While “Darkest Hour” and “Beauty and the Beast” are worlds apart in visual design and fashion, there’s no mistaking the meticulous period craftsmanship of the team of production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designer Jacqueline Durran. Whether it was recreating war-torn London of 1940 with a sense of heightened reality or transforming the animated Disney fairy tale into believable fantasy, they are among the best at depicting character through environment and wardrobe. And this year they each have two chances to grab Oscar nominations after working on seven movies together.
Doing the “Darkest Hour” Dance
For director Joe Wright, “Darkest Hour” was a dance of dark and light, as Winston Churchill (Oscar frontrunner Gary Oldman) comes in from out of the shadows to become prime minister of Great Britain to combat the growing threat of Hitler.
“The challenge was to recreate historical London in a way that looked authentic yet seemed to fit within the era,” said four-time Oscar nominee Greenwood (including “Anna Karenina,” “Pride & Prejudice,” and “Atonement” with Wright). That meant having some stylistic freedom to play with mood in the look of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, and the underground War Room.
“For Buckingham Palace, we chose a derelict house in Yorkshire that could be redone,” added Greenwood. “But that was great because it gave us a tonal quality and an atmosphere.”
It was also about showing a secret, ad-hoc side to London, via the underground bunker used to plot the war. Instead of recreating the actual linear space of the War Room, they went for more of a maze.
However, the attic room where Churchill gets an unexpected visit from King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) was a complete fabrication. “That’s where Churchill reached his lowest point, and he’s so depressed, and it seems like he’s hiding from the world,” Greenwood said. “That scene was originally set in a drawing room with a fire. No way the king would’ve come into a dirty old room like that. But we found that room when we were scouting locations. There’s an uncomfortable tension that was right for that moment with a bad light bulb.”
Meanwhile, Durran (who won the Oscar for “Anna Karenina”) enjoyed making her first movie about men with Wright. “It was a new discipline, which was something I encountered on ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ with Gary, but not in this context,” she said. This was a way you costume to bring out individuality and quirks in the people with a limited palette.”
For Churchill, Durran tried to replicate what he wore at the time by visiting the companies and tailors that the prime minister frequented. Henry Poole made suits for Churchill and the costume designer had him fit Oldman as well.
“He had several suits, but what we found was that from the 1920s to the 1950s he had a slightly different interpretation of the same look,” Durran said. “He had a black suit, white handkerchief, and bow tie. And I think early on he decided on his style and he chose really good things. With his shoes, instead of laces, he had a zip, and I think it was all about ease.”
Reinterpreting “Beauty and the Beast”
For Bill Condon’s live-action re-imagining of “Beauty and the Beast,” starring Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast, Greenwood and Durran had a real target to research and play with: France in 1740, when Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Deaumont wrote her famous fairy tale.
Greenwood based the village of Villeneuve on various towns in Southern France; however, budget restrictions prevented them from shooting on location. Instead, they built it all on the backlot of Shepperton. “But it was like starting another film within a film that we were doing,” Greenwood said. “In the end, that set was 28,000 square feet. We mainly drew inspiration from Conques, which had a fairy tale quality. But, interestingly, the fountain in the middle was based on a fountain that I saw in Rothenburg, Germany.”
For the Beast’s castle, Greenwood dabbled in Rococo styles. “Even though the castle was enchanted, Bill wanted it to have a dark heart, which was the Beast’s lair. And each place had a different feel to it, like the ballroom or the library,” added Greenwood. The ballroom offers a different mood each time, from the opulent opening to the frozen dead place, to the reawakening by Belle’s presence for the iconic dance.
However, translating the animated household objects presented the biggest challenge in terms of reflecting their personalities along with the period. There were some new wrinkles: Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), one of the castle maids, has been transformed into a feather duster that can fly, and Chip (Nathan Mack), the tiny teacup, glides like a skateboard. “You needed to think about how you were [quickly] going to get around that space,” said Greenwood.
For Belle’s costumes, Durran needed to be authentic without jolting. She retained the essence of her blue village dress with modification. “We gave her a bit of period detail, and we added things to the interpretation of Belle that Emma wanted to put forward, which was a more active heroine,” said Durran.
“She wore boots rather than shoes. And we took 18th century pockets, which are not attached to a garment but are tied around the waist with a pouch. Because Belle was unconventional, it seemed to be a good idea for her to wear them on the outside, so she could put all the tools that she needed on a day to day basis.”
The same active concept was applied to the yellow dress, which had softer fabric so Belle could believably dance and ride a horse. And Watson preferred not to wear a corset for comfort and to look more active.
For the Beast, which Condon decided to make completely CG (with the aid of performance-captured animation by Digital Domain), Durran began with a ragged coat that totally obscured him and then progressed to a white shirt and jacket. “The Beast was in different shades of blue throughout, and then, stage by stage, he becomes more and more human,” she said.