What’s the difference between a Broadway theater, ancient Egypt and Bletchley Park? There might be some witty punch line to that question, but the answer is at the heart of the expanse of production design that went into some of this year’s top Oscar contenders. Kevin Thompson, Arthur Max and Maria Djurkovic faced the most disparate and disconnected world-building briefs when they signed on to create the looks of the current-day Birdman, as well as Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Imitation Game—both of which take on two polar opposites of the historical spectrum. The challenges they faced demonstrate the flexibility required by those toiling in production design today.
Take Max’s work on Ridley Scott’s Exodus. It’s the fourth historical epic they’ve done together, following Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and Robin Hood. And, as usual, Max and his art department have balked at doing anything by halves: Two ancient Egyptian cities were partially re-created on a plot of land in southern Spain.
“It was a gift from nature to find this valley just outside Almeria,” Max says. “It was a couple of square kilometers surrounded by mountains, which looked just like Sinai. We built a grand avenue running through it, lined with palm trees, and put Pi-Ramesses down the bottom and Old Memphis up the top.”
He says all this as if it were a Sunday stroll. But then, it’s far from the first time Max has had to create a civilization from scratch. “Ridley tends to like pushing the scale to the very limit,” he laughs. “He pushes, but he appreciates. He wants to get you to the edge every time, to come up with stuff we have no frame of reference for.”
When it comes to ancient Egypt, you can’t go too big, Max insists. In addition to the exterior builds in Spain, Max oversaw several palace interiors, crammed into soundstages at London’s Pinewood Studios.
Digital set extensions, pioneered on Gladiator, now are par for Scott’s course, and Max’s team takes care of the full architectural designs before shooting, so the director can plan his shots accordingly. But everything that can be practically built still is; few sets match Max’s for scale. “Ridley wants to give his actors an environment in which they can lose themselves and suspend their disbelief,” he explains. “The set in Spain was self-contained, so you could do the whole tour.”
Djurkovic, meanwhile, explored the more contained code-breaking world of World War II for Morten Tyldum’s Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game. Her set was no less complete, but when the real Bletchley Park, where Turing’s code-breakers worked, proved a little too cramped for a film crew, she rebuilt it at an old Royal Air Force base in Bicester, England. An old Georgian manor house stood in for the real building, just 45 minutes down the road, and her team re-created the huts in which Turing cracked the Enigma code on the site’s grounds.
“Bletchley Park was like a university campus,” says Djurkovic, “and these code-breaker were so young, brought in from Oxford and Cambridge to solve this puzzle. It was all newly built around the manor house, and it had to have that collegiate feel.”
The production design jewel in The Imitation Game’s crown has to be “Christopher,” the code-breaking computer Turing constructed to decode Enigma. While her full-scale reconstruction may not be quite as efficient at decoding Nazi communications—“definitely not,” Djurkovic contends—it does move and whirr just like the original.
“It’s based on the reality, with certain extrapolations and embellishments,” she says. “We decided not to encase it fully in a box, in order to see its innards and working parts. It’s also slightly bigger. But the red wire that spills out is absolutely right—even if we added a lot more than in reality.”
We see the machine at various stages of its construction. “All of those stages were shot in a single day,” says Djurkovic. “So, within this machine, we had to build the wherewithal to pull it apart and put it back together and not keep the shooting crew waiting. It was hard work.”
Thompson, who built the theatrical world inhabited by Michael Keaton’s troubled actor in Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman, knows a thing or two about hard work. The film appears to be shot in a single take, but Thompson had to match the seams between a real theater location in New York—the St. James, used for the front-of-house sequences—and the backstage world he built on a Queens soundstage. “Alejandro called it a laboratory experiment,” he laughs.
They couldn’t shoot backstage at the real St. James since they only had use of that prime piece of Broadway real estate for nine days, before another production moved in. In any case, the tight corridors would have been too cramped to accommodate Inarritu’s kinetic shooting style. “In fact, even in the building of the sets we had to accommodate the camera movement,” Thompson says. Footprints had to be bigger, and walls literally had to move and slot back into position as the camera navigated the space.
Thompson particularly enjoyed playing with the idea that Birdman takes place in its lead character’s head. “As his mind becomes more anxious, the set starts to change,” he reveals. “The corridors get narrower, the ceilings lower. The liquor store he visits even changes location while we’re inside—very subtle things, which you might not pick up on. Because there were no obvious editing cuts, people believe in the reality of the camera in a way they wouldn’t normally.”