds within studios in Budapest.

Dining at the Baxter's in Poor Things
Dining at the Baxter’s in Poor Things

In the world of Poor Things, time melded seamlessly—a 1930s aesthetic and approach to filmmaking proffered by Lathomos, intertwined with the cutting-edge technology of today, as Price aptly recounts in the Poor Things ‘making-of’ featurette (see below).

Production took over numerous soundstages at the Origo Studios in Budapest, where complete worlds of London and Baxter’s House, the ocean liner ship, the Paris square and brothel and the Alexandria hotel and slums were built. For the city of Lisbon, the largest sound stage in continental Europe at Korda Studios in Budapest were called upon. ‘The sets were epic in scale, we built composite sets where you can walk into a house and take your shoes off and be at home,’ Price says.

Poor Things: The Paris brothel
Poor Things: The Paris brothel. Note the shape of the windows!

“They worked very closely in tandem. I remember seeing the early look books they were working on, they have two very different sensibilities that seem to have met up so beautifully” says Emma Stone. “It blew my mind because it took half an hour to walk through that entire site. There were restaurants and hotels, it was like they had created an entire city.”

Bella outside the Brothel in Paris film sets of Poor Things
Bella outside the Brothel in Paris, in Poor Things
Bella Baxter dances the night away in Poor Things
Bella Baxter dances the night away in Poor Things

Baxter’s House became Heath’s favourite set piece.: ‘The hallway is the heart of Baxter’s house, it’s open and leads to all the rooms in a fluid pathway’. Film and Furniture enthusiasts, ourselves included, find fun in the decor details – from the surreal plaster mouldings adorning the ceilings to the plush silk walls embellished with meticulously sewn cityscapes and mirrors with ears, every detail tells a story within a story.

Poor Things decor detail: A mirror with ears
Poor Things decor detail: A mirror with ears

The film sets of Poor Things also provide us with a chuckle: The windows of the Parisian brothel, whimsically phallus shaped (which bring to mind architectural themes of the Vienese Secessionists), and let’s not overlook the fish that swim across Bella’s ceiling or the mirror adorned with ears.

When they set sail, the ship’s cabin bedroom features a wooden inlaid frieze which captures the essence of a cityscape, transporting us to realms where dreams and reality intertwine.

Bella Baxter's bedroom in Paris
Bella’s cabin bedroom on board the cruise ship in Poor Things

“They’ve created a world – it’s Victorian, it’s a dream, it gorgeous and it really does serve the vision” says Mark Ruffalo who plays Duncan Wedderburn. “It has a refined aesthetic,” adds Willem Dafoe who plays Dr. Godwin Baxter “but it’s also got a sense of humour”. 


Where can I see Poor Things?

You can investigate the film sets of Poor Things on the big screen: It was released in cinemas on December 8, 2023 in USA and on 12 January 2024 in UK, and is expected to be streaming on platforms such as Prime Video, Apple TV and/or Disney very soon.


Poor Things awards and nominations

Poor Things has received several awards and nominations: At the Golden Globe Awards, the film won Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for Stone. It was also nominated for thirteen Critics’ Choice Awards (with Stone winning for Best Actress), and has been nominated for eleven BAFTA Awards (including Best Film and Production Design), eleven Oscars in the Academy Awards (including Production Design), The Art Directors Guild Award for Best Production Design – Fantasy Feature Film, The Set Decorators Society of America (SDSA) Awards for Best Achievement in Décor/Design of a Period Feature Film and the British Film Designers Guild Production Design Awards for Major Motion Picture – Fantasy.

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