BAFTA Winner Fiona Crombie on her Childhood and Design Inspirations

Streaming on digital platforms world-wide, Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite has been enticing audiences since its world premiere at the 75th Venice International Film Festival, where it picked up the Grand Jury Prize and the Volpi Cup for actress, Olivia Colman. In a back-to-back run, Colman went on to win Best Actress at the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs and the Academy Awards.

Set in the early 18th century, the deliciously spiteful dramedy follows the behind-the-scenes frolics of Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), two cousins savagely scheming to be court favorites during Queen Anne’s (Colman) reign. Made on a minuscule $15-million budget, the icy-tongued costume drama has attracted wide praise for its monochromatic production design.

We had a chat with BAFTA-winning production designer Fiona Crombie, the genius behind meticulously transforming the Jacobean interiors of Hatfield House (Herefordshire) into Queen Anne’s subversive and claustrophobic court.  

Where were you born and where did you spend most of your childhood?

I was born in Sydney, Australia. We moved around Australia when I was growing up, but the majority of my life has been spent in Sydney. 

What was your home environment like? 

I am one of four children. It’s three brothers and me. My parents have been married for 50 years. My father was a film director and met my mother while working at Film Australia in the 1960s. My mother worked as an archivist and later went on to work in film management. 

What was your childhood dream? 

I was always creative and spent hours drawing while silently narrating stories that I made up as I drew. I don’t think that I really knew what I wanted to do, but I was fascinated by costumes and set designs on films and I was lucky because I could visit sets as a child and look at the process. If I asked my 10-year-old self what I wanted to do, I would probably have answered ‘Doctor’ or ‘Lawyer’. There was an emphasis in my household on the importance of a reliable profession as opposed to the erratic freelance lifestyle of film. 

What films or filmmakers inspired you growing up?

I remember seeing Gone with the Wind when I was around 10 and I was entranced. The first film I saw at the cinema multiple times was Out of Africa when I was 12. And I had a VHS copy of Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career that I watched again and again. We were brought up with access to great films so I saw The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver and the Godfather films far earlier than I should have. I have never forgotten their craft. Scorsese and Coppola were the pinnacle in my mind. My father, Donald Crombie, was also a professional inspiration. He was always gentle and respectful on set and was very well-liked by his crews. By watching my father work, I saw how a crew who felt valued will bend over backwards. I’ve never forgotten that lesson. 

Can you tell iAWW about your educational background?

After finishing high school, I studied Arts/Law for two years. I was desperately unhappy and deferred to spend a year travelling and working in cafes. In that time, I decided to apply for film school but discovered that applicants had to be over 22-years-old. So, I applied for the National Institute of Dramatic Art to study theatre design. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Design for Performance as a result. It was a three-year course and very competitive to get in and extremely taxing. My year started with six students and only two of us graduated. 

As a female, were you given the freedom to explore your own path? Were there any hurdles and obstacles you had to face because of your gender?

I was definitely given the freedom to explore my path by my parents. They have always been incredibly supportive.

I remember being told at drama school that women had to make a choice between family and career, which I found alarming. I watched a lecturer hide her pregnancy because she was afraid of the impact it would have on her career. I was made aware that it might be harder to be a mother in the Arts than a father. Years later, I was told that had an employer known that I had two children, I wouldn’t have been given the job because they didn’t trust that I could cope with the demands of family and work.

Once I graduated from NIDA, I was invited to work professionally in some of Australia’s largest theatre companies. Even though I had studied both costume and set design, I was first employed as a costume designer. Young male graduates tended to be given set design. It seemed that females were streamed towards the sewing and males toward the building. It took a couple of years for me to become a set designer. I was young and female, and there was condescension at times but I also had a lot of support so I just carried on. 

Which one female has been your biggest source of inspiration?

Personally, my mother Judith Crombie. She is strong and focussed and extremely loving. Professionally, Jane Campion. She is an exquisite artist with an individual voice who is also a great example of a human. She has a great sense of fun, she knows her value without exercising ego and she is respectful of everyone she encounters. She trusted me creatively well before I had proven myself and so she changed my life. 

What is the difference between an art director and a production designer?

Production Designers collaborate directly with the film’s director in creating the look of the film, and they then have the responsibility of communicating the look to the Art Department. Art Directors work to facilitate the vision. Often, they are overseeing the nuts and bolts realisation of the film, attending to budgets and being involved in the organisational aspects. The Production Designer leads the Art Directors so that they understand the direction. Art Directors are also very creative and design sets under the direction of the Production Designer. 

When did you realise you wanted to be a production designer? 

I designed my first feature film, The Snowtown Murders, in 2010 and I did both the production design and the costume design. I did that because I wasn’t sure which direction to take. I have always enjoyed costume design and working with actors on their characters. My plan was to see what resonated with the industry and to see what jobs I was offered after that film. As it happened, I realised how much I missed production design. The next job I was offered was in production design and I have never looked back. Even though I miss talking about the intricacies of characters, I love creating the world they inhabit. 

How did you learn the craft of set-design? 

I learned how to interpret a script visually through my training in theatre. Later, by working on short films, video clips and TV commercials, I learned about operating on a film set and how to be fluid and improvise in the moment – not something that’s generally needed in the theatre. I have essentially learned the craft of Production Design on the job. I was never an Art Director or an assistant, so I’m not sure if I do any of it the ‘right’ way! 

What production designer has influenced you? Do you have a mentor?

I love the work of Jack Fisk. He has such a lean and elegant aesthetic. He never overstates. I don’t really have a mentor, but I was so fortunate to collaborate with Jane Campion so early in my career. She taught me how to look at a set with a camera in mind. She also taught me to never be afraid to offer an idea. Top of the Lake was my film school. 

As a designer, are you drawn to any specific genres?

I’ve just done a run of period films, which may make it seem as though that is my preference, but in reality, it is just coincidence. I am drawn to scripts that have great characters. I am also drawn to material that has depth and complexity, so a lot of my work has been quite dark and challenging. I don’t think there is a specific genre I am drawn to, but having said that, I’d be surprised to find myself doing a romantic comedy… but you never know. 

What type of film would you love to work on that you haven’t worked on yet?

Sci-fi! I’d love to wrestle with creating a world that doesn’t exist yet. 

How did you get involved with The Favourite?

I had met Yorgos Lanthimosin 2012 for just a general coffee & chat, and then in 2015, I was sent the script. I happened to be in London making another film (I was still living in Australia) so I put together some references and had a meeting with Yorgos and his producers Ed Guiney and Ceci Dempsey. From memory, that was in May 2015 but they didn’t offer me the job until October 2015. I still remember where I was when I got the call – on the set of a pet insurance commercial in Sydney. It made my day! 

How early did you come into pre-production? 

We had a really good amount of pre-production. From memory, it was 12 weeks and I started in the second week of January 2017. We had already chosen our key locations so we were in a good place from the outset. 

What were some of your sources of inspiration?

I always work with a visual researcher called Phil Clark, and he and I looked at architectural illustrations and paintings from the period. We also looked at contemporary photography and artists (like Candida Hofer). Often, we run on instinct and as the collection of images grows, the themes start to develop. The period references gave clear clues for us – vast, largely empty spaces with bare floors and small pieces of furniture sitting next to towering canopied thrones or beds. The play on scale in the period references was fun to identify and include in our design. 

How did you decide the film’s color palette?

Sandy Powell and Yorgos decided early on that they wanted essentially monochromatic costumes for the Royal Court. The challenge for me was to bridge the stylized costumes and the locations that we were using. We concluded that the best approach was simplicity. In the same way that Sandy limited her palette, we limited ours. We took cues from the architecture that we saw around us and accentuated the black and white in the floors and the gold in the ceilings. We only used gold fabrics for our drapes, upholstery and soft furnishings. After seeing the camera tests, I knew that we had made the right decision. With such wide lenses, there was always going to be a lot going on in every frame so by keeping the palette controlled, the design was not overwhelming. 

Director, Yorgos Lanthimos, has strong avant-garde sensibilities. How was it working with him?

Yorgos was very trusting and very calm. Once we had set parameters for the look of the film, he really left me to my own devices. I was a bit confused at first, having worked with far more involved directors who require a lot of conversation, but once I realised that I had his trust, I just went for it and followed my instincts. It was freeing. 

Yorgos Lanthimos, James Smith and Rachel Weisz on the set of THE FAVOURITE. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima.

What was it like filming at the Hatfield House? Can you elaborate on the changes you had to make to the various rooms? Was the estate accommodating?

The owners and caretakers of Hatfield House were incredibly accommodating. We emptied every room that we worked in, which required art and furniture removal specialists. We also had construction in almost every room, which meant slow, careful and delicate work. Most of the construction and painting was done offsite to minimise any chance of damage. Even though it was a complicated process, we gained so much inspiration from Hatfield. Our aim was to integrate our design and construction into the house so that it is almost invisible. 

There are a lot of gorgeous wide-shots in the film to convey the loneliness of the characters. Was it a challenge to dress every corner of the screen – from floor to ceiling?

To be honest, it is always my preference to dress every corner if I can. Scrambling to dress an area at the last minute can be incredibly stressful. After the camera tests, we were very aware of how much we were going to see so we planned accordingly. One of the main challenges of the film was that it was low budget. We had to be careful about how we spent our money, as each piece of furniture or table dressing in the court had to be exquisite and was therefore expensive. We managed because we had already decided to have the rooms sparsely furnished. The rooms are actually quite empty. 

As with most of Lanthimos’ previous films, The Favourite implements natural lighting. What were some of the challenges you faced during the night scenes and how did you address them?

We had to have thousands and thousands of candles! The primary challenge was making sure that we had enough candelabra. We didn’t want it to look like we were just servicing the lighting, so we had to think about how to make the candelabra arrangements feel considered and compositional. Hatfield House is one of the few historic buildings that allow candles to be used and they have strict protocols that need to be followed. They had a rule about how many candles could be lit at one time, the distances that they had to be from the walls and the management of dripping wax. Two crewmembers spent their days cutting and preparing candles and then managing them while they were lit on set. 

Rachel Weisz and Joe Alwyn in THE FAVOURITE. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima.

How many different sets or locations did you need to prepare for on an average day’s shoot?

The number of sets varied day to day. Sometimes we would just be in the one room, but the room would have several looks. My day would usually start on location where I’d see the first set and check in with Yorgos and the crew. I would then go ahead to the next set that was being dressed and later, I would visit construction to see how the next round of sets was progressing. Hatfield House gave us a big shed to use as our construction workshop so it was great, as I was able to walk between the sets and the workshop. I could pop back to the shoot when there was a change and then go downstairs and look at a set being built. We had a prop store on site too. We were really based out of Hatfield for a long time. I remember being quite amazed by my step count! Sometimes I have to drive across London to visit construction and I lose hours of my day so it was an ideal situation. 

Did you work closely with Costume designer Sandy Powell? Can you elaborate on the process?

Sandy was very collaborative and we met several times to discuss the palette, fabrics and shapes. We would sit at a large table covered in fabrics and she would talk about what she was thinking and ask for my thoughts. We shared references and samples so we were on the same page. Sandy is very inventive with the textures and techniques she uses and her choices informed our approach. I credit her with giving the look of the film an initial push and we all jumped on board and ran with it. 

What’s next? Do you have any up-coming projects you would like to tell us about?

I have done another royal film! It’s called The King, starring Timothée Chalamet and Joel Edgerton. We wrapped the shoot last August. It’s a retelling of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V and is set in the 15th century. Currently, I’m gearing up for Cruella, a live-action prequel feature film which follows a young Cruella de Vil.

What advice do you have for anyone wanting to become a production designer? 

There is nothing greater than practical experience. I would suggest seeking out like-minded people and making what you can, even if it’s on an iPhone. It is great to get inside an art department to see how it works, but it is also great to be the designer and assert your voice and vision as soon as possible. This could be on short films or video clips. Also, try to find a community. There is nothing better than the shorthand of long-time collaborators and going places together. I met one of my favourite directors in my second year of high school!

Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in THE FAVOURITE. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima.

by JSK

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