While this Oscar season has been ripe with standout above-the-line performances, some of the most outstanding and overlooked work is coming from this year’s production designers. These craftspeople labored for months in creating the look and feel of a world we enjoy for two short hours. Spotlight production designer Stephen H. Carter was faced with creating an authentic newsroom environment. Room P.D. Ethan Tobman dealt with the rigorous practical challenges of creating and shooting within a 10-by-10-foot box. And Suffragette’s Alice Normington recreated Edwardian London and kept it from looking stodgy.
Suffering for Art
Production designer Alice Normington has worked on various projects set in the Victorian era—a TV movie adaptation of Great Expectations, among others—and stepped into the Edwardian era with great enthusiasm on Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, a film about the early feminist movement in London.
For Normington, the attraction to a project usually is based on the script and director involved, “not necessarily the talent that’s attached, because that often comes later,” she says. But a big part of the appeal of this film was the subject matter and the opportunity to tell an untold story. “It’s quite an exciting opportunity to do a film that I felt hadn’t really been put on the screen.”
Suffragette was a project that necessitated significant research. Normington spent a lot of time in the Museum of London’s Suffragette Collection, observing artifacts of the period. “That’s one of the great privileges of my job, to get access to these things,” she says. The flip side is that designing historical dramas comes with the burden of truth: “You have to get your facts right, and then you can decide which bits of that you want to show.”
The biggest challenge was finding exterior locations. “In London, it’s getting harder to find period ones,” she says. “Every period film you do, something’s disappeared and a Starbucks has arrived next to it.”
Another notable component of Normington’s design was the film’s unique color palette. She referenced the greens and purples commonly used by suffragette groups and related that to the thematic idea of bruised women, while also dividing the cinematic space between male and female. Masculine spaces such as the laundry, where Carey Mulligan’s character worked, were painted in cooler blue tones, while warmth came through in areas of the women’s world.
The overarching goal for Normington was to avoid the stifling feel of a typical historical film. “Some British period dramas can observe the world,” she says. “We wanted to be in there with them.”
Off the Grid
To many, Emma Donoghue’s novel Room seemed impossible to adapt to the silver screen, even to the most inventive of production designers, Ethan Tobman, who eventually took on the project. Tobman’s resume speaks to his superior capability and curiosity. “I’ve done Okay Go videos where it’s one-take with optical illusions,” he says. “I’ve done Super Bowl shows and Beyonce concerts with many moving parts and very little margin for error. So I think it made sense to approach this as an intellectual riddle, as opposed to your traditional design.”
In this sense, it’s hard to think of someone more suited to this daunting project than Tobman, who, “double-majored in screwing with people’s heads” at NYU, studying psychology and film production. Half of Room takes place in a 10-by-10-foot box, and director Lenny Abrahamson was insistent on shooting within those restrictions to be faithful to the experience of the characters in their little world.
For Tobman, these restrictions were liberating. “In design school you learn that without having a box to think outside of, there’s not a lot of room for ingenuity,” he says. In this case, the box was literal, so he developed a fascinating practical approach to filming the unfilmable. “Very early on, I began imagining this space as an inverted Rubik’s Cube, where every tile needed to be removable—and by every tile, I mean every square on the walls, but also the squares on the floor and the squares on the ceiling.”
Every decision he made regarding the titular room was highly premeditated and based in the realities of the characters. “Choosing to do walls out of cork, for example,” he says, “they are, on the one hand, soundproof, so it’s what (Old Nick, the captor) would have used. They’re also so heavily textured and malleable that they tell the presence of time through their scratches and their wear-and-tear and discoloration.”
For Tobman, the logistical complications of the project required a tremendous amount of research—“I approached captivity as an abstract concept and… found myself exploring the idea of tiny spaces as both a result of war and economics”—as well as teamwork. “By week three, (the crew) was a wordless, militaristic machine, where, faster than the camera could get into place, walls were moving or tiles were moving to allow for the shot.”
Around the Globe
Any journalist who has worked in a newsroom can tell you the production design for Spotlight was spot on, but what’s surprising is that the film wasn’t shot in a real newsroom. The Boston Globe newsroom that audiences see in the film was created by production designer Stephen H. Carter, an NYU-educated artist whose biggest challenge was finding the right building in Toronto in which to shoot.
“We knew what we wanted, but it came pretty close to the wire before we got it,” says Carter, who worked as an art director on last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman. While there was an available space that had been the office for Toronto’s Globe and Mail at one point, it was built in the 1980s. “So we knew we had to build the bulk of it ourselves,” Carter says, adding that a basement turned out to be “a stroke of luck that actually saved us. It was filled with years and years of derelict office furniture, including the cubicles. We bought it all for $5,000 and that was what we built upon.”
In order to make the environment as realistic as possible, Carter and his team took thousands of photos inside the real Globe offices and sought input from the reporters featured in the film.
“The Spotlight offices were shockingly humble and I tried to respect the bulk of that reality,” Carter says. He put a fair amount of attention into the lighting, even building a fluorescent lighting system to help the cinematographer that ended up saving the crew significant time and effort.
Another detail with which the production design team was charged was recreating all the Catholic directories against which the pedophile priests were crosschecked in the movie. Spotlight co-writer/director Tom McCarthy took Carter and his crew into The Boston Globe morgue—as it is known by reporters and librarians—where the directories had been unearthed. “It was a dead-letter office museum,” Carter says. “If you give me the choice of building on the stage or building on a location, I’ll take the location every time.”
The production designer also had to re-make various front pages of The Globe when production couldn’t get photo clearances. “It was a huge amount of detail work,” Carter admits.
But it’s that level of accuracy that has Oscar watchers claiming Spotlight as the best newsroom procedural drama since All the President’s Men.