On Location: For ‘Les Miserables,’ fake elephants, real mud and airborne furniture
“Les Misérables” production designer Eve Stewart went straight to the source: Victor Hugo’s 1,200-page novel. She didn’t just read the book, she channeled it by transcribing key descriptive passages, word for word, onto crib sheets that would inform the look for the musical’s film adaptation from director Tom Hooper. Thanks to London-born Stewart’s visceral designs, Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean gets a mud bath, Anne Hathaway’s Fantine has a run-in with rotting fish and scores of revolutionary Parisians lose their furniture.
How would you describe the job of a production designer?
Ultimately, I’m responsible for every single thing that’s photographed. So I do all the scenery. I choose all the props and the dressing for the scenery. But also I work incredibly closely with the costume designer and the makeup designer, so we pull together as one and make it a complete, rounded world that you believe in.
What was your process on “Les Misérables”?
Well, I’m a bit of an anorak, that means I’m really geeky, so I like to research a lot. I was backwards and forth to Paris a lot looking in museums and art galleries and collecting books and papers.
Paris of the 1830s, when “Les Miz” is set, does not look anything like the Paris now. It was completely demolished in 1850 and rebuilt. And Paris now has really long, wide, straight streets, a bit like American streets, because they were so fed up with all the revolutionaries in the windy streets being able to block them. Luckily, before the last buildings were pulled down at the turn of the century, this bloke called Charles Marville recorded them all photographically.
How did you shape that into a production design?
Tom’s really brilliant. Because we’ve worked together a lot, he just says, “Let’s start painting and drawing what comes into your head.”
What did you paint?
I’d found in my research that Napoleon had built a 40-foot elephant in Place de la Bastille to celebrate his conquests in the Middle East. He made one out of plaster first, and then they were going to make it out of marble but they ran out of money. So in the novel, it just sits there rotting. It’s got all kinds of holes in it and mold on it. So this man Jonathan who I know just carved the elephant in two weeks out of polystyrene.
Another painting I did was of the [French] revolution [of 1830] in the streets, because I’d found this engraving and a piece of writing in an old newspaper of the time, which described how all the barricades could be made within 15 minutes. People, they’d all just run down the winding streets, yelling, “The soldiers are after us!” And then all the supporters of the revolution would lob their furniture out the windows to make a barricade.
How else did you convey the misery of the time?
In Pinewood, in the studio, the set that we made where Anne [Hathaway] sings “I Dreamed a Dream” absolutely honked; it was so stinky because we had real fish that would slowly go off under the lights. And then we brought all this seaweed down from Scotland, and that stank. But a lot of the chorus appreciated the fact that they were made to feel really cold in this dripping, stinking hole, and it brought it to life for them how they would have to survive.
Where did you build the sewer where Valjean flees with the wounded Marius?
The lovely sewer. We’d been to see a really good set of arches, which were under a London reservoir that we thought we might be able to use. The only way into this underground reservoir was through a 1-yard hole in the middle of a park. On the days before [the shoot], we had a really big storm, and it flooded in there. So we suddenly had to build something.
Of course, now we had warm mud. It was face-pack mud, like mud you put on your face for wrinkles. I didn’t think we could throw Hugh Jackman into real mud. I was tempted. He probably would have done it. He was actually carrying Marius on his shoulders for real, over and over again, in the mud.
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