Into the labyrinth

Linus Sandgren, Suzie Davies, Siân Miller and Sophie Canale on creating the world of Saltburn

by Andrew Robertson and Jennie Kermode

Saltburn Photo: Amazon MGM Studios

Saltburn has been more than a little divisive. That's perhaps to be expected when a film is based as much on ‘vibes’. Frequency matching can be sympathetic, and it can be destructive, and sometimes it's just noise.

Even those of us who like it are a little conflicted. It might be possible to forgive the presence of anachronistic couture (Valentino Fall 2018) in 2006 because of the way the film plays with memory, it's equally possible that 2007's Superbad plays better with its themes of coming of age and false IDs than the actually contemporary Accepted and it is certainly more likely to be recognised by current filmgoers.

With a cast that includes relative newcomers and stalwart veterans there is plenty of performance to sink teeth into, but even the most dogged actors need scenery upon which to chew. That's where the technical elements of film-making come to the fore.

What should also be obvious to anyone is the quality of the work behind the scenes. In our review we noted "the production is close to perfect" but in uncertain geographies that proximity might be different for others. Eye for Film attended a Q&A with the film's DoP and - essential for any period piece - the heads of production design, hair and makeup, and costume.

“I feel like every time I want to start with a sort of blank page and not have anything in mind until I talk to the director,” says cinematographer Linus Sandgren, beginning at the very beginning. “To me, this was a very unique script with a director with a unique mind. In the discussions we had, she felt it had to be expressive and be about these themes that we have in the film, about desire. We were talking about it like a vampire film about it, like a typical English Gothic story.

“I like to find inspiration in art and other things rather than thinking of movies necessarily, but we talked about Hitchcock for voyeurism. We talked about German Expressionism for the vampire theme, without being specific. I think all of us here kind of worked with mood boards of different kinds that were all connected.

“We had the exterior days that were very sunny. We found different references for that. to help with the erotic feel of the connection between them. It's always important, I think, to connect the story and the script and then decide on how expressive should it be, or should we be more naturalistic. And then you create your language. And here we are with the language, eventually.”

The German Expressionist influence was one of the reasons we he chose the aspect ration that he did, he explains.

“Also, part of it was also that Emerald felt it should feel like we're looking into this doll’s house. And this doll’s house, being the manor, had very square, tall rooms with high ceilings which wouldn't be possible to see in a more widescreen format. So that was part of it too. It was combination of things that made us feel like we wanted to do it. And once we started composing in that format, we all fell in love with it. It felt right. We also noticed that it would benefit the close ups, because Emerald is obsessed with close ups.”

“We were very fortunate to find this house,” says production designer Suzie Davies. “We didn't want to film in any of the houses that we know so well from English films and TV. So word was put out and word came back and we managed to get into this amazing property up in the middle of England, and it's quite extraordinary. I definitely had an Oliver moment, driving up for the first time and seeing the fantastic layers of this property. It just goes on and on.

“It's got medieval, it's got Victorian, it's got Georgian Gothic, of course, and a fantastic family that allowed me the most free reign I've ever had in a property like that. So as much as there were 127 rooms, the rooms that we wanted to use weren't exactly perfect, in the right color or with the right dressing. So they allowed me to augment some of the rooms. They allowed me to paint the wall, take the tapestries down, put tapestries up, rip out bedrooms, rip out bathrooms, put in bathrooms where bedrooms were, things like that. Add corridors and color. And that enables us to bring that strong color that is reflected in a lot of the art that Linus referenced. Caravaggio, those sort of beautiful, composed shots that Linus gets.

“When you get closer into those scenes and locations and sets that we created, you see that actually the light is bouncing off a crisp packet or a sweet wrapper or a bottle, a can of Coke, so that from a distance in that 1:3 frame, it looks like a beautiful painting. And then if you were to delve in, you'd see actually, the dressing, as much as it's formally composed, is rubbish, is washing piled up on a bed or how the bedthrow is laid. So it was playing with the traditional English country house - well, country castle – playing with that, with modern contemporary rubbish. That lack of – not respect, but almost unknowing. This family are so wealthy. They're uber rich, they're filthy rich, they're disgustingly rich.

“It's about having the juxtaposition of smelly candles underneath the oil painting and the oil starting to melt. We wanted to have that lack of concern because someone will fix it. It was playing with the gorgeous ancient historic house and bringing in this layer of lived in feeling, and that was much fun to do.”

When it came to the party, she says, she wanted to create the impression that the family had been throwing similar parties two or three times a year for centuries.

“We wanted to feel that they were renowned for their party giving. And as an art department, we went for it. We absolutely brought all the toys out. It was almost method party dressing. We had to dress it all. And it's because it needed to feel a little bit knocked around the edges. Beautiful, gorgeous, romantic, and then sinister, dirty, tacky, sticky-feeling. Emerald and I spoke about not just the look, but the smell, the taste, the texture that needed to feel overwhelming for the audience.”

Hair and make-up artist Siân Miller found the film interesting to work on because it required period work, but from a very recent period, she reveals.

“It's slightly harder, I'd say, to accurately try and recreate a period like 2007 because of course, it’s not too far away to remember. The other thing is, when you design something that is say, 18th Century, you can cherry pick from a broader period, whereas if you're pinning down something that’s from recent history, you can't do that in quite the same way. So I think you have to be really specific about it. I was able to look at all the kind of conventional tools that we go to, whether it's popular culture, music, scene magazines, teen fashion, politics at the time. I mean, all these things affect how people dress, how they look, their hair and make-up style.

“Coupled with that I was writing, detailing and being very aware of the format, that detail and creating that family in particular. They live in this world of wealth, of opulence, this grandiose backdrop, but we actually had to make them very real and very grounded. So that was very important, to try and contrive something that actually worked with that backdrop behind them.”

Costume designer Sophie Canale says she took a similar approach and also reflected on the different class backgrounds of the characters.

“There are high street fashions and then for the upper class I was taking inspiration from various fashion houses of that period. I immediately looked at Facebook. I got in contact with the universities: Oxford University and Cambridge University. I wanted to see what people were wearing. They were really helpful to be able to get photographs of that time. And, yeah, it was a difficult period to be able to capture because, yes, it's only 15 years ago, but the ribbing on a T shirt is different. It was really interesting to see, like the cut of a jean. Fitting Oliver and Felix in these jeans, they were what are known as a bootcut jean these days. So, as Sian said, I treated it like a period drama.

“Emerald obviously having such a contact with the fashion industry and such a knowledge herself was incredible. We were able to go back into archives. Pamela is wearing 2007 Chanel. We've got Valentino, as close to the archive as we could possibly get. And also we've got items that Venetia is wearing, which are items from Asian provocateurs that Amy Winehouse was wearing in that year. So it was a great opportunity to be able to take high end fashion and bring it into the Catton family.

“But then in the same respect, also with the university students, it really was going vintage and having to buy things out of the backs of people's wardrobes. It isn't in the costume houses, it isn't on the high street. It was a real challenge, but a great opportunity. And in the same way, it's realism. Emerald has this great eye, wanting everything styled as a real character element. So it was a great opportunity to use that. And with all of their costumes, as much as they’re 2007, taking them and being able to style them in a certain way to show their characters and within the colour palette. How Oliver starts when we first see him and he has this incomplete impression of how the upper class are going to be, what they're going to be wearing at university. So he's got that brand new blazer, he's got that brand new tie and everything crisp and clean. And then we've got everyone in pajamas.”

For Linus, the party was one of the most interesting parts of the film.

“The story is evolving into something dark and this party is going on and Oliver is going into this amazing discotech with lots of light and it's sort of a great party going on, but in the down under, there's some really dark foreshadowing happening. We wanted to illustrate that. He gets this birthday cake in this room that we decided to fill with a red light in order to illustrate that he's in the heart of the house, but also that he's sort of alone. Even though he's with all these people, he's the loner in this party. And as we lead the party and go into the maze, it needed to go even more vampiresque.”

“It was a massively collaborative film,” says Suzie. “I tried to create an arena for this all to take place in, with different forms of practical lighting, so that Linus could then accentuate where he needed to, so we could see the costumes, the make-up, so we could see these characters. So we've got medieval fire pits there. We've got the neon lilies on the square pond. We've got the two meter disco ball with all the neon lights going there. We've got the big starlights in the background. And then again, as we go into the maze, we go through the topiary with the twisted fairy lights on them. Then there’s a bit more fire, and then it goes to moonlight. And then we play with the minotaurs and their big, heavy silhouettes.”

We asked if the maze was real or specially constructed for the film.

“The maze is the perfect,” says Suzie happily. “It’s filmmaking at its best. All that smoke and mirrors. There wasn't a real maze at the house. For all its grandeur – it should have had a maze. It had an area of formal beech hedging, where we created the centre of the maze and the minotaurs. And we created some little runs where the characters are walking through, but they're literally beech hedges in pots as people walk through. And we created a nice little maze element there. And then it's VFX, it's editing, it's sound. Everything else then creates this amazing sequence. For the top shot, we actually had a maze designer. There is an international maze designer called Adrian Fisher who designed the maze. So it absolutely makes sense.”

Saltburn has been nominated for five BAFTAs and three Dorian Awards.

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