Stephenie McMillan, the prolific British set designer whose meticulous eye brought the whimsical world of Harry Potter to life and earned her an Academy Award for “The English Patient,” has died. She was 71.
McMillan, who almost always collaborated with production designer Stuart Craig, with whom she shared the Oscar for best art direction/set decoration, died Monday from complications of ovarian cancer at her home in Norfolk, England, said her partner, Phil Hardy.
An eye for even the smallest details -- and an understanding of how they swayed the story line -- set her body of work apart, said Thomas Walsh, former president of the Art Directors Guild. “It’s staggering,” he said. “There’s nothing that she did that wasn’t an A plus plus.”
In an interview with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts last year, McMillan detailed her work flow -- she’d read the script, make a list of all the different buildings and special props, guesstimate a budget and start her scavenger hunt.
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” she said. “Gradually, you fill everything in.”
The daughter of a toy salesman, Stephenie Lesley McMillan was born July 20, 1942, in Essex, England. After high school she got a job as a secretary in an architect’s office and then a gig helping a commercial photographer. With the skills she learned there -- how to arrange furniture for photo spreads in magazines -- McMillan segued into decorating for television commercials and then film sets.
Through the years, she worked on more than 20 movies, designing the farcical world in “A Fish Called Wanda” (1988), the stuffy French village and charming La Chocolaterie Maya in “Chocolat” (2000) and the stark Italian monastery in “The English Patient” (1996).
Hardy said on the night she won the Oscar, he and McMillan made their way through a crowd toward their first after-party. By the time they showed up, the bouncer had stopped letting people in, Hardy recalled. But the man caught a glimpse of McMillan -- golden statue in hand -- and ushered the couple inside.
She smiled, turned to Hardy and whispered. “It’s like being elevated to the peerage,” she said of winning the Oscar.
For a decade, beginning with “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001), McMillan dedicated herself to creating on-screen interpretations of author J.K. Rowling’s imagination -- Dolores Umbridge’s ornate and way-too-pink office, the tangled tower of chairs in the Room of Requirement and Harry’s cramped cupboard under the stairs.
Although she often expressed her gratitude for the sizable budget and flexibility that came with the “Harry Potter” films, McMillan said she approached every project the same way.
“It’s the same job whether you are dressing a prison cell with an old mattress and a tin mug, or a palace with silk curtains and chandeliers,” she told the Eastern Daily Press newspaper in England’s Norfolk County in 2010. “We put the same amount of thought into it.”
McMillan is survived by Hardy and two daughters, Tamsin and Sasha.