Receiving two Oscar nominations this year, for Beauty and the Beast and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour—and sharing this accomplishment with costume designer Jacqueline Durran—production designer Sarah Greenwood is being recognized once again for two projects that couldn’t have been more challenging or more different in budget, scale and their respective creative elements.
With Beauty, the six-time Oscar nominee took on her first musical, a big-budget, live-action adaptation of a beloved animated classic, in her first collaboration with director Bill Condon. With Darkest Hour, on the other hand, Greenwood was met with a director with whom she’d previously collaborated on five films, taking on a “small, contained, British film” that felt closer to home, while requiring dexterous work within real-world locations.
Greenwood’s year with Beauty and Darkest Hour encapsulates a broad range of experience across the spectrum of filmmaking—on location and sound stages, through history, fantasy, and a combination of the two.
What was it that drew you to these two very different projects?
We did Beauty and the Beast first, which was a long haul. I spent probably 18 months all in all, starting pre-, pre-, pre-prep, way back when. That project was like the jewel in the crown for Disney. Bill [Condon] is such a nice guy and great to work with.
Darkest Hour was kind of like going back to your roots. It was a very interesting script. I know there’s a lot of controversy over the tube scene, which I kind of agree with, but what was fascinating was that is was something that I didn’t know about a critical piece of our history, the fact that we came so close to going the other way. You just think, “My God. What would have happened had he not taken over at that point? Had he not made that decision?” It could have so easily been such a different world.
It was a great script, but it was kind of gray men in a gray room, chatting away. But you just know that Joe is going to bring something else to the whole telling of that story, and I certainly think he did.
The elephant in the room was, of course, Gary’s performance. That was completely electrifying. I was on set, right by camera, when they were shooting that scene in the ballroom when the red bulb comes on, and it was kind of like, “Whoa, that sent a shiver.”
Where did your work begin on each film? Were there certain artistic inspirations that influenced the films’ aesthetics?
With Beauty and the Beast, one of the things [set decorator] Katie Spencer and I started with was working on the household staff. Now, that’s something I’d never done before. When you’re working on the characters, what are they like? They’re obviously of the period.
This is the other thing that was very interesting about Beauty and the Beast, that it wasn’t in a homogenous fairy tale world. You were in 1740s France. We started looking at: What were the clocks like then? What were the candlesticks like then? Then, you kind of back into the characters. How do they manifest themselves?
Knowing that Ian McKellen was playing Cogsworth, he was a stalky, little pompous maître d’. At the front of his clock, he’s got his sword, his cannon, his whistle. You’ve got all these different props that come to life. And how do you animate the face? How does that work with the mustache, and all of that?
Also, unlike the animation, where these characters move in space as you will, we’re stuck with real objects, in real space, in real time. Therefore, the castle is enormous, and you’ve got this enormous beast, and you’ve got Chip, who’s the size of a tiny teacup. How does that work? We came up with the idea that his saucer is like a skateboard, so he scoots around on that.
One of the other big ones that we changed was Plumette. We gave Plumette wings. We made her into a feather duster, but she was kind of an elegant feather duster that’s like a dressing table for wigs and things. She was much more elegant, but she could fly, so the camera could go up with her. Those are all fascinating things to do.
Stepping into how it’s going to look, on all my projects, I start off doing loads of referencing and photo research. I work very closely with a picture researcher called Phil Clark. You gather all of that, and you’re looking for the key. What struck me [on Beauty] was two very dry etchings. One was straight rococo design, which is quite florid and over-the-top—very specific and short-lived, but very organic. The other one was kind of rococo gone mad. It had all continued growing, and this is something that I wanted to do with the castle. The whole castle continued to transform itself over time, and it wasn’t going to get derelict and dank. It was just going to continue stretching and changing. That was the key.
I work very closely with three illustrators—Joanna Bush, Karl Simon Gustafsson and Eva Kuntz. They all have very different styles. We did about 150 illustrations, and drew all the characters, which we then took back to Disney. Then, we were off. I didn’t initially re-look at the animation—I looked at it ages ago, when my son was young. So here’s the animation, and you’re filling in an awful lot of gaps.
As far as Darkest Hour goes, we did no illustrations because in a way, we know everything to some extent. The main difference was that it’s a period that we know—we’ve seen it so many times. My thing about it was that it was kind of capturing the essence of what the period was without being completely slavish.
There are the war rooms in London, these incredible museums, so that was a great point of reference, but that’s very linear. Whereas what we wanted was a maze-like, West Wing-like kind of space that you could move around, something that felt very different from what we know was happening in Germany at the same time. I’m talking about what I know from films, as well.
You have films like Valkyrie, and you know that Hitler had so much money. They were this massive machine, so everything they did was kind of perfect, straight-lined and cool colors. Their uniforms were all immaculate and everything was really well done. Whereas the British, they had no money. They had no preparation. Everything that they did, and this is a fact, they just did it on the hoof. They said, “Well, let’s set up the war rooms in this basement,” and then they realized that if a bomb dropped, the basement wouldn’t be secure. So they put all these wooden columns everywhere, and they were wooden because it was a naval boat builder who did it. It’s kind of these weird facts of the way the British did it.
The same goes for Downing Street. We did, in fact, use the real Downing Street as an exterior. Our producer Eric Fellner knew [Former Prime Minister] David Cameron before he got the chop from Brexit. [laughs] So he got us in there. Luckily, [Prime Minister] Theresa May said, “Yes, they can still film, as long as they do it on a Sunday morning and they’re in and out.” That was the exterior, and we dirtied it down in post, but the interior was a derelict house on a Yorkshire estate that we were allowed to do anything we wanted to. It was a room that felt like a cabinet room, but wasn’t, and it was done very much to have the feel, again, of this kind of chaotic place.
When we went around Downing Street and were talking to historians, they were saying, “This place was a virtual slum, and it was only Margaret Thatcher in the ‘80s who finally said, ‘This needs to be renovated.’” It was really rough.
Then, of course, we built the House of Commons. We were allowed into the Palace of Westminster to film, but you can’t sit on the green benches—bizarre. Some old rule. So we had to build it. Also, the House of Commons today was built in the 1950s. It was rebuilt because the House of Commons was bombed in like 1941. So we went back to drawings of the original House of Commons, which was this very dark, gloomy place.
What was the thought process when it came to the artwork seen in the living spaces of Darkest Hour’s royalty?
Buckingham Palace that we did for Darkest Hour is in fact is an empty old shell of a house in Yorkshire. It was used as a sports academy or something like that, so there’s only these staterooms that are left. That was a complete dress that we did.
Even though they’re the royals, we went really paired-down. We reupholstered all the furniture. It was all done with things that were like four notches down from where it should be. It was kind of very low key. All the gilding was kind of tarnished and dirty and gray. It had the big shutters up at the window, which helped with Bruno [Delbonnel, cinematographer]’s chiaroscuro lighting. The king was as much stuck in the country as everybody else was. There was no getting away from it, even though he was royalty.
What was the process of creating the gigantic mural of Gaston for Beauty and the Beast?
That was a kind of joke. We painted it on the ceiling of the country inn in Villeneuve, because Gaston’s like the top dog in that village. So he says, “I want my portrait up there.” On this ceiling, there’s fourblocks of portraits of Gaston winning at this, and Gaston being a hero at that. We matched it to this pose that Bill knew he was going to take at the end of that scene. You know, “This is me. Look at me.” It’s like the local lad down at the village pub with his trophy. That’s the kind of thing it was emulating.
The other thing is that everything on Beauty and the Beast was built from scratch. There was one day out on location. Everything else was built on the backlot or on the stages, so it’s the polar opposite of what we did on Darkest Hour. The budget on Beauty and the Beast was phenomenal, and the budget on Darkest Hour was really tight. You could say that the total budget on Darkest Hour was almost what the budget of the art department on Beauty and the Beast was. It was that massive of a difference between the two films. The bottom line is, there’s never enough money, but you get the best out of the money that you have. Those are the decisions that you make, that you push through.