The great charm and allure of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” is obviously being nostalgically transported back in time to the City of Lights during the glam 1920s and the even more romantic turn-of-the-century Belle Époque. In fact, it’s even ironic, given the popularity of the Oscar contender, despite its cautionary warning about getting too nostalgic about other so-called “golden ages.”
Even so, production designer Anne Seibel was tasked with recreating the period look and contrasting it with modern-day Paris. She’s become the go-to designer for making over France for American movies (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Hereafter,” “Marie Antoinette,” “Munich”).
Seibel met with Allen only twice — in New York for an hour and then briefly in Cannes. She was immediately informed that the director doesn’t spend more than $10 million on his movies and that she would have to make do without any construction. So it became a double-challenge in having to recreate different eras with modern locales. But it was fun for Seibel, who studied architecture and broke into movies in 1985 with the James Bond film, “A View to a Kill,” primarily because she spoke English.
“I was thinking left brain/right brain after I read the script and Woody kept stressing the simplicity,” Seibel recalls. “In my mind, it was also very simple: This guy [played by Owen Wilson] was a writer and wanted to live in the past, and the idealism of Paris with the Left Bank and the Right Bank. The Left Bank is more intellectual and inhabited by writers and painters. It’s all around the Saint–Germain–des–Prés, where we filmed. The other side is more business.
“I started by thinking how I could make the difference between the contemporary and the past. So, first of all, I did two months of research on these periods: the beginning of the 20th century and the 1920s. And after I had a lot of discussions with [cinematographer] Darius Kondji, on how to treat both periods, we decided to have the colors and lighting brighter for the contemporary to show the passing of time. And the period was more brown and golden. Everything I worked on was a palette of brown, beige, gold, and orange. We worked a lot with Darius on practicals to affect the mood and I used dimmers for the bulbs and changed the shades and worked on the palette of colors on the walls for the fabrics.”
By far, the most difficult artistic challenge — and the most fun, frankly — was transforming the legendary Moulin Rouge, where Wilson and Marion Cotillard encounter Tolouse Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes), Paul Gauguin (Olivier Rabourdin), and Edgar Degas (Francois Rostain). But since the original building has long since vanished, Seibel had to work her magic with an existing location.
“It was a very big space with a wooden floor and a balcony all around with pillars and a big garland of lights coming from the ceiling with a chandelier,” she explains. “There’s nothing like that anymore in Paris. So I ran and ran and ran, and we found one place that we could make work, and it’s called the La Cigale. It’s an old theater that’s been turned into a concert hall. There’s a stage with the old configuration of the balcony on top, and a black shiny floor.”
But Seibel still had to sell Allen on her idea. So there she sat in the middle of an empty room, with drawings in hand, waiting for the director to arrive. “My God, I thought! What if he doesn’t like my concept?! There is no other place!” Fortunately, Allen was able to imagine what she was going for and it all worked out. “I built pillars and a false wooden floor and rented big period lamps that I put on the pillars. And I built balustrades and mirrors and drapes and a big chandelier with a garland of bulbs.”
Less difficult was the legendary Maxim’s restaurant. It’s still there but they did a few adjustments with the tables and props and lighting, and built a hidden structure to light the scene because you can’t touch anything in the restaurant. “We changed the awning outside and worked on the drapes and the props outside,” Seibel continues. “And we brought in a woman selling violets outside to evoke the turn of the century and carriages. When you look at it at the end with the carriage coming out, it works.”
Seibel also enjoyed recreating the surrealistic wedding with Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) at the taxidermist, Deyrolle, where they created special lamps with Ostrich feathers, and worked around the wild animals. “I wanted to capture the crazy feeling as well by putting the animals on the table,” she adds.
However, even the postcard-like opening montage of Paris (intentionally recalling “Manhattan”) was challenging: How to evoke the feeling of being there without resorting to cliché? Sebel pulled photos for Allen to see with the idea that they shoot familiar icons from different perspectives. “For example, the Eiffel Tower, not completely in the frame but seen from a particular angle,” she suggests. “Or the same for Sacré-Cœur. He wanted a lot of rain — he loved the rain. But I really like that there’s no dialog and just the music, and it puts you down for the night in Paris.”