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How They Did It: The Royal Academy Scene in ‘Mr. Turner’

How They Did It: The Royal Academy Scene in 'Mr. Turner'

Explore the spirit of camaraderie and competition between Turner (Timothy Spall) and his fellow artists before the opening of the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy. They called it “Varnishing Day,” and Turner enjoyed completing unfinished paintings and tweaking his rivals (watch the clip below).

Production Designer Suzie Davies: “Mike told me relatively early during prep that he’d like to recreate a ‘Varnishing Day’ at the Summer exhibition at the Royal Academy.  So I immediately spoke with our art historian Jackie Riding and I think I realized then what a challenge it would be: 300+ paintings, a vast double height set with angled walls, corridors and staircases, as big a composite set I could provide in the time for the money ! So Henry Woolley, our fantastic location manager, set about trying to find a large enough ballroom to build the set it, and he found a gem up in Yorkshire. At the same time, we were working out which paintings went where and how to reproduce these hundreds of paintings in approximately three months [printing high-res images and then painting them with a clear varnish to give a thick oil-like quality].
“Once the flattage was up and the green baize attached we became the hanging committee of this three- dimensional jigsaw. Great fun and so fulfilling when we put the final touches of palettes and ladders for the action requirements of the scene. I had goosebumps looking at all these incredible (albeit fake) paintings back in one room together again.”

Cinematographer Dick Pope: “At the Royal Academy build in Wentworth House [in South Yorkshire, England], there was a galleried balcony above the set — which ran around all four sides like the lighting rail of a stage — where I placed large lamps directed up onto the white ceiling above. This soft light then passed down through a huge unbleached muslin — that completely covered the set and was made to fit just above the top of it — which softened and spread the light even more. I didn’t use any lamps on the floor, but I did use smoke and wherever possible, bedsheets taped on the floor to bounce the top-light back up. 

“Basically, we eliminated all natural daylight and plugged any existing real windows, thereby creating a completely artificially lit set, as if we were working on a stage. The work in this location was complicated and time consuming with many actors involved, and the lighting rig gave Mike Leigh the freedom to devise his scenes looking any which way he chose with no pressure from Mother Nature! 

“But most importantly the motivation for my lighting, and indeed for the entire build, was based on an actual painting from the 1800s, which showed how the original exhibition was staged, and which detailed an ornate glass roof with top windows way above all the hung paintings. Of course, we didn’t have any of this above our set, and I was concerned that there was no explanation for the top source so I asked to have a visual effect added to the shot of Turner as he first enters the gallery, which now briefly but happily shows the high windows above.”

Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran: “The core of it for me is the way that Mike’s process is shown to work the best because you don’t work from the scene outwards. It’s about the characters and you talk to the actors about what their costume would be. For me, that scene really works because a different thing about their character is represented in their costume. It shows lots of different things that we worked on like the etiquette, the inter-relation between the artists and, of course, the different ways that they looked.

“And each actor that we interviewed would tell us where their character came from, what social class their character was, how their character was likely to be when they were painting, what they would wear. It was a complex series of interactions. 
“Sir John Soane [the neo-classical architect played by Nicholas Jones] always wore britches and black stockings and that was a written fact. And it was great to play up the rivalry between John Constable and Turner and Constable not being successful in his lifetime but Turner being very successful. Constable was painting in his shirt sleeves next to Turner and that’s how James Fleet decided he would play Constable. There’s very little evidence for how people looked when they were painting. There is a painting of Turner on ‘Varnishing Day,’ so we know how Turner would be. It was all about your rank and your status and how you’re perceived by your colleagues. You rarely see such social scenes played out in period films to that detail.”

Composer Gary Yershon: “At first, I composed music to run from the cut to the Academy staircase right the way through to Turner’s encounter with Soane and Pickersgill in the ante-chamber. On talking it through with Mike, we concluded such a lot of music was unnecessary, so we stripped it right back to what it is now, announcing Turner’s arrival at the Academy, up the stairs and into the main exhibition room. The music then picks up at the end of the sequence when Turner works on his canvas whilst his colleagues look on, cheering and cajoling him as he spits on his canvas. The score thus ‘frames’ the Varnishing Day scene, marking its commencement and its conclusion.
“Even from the first draft, the music for this scene was never intended to be period pastiche. That was something neither Mike nor I thought remotely suitable for any part of the score of this film: there was no point at all in the music telling the audience what they could already see on screen —  that the film was set in the 19th century. So I was free to explore other musical vocabularies. Having said that, the timpani that accompany Turner as he ascends the stairs and the cadence that takes him into the exhibition room make up a conventional fanfare, but this very short cue is  played by a unconventional ensemble, involving a saxophone and a tuba.  Sax timbre is central to the score. 
“The swirling strings that accompany Turner’s dynamic painting at the end of the scene (the cue is called ‘Action Painting’) are what remain of an early idea I had for sections of the score to be framed as an updated concerto grosso, with a small group of instruments (a string quintet in this case) contrasted to a larger group (a string orchestra). The string quintet idea hung around to become an integral part of the score and indeed it’s the string quintet that’s playing as Turner action-paints.”

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