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An Interview with Felicity Abbott

Having won Best Production Design at the 2020 New Zealand Television Awards for her work on The Luminaries, Felicity Abbott has worked extensively across the board on projects including Upgrade, Deep Water, and Chasing Wonders. I spoke with Felicity about breaking into the industry, the role of a production designer, working on The Luminaries, and her latest film The Unholy.

Did you always want to become a production designer, and how did you break into the industry?

I’ve always had an interest in the arts from when I was a child. My undergraduate degree was in fine arts, so I’m fine arts trained in sculpture and painting and that really grew. I wasn’t planning on being a production designer when I graduated from arts school. I think what I was missing from fine arts practice was collaboration which is also something I like. Then I sort of discovered artistic direction for theatre and opera. I was thinking of pursuing that for a time, but I’ve always been really passionate about cinema. I worked on a couple of things in New Zealand as an art department assistant and then started looking at production design specialised film courses internationally because there is no specialised course in New Zealand. Still to this day there is nowhere where you can actually study production design. I ended up doing a masters at the Australian Film and Television School. From there I went to study in Paris at La Femis, the National French Film School. That was really the journey. It was sort of an evolution more than anything. I feel like a production designer combines all of my interests in a collaborative way which is sort of meaningful and very creative.

What does the role of production designer entail?

Production design is really visual narrative in close collaboration with the director and at times the cinematographer, first and foremost driven by the scripted narrative. Production designers are often referred to as architects for the screen because it obviously intercepts with architecture in many ways depending on the project. Really it’s pointers routing to drive the narrative forward on a visual basis, by using palette and tone, style and texture and sort of underpin what’s happening in the main narrative. To reinforce character, build character as a base. I would say it’s largely involved with building visual narrative and creating the world.

What is your day to day schedule like when working on a series such as The Luminaries?

The Luminaries was extremely busy and a very challenging project. Filming a period piece in New Zealand which doesn’t have the same resources as North America or Europe per se. There was a decision made largely out of necessity, but also again to focus on building the world from scratch, so we built six different settings during an eight month period over the year that the production was operating. That was a very busy project and it changes kind of everyday. There is an enormous amount of research at the beginning. It was a big crew of 170 in my art department. There was a lot of looking at plans every day and visiting constructions to see how the set builds are progressing. A lot of time spent with the set decorator, going over the decoration for each set. There was just an enormous amount happening all at once. Of course spending a lot of time with the director and cinematographer to sort of keep discussing scene by scene everything about the project. It was a big production, but we didn’t have unlimited resources so it’s always a challenge trying to balance the director’s vision with the demands of the script and obviously all the things practically that are taking place within the art department.

You were production designer on The Unholy. What was involved in the research process, and the pre-production stages?

It was a really interesting project for me. It’s the first time I’ve worked on the east coast of the US after being based in Los Angeles for the last three years. It really interested me to work in that part of the world. New England is a very interesting place. It’s adapted from the novel Shrine by James Herbert. The director Evan Spiliotopoulos is a very interesting filmmaker and a very successful writer on Hollywood productions. Even though it was a contemporary film in some ways it really reminded me of making a period film, especially being in New England because there is a lot of historic architecture. It was obviously a good opportunity. I did a lot of set builds on that project as well, some due to covid. Just from a creative point of view it sort of encompassed all of those things. I like the genre, it was nice to do a genre piece in a really beautiful setting.

Could you tell me more about the collaboration with cinematographer Craig Wrobleski?

We had a great collaboration Craig and I once he came over from Canada to do the film. It was interesting because I put together a visual treatment when I first met with the director and the producers at Sony. It was interesting when Craig came on the project and we were looking at the same references. I sent him the visual treatment that I prepared and we had some of the exact same references. We both really like Todd Hido’s work as a photographer. In fact we had some of the same images which is always a good sign when you are collaborating with a cinematographer. You will see that in the end result in the film, that kind of attention to detail and collaboration between production design and cinematography and the lighting and the way the sets are lit. The interior sets are lit by the set decorator obviously in concentration with myself and the cinematographer. It was a good collaboration and I think it really adds to the tone of the film.

Were there any films that stood out for you when you first got into production design in terms of influence?

I really loved European cinema when I was growing up in New Zealand. I watched anything that I could get my hands on. My Father is a real sort of cinephile as well and he used to rent reels of 16mm movies from an old man who had a shed full of different films. Periodically every birthday Dad would hang a sheet up and we’d go and pick out five or six films and have some friends around and the reel would be changed on the projector. I feel like I grew up with all these old movies from French, Italian and Japanese cinema. I’ve always had a great passion for French cinema. Marcel Carne’s films and the great production designer Alexandre Trauner were very influential to me.

Also New Zealand filmmakers. New Zealand has a very rich, but also very specific tradition to New Zealand in terms of filmmaking, Vincent Ward’s film Vigil was very profoundly influential on me and also Jane Campion. There is a kind of tradition of gothic in some of the films that have been made here. They are very much about the connection to landscape, whether they are contemporary or period. Of course I’m a production designer and that’s my craft, but I’m also very interested in cinematography and narrative. It’s the combination of all of those things. The landscape is a huge influence in terms of my work, particularly when I look back at The Luminaries, the landscape is just the way that the light and quality of the light interacts with the settings. It has a profound effect on production design as well as cinematography.

What was your favourite set to work on? Which set really stood out?

I’d say The House of Many Wishes, which is the fortune parlour saloon in The Luminaries. It was a really fantastic set to design and to see it come to life. It was a three storey timber structure. We built the interiors on a stage and we actually built the street exterior as part of a street session. It was fantastic to build such a range of architecture for that project. I love The House of Many Wishes because it’s a character environment of Lydia Wells who is played by Eva Green and it was such a fantastic character set in terms of the backstory of it and the fact it had burnt in parts. It was really beautiful to do all those scenic treatments and the set decoration was really exciting. We just developed the whole world that represented The Luminaries, just in that one set you can see all the themes, the characters and the kind of tone of the project as a whole. I’d say that really stood out.

There is also a project called Upgrade, a science fiction movie that I did about four years ago now for Blumhouse Universal, which was the first time I’d done sci-fi and I absolutely love science fiction. That was great too because you get the opportunity to build the world and create all these really interesting environments that are sort of future set that represent the themes in the film. I really loved doing that film as well.

Do you have any advice for anyone pursuing a career as a production designer?

I think training is really important, whether you achieve that on the job through a mentor working in the industry, or you actually undertake a formal course. My personal view is that formal training is a very important part of the craft. It’s important as head of department to understand every aspect of your own craft, but also I think just the nature of the industry and how long it takes to establish yourself and also become established enough to earn a living, which is obviously important. There are so many skills that you can actually have that make you employable within the art department in film and television. I think it’s a win-win situation. Particularly skills like drafting, concept pre-visualisation, graphic design, there is so much demand for those skills and positions within the art department. They are often hard to crew. I think training is very important.

Mentorship is also very important at different stages in your career, not just at the beginning. It’s very important to have the support of like-minded people. There aren’t as many women in the profession, it’s very hard to break into, and so I think mentorship is important. Also just being a very resourceful, flexible and kind person because it is a very demanding industry and it’s an unusual craft. Often at times you are all around the world and it’s a very much a family for people who work in the industry because it’s unlike any other profession really. It’s something that I personally love because I love going to other countries and have always loved to travel. The research aspect of production design allows you to really understand and research other cultures for the purpose of understanding a narrative and creating the design for a project. You have really got to be patient and persevere and not take things personally because it can be a very challenging environment to work in. Creatively it’s very rewarding when you get the right projects and the right people.

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