Transatlantic series creator Anna Winger and production designer Silke Fischer sat down with Awards Daily to highlight the creative decisions made in creating the outstanding art of this show. Here, they touching on their previous work together, which helped them bring this new vision to a reality. Also included within this interview are some of the behind-the-scenes details of the hard work of production design, including turning bread into ham.
Yup, bread into ham…
Award Daily: Starting generally, what attracted you both to this project?
Anna Winger: The story was a very interesting window into a moment during World War II that I hadn’t seen dramatized in quite the same way. This moment was before the World War started, when there was just a sliver of the south of France that was a free zone in Europe. It was a really dark moment but it was before what we think of before World War II began in earnest. This last free zone in the south of France was a sort of paradise, and when I heard about the story it sounded like a sort of nightmare in paradise. The setting in many ways is a character in the show, like the fact that it takes place in Marseille in the south of France, which is universally considered one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I think the fact that our characters are having this really difficult experience, this intense unhappiness and stress in what is this gorgeous landscape is part of the tension in the show. I think that’s something that Silke as our production designer really understood and captures really beautifully in the show.
Awards Daily: You have both worked together on several different projects. How did your previous collaborations help you in making this show?
Anna Winger: We made Unorthodox together, and of course when you know somebody it’s much easier. The first person I called when I thought about doing this was Silke actually. The look and feel of the show is everything, and she is a genius.
Silke Fischer: You make me blush, thank you! I think Unorthodox was a very special journey we went through together. So when Anna asked me to do Transatlantic I knew that we could do it together because we had already managed a lot of obstacles and challenges with Unorthodox. Also I did a film with Maria Schrader called Farewell to Europe dealing with World War II, and another film by an Australian director Cate Shortland called Lore. It takes place at the end of the Second World War. But Transatlantic was the first time I got into Jewish history. Ever since I was a child I’ve been very interested in this very special part of German history. So to first have Cate Shortland, then Anna Winger, to have another view on this German history is really special and adding something. It is very important to me. So when I heard about it it was clear I wanted to be involved.
Awards Daily: You talked about how the place is almost a character, and you get that in the buildings. First the hotel and the embassy, and then later the villa have a distinct feel to them. What was the discussion around giving them so much personality?
Anna Winger: I think from the beginning the idea was that the location was a kind of character in the show. We made the decision to not include Washington DC, not to include New York, not to include Berlin. To really contain the show in this kind of universe that is Marseille and it wasn’t easy necessarily because our story starts right before Marseille was almost flattened by bombing. So many things were destroyed so one, we had to use very careful camera angles and two, Silke rebuilt many things. So for example the Hotel Splendide, which was one of our main locations, the building is still there but it’s being used by the government as an administrative office and it also had been destroyed during the war. Silke and her team rebuilt the lobby and the hotel rooms and brought it back to life in the place where it actually took place. That was true about many of our locations. That they were still there but they needed to have new life breathed into them. I think she always brings a kind of patina to the work that makes it feel authentic. That was also true with Unorthodox, when you are building something or you are renovating something it’s important that it still feels lived in, that it feels of its time, and Silke has a real sensitivity to this kind of patina that I think is rare. A lot of things that are built that are of historical material look new and that’s what makes it look fake. So I think our approach was to make this feel that these are lived in spaces, that these are desperate situations. These are not fancy places necessarily, they are the places that refugees can afford to be, places that people are hiding out, and giving those places a special patina was really important for the beginning.
Silke Fischer: We were really lucky that we found the Villa Air-Bel, because we looked at a lot of old castles and they were all renovated. These were special locations for weddings, and most people had bought all these old palaces. It is the thing everyone is after. We went from one to the other and the patina was missing. Then at the end randomly we were presented with this old castle and it was a special story. There was an old relative who was against anything being changed at this location. So for a hundred years it looked like that; the old relative was about a hundred. But finally the younger family could decide what to do and we were the first ones allowed to enter the palace.
Anna Winger: It was as if it had been waiting for us. It was like they locked it up and threw away the key. Everything was in it for us. They didn’t even have indoor toilets. They had the old toilets that looked outhouses but inside where it is literally just a chute that goes down to the ground. So it was an amazing place, and that was after we saw so many of these renovated villas. The south of France is full of all these fancy houses and this one was beautiful but a ruin, a gorgeous ruin.
Silke Fischer: We made a lot of plans, drawings of everything we found there, and then we tried to rebuild the rooms so that they could work for our story. But at the moment when Varian Fry (Cory Michael Smith) and the ERC start to help the artists inhabit the villa, we started to dress it up for the purpose of it being in its current state, then tried to think about how the artists would change their rooms.
Anna Winger: How they found it and how they would change it. Silke even planted a vegetable garden.
Silke Fischer: And it worked!
Anna Winger: We also had to clean the pool. It was all there, but to use it, it had to be restored in certain ways.
Awards Daily: So with all these historical buildings, how much did you get to look at the original designs as an influence in making your version?
Silke Fischer: It was a lot of research, first of all. [Anna laughs] To get the base took months to get all these materials together. but for us it was important not to be too exact with the artwork because we were not allowed to copy it.
Anna Winger: We didn’t want to! Of course we could have decided to make copies, but what’s the point? It felt very fake, so we made a decision early on that we were not going to copy anything.
Silke Fischer: Then at one point Stephanie Snider, an artist from New York who is a painter but also does drawings…
Anna Winger: She is a multimedia artist, she does sculptures, paintings, drawings. She came over and spent the duration of the shoot with us. She was Silke ‘s collaborator. She was like our artist on set and the two of them made all the artwork for the show. Also all the party decorations, all the alterations to the villa, the sculptures in the garden. All the kinds of things that would have been imagined by people like this when they had nothing. They made all these things with the materials that they could find there. The people at the time didn’t have a lot of supplies, they didn’t have easy access to paint. They were refugees, they weren’t carrying everything with them. So Silke and Stephanie made all kinds of things with all kinds of rudimentary materials that they could find there.
Silke Fischer: The good thing was Stephanie’s artwork is already surrealistic, so she already had this feeling or idea how to look at the world in different ways. It was exactly what the artists of that period would have done. But there was something personal about Stephanie’s work that was put together with those artists’ work. It was so rich that we had both the paintings of the time we could look at as well as Stephanie’s and my background, of what I did at art school.
Anna Winger: It was a kind of a marriage between art historical research and the freshness of their own contemporary ideas.
Awards Daily: This is a fan question for Silke Ficsher. As a huge fan of Maren Ade, what was it like working with her on Toni Erdmann and Alle Anderen?
Silke Fischer: First of all, Maren Ade prepares everything very well. One or two years earlier I was looking for locations in Bucharest and also in Sardinia. So this is several years of my life spent with Toni Erdmann and Alle Anderen. But on Alle Anderen my team was very small, I had one assistant who was from Berlin but her parents were originally from Sardinia and I had one intern. That was it, we had to do everything. We tried really hard to find locations besides the house, which was completely dressed by us. The other locations we tried to find things but it didn’t work, especially for the supermarket, because we are only allowed to shoot on the weekend. There was a six meter long meat department in the store that was empty for the weekend. Maren said. “No no, I need the entire supermarket. I cannot avoid this corner. I need 360° as usual.” So we had to put something in and I am a vegetarian as well as my assistant and it would have been so expensive to fill that with meat. Finally my assistant went to every baker near us and she got old bread and she made a kind of paper mache for us to make the ham, steaks and we made it all with old bread. And it was totally convincing!”
Anna Winger: The incredible ingenuity of just the way things are put together. In Unorthodox, Silke built all the interiors. We built the interiors in Berlin to match the exteriors in New York. The interior of all the Brooklyn houses were built in Berlin by Silke, and it was all connected. So first she builds all the buildings in New York and then builds this whole construct in order to connect those two to the inside and the outside. Just all the details involved in that were incredible. It’s magic! You have these discussions about how something can be and she has the vision to see it through and also the ways in which the color palette reflects the mood of the piece. For example, with Unorthodox the idea was that everything in Brooklyn is dark and that everything in Berlin was very colorful. Because it was reflecting the lead character’s journey into herself and into the world. The ways in which Silke picked certain buildings in Berlin that had a certain patina and color palette of Berlin. You could have made a very dark show about Berlin (many people have done it) but Unorthodox has a very colorful version of Berlin and so much of that is the production design and the special locations.
Silke Fischer: We worked together, the writing and the production design. I found these pictures of these orthodox Jews covering things in aluminum foil when they were cleaning before Passover. They wrap everything in foil so it’ll stay clean. It was amazing in these dark rooms to have something bright like foil. We found a rectory in Berlin that was from the same period but it was too big. It was not a small house like the brownstone house. So I had to make it smaller and that’s when I found out they had some spare rooms there and I told Anna and Maria (Schrader) I will build a kitchen. They both said that you don’t need to because there is no kitchen in the script. But I was, like, they need a kitchen. Where else will they put the foil?
Anna Winger: You remember the scene where they keep going into the kitchen and they are serving food and the whole kitchen is covered in tin foil. Which is definitely a heightened version, they definitely cover things in foil but Silke even covered the chairs. So it was a Silke Fischer take on a kosher kitchen. But, as an example of what we were doing in Marseille, there was a lot of discussion of how do you tell something about the past but make it feel relevant in the present? How to use the present to tell a story about the past. There are many ways in which I think a production design somehow both feels like it’s historically correct but also modern. We wanted this to feel like spaces that you could occupy now to draw a corollary to the present. I think that is something I feel special about the show when you look at it. We didn’t even use so much VFX. We had a little bit, but we were really relying on the production design and the way it was shot to look like it was 1940.