‘The Great’: Crafting a Russia Where Comedy Reigns

Craft Considerations: Watch how the composer, costume designer, and production designer of "The Great" Season 2 created a world that supports the series' twisted tone.

The Great_Catherine_Gareth-Gatrell_Hulu

Gareth Gatrell/Hulu

Curated by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work we believe is worthy of awards consideration. In partnership with Hulu, for this edition we look at how composer Nathan Barr, costume designer Sharon Long, and production designer Francesca Di Mottola created a foundation to hold up the singular tone of “The Great.”

The second season of “The Great” starts at a crossroads. The Hulu series, loosely based on the real life of Russian Empress Catherine the Great, ended its first season with a pregnant Catherine (Elle Fanning) staging a coup against her husband Peter III (Nicholas Hoult). In real life, Peter was dead less than a month later. But “The Great” bills itself as only “occasionally true,” and so Hoult’s cheerful psychopath sticks around, a perfect embodiment of the show’s twin axes of humor and darkness, which can shift from one to the other and back within the same scene.

Although Catherine’s attempts to promote egalitarianism in Season 2 don’t go over so great, the creative team of “The Great” needed to create a world that could support giddy debauchery and acute character drama equally. As you’ll see in the videos below, composer Nathan Barr crafted themes that reflected Catherine and Peter’s gradually more complex relationship; costume designer Sharon Long had to adjust Elle Fanning’s frame to a fake pregnancy while still weaving characterization into every wardrobe piece; and production designer Francesca Di Mottola had to find interesting ways to repurpose the rooms of Catherine’s palace so that every scene felt fresh.

The Score of “The Great” 

Nathan Barr found the musical expression of the show’s historical-but-not ethos in stretching the kind of instruments used in the score. While he gathered an orchestra of 35 strings, plus harp, bassoon, and balalaika — for a Russian flavor — he also wanted to inject electronic pulse and synth elements into the series, moving the music closer to modern expressions of love, lust, betrayal, and revenge. Strategically choosing moments for an electric fiddle or synth track, Barr injects a contemporary feel when it matters and a period grandeur when that matters, too.

“It’s always about tone. How you treat tragedy in one show is totally different from how you treat tragedy in another show,” Barr said of constructing the score’s identity. “Because it’s ‘The Great,’ to have the score saying anything other than poking the person next to the ribs and laughing would be wrong.”

But supporting the comedy of “The Great” is no small undertaking. “If there’s 15 minutes of score in an episode, there might be 35 cues,” Barr said. “Each one of those little cues has to do something different from the one before it and the one coming after it.” Because Barr has established a sonic language that bends the period without breaking it, he can craft small transitional moments that match each bawdy joke, grand entrance, or silent heartbreak.

The Costumes of “The Great” 

Sharon Long relished the chance to use costumes to deepen the audience’s understanding of the characters in Season 2. But even as Catherine becomes Empress in her own right, Long didn’t want to push her growth too far or too fast.

“Catherine is still very young,” Long said. “So to do too much to make her mature, we thought was the wrong note because she’s still a purist and an idealist, and she’s still quite sort of clean cut compared with the woman of the court.” Long added a little jewelry and richer silk fabrics to Catherine’s wardrobe, but otherwise shaped her overall look to be more contemporary than the ladies of the court, with whom Long could really stretch the level of ostentation and more period-looking elements. By balancing a refined look for the show’s progressive-minded leads and more ornate styles for their adversaries, the costumes create a visual language that seamlessly blends the series’ grounded period detail and modern sensibilities.

All of Long’s choices, however, are informed by her research, which provided opportunities to bring styles and patterns to life that can’t usually be found in a costume shop. “I did buy small pieces of 18th century fabric,” Long said. “If you’ve only got a small piece, you can only use it in a small place in the costume, but it has an authenticity. So if you do part of a bodice in original fabric and then match modern fabrics in with it, it just has a different quality… there are bits and pieces all over [that you can sense originate] from the right place.”

The Production Design of “The Great”

Francesca Di Mottola’s particular challenge for Season 2 of “The Great” is that much of the series takes place within the palace as Peter adjusts to life under house arrest and Catherine establishes her reign, waits out her pregnancy, and maybe starts a war with the Ottomans. Finding ways to enliven existing spaces was paramount, and Di Mottola was also able to redress sets so that they had a different feel for particular moments.

The baby shower that Peter throws in his apartments wasn’t originally scripted to take place there, but Di Mottola pitched the location as a way to change up the space. “When I designed the room in Season 1, [my idea was] to have most of the sets have some sort of regular panel structure that could allow us to play around and move those panels and set new paintings on it,” Di Mottola said.

With the baby shower, Di Mottola could go as extravagant as possible. But she was also able to adjust paneling in more subtle ways, too, as with the nursery that slowly takes shape as the perfect expression of Peter’s psyche, or the salon Catherine establishes almost in apology for her failed attempt to free the serfs. Every single room in “The Great” is carefully designed to say something about the characters and often to tell its own story.

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