An Interview with James Merifield: The Production Designer for Mary Queen of Scots

Best known for his work on MortdecaLittle Dorrit, and Final Portrait production designer James Merifield talks to Many News about how he got involved in TV and film plus he shares his experiences working on Mary Queen of Scots.

18th January 2019
/ By James Collins

Mary Queen of Scots IMDB

How did you get involved in film and TV?

I did a drama degree at Birmingham University and designed some plays while I was there. I also designed the head of department’s end of year show, and he recommended I did it as a post grad, which I did at Slade University. The first play I did out of art school was watched by Ken Russel and he asked me to work with him in Opera. We did two operas together. In the meantime he was working on Lady Chatterley for the BBC and he asked me if I wanted to design it.  I said ‘no’ as I was a theatre designer but he convinced me. He was my mentor and father figure for many years. 

How did you get involved with Mary Queen of Scots?

Another fortunate case scenario where I had worked with co-producer Jane Robinson on Breathe, and had a great time. She got me a meeting with the director and we had a connection, we had both come from theatre so I feel I understood her language.  Our designer for Mary Queen of Scots has theatrical routes, albeit filmic. There were opportunities to take broad brush stroked by the design that were encouraged by the director, Josie Rourke.

Does your approach change from production to production? 

I think primarily it’s the response to the script, that first read and the feel that you could partake in creating this world. I can’t become immersed in a script that doesn’t turn me on. Firstly it’s always images, I’m in my studio now and surrounded by books, also the national gallery is always an inspiration regardless of the film setting. You then evolve from whatever the more technical requirements are.  

***** Read our interview with production designer Scott P.Murphy*****

Have you always selected projects that involve the creation of an entire world?

I’m well known for, and attract period work, I do respond better to it and it’s exciting to create a new world, which can dictate where the camera can go. I enjoy immersing myself in different worlds, and then almost throwing it all away and treating it like I’m helping to tell a contemporary story. I tend to pull on modern references so that things don’t feel too archaic.  

How long do you normally have to prep?

On Mary Queen of Scots I had a very short time, a ten week window to create everything. We built all of Mary’s castle interior, it’s a set build under one studio roof that we reconfigured many times. Elizabeth’s bed chamber is also built. So much action happens between these two bed chambers that we designed similar footprints for each room, in terms of shape and scale. Elizabeth’s was a high gothic ceiling octagon and Mary’s is far more organic. 

What are you currently working on/what’s coming next?

I just finished a little film with Kenneth Branagh called All is True. It was shot in 4 weeks, the edit and post took 4 weeks and it’s out in February. An amazing script by Ben Elton directed by Kenneth Branagh with Judy Dench and Ian McKellen. It was lovely, so beautiful to do.  

What advice do you have for up-and-coming production designers?

Picking up the phone and emailing, cold calling is difficult but keep trying as I for one always reply. I think perhaps it’s important to get out there in the workplace, maybe in sales and selling. 

A lot of what we do is selling, we read off the page and then we think how we can then sell this. So I think it’s very much about people skills and being able to work with a group of people very succinctly and very quickly, being able to get on. We don’t often have much time so the ability to create a family quickly is important.   

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