On Chesil Beach production designer Suzie Davies discusses researching period, creating environments that contrast with the film’s characters, and how different her process is when working with Mike Leigh. Read the rest of our On Chesil Beach Special Issue here.
It’s Britain in 1962, and nobody talks about sex. A young couple — Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) — is left alone in a hotel room, expected to do something they know nothing about. Their courtship was sweet, loving, idyllic even — but everything in On Chesil Beach comes down to one scene, in one room. The trip from the dinner table to the bed, although only a few metres long, seem like a treacherous journey. There’s no avoiding sex, but it’s a terrifying leap into the unknown.
Production designer Suzie Davies achieves a delicate balance: her sets are period accurate and naturalistic but they’re also expressive beyond plain practicality. She brings out the contrast between Florence’s upper middle-class upbringing and Edward’s poorer, more ramshackle country home. Their home environments are shaped by their parents and the circumstances they were born into; these young people long to break free to find a home that they themselves can shape. Instead, they find themselves in the cold, neutral environment of the hotel room, where the colours oppress and displace them. Convention dictates that they are supposed to be here — it’s just the natural order of things. But neither feel like they fit in.
I talked to Davies about researching period, creating environments that specifically don’t reflect the characters, and how vastly different her process is when working with Mike Leigh.
7R: Every production designer has their own process which changes depending on what film you’re working on and who you’re working with. Can you describe what your process usually looks like and how you adapted it for this particular project?
SD: I do have a process. The only time it changes is when I work for Mike [Leigh].
For a traditional film like On Chesil Beach, as I’m reading the script for the first time, I write down my initial thoughts. Whether that’s artists, a particular period, any colours, any sound… it’s a bit of everything, really. I write it down straight away, because I’ve realised over time that, quite often, my original thoughts are my strongest ones, and I’ll end up coming back to them. So it’s literally scribbling my notes on the back of a fag packet.
I’ll catch up with my set decorator, Charlotte Watts, and we start bouncing ideas off of each other. Sometimes we’ve gone away and researched together on an away trip, for a weekend or a couple of days, like we did on a film called The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017). We wanted to look at some European zoos so we went off to Antwerp. It’s great to inhabit the world as much as you can. Obviously, with period films, it’s a bit more difficult, but it’s the case of doing the research.
Then it’s about collaborating with [director] Dominic [Cooke], seeing where we’re at, and developing things organically. On this film, we did a lot of recceing. That’s a good time to get into the director’s mindset, because ultimately, it’s the director who needs to be the one telling the story. I’m there to complement — maybe enhance, if I’m lucky — but on the whole, complement. Sometimes, you can get too many people trying to direct one story, so I find the recces, when it’s just me, the location manager, and the director, to be really helpful. You’re just sat in the back of the car going between locations. I liken it to getting into his brain by osmosis. Sitting and talking about the project from every different angle helps you get into the mindset of what he wants.
As you get closer and closer to filming, you’ll have less time with the director, so you can feel pretty confident that you can do any changes or any adaptations you need to because you’ve got the shorthand already.
7R: What stood out to you when you first read the script for On Chesil Beach?
SD: Chesil Beach is such a famous beach; I liked that idea that it was just on its own, kind of isolated.
The other thing was that we never see these two characters in their own environment. They haven’t found their environment yet. They’re still growing up. Quite often, you create worlds for characters that you really know, environments that enhance their character. But we were never in their world; we’re at their parents’ house, or where they work. That was quite a strong feeling for me, that they never did feel comfortable in their environment.
We previously interviewed the production designer of Lean on Pete, Ryan Warren Smith, for our Special Issue on the film. Several directors have told us about the importance of choosing and designing the right locations, including Joachim Trier, Andrew Haigh, and Sally Potter. We analysed the importance of production design in The Party, Journey’s End, and Crimson Peak.