Suzie Davis is a BAFTA and Oscar-nominated production designer known for her collaborations with legendary British director Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner, Vera Drake and the forthcoming Peterloo) and Philippa Lowthorpe (Swallows and Amazons). Here Suzie shares her journey into production design, details of working with Mike Leigh and the ins and outs of designing Saoirse Ronan romantic drama On Chesil Beach.
Suzie, please introduce yourself and tell us how you got involved in film industry.
I graduated in agriculture which swiftly moved into set design somehow. The long story short is I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at school. I came home and, while I was looking for a grown-up job, I worked for a sculptor and model maker who lived close by just to earn some cash. It was like someone opening a door to a world I didn’t know about. He treated me a bit like an apprentice and I spent a few years assisting model makers and sculptors. I made things for commercials and films such as 50-foot dragons, and all sorts of things, all out of polystyrene. Designers would come to us and tell us they need a 50-foot dragon, we’d build the dragon, I’d go to the studio on a pre-light day to drop it off and I’d see this hive of activity. And I wanted to know more about it!
I just started hanging around when we dropped the models off and got to know people. I also wanted to know why I was building a 50-foot dragon. So I started assisting for designers and then crossed over into art direction and standby art direction. I have now been designing for the last 10-12 years. That was my route in, by learning on the job rather than going to art school.
How did you come to work on the On Chesil Beach project?
I’d actually been working with Number 9 Films on another production which unfortunately got pushed and went down. Eventually, I got the script from Liz Karlsen at Number 9 and then met up with her and the director, Dominic Cooke. Dominic is such a clever guy and it was really fun to meet someone who was so excited at the prospect of making this film. He is an old hand in the theatre and this was his first feature film but he was like a duck to water.
What was the process after the initial meetings and looking at the script? What was it like working on the film from day one?
It was interesting because, as a designer, it’s all about the visuals but this film was different from any film I’d done beforehand in that it wasn’t very showy. It was quite a quiet design, low-key, balanced and considered. With other films, it’s all about bringing the character’s world along with the story but in this film we have two characters who are outsiders and never really fit in. You never see them in their own environment as they are yet to have found them. So the environments we had to create were about their family upbringing and how their individual childhood traumas had manifested themselves. It was really interesting to consider the aesthetics of that.
All films are the same in the sense it’s an absolute collaboration with the other HoDs. With Dominic and the DoP, we decided on the colour palettes quite early on and it became quite obvious the direction and the symbolism needed to be clearly defined. Dominic then had this great idea of removing the colour green from any of the interiors so you only see greens when it involves nature. We doubled up the plants in the houses. In the Mayhew house it’s crazy and there are no boundaries whereas in the Ponting household, it is very airless, uptight and sharp - that was fun to play those two sides to things.
We defined our aesthetic quite early on and then it was about finding the location. We spent quite a bit of time with a fantastic location manager named Henry Woolley, whom I have worked with quite a bit. Along that development of the design, we decided to build the interior of the hotel.
What was the length of the pre-production and production for the shoot of the film?
Pre-production was around 10 weeks and the shoot was about 6-7 weeks.
The film itself goes through different periods in time, what were the biggest challenges you faced and how did you go about making those kinds of adjustments?
It’s quite an interesting era to recreate. We had 1959, then the 1960s, 70s, 80s and then 2007. The tricky ones were the Camden scenes we tried to recreate but it was great fun. The graffiti back then was so clever and we managed to source lots of really great references for the graffiti, the posters and the mess and hideousness of it.
The one thing Dominic was really keen on was not looking back in a bucolic or romantic way at all these eras. The past isn’t necessarily better or more beautiful. We wanted to show the reality of those periods while sticking to our colour palette. For the scenes outside the record shop, we filmed at a real hipster store in London but the area was full of coffee shops so we had to shut off the road and hide a lot of the modernity as we had quite a wide shot of it. That was difficult as it wasn’t a closed set. We had to get there really early, rig it all before the camera team turned up, shoot it and then remove everything again in the same day - they were very long days.
We filmed some other elements of Soho, behind the British Museum, and we did the exact same thing there too. Wigmore Hall was quite a challenge too as we only had a small window of opportunity to film. We had to dress it overnight and then put it back in time for a concert the next day and then redress overnight. The logistics of it all were a little bit tricky, especially in London, and it can be quite awkward when it comes to period films.
You’ve also worked on other massive films like Mr. Turner. How does working on that film differ to something like On Chesil Beach?
I’ve just finished working on Mike’s [Leigh] next film, Peterloo, and working on a Mike Leigh film is completely different to any other film. I have to change my mindset quite dramatically when I work with him only because there is no Bible or anchor point as there is no script . Having said that, it is one of the most rewarding experiences I ever had because you’re such an integral part of his collaboration. When we’re researching and rehearsing with the actors, the art department is always close by and that goes on for six to nine months. Sometimes longer.
I have a lot longer prep on Mike’s films for that very reason. As he develops his script and story, he and I will have little chats and meet for lunch in between rehearsals. Then I go off with the location manager and try and find some broad brushstrokes of what he’s talking about and return to show him.
For instance, on Mr. Turner, he told me he wanted to recreate the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy and wondered what I thought and whether it was possible. That was quite daunting and doing that takes a lot of time and money and the budget has to be kept in mind. He came up with that idea early in the development so we were able to find some locations and adjusted my budget in order to do it. As it grew, it became more important so I was able to throw a bit more money towards it and it became one of the main features of the film.
Do you normally have a process when working on a film or do you have to adapt the way you work to fit the director’s concepts such as you did on Mr. Turner and On Chesil Beach?
Every film is different. I would say everything, apart from Mike Leigh, I will receive the script, break it down and I will start on my initial thoughts. All I do, in any film, is try to compliment and enhance the script. It’s a case of working out what the director’s viewpoint is. Sometimes everyone working on the film has their own individual viewpoint and the film loses its focus. One person should tell the story from their perspective, ideally. Some directors are really visual and have a clear idea of what they want and how they want it. That’s one way of working and I’ll join in with that. Other directors have no idea where it should be, how it should be and you’re left to suggest things. Then it’s through that development, during prep, that you have these little discussions with the creative teams and start throwing things into the melting pot.
Ultimately, I need to understand the director’s viewpoint and that just comes with going on reccies, sitting in the back of a car, having lunch or just simply talking about their ideas. When you finally get closer to production, you know the choices to make that will enable the director to get his story across. It’s about having respect for one person’s viewpoint.
Does that process change when you’re working on a series like Kingdom or Mad Dogs as opposed to a feature-length film?
Yeah, it does change. I have to create each nicely-told story one at a time and I try to be on the same page with the director. Nearly always, the first director sets the tone of the series, like on Kingdom with Robin Sheppard.
With Mad Dogs, Adrian Shergold filmed all four of the episodes that I worked on. He was amazing and it was very interesting to work with him as he does have a very strong visual style and, once we got to know what that style was, we made some powerful, unusual images. A lot of his films are like that. He uses the camera interestingly and he understands and uses the design very interestingly too.
You mentioned working on Peterloo. Could you tell us a little more about that film? What else are you working on at the moment?
I just went to the cast and crew of Peterloo about a month ago. It’s about the Peterloo Massacre which was a large uprising in Manchester, England, in 1819. It’s quite relevant to current times with the government against the working class. It’s a misunderstanding between those two parties. It’s North versus South. It’s strict governance and a knee-jerk reaction from the government. Basically, they went in with a heavy hand to what should have been a gentle protest in Manchester and unfortunately 16 people were killed and 300 were injured. That was a great film to work on and one of the biggest films I’ve worked on to date. There were a lot of stunts, special effects, visual effects and a massive build of Manchester in 1800s that I created in East London. It was good fun.
Again, working with Mike Leigh and his regular team is like a family. Although his films can be challenging, you always feel satisfied at the end because every member of the production feels involved and part of his team.
What advice would you have for people wanting to get involved in the film industry and production design and follow in your footsteps?
Persistence, basically. Keep knocking on those doors and keep sending CVs too. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been sent CVs on the day I needed somebody. It’s even happened to me when I was a standby art director and I just sent CVs all the time. There will be that day when a designer opens up his/her email and finds one offering services for the very position they need. Just say yes to anything and do as much as you can. Even if it’s for a job you’re assisting on and you want to move up - go and assist. You never know where that next job will go.
I often work with people I met when I was model-making years ago. It all comes around. It is such a transient industry that you’ll end up working with someone you worked with 20 years ago - although I can’t believe it’s 20 years ago now! It’s just important to get out there, meet people and each job will give you something new. That’s the beauty of the industry. It’s always different and it’s about getting involved in every element and aspect of the department.
Even if it’s not the right job, most of the jobs are short-term contracts that will end and the next one will be different. When the work is there, it’s a pretty good industry to be in - it’s so creative and collaborative.
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