Production designer Suzie Davies discusses making Peterloo and how her production design plays into Mike Leigh’s rehearsal process with what she calls ‘actors surgeries.’ Read our previous interview with Suzie Davies on On Chesil Beach. This is an excerpt from Peterloo in process, our ebook about Mike Leigh’s collaborative process.
I first spoke to production designer Suzie Davies a year ago, about On Chesil Beach. A quick tangent about her work with Mike Leigh revealed so many fascinating little details of their unique process. It’s her job to choose locations and to dress spaces in a way that stays authentic to the characters who inhabit these spaces, like how she acted as Turner in order to dress the studio that he painted in. Now, upon the release of Peterloo and the writing of this book, I finally got to dive into that process with her.
Davies hasn’t been working with Leigh for quite as long as our other interviewees. They first collaborated on the short film A Running Jump (2012), which was made for the London Olympics. She’s since worked on his two latest films, both period pieces: Mr. Turner (2014) — for which she was nominated for an Oscar — and Peterloo. Davies is known for her excellent work on historical films, such as The Zookeeper’s Wife and, of course, On Chesil Beach.
Seventh Row (7R): Could you describe the overall process of working on the production design of one of Mike’s films, from when you come on board to when the sets are done?
Suzie Davies: We found out about Peterloo two years before we started filming it. Once you know you’re going to be working for Mike, you go off on your own and find things out about the subject. For Mr. Turner, he had some specific books that he wanted us to all get our heads around. For Peterloo, I went around the clog factory, just trying to immerse myself in the subject matter, not knowing what elements of the story he’s going to focus on.
As we get closer to production, I get quite a lot of prep with Mike. I work in tandem with him. As his story organically develops through his rehearsal process, so does my reaction to his requirements. Quite often, the art department will be in the same building or location as his rehearsal location. He often rehearses for four to six months, and our paths will cross. I’ll catch him at lunchtime: he’ll tell me what he’s up been up to; I’ll tell him what I’ve been researching; he’ll give little pointers.
Watch our production design masterclass with Suzie Davies and Stéphane Collonge
7R: When I talked to you about On Chesil Beach last year, you said that part of your process is reading the script for the first time and immediately jotting down your first impressions. Working with Mike must be a very different experience because you don’t have a script at the start. When you first come aboard, how much do you know? How do you gather your first impressions?
Suzie Davies: Mike and the actors become the script, so rather than reading, I’m talking the script with Mike and the actors. It’s a really lovely process to be part of and I now know the open-ended questions to ask to Mike about what he wants to achieve, where he’s at with his story development, and the same with the actors. It’s a case of just slightly shifting the traditions of filmmaking and thinking laterally. You talk the script and consequently you feel really involved and collaborative about it.
With Peterloo, we knew we were going to be doing St. Peter’s Square and the actual day of the massacre. At one stage, I thought maybe it’s all going to be on that one day. That was the one location we needed as an anchor point. The location manager and I spent two months looking just for how we were going to relocate that particular location. We’d head back to London and have another chat with Mike, and he’d be saying, “I’m thinking about developing these sort of characters,” and we’d go off looking for possible locations.
7R: I understand that you didn’t shoot that main set piece in Manchester. What were you looking for when you were searching for the St. Peter’s Square location?
Suzie Davies: There’s so many different variables you have to meet when you’re trying to find a location for Mike. On your average big budget film, we’d probably have done this on a backlot; one of the main things we needed to achieve was privacy and complete control. On a Mike Leigh film, we’re not going to get enough money to get a backlot on the back of Pinewood or somewhere for six months. That’s because quite often we need the locations for longer than other films as Mike wants to rehearse on them with his characters on a fully dressed set. That was one of our main difficulties: finding somewhere we could control for a good five months.
We had over two and a half months to build, and then Mike had it for two months to rehearse and film on, and then we had to strike it. We had to find something Georgian, something that would help me a bit with the architecture because I knew I wouldn’t be able to build the whole thing. [St. Peter’s Square] was a very busy, well populated square in the Georgian period of Manchester and we needed red brick and Georgian windows.
I needed the ground to be in a state that we could control. While we weren’t going to have 60,000 [people], we were going to have a lot of extras, a lot of horses. I was concerned when we were looking at the big fields at the back of the stately homes that if we get an English summer, that’s going to be a mud bath, and our continuity would be difficult. Plus, there might be health and safety implications. And also the actual massacre famously took place on a very hot day. They’d had a very hot summer, so it was very dusty.
We looked high and low, and we were very close to filming this on a property in Liverpool, but we ended up filming the majority of St. Peter’s at Tilbury Docks in East London. and it was for all those reasons. It was controllable. It had a really good selection of Georgian buildings I could add on. It had quite a good scale, which meant I could build my own streets within the space.
7R: What kind of questions do you ask Mike when you first come on board a project?
Suzie Davies: One of my favourite questions to ask the actors is, “If you needed a new kitchen table, where would you get it from?” Their response to that helps me know about the whole of the kitchen. It’s the same with Mike.
On Peterloo, it was quite different because we were recreating the broader brush strokes of British society rather than individual characters. We were showing business owners and mill workers and market traders rather than specific characters. How do we show that in these broader brushstrokes than we are used to in Mike’s more intimate stories where you really get to know the characters?
This is an excerpt of our interview with Suzie Davies from Peterloo in process. Buy the ebook to read the rest of the interview…
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