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‘Over a Hundred Pinks’: ‘Barbie’ Production Designer Sarah Greenwood Previews the Greta Gerwig Comedy

"Pink became the film's thesis" Greenwood and her longtime collaborator Katie Spencer told IndieWire.

Margot Robbie in Barbie

“Barbie”

Warner Bros.

“Am I allowed to say that?” Sarah Greenwood asked her collaborator Katie Spencer. The two paused for a moment before Greenwood returned to explaining her work on Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie.”

Greenwood was in Toruń, Poland, to receive a Special Award for Achievements in Production Design at the 30th EnergaCAMERIMAGE. Her career has included several collaborations with directors Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Darkest Hour,” “Cyrano”) and Guy Ritchie (“Sherlock Holmes,” “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”), as well as the upcoming Amy Winehouse biopic “Back to Black.” She’s been nominated for five Academy Awards, all in collaboration with set decorator Spencer. But Greenwood and Spencer faced a daunting challenge ahead of Gerwig’s much-anticipated comedy based on Mattel’s flagship doll: Who lives in a world of toys?

“The thing about ‘Barbie’ is that when you see the film, you’ll say that it’s so simple,” Greenwood said. “At least from a design point of view. What was the problem? Why were we scratching our heads for nine months in preproduction asking, ‘What is it?’

“We always kind of knew what ‘Barbie’ wasn’t going to be,” she added. “Finding out how ‘Barbie’ was going to be represented, how we would see her — well, no spoiler here, one of our major things was pink.”

Greenwood pointed to a glass of grapefruit juice. “What is pink?” she asked. “Look at all the pinks going through this glass. When you move it to this blue here, those pinks suddenly turn beige. Pink became the film’s thesis.”

“It was a huge color,” Spencer said.

“It was epic dealing with the painters, mixing the right colors,” Greenwood said. “When we got to our palette we had over a hundred pinks, ranging from the purpley pinks right through to the fleshy millennial pinks. We hit the sweet spot in the middle, which is about 10 pinks.”

“Barbie”

screengrab

The team named each shade, names that lasted through construction, painting, prop making, and costumes. “We’d been building our palette on Rosco colors,” Greenwood said. “When it came time to order, they didn’t have enough pigment! Everybody was scrambling around trying to find more. I’m sure the producers were going, ‘This pink looks very much like that pink. What is the problem?’ But we got there in the end.

“Pink was a constant fight. You think you’ve got your spectrum sorted and then whatever happens behind in the environment changes palette. You put it next to furniture or a fabric and it just flattens out.”

Greenwood and Spencer said that the film was primarily sets, not locations. Did they emulate the bright, splashy style of Sandra Dee films in the 1960s? Or did they employ a more contemporary look?

“All of the above,” Spencer said, with a laugh. “We traverse worlds.”

“This is Rodrigo at his pinkest,” Greenwood said of the film’s director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto. “Looking at his work, every single one of his films is a favorite! They’re all so different, there’s no specific style you can follow except perfection.”

“I wouldn’t necessarily have put all these connections together,” Spencer said. “That was Greta’s brilliance, finding a way to fit different personalities together.”

Greenwood and Spencer both came to film from theater, and feel they share similar sensibilities. “But if you try to analyze our partnership, you don’t really know how it works,” Greenwood said. “It’s a shared level of knowledge. A shared taste or anti-taste or whatever the approach is going to be. It’s also a real willingness to argue, frankly. We’ll stand in a prop house fighting over whether a cup is right or wrong for a character.”

“It’s not being frightened to challenge an opinion or express your own opinion,” Spencer said.

Greenwood’s collaboration with Joe Wright brought extraordinary worlds to the screen, from World War I battlefields to pre-revolutionary Moscow to the Napoleonic Wars.

ATONEMENT, James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, 2007. ©Focus Features/courtesy Everett Collection

“Atonement”

Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

“With Joe and I, it’s very much about layering ideas,” she said. “You have an idea, he adds another idea. And on we go. This is where Joe is brilliant, and now I take this on to other projects: you make the scene work for whatever the situation is. It could be budget, where you need to figure out what you can build. It could be location, which on occasion will alter the script.”

In films like “Darkest Hour” and “Atonement,” Greenwood had historical references to work from. How did she approach the imaginary steampunk world of “Sherlock Holmes”?

“‘Sherlock,’ okay, we can probably admit this now,” Greenwood began before laughing at a startled glance from Spencer. “I’m sure Katie did, but I didn’t even know what steampunk was! What Guy Ritchie told us was, ‘I don’t care what it is as long as it has a tenuous touch to reality.'”

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS, from left: Jude Law, Robert Downey Jr., 2011. ph: Daniel Smith/©Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”

Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

Robert Downey, Jr., was cast as Holmes early in the production. For Greenwood, the movie suddenly “clicked” when Jude Law was chosen for Dr. Watson.

“Watson’s always been represented as this fuddy duddy old character. Jude’s Watson was the polar opposite, a dynamic young figure whose bromance with Holmes gave a new kind of tempo to the film.”

Greenwood and Spencer are currently working with director Sam Taylor Johnson and DoP Polly Morgan on “Back to Black,” the script for which has 70-plus locations.

“They had all these one-liners in different locations,” Greenwood said. “So you say, ‘If you condense these scenes, roll them into one, here’s a location that will work brilliantly.’ It will mean a bit of alteration with the writing, but suggestions like that come out of practicality and aesthetics.”

Budgeting influenced some of the choices Greenwood and Spencer made. “The script had scenes set in Miami, but we’re not going to Miami,” Greenwood said. “We’re not even leaving London. The way we’re shooting the film is quite dreamlike and magical. Some scenes that were written on the streets or the beach or in a phone booth were not feasible. So you condense the action and rationalize the scenes in a stylized way into an interior that is ‘Miami.’ So a beach at daytime becomes a dark, pearlized, black swimming pool at night.

“It’s up to us to find out how to exactly capture the moment,” she added. “In this instance, it’s to not get seduced by these amazing big, glossy houses. Instead, find something more subtle and tangible to make into Miami.”

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