Production Designer Francesca Di Mottola spoke to Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki about bending the traditional period drama rules for Hulu‘s The Great.
The great thing about The Great— the truly brilliant thing about The Great, is that it fully envelops you in its twisted, beautiful web of political satire. Getting lost in the world that Tony McNamara has created for you is easy (and a Great deal of fun). But, I’d like us all to take a second to appreciate just how visually enticing that world is — The Great features some of the best crafts work on television this year.
The production design, helmed by Francesca Di Mottola, is rich in textures, colors, opulence, and character-driven nuances. In this interview, Di Mottola provides a window into her vision, and her version, of 18th century Russia.
Awards Daily: What was your vision for the production design and how were you able to bring it together?
Francesca Di Mottola: One thing to mention is that I picked up the project after the pilot had been shot, so I designed nine of the episodes. When I picked up [the project] most of what had been shot was shot on existing locations in the UK. A little bit of the look was established in the pilot, but there was a lot of space to move away from it. I worked very closely with [writer] Tony McNamara. The idea was that there was a lot of freedom to create our own patterns and that the interests didn’t lie in a historical recreation of what the palace looked like when Catherine [Elle Fanning] moved to Russia.
There was, of course, from my point-of-view an interest in researching it, just to keep maybe a flavor of it, but I wasn’t asked to recreate something that was historically accurate. The brief from Tony was, ‘Let’s create what we want to see on camera and let’s have fun with the material. Which I did. [Laughs].
That was the starting point— creating spaces for the characters to inhabit. And there were so many places that hadn’t been featured in the pilot at all so I had lots of freedom to start designing it. There was something that was established [in the pilot] which was a little bit of a color palette for Catherine and for Peter. Catherine’s tones were lighter and softer — pastel colors, blues, and teals. Peter’s colors were browns and aubergine —autumn colors.
Other than that, we created the whole world from scratch. In fact, we built the set on stages, most of it, 80% of the interior shots are on our sound stages. It was very much character-based and the characters are so well written, it’s very much in the script.
There was very extensive visual research that as I said, wasn’t just, ‘What did Catherine’s 18th century Russia look like?’ It was much broader. I was borrowing design ideas from many different places. The brief for the palace was that it was an 18th-century version of a modern apartment block. With that in mind, the idea was that the palace was so big that the inhabitants probably didn’t even know each other so their spaces could be different from each other.
There wasn’t a proper, consistent, design idea throughout because it was so character-led —everyone had their private spaces. I had very much the freedom to get inspired by whatever rang right to that character. I think that results in quite an eclectic look for the show. I don’t think that any viewer watching it has a satisfaction like, ‘Oh, well now I know what 18th century Russia looked like.’ But, I hope they’ll buy into the look of the show.
FDM: The other thing that also lead the design was that everyone has their private spaces yet, Peter the emperor, he’s got free reign, and he’s got the VIP pass to everyone’s apartment —the doors never properly close, he just barges in. He’s an insomniac who roams the corridors and the various places of the palace at any time of night —this idea that private isn’t really private for them.
We played around with spaces a lot because there was a lot of turning rooms into other rooms; swinging sets, which was a lot of fun because that was also conceived right at the start— How many characters do we have and, realistically, how much can we build? What spaces can I redress for a different character? That was fun to work on too.
AD: One thing that I really liked about the show and I wanted to discuss further is the idea that The Great is acting as a commentary on the traditional period drama. It’s playing with, ‘These are your expectations of what you think that a period drama should be. And here’s how we’re going to subvert, and have fun, and wink at the audience.
AD: How did that idea play into your production design?
FDM: I mentioned before that I was not asked, and I didn’t want to recreate an existing world. Usually, designers can be very reverential to period, and that was something that I had to make sure that everyone in my team, and especially the set decorating team that I was working with, were in an understanding that, if we wanted a chair that worked for a certain scene or a wardrobe that wasn’t really what you would find in palaces in the 18th century, but it worked for that scene, then [we could use it] and not be all that worried about it.
I think that veering away from your usual period drama is very much in Tony’s writing and in how the actors talk. And it is also in how they moved and used the space and less so in the design. You know, as much as I wasn’t reverential to period, I wasn’t like, ‘Okay, let’s forget about it completely, and let’s use plastic cups.’
One of the characters’ rooms, Georgina [Charity Wakefield] and Grigor [Gwilym Lee], she’s the lover and he’s the best friend, their apartments — in discussing their characters, we felt like they were the cool couple of the court. Like the 18th-century version of Beyoncé and Jay-Z. So, what could their space be like? [Tony] was suggesting it could have the feel of a New York lot.
And then I inserted the bathtub in the structure of the room, think that’s something that I’ve never seen in any of the palaces that we researched and in the design book that I have of the 18th century— it was little details like that you might not even notice, but that are there.
When we also were looking for locations, for example, we did shoot in Naples, at the Royal Palace of Caserta, for the exteriors of the Russian winter palace,—so that’s as referential as you can get because you’re shooting in Italy something that should be a cold-looking Russian palace. It was more about the freedom to have fun and be free with the material.
AD: There is a contrast, between the public and private areas, but also everything fits together. Can you talk about developing those areas?
FDM: Yeah. I think we tried to have a bit of a balance between the private rooms and the public spaces. The way we developed that is building very intimate and personal spaces that also revealed aspects of that character.
I think that idea of back rooms and private versus public was something that we wanted to explore and that was in the back of our minds.
Marial [Phoebe Fox], she was a courtesan herself, then she lost everything and her apartment is given to one of the members of Peter’s inner court. So, they take over Marial’s apartments. And in fact, they also inherit her dog. She walked into this apartment, looked at her stuff, and they hadn’t redressed the room at all. So there was a lot of hint to people’s private places on how they were used.
And again, [the concept was] you don’t know your neighbors, so it also has to feel sort of big. Even in choosing a location, like the Royal Palace of Caserta, which is immense in proportions and scale —we wanted to create that contrast between the private spaces, which feel pretty intimate, but are made up of three rooms or more.
AD: What did you find to be the greatest logistical challenge in doing such a rich and vast television show?
FDM: I think the logistical challenge was certainly related to how many places we wanted to create versus having to go to a location. One of the biggest sets that we have is what we called ‘The Grand Hallway, which is the wide timber corridor. That corridor transformed into a stateroom, and we used it for very many different reasons and many different scenes.
That was logistically difficult to achieve in three months — to conceive, draw, technically understand, create the models, and then build it. That was a real stretch. It was tricky in the prep time to conceive all these spaces that had to double up as different spaces. Also, we had to make sure that the schedule gave us enough time, every time to turn those spaces around. So that was definitely really tricky. Time constraint was always a question.
AD: How does The Great fit into your larger career as a production designer? Are there any threads that you incorporated into the show that you try to bring to all of your projects?
FDM: Well, I think I have a very European upbringing. Although I was born in Brazil, I studied in Italy and in the UK. It was interesting because although the creatives I were working with were Australian, and they were always [playing with] the history and the facts, I sort of was sneaking in part of my cultural heritage.
And with my upbringing, growing up and traveling in Europe, and having a lot of 18th-century design knowledge, that’s something I brought with me.
I had never done comedy before, that was really interesting because it is a dark comedy —it was about learning to let a lot of things go for the sake of the comedy. We’re not creating beauty. We’re absolutely servicing the scripts, I come from theater design so creating a design that is character-based, that is something I’ve always inspired to do. I would always hope to do. I think that’s what really makes me decide on a project.
I was amazed by how good the script was for every single episode. I think I found a really interesting way to work with the writer — more often in film, you’re working with the director, but, it’s the same dynamic really— the collaboration was so strong with Tony. I hope that’s something that I can establish going forward. He really had a lot of trust in my ideas and my solutions. There was a lot of troubleshooting— I think that’s something I learned through doing commercials and working with smaller budgets. We had three months of prep [on The Great] to begin with, but we got the scripts not too long before we shot, and had to find design solutions from the written page.
Season one of The Great is available now on Hulu. ICYMI: The Awards Daily team has done several interviews with the cast and crew of The Great including Elle Fanning, writer Tony McNamara, costume designer Emma Fryer, and Hair And Makeup Artist Louise Coles.