Versailles, done over in pastel

Times Staff Writer

TALK about pressure. Production designer KK Barrett had to create a convincing 18th century Versailles for Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” but the crew was allowed to film at the historic palace only with some pretty severe restrictions.

“We had Versailles, but only on Monday, which is traditionally the closed day for tourists,” Barrett says. “We would move in Sunday night and we would shoot all day Monday, move out Monday night, and then go and film everywhere else.”

All the scenes in the lush period drama -- presented with a decidedly contemporary outlook -- showing grand spaces or high ceilings were shot in Versailles. “We also used the actual chapel,” Barrett says. “We had to be very careful not to damage anything.”

The restrictions, though, ended up forcing a new creativity. “It meant that we had to go to other locations to film more intimate surroundings,” Barrett says by phone from Australia, where he is working on a film adaptation of the classic children’s story “Where the Wild Things Are.”


Having to build Marie Antoinette’s bedroom and her apartment away from Versailles “gave us a freer rein of the palette of the clothes and fixtures.”

Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is a naive and impulsive teen who loves clothes, jewelry and sweets. And Barrett’s palette of light blues, pinks and greens reflects her youthful spirit.

“I think what we did in general was that we freshened the whole palette of the French vision of the world at that time to more of a pastel vision,” he says.

“We didn’t want to get into the darker, somber colors that Sofia calls the ‘jewel tones,’ ” says Barrett, who also designed Coppola’s previous films “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation.” “We relegated those to the older king. We decided to make sure to overemphasize the fact that she was 14 when she first got there and to make it seem like a fresh new world rather than old and dowdy.”

The production used nearby chateaux for the majority of the interior work. For Marie Antoinette’s bedroom, it used an older chateau that was “kind of a blank slate. It didn’t have any gilding or molding to speak of, and we used it as a sound stage. The officials from Versailles came and saw our work there and were extremely happy.”

The crew made a lot of the furniture; they also found replicas and covered them, adding ornamentation.

“We didn’t want the audience or any historian to question [our designs], but we weren’t studious historians. We wanted to be a bit impressionistic about the whole thing.”

But the grim reality of the story they were telling hit home at one point during shooting, Barrett says, when Dunst was on the palace balcony looking out at the angry mob that had gathered.

“You would hear the people screaming down below and you would get a bit of a sense of what she must have gone through ... and then knowing her end.”