A “tale as old as time”—based on an 18th century fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont that was previously adapted into a ‘90s Disney animated classic—Bill Condon’s live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast marked the sole presentation for Walt Disney Studios on Friday at Deadline’s inaugural Contenders London event.
For those few unfamiliar with Beauty and the Beast, the title sets up the broad strokes of the narrative. The musical depicts the unlikely romance that blooms between a beautiful young French woman (Emma Watson) and an unlikeable prince (Legion’s Dan Stevens), transformed by a curse into a hideous beast. In the end, it is love and love alone that can break the spell and transform the prince back to his original form.
On hand to discuss box-office smash—which this year became the highest-grossing live-action musical film of all time, grossing over $1.2 billion worldwide—were Oscar-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran, Oscar-nominated production designer Sarah Greenwood and Oscar-nominated set decorator Katie Spencer, who explained the close collaboration that has defined their shared work on films including Atonement, Pride & Prejudice and this year’s Churchill drama Darkest Hour, and their respective jumping-off points in taking on their first movie musical.
“Obviously, we had this fantastic animation to work with, but interestingly, one of the first lines in the script was that we’re set in France in the 1740s. We’re not in fairy tale land, we’re somewhere very specific, and that was my starting point,” Greenwood told Deadline’s Nancy Tartaglione of her beginnings on the project. “There’s an homage paid and a DNA running through it, but it was building on my memory. I didn’t actually specifically go back to the animation—it’s kind of my memory and my sense of the songs.”
Working with Greenwood in the Art Department, Spencer began with a certain visual reality—aspects of 18th century France—before turning to the animated film or pure homage. “For us, because of the characters that come alive—like the clock and the candlestick—we all worked closely, because what they looked like informs what the costumes look like, informs what the characters are going to be,” the set decorator said. “I think we started with the castle and the characters, and moved on from there.”
For Durran—more so than for her counterparts—the Disney animated classic was more present in the process, from the beginning and throughout. “For costumes, it’s perhaps slightly different than with the sets, because the characters are so well loved that I really wanted to honor the designs of the costumes in the cartoon, amplify them all and bring a historical feeling to them, but keeping the key elements that people love so much in the animation,” the costume designer said. “It was about being a combination of history and the animation, because the animation, when you look at it, the costumes aren’t very detailed. So in order to bring them into a live-action film, I wanted to put detail into them, and I found that detail in historical fact, or historical inspiration.”
Durran recounted the 240-hour process that went into designing Belle’s iconic dress for Condon’s adaptation, revealing that over 500 costumes were created for the film. And while not all of them were made with fair trade or ethical fabrics, the vast majority were. “In every buying decision, we tried to go for ethical fabrics and sustainable fabrics as our first choice, but we couldn’t do it 100 percent. That’s what we aimed to do, and I’d say it’s about 75 percent fair trade and ethical fabrics,” she said. “We did an experiment with one of the costumes for Belle where we made it entirely from sustainable fabrics and sustainable work methods, and it took an extremely long time.” While this kind of practice was unsustainable in the context of the entire production, the costume Durran referenced did make it into the final film, in the form of a red dress worn by Belle.
The costume designer also shared that while the Beast ended up as a CG creation, the initial concept was to create the character on set through prosthetics. Ultimately, the move to digital effects was seamlessly organic, given the amount of detail required for artists to render costumes within a computer. “We made a lot of Beast costumes, and then at the last minute, the Beast became a CG Beast, and the costumes were sent to America to be made digital,” Durran explained. “But it turns out that’s what’s required anyway. The CG departments need the patterns, the clothes and the fabrics in order to program the costumes.”
Also of note in yesterday’s Beauty and the Beast panel was the fact that Greenwood and the production staff initially scouted locations in France, hoping to find a real-life village where they could shoot. Ultimately, this notion was deemed impractically expensive by Disney, who instead funneled their money into the creation of a village of their own. Greenwood cherry picked various architectural features seen during the team’s European excursion for her sets, building the village on stages in the UK. “Of course, we were able to design it completely for the choreography, and having never done a musical and big dancing numbers, there was a steep learning curve to make it work completely,” the production designer said—“but it was great fun.”
Having gone through the process of their first Disney musical, the trio of below-the-line artists would gladly return for another. “We had a really nice time making this film. We had a great team, and it was so collaborative,” the production designer summarized. “I think we’d jump at doing another one, actually. “
Released across several formats—among them, Disney Digital 3-D, RealD 3D, IMAX and IMAX 3D—Beauty and the Beast was scored by Alan Menken, who composed music for the 1991 animated film. Condon’s gorgeously designed picture also stars Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson and Josh Gad.