EXCLUSIVE: Inside designing sets for Johnny English Strikes Again with Simon Bowles
Simon Bowles is a British production designer who kicked off his film career working as a projectionist at a cinema before working on the first film of then-unknown and now legendary director Edgar Wright – A Fistful of Fingers. From there, he became known for exceptional, low-budget horror movies, Eden Lake and The Descent, and prestigious period pictures A United Kingdom, Hyde Park on Hudson, Pride and Belle. Here Simon tells Mandy News about his filmmaking journey and shares some amazing production design sketches from his latest movie, spy spoof comedy Johnny English Strikes Again, starring Rowan Atkinson.
How did you get into production design, and how did this take you into film?
My first encounter with film was when I got the job as projectionist in my local cinema in Wells, Somerset, at the age of 15. Watching the same film over and over again opened my eyes to the technical accomplishment of directors such as Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Barry Levinson, Robert Zemeckis and Ron Howard. With so many views of a wide variety of movies I became aware of the edit points, the jump between locations and sets, the use of colour, texture and lighting and the powerful portrayal of character and emotion. After leaving school I studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School during the day and assisted opera and theatre designers in the evenings.
After working in theatre for a few years I broke into film on British horror film Beyond Bedlam directed by Vadim Jean, designed by James Helps. From there I worked my way up the ranks within the art department on films such as Tomb Raider, Pinocchio and Wing Commander. I stepped up to production designer on British werewolf movie Dog Soldiers written and directed by Neil Marshall who I have collaborated with many times since. Theatre will always be my first love, working cheek by jowl with actors and the rich immediate reaction of a live audience, but the opportunities in film and television to design environments that are sometimes so enveloping in detail – they’re more of an art installation than a set – is so fabulous.
What was your process on Johnny English Strikes Again?
I decided early on that the scenery and props could not be funny. I wanted the visual language of the film to be that of a serious spy adventure but with one anomaly; Johny English. To follow this through we purposely chose luxurious locations and built large sets with space for the action to play out. I produced mood boards, visuals and sketches for each and every set in the development period.
These then steered the art department, set decorating department, locations department, visual effects department, special effects department, graphics department and action vehicle department clearly with my vision for the project. Making these huge creative decisions well ahead of production gave me more time to design the smaller more detailed elements closer to the shoot.
What were the biggest challenges you faced working on Johnny English Strikes Again and, what have been some of the biggest challenges you have overcome?
I was most happy with our largest most complex set – the French Hotel Restaurant. The scene is set at dusk and involved lots of fire and stunts. It would take three days to film. For these reasons we couldn’t shoot at a real restaurant as dusk only lasts 10-20 minutes and the wind, or even a light breeze, would make the fire blow around uncontrollably, creating a dangerous working situation. I designed a large beautifully romantic terrace restaurant overlooking the ocean which we built on one of the largest stages at Pinewood Studios in London. We sent a photographer to the South of France to a position I had previously chosen to capture a dusk panorama. Rosco in Germany printed this image to an astounding 50 feet high and 300 feet wide. I had little LED bulbs taped onto the backing representing the distant lights from houses and street lamps.
The set was built using as many real materials as possible and dressed with beautiful furniture and lighting. All the greenery by Palm Brokers was alive so had to be watered and pruned daily. My set decorator Liz Griffiths introduced details such as reupholstering the chairs with the restaurant logo stitched in gold and printing the restaurant name on the plates. I added billowing net curtains to break up the view, to add to the romance of the setting but, most importantly to catch fire when Johnny English accidentally lets the whole place go up in smoke at the end of this scene!
The other set that was very complex was a yacht belonging to Volta, the villain of the film. I wanted the yacht to be a hi-tech, gleaming jewel on the open sea. As these vessels are hugely expensive to hire per day we chose to build a set… or at least build exactly what we required in the action. After initial sketches I ran through the blocking with director David Kerr and Rowan Atkinson to figure out the exact position and travel of the characters. From this I designed a ship that worked for the action bearing in mind camera angles and character sight lines. I ran cool neon lights around the body of the yacht and mixed it with luxurious warm golden light from the rooms inside.
We built the rear section of the ship at Pinewood Studios. All the structures were CNC cut from polystyrene. The intricate patterns in the floor were precisely cut by computer. Both finished with many coats of cool grey paint and lacquer. These glossy surfaces reflected the built-in lighting to exude a very high-quality bespoke feel for this character.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently designing a very exciting, very high-end science fiction project for HBO written and directed by Armando Iannucci based at Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden.
What advice would you give to people wanting to join the art department and become a successful production designer or art director like yourself?
To get into the art department you’ll need an abundance of creativity, endless enthusiasm, wit, cunning and… a car. You'll need a good grounding studying subjects like theatre design, film and television design, architecture, sculpture, fine art and interior design. All these subjects require understanding of form, colour, texture and scale which is the key element of every day in the department. Each job is entirely different for the art department and for each project we all need to become an expert in that field.
Doing lots of researching after reading a script is one of my favourite parts of my job. Within a few weeks, I have to become a specialist in say Ancient Egyptian architecture for one project, then a specialist in deep sea submarines for the next, then a specialist in 1700s London including scripted elements such as the expansion of Grosvenor Square in the Georgian architectural style, the establishment of the Foundling Hospital and the migration of Huguenot communities into London.
Those interested in working in the art department need this hunger to delve into these kinds of details and their impact on the visual feast in their drawings, visuals and dressing.
Johnny English Strikes Again is in UK and US cinemas now. Simon is represented by Casarotto Ramsay & Associates Ltd.Tags: