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In recent years, British production designer Mark Tildesley has earned credits on such films as No Time to Die, The Two Popes and Phantom Thread. This season, he created two distinct period looks for a pair of movies from Searchlight that are generating awards buzz.
Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light is set largely in a vintage movie theater in a sparsely populated English seaside town during the early 1980s. Finding such a location for the period drama starring Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward proved difficult. “We scoured the whole South Coast [of England], which is where it was originally written for, and we just couldn’t find it. It’s too developed,” Tildesley remembers, adding that someone then suggested the seaside town of Margate on the North Coast of Kent. “We arrived in Margate, and at the end of this wonderful bay of sand is this old cinema. It was a wonderful building because, in a way, it’s not particularly British, it’s [more] Americana. It has those sort of wonderful deco curves that you associate with cinema and dreams and wonder.”
The Dreamland Margate Cinema was empty and available, and when prepared by Tildesley and his team after meticulous research and work, it gave Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins just the right setting to photograph the story. The old cinema became the exterior and additionally was used for some of the interiors.
The cinema lobby and additional interiors were sets built in a nearby building based on historical studies. “There’s a language within those cinemas,” the production designer says. “For instance, when you go up the grand staircase, above you, there’s a grand chandelier, which we actually got from an old cinema in Glasgow. We couldn’t buy it because they wanted it back, but we borrowed it and refurbished it.”
Tildesley also was tasked with researching and re-creating 1923 Ireland for Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, which was lensed on location on and around the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway. “The first challenge that McDonagh laid upon the art department was that he wanted to make this film somehow modern and colorful and not like a classic, dreary black-and-white film,” Tildesley says. “In fact, the period research for the Aran Islands, which you’ll see [reflected] in the costumes and [decor, involves] really strong colors. They used a really beautiful indigo blue. And they had an amazing red, which is almost like a sort of blood red, and yellow. So the deal was to try and really get into the museums and dig out some real color from the time. [This film has] this sort of audacious color palette, being it was a period film.”
The story follows Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) and Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) — two friends at an impasse who reside in a remote village. Súilleabháin’s home was built on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands; and Doherty’s house was an existing whaling cottage at Keem Beach on Achill Island, which is north of Galway.
Of the disparate objects placed in the interior of Colm’s house, Tildesley says: “In our backstory, he’s one of the great fiddlers of the West Coast of Ireland, which means that people would come to him to learn how to play and listen to those songs. So, in a way, there would be connections, whether by letter or by people sending him things. We were not trying to make him too sophisticated, but just give the sense that he had this need to be something else and do something else. He had a fascination with storytelling and puppets and music and culture. That would eventually give you a little clue toward setting him slightly apart from Pádraic when they come to their disagreement.”
Colm’s house had a key challenge, adds Tildesley: “We needed to burn it down, so we had to convince the family who owned it for a long, long time that we could build on top of their existing building and then burn ours and still protect theirs. The interior is the actual interior of their whaling hut, and the exterior is a fireproof shell that we built [to encase] their building.”
The visual effects team created a controlled fire for the scene, but Tildesley admits that the owners “must have been worried on the night when you saw it go up.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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