Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos’ first period outing, The Favourite imposed immediate, practical challenges upon its below-the-line team, a film where extreme vision, finances and other realities would collide. Set in the immense court of Queen Anne in 18th century England, the black comedy called for all the detail and luxury a “really limited budget” could provide.
In her first collaboration with the director, production designer Fiona Crombie lucked out with a superb primary location. Serving as Queen Anne’s palace, Hatfield House was built in 1611 by Robert Cecil, First Earl of Salisbury and Chief Minister to King James I. With grounds soaked in history, the country estate would allow Crombie to build massive, monochromatic sets—dwarfing the actors, when viewed through cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s extremely wide lenses, to reflect the characters’ sense of alienation, and isolation.
Fortunately for the production team, the current managers of the estate couldn’t have been more accommodating of their process—though they weren’t so lucky with the other locations, with which they built out the film. “We built elements within Hampton Court, but you can’t touch the walls. You cannot lean anything against a wall because it’s so old, and so precious, and so protected,” the designer recalls. “Trying to create our world in a believable way, when you have so many actual limitations from a location, is really complex.”
Bringing Queen Anne’s rabbits (and their wranglers), and 80,000 candles (with their accompanying wax catchers, for nighttime lighting) onto set, Crombie was able to overcome each of the production’s many hurdles, with persistence, the support of her fellow artisans, and a bit of imagination.
What were your first impressions when you read the script for The Favourite?
Immediately when I read this script, I knew that it was unique because of the tone, and the language, but also the characters and their interplay. The way that Tony [McNamara] had written and phrased it meant that I knew that I had freedom. This is not a documentary piece, this is not a classic biopic; this is something more playful, with a lot of winking and a lot of game playing in a sense. In the same way that the language and the way that [the characters] speak to each other feels whole and consistent, I knew that I would be able to play with the look of the film in exactly the same way. That was exciting, and of course, I was just thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Yorgos, knowing how he creates complete little universes within each of his films.
In early conversations with Yorgos, what did you discuss?
When I first met Yorgos, I brought him a booklet that I had created of initial impulse references, and artworks, and paintings. They were not historically accurate, and they were not specific to England—they were contemporary photographers and all sorts of things, but they were my creative response to the script. Candida Höfer, I remember looking at some of her photography. I think what he most responded to was that I was very interested in the play of scale. So, you’d have vast spaces, sometimes with enormous elements, like a huge bed, and then you’d have a tiny person or a tiny chair. This play on scale and massive, ornate, cavernous spaces was really interesting.
I also had a lot of references of corridors and walkways, and stairwells, and the idea of there being travel, people constantly walking between spaces. These were things that we did instinctively hit upon. Because Yorgos, very early on, had an idea of how he wanted the film to be shot, one thing that we spoke about was a lot of space in the rooms—not stuffing them with masses of stuff. We’ve got very particular pieces, and there’s actually a lot of room to move, and a lot of empty floor. I think in a way, it creates a beautiful, lonely aesthetic, in an ornate space. But it also meant that practically, he could roam with the camera. There were lots of movements with the camera, so that was something that we felt really served the film early on as well.
In many ways,The Favourite seems to revamp the British costume drama. How did this concept manifest in your work?
In the same way that Sandy [Powell, costume designer] was very tight with her palette, I was really tight with my palette. Upstairs in the palace environments, it’s almost always just gold fabrics, with inlaid wooden furniture, and that was a deliberate play on what was happening with the costumes. We decided to keep it really monochromatic so that there is a lot of information in those frames, you’re seeing a lot of stuff, but it’s actually quite tight and considered. It takes it out of being naturalistic because it’s quite subtle, but it’s very controlled.
Then, we created and built so much stuff, particularly in our hand props, whether it was the leather suits, the calipers that Anne wears when she’s riding, or the rabbit cages, or the wheelchairs. All of those, they’re not historically accurate—they’re plays. We’re playing with ideas. A good example is the birthday cake. Birthday cakes didn’t exist at that time in history, but it’s a much better idea to have a birthday cake than to say, “Oh well, they didn’t have them at that time.” It’s the same thing with the den chairs, the carriages, all those things; they were all constructions that feel true to the film and the period, but actually were inventions.
Can you give a sense of your approach to designing Queen Anne’s palace, and all the spaces that came with it?
Obviously, the jewel is Anne’s bedroom. Everything at Hatfield House, we kept the best bits. We chose the elements that really worked for our story, and in many ways, that was architectural detail. So, I copied details from that house. Then, for example, we built the interconnecting corridor, and the false doors, and created that whole capacity to walk between the two rooms. Then, we effectively emptied everything out, and curated the art. We added tapestries, and put in all the furniture. We had the most fantastic set of bones to play with, with that house, and then we fleshed it out for our story, and the aesthetic that we were going for.
How exactly did you source art to fill the walls, and make the image pop?
Hatfield House has an unbelievable amount of art, actually. It’s incredible—it’s crammed full of art—so we were able to hire in pieces, but we also were able to curate through their collections, and bring in, and position carefully. We steered towards some nice nudes and some Adam and Eves, bits and pieces, but we kept to a particular theme. But we were really fortunate that the house was so generous with us. We were the first film, I think, that’s ever come in and been able to do that process with them, with art removal, and being able to really curate the pieces that we have in the film.
Were the exterior grounds of the estate, seen in the film, part of that same location?
Yes, that’s attached to Hatfield House. The thing about it is that we did a lot of design work with effects; that house is substantially extended in the film. I think in reality, it’s probably not even a third of the size, so Yorgos and I spent a lot of time working out how to create a believable palace. Palaces always morph and grow, and they’re always a mix of periods, so when you see that palace from the outside, it’s had quite a lot of additions.
Which sets were built outside of Hatfield House?
When they travel to the spa, that was a set that we built in a place called Danson House. We basically went there for the shape of the room, because it was a Victorian kitchen, so we completely gutted and redid everything—the floors, the walls—just to do that one scene, because it was such a beautiful scene. We all really fought to make that work with the budget.
Then, we also built a brothel. We went to a place called Luton Hoo, and again, we built in an existing room. Then we built the long wooden corridor, just in the studio space, and that was the stuff we did off the grounds. Everything else was built within Hatfield.
Given the film’s historical context, candles are omnipresent as a source of light. It must have been challenging to wrangle all of those, and the wax catchers that went with them.
We were working with thousands of candles. The ball sequence, alone, was entirely lit by candles. We [sourced] everything we possibly could because it became apparent when we were shooting that we needed to put everything into that. We had two guys for the entire film whose job was just candle wrangling. The thing about Hatfield House is that they allow candles. There are a huge amount of these National Trust properties in the UK that are incredible, but you cannot have any naked flame. We shot our kitchen scene and a long corridor in Hampton Court, and there were absolutely no candles there. You can’t have candles.
With Hatfield, we would have really been in terrible trouble if we couldn’t use candles. We had to create fake surfaces, so that the candles could drip. That’s the thing you don’t think about. It’s not even that you’ll set the place alight; it’s the fact that you’re just dripping wax everywhere.
The Favourite’s episodes of outright debauchery are part of what make it so compelling. What was it like presenting all these idiosyncratic details—rabbits, duck races, blood orange throwing and more?
It becomes about creating your own internal logic. So, it’s a duck race. I remember we talked about that and it was like, “Okay, what would the cost be? How do you race ducks?” We decided that we would make it something that’s not necessarily improvised, but where you could see that it was just created from the furniture that’s in the room. So, we did it with all of these benches, and just created this circuit. What I loved also in the film was all the moments where we have interesting food. But then, I loved the world of the rabbits. My set decorator and I had such a fun time, and again, this links back to this idea of scale. We had scale in furniture and scale in the rooms, but we also really played with miniature things. In the rabbit cages, we had little terrenes full of grass, and really undersized carrots. We just thought we were hilarious. Where the rabbit cages generally lived, we had a little grooming table, little water jug, and everything was miniature for the Queen to be able to play, almost like a doll’s house. That was the idea with those. And in fact, no one will ever see this, but the bottom of the rabbit cage is a replica floor of the corridor; so we did it all with inlaid wood, like a little doll house version of the palace. We just played with things like that for our amusement, really.
How many rabbits did you tend to have on set?
I think we sometimes had 17, and sometimes a few less, because it was controlled. There was a rule about how many could be in the cages. Originally, we had four cages, and then we brought it down to three, but for all intents and purposes, there’s meant to be 17. I think that depending on the shot, they would bring them in and out. They all were the same rabbits; they made it through the shoot. They didn’t have to switch them out or anything. [laughs]