Tag Archives: Grant Montgomery

World building

As television drama transports viewers to new worlds, both historical and fantastical, the role of the production designer has never been more important. DQ finds out more about the job from those doing it on shows in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia.

Since the emergence of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and other streamers, the number of TV dramas in production has skyrocketed. With this, niche genres that would have been ignored by mainstream broadcasters are being exploited by these new services, keen to bring fans of these previously underserved stories together, wherever they are in the world.

As a consequence, it has fallen to production designers to flex their creative muscles and bring these stories to life, from a horror series in which a haunted house is a central character (The Haunting of Hill House) to a futuristic sci-fi show in which human bodies are interchangeable and death is no longer permanent (Altered Carbon).

Sam Hobbs has worked on Australian series including Janet King and The Kettering Incident, and most recently sent modern-day Sydney back to the 1980s for ABC drama Les Norton. Based on the novels by Robert G Barratt, the show follows country boy Les who arrives in the city on the run from his past and winds up as a bouncer at an illegal casino.

Hobbs says the role of the production designer is to create the dramatic world of the series, both in terms of its time period and by establishing the rules to which that world adheres. “With Les Norton, the first thing I tried to facilitate was a discussion of the zeitgeist of that period. There was a huge sense of optimism and that anything was possible, despite the radical changes to Australian society, but it happened in conjunction with a sense of fairness. That’s the background. It was a really dynamic time.”

Australian drama Les Norton is set in the 1980s

Hobbs took inspiration from research that included photography by Rennie Ellis, before designing the 160 sets and locations that would be used across the 10-part series. Casino and brothel sets epitomised the decadence of the period with a rococo, theatrical design, while conversations with the producers, directors and cinematographers also brought elements of nostalgic melancholy to the style and tone.

Equally important was avoiding clichés of the period by ensuring the series, from producer Roadshow Rough Diamond and distributor Sonar Entertainment, focused on the characters, who just happened to exist in the 1980s.

“We did some building to give us some studio sets to go to but then we were pretty much on the road building sets into real dwellings or onto real exteriors the whole way through,” Hobbs says. “It’s a pretty crazy schedule. It was 10 one-hour episodes we knocked off in a very short period of time.”

An increasing challenge facing productions is cast availability. For Les Norton, stars Rebel Wilson and David Wenham needed to shoot their scenes in a short timeframe, which for the art department meant having all 10 episodes prepared by the time the cameras were ready to roll.

“That’s quite a new shift in terms of TV production – that casts are now driving schedules to a degree,” Hobbs notes. “We accept that’s the way it’s going to be in the future because it’s great to have big names like Rebel and David, but it certainly makes it challenging for us.”

Perpetual Grace Ltd is a stew of ‘film noir, western and timelessness’

Locations included Sydney’s real Kings Cross district, where the story is set, as well as Bondi, which Hobbs describes as an “extraordinarily beautiful place.” But the show’s style stands in stark contrast to Foxtel’s mystery drama The Kettering Incident (2016), in which Elizabeth Debicki played a woman on a journey to discovering the truth about her past.

With the show set in Tasmania, “we travelled to lots of interesting locations to put that world together,” Hobbs says. “It was a very conscious effort to create a deeply melancholic universe where those characters were essentially trapped at the end of the world. Once we had that broad idea, we were really punching with all those set and location decisions to find that palette and tone. It’s a similar process. Every project throws up its own logic. Every project has its driving spirit.”

On Perpetual Grace Ltd, that spirit came directly from the tone and sensibility of the scripts, overseen by co-showrunners Steve Conrad (Patriot) and Bruce Terris. Set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the western noir stars Jimmi Simpson (Westworld) as a grifter who attempts to prey on Pastor Byron Brown (Sir Ben Kingsley), who turns out to be far more dangerous than he suspects.

Having loved Patriot, which ran for two seasons on Amazon, production designer Laura Fox was familiar with writer/director Conrad’s “visual vibe,” which also flows through Perpetual Grace. “The similarity is he’s got an artistic style. It’s not hardcore realism,” she explains. “Our show is really a stew of film noir, western and timelessness. And, of course, the vistas of Santa Fe help define it. It has an interesting graphic quality we try to achieve with some shots. There’s some camerawork that’s visually striking.”

Just as he did with the spy genre in Patriot, Conrad has disrupted traditional ideas of the western genre in Perpetual Grace, which was commissioned by US cable channel Epix. Fox’s tasks included creating a saloon bar at the centre of the show’s location that mixes modern design with the traditional cowboys who frequent it. Similarly, officers from the Texas Rangers law enforcement agency drive modern trucks, while other characters have vintage cars. “So there’s a timelessness to it that disrupts the genre. It all works together in our world but there’s nowhere you’d see it exactly like that in an old western or in a modern setting,” says Fox, whose credits include films Alex Cross and 500 Days of Summer.

Filmed on studio sets, the interiors of the titular mansion in Sanditon were inspired by Bond movie Thunderball

As ever, Fox’s work begins with the scripts, the characters and speaking to the creators and directors, before working out how to use the main shooting locations. “It started with Steve and we all collaborated around his big vision and then brought new ideas to him and let it build from there,” she says. “We were talking to each other and making sure we were all living in the same world and not deviating too much.”

When a deserted prison didn’t match the look of the show, Fox transformed an old stable into the show’s jail. She also built elements of a NASA test site, a barber shop and a funeral home. “We were always trying to push the edge out of reality,” she says of the MGM-produced series. “You knew where you were but you hadn’t seen it before. It’s constantly that struggle between what is in Santa Fe and what we can push to fit our show.

“Every job I do, they start by saying, ‘We’re not going to build anything,’ and then you always end up building a lot of stuff. But it felt to me less like we couldn’t find it [the right location] and more like it needed to be from another world. I don’t think what we built exists.”

For ITV period drama Sanditon (pictured top), production designer Grant Montgomery built an entire town. Produced by Red Planet Pictures and distributed by BBC Studios, the series was inspired by Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, adapted for the screen by Andrew Davies (War & Peace). It tells the story of a developing Regency seaside town at the forefront of the great social and economic changes of the age.

Grant Montgomery

Production took place across 21 weeks, with filming largely based at The Bottleyard Studios in Bristol, England, where Montgomery oversaw a massive building project to create a slice of 1819 England. “The challenge was to create a seaside resort that pretty well doesn’t really exist,” he says. “We went down to [English coastal town] Lyme Regis but we couldn’t shut it down over the summer. That wasn’t going to work. We then decided that the best way forward was to build it, and I took my inspiration from Boardwalk Empire in the sense of how to stitch it together so it looked like it was next to the sea, which it’s not because it’s built in a car park in Bristol.”

Montgomery highlights one of the opening shots of the series, filmed using a drone, that reveals an overhead view of the town opening out on to a beach and the sea beyond. It was created by matching footage from the set with a beach the production team found. Green-screen technology was used to create the impression streets from the set led out to the sand.

The quarter-of-a-mile-long set also doubled for London, meaning it could be redressed to present different locations, while the design allowed for different camera angles to make the lot seem larger than it actually was.

Some exteriors were filmed on location, with 17th century mansion Dyrham Park doubling for Sanditon House, while all interiors were filmed on studio sets, owing to the fact that period properties owned by heritage charity the National Trust restrict the use of candles. It was here that Montgomery really pushed the boundaries of period drama, revealing that the black marble design of the grand house is based on interiors from James Bond movie Thunderball.

“We had a very tight schedule because we had a delivery day, so everything was set in stone. We built all the sets in 10 weeks – that’s a mountain to climb – but we tried to push it as much as we possibly could so it didn’t become pastel-coloured,” Montgomery says, adding that 35 Jane Austen ‘Easter eggs’ have been placed around the set for avid fans of the novelist to identify. “I had the Jane Austen Society there. They got them but some of them are pretty obscure jokes.”

In longform TV, Montgomery argues half the attraction for viewers is the chance to spend time with characters in another world. “They want to explore it with you and the more time that’s given to it, the better it becomes,” he says. “That’s part of the richness of TV drama.”

The Handmaid’s Tale takes its lead from Margaret Atwood’s book

By common agreement, Davies has played fast and loose with Austen’s novel to create a sexed-up period drama that is accentuated by Montgomery’s design. But when it comes to books and films that have a particularly strong sense of style, adaptations tend to be more faithful.

Elisabeth Williams has worked on two such projects, The Handmaid’s Tale and Fargo, both of which are produced by MGM. With both shows’ source material having already defined the look of the unique worlds in which they take place, did Williams have any room left to create something fresh?

“There has to be a certain respect for the original material, because these shows are basically an homage to both Margaret Atwood’s book and the Coen Brothers’ original film,” Williams says of working on seasons two and three of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and season three of FX’s Fargo, respectively. “If you steer far from it, you’re doing something wrong and that’s not the intention. So there’s definitely a desire to stay as close to the original as possible but also to add your own touch.

“For The Handmaid’s Tale in season three, I had the chance to pull away from what had been done in seasons one and two and make the world a little more my own. In Fargo, each season is set in a different time period so the style automatically changes, but still respects the Coen Brothers’ style. That’s the whole point.”

Williams describes her role as translating the showrunner’s vision into something visible, while adding her own style to create a sense of the location and even the characters’ personalities. On Fargo, she takes her lead from showrunner Noah Hawley, who for each season writes a 100-page series bible from which each head of department can work.

Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley writes a 100-page series bible ahead of each season

“So I was able to start some research and begin imagining the sets before I even got the scripts,” says Williams of the Calgary-based show. “All of the decisions are made with Noah, so for the first two months of prep it was just the two of us. We did a lot of it by phone; we would send each other some pictures and some images and I was able to come up with the look of the show.”

In contrast, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is filmed in Toronto, is more collaborative, with showrunner Bruce Miller spending a greater proportion of his time in the writers room. “What he says is, ‘I hire you guys because you’re best at what you do. I’m not going to tell you what to do.’ So it’s wonderful,” Williams says of working on the dystopian drama. “I was on my own at the beginning but I know what the style of the show is, so it’s not like I can stray that far. But it’s always the same process: it’s the script, research, concept boards, mood boards, looking for locations and then off we go.”

Season three featured a two-storey home belonging to Commander Lawrence (played by The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford). “We wanted to build one house so the actors and camera could move freely from one floor to the other,” Williams recalls. But since studio space is at such a premium in Toronto, owing to the sheer number of productions shot there, the crew wasn’t able to find a space big enough and was forced to split the set in half, with the ground floor and first floor side by side in the same studio.

While the process behind production design may have not changed dramatically in recent years, Williams believes the pace at which they need to work is increasing. “I feel like what we deliver are feature-quality TV shows, but the time you have to prep a feature is the same as the time you have to prep 13 episodes of TV,” she explains. “The scripts trickle in so it’s extremely demanding, in terms of time management, to deliver quality. TV is no longer TV the way we knew it 10 or 15 years ago. The quality is higher.”

Meanwhile, Hobbs says the key challenge for designers is to be clever with the way scripts are visualised and to avoid being derivative. “Scandinavian noir was a thing that kept swimming around and everyone just thought, ‘Well, if we do a Scandi noir visual style, that’ll be cool.’ But I found that really annoying,” he says. “Ultimately, you can keep doing great work as long as you think freshly about the material. Don’t look to other TV shows or movies. You can be inspired by them but not copy them. That’s the challenge, because we’re all watching so much stuff now. Ultimately, it’s got to come from the story and the words on the page.”

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Gunpowder, treason and plot

Kit Harington and Liv Tyler travel back in time as the stars of historical thriller Gunpowder. Production designer Grant Montgomery tells DQ how he recreated 17th century England for the three-part miniseries.

Grant Montgomery

It’s one of the best-known stories in the UK – but a three-part drama aims to shed new light on the people and the politics behind the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Every year on November 5, Guy Fawkes Night is marked with bonfires and fireworks to celebrate the discovery of the conspiracy to kill King James I by blowing up the House of Lords during the state opening of parliament in 1605.

The festivities take their name from the man who, having been caught red-handed guarding the gunpowder, became most strongly associated with the plot. But as forthcoming BBC1 drama Gunpowder depicts, Robert Catesby was actually the lead conspirator.

Kit Harington takes the lead as Catesby – of whom the Game of Thrones star is a direct descendant – in a cast that also includes Peter Mullan, Mark Gatiss and Liv Tyler.

But long before the cameras began rolling, it was production designer Grant Montgomery who was tasked with recreating 17th century England.

The series was filmed predominantly at Dalton Mill in Keighley, Yorkshire, where Montgomery also recently recreated Victorian London for horror film The Limehouse Golem.

Gunpowder stars Kit Harington and Liv Tyler

“The problem with a lot of Elizabethan or Jacobean properties is you can’t recreate them, there aren’t many streets left,” he says. “They don’t really exist. We looked at The Shambles [a period street] in York but to close that down and physically take it over on the budget we had was probably nigh on impossible.

“So essentially we built a backlot at Dalton Mill. Then we built the Tower of London set inside that as well, a cavern where they plot, houses, plus a section of the Palace of Westminster, which is what they were trying to destroy. That was all built in there, we took it over.”

The seven-week shoot took place between February and April this year, but Montgomery estimates just seven or eight days were spent filming on location during that period. The reason, he reveals, was somewhat unusual: “We found that at a lot of locations, we couldn’t burn enough candles. There are a lot of restrictions on a lot of these properties, especially [those owned by the] National Trust. We went to one and we were told we could only light 25 candles, and we wanted to light 150.”

L-R: The set for King James’ extravagant bedchamber and a platform for public executions

That meant sets were built for Baddersley Clinton, a manor house that served as a refuge for Jesuit priests at the height of Catholic persecution, the king’s bedchamber and spymaster Robert Cecil’s (Gatiss) war room. In total, about 80% of the shoot was filmed on set, which was first built to represent London and was later redesigned as Warwick, where the plot began.

Locations used included Fountains Abbey, in North Yorkshire, which served as both the undercroft beneath the House of Lords where the gunpowder was stored and the exterior for Baddersley. Hadham Hall in Hertfordshire was used for Catesby’s family home.

Location scout Nick Marshall had scoured great swathes of northern England looking for suitable filming sites, but when few possible places turned up, Montgomery and producers Kudos and Thriker Films decided to build the sets instead. That convenient and cost-effective decision also turned out to be a creative masterstroke.

Harington, who plays Robert Catesby, on set

“The more research I did, the more I realised that a lot of the panel work [inside these houses] had been decorated. If you were rich, you painted your panels,” he explains. “So while we didn’t necessarily colour-code them, we started to paint the interiors. It gives it such a distinctive look and the audience also knows where it is at any one point. That’s really important because it’s quite a convoluted plot – it feels like a John le Carré spy story.”

Some sets couldn’t be built, however. The River Thames, for example, was recreated by adding CGI to a section of water in York. “We cheated a bit,” admits Montgomery, whose other small-screen credits include Peaky Blinders, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Jamaica Inn and Brontë sisters drama To Walk Invisible. “I like to do everything I’m able to [on camera] but as long as you blend live with CGI, you get something that looks interesting. It’s complete CGI shots that have to be really well done [if they are to look believable].”

Throughout the project, authenticity was a keyword for the design team. Montgomery even joined a tour of the Tower of London to ensure the show was as true to its period as possible – even if the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

The producers were keen for the show to look as authentic as possible

“It has an authenticity because it was there in the language and embedded in the script when I first read it,” the designer says of the show, which is distributed by Endemol Shine International. “It was great to be able to get that muddy London look and to try to keep away from it being super clean. You even see a scene where the king is at his toilet and you just think this must be a really filthy world, even at the court. No wonder they didn’t live long!”

Despite the BBC series, which launches on October 21, not falling on a particularly notable anniversary, Montgomery says the ever-present threat of terrorism in modern-day Europe means this 400-year-old story remains hugely relevant.

“It’s still contemporary,” he concludes. “The questions it asks you are still pertinent – what does the government do to control you? How does it rule? Does it take away people’s liberties? All those questions are bound up within the script.

“I don’t think it’s black and white; it’s much more complex than that, and that makes it a very relevant piece of television. Even though it’s a period piece, it still has something to tell us from the past.”

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Inside Steven Knight’s critically acclaimed period drama Peaky Blinders

Peaky Blinders, the Steven Knight-scripted period crime drama, has had one of the best critical receptions of UK drama in recent years, also winning the Editor’s Choice award at the inaugural C21 International Drama Awards in November 2014. But what exactly does it take to create, and sustain, such a beautifully crafted drama? DQ talks to some of the key players behind the production.

Viewers of last November’s climactic season two finale of Peaky Blinders on BBC2 were treated – and boy was it a treat – to an hour-long illustration of just why the UK period crime drama has become one of the best-received UK series of recent years, and what The Guardian has called “Britain’s answer to Boardwalk Empire.”

The sixth and final episode of the drama’s second season saw its protagonist, 1920s Birmingham gangster Tommy Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy), faced with near-impossible decisions across his business, family and love life. A finale played out at the Epsom racecourse brought the show’s dramatic tension – love and hate, law and crime, loyalty and honour, right and wrong and, of course, life and death – to a brutal climax.

Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy, left) and Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson)
Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy, left) and Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson)

The derby day denouement of Peaky’s many tense arcs was, above all, the handiwork of its writer, Steven Knight. With screenplays Closed Circuit, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises to his name, Knight was already a drama giant. But he’s perhaps less known for being the UK creator of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? – an experience that no doubt honed his faculties for high drama.

For Peaky Blinders, Knight turned his attention to post-WWI Birmingham and the historical ‘Peaky Blinders’ street gang, so named for sewing razorblades into the peaks of their flat caps, which could then be used as weapons.

Peaky Blinders was created by Knight and coproduced by Caryn Mandabach and Tiger Aspect. Jamie Glazebrook, an executive producer working for Mandabach, says the show’s genesis was almost incidental.

“Five or six years ago we had a great meeting with Steve about a different project. He called a few weeks later to say he had an idea for something else – and told us about Peaky Blinders. We loved it straight away.”

Mandabach had built an enviable reputation in the US for groundbreaking comedy hits including The Cosby Show, Roseanne and latterly Nurse Jackie. The move to a dark UK drama like Peaky took Mandabach Productions outside of its sweet spot, and it needed a partner.

“Our background is in family comedies, but we wanted to cut our teeth on a big period drama with horses and guns and a cast of thousands,” Glazebrook recalls. “Very early on it seemed the best thing for the show was to hook up with Tiger Aspect. We have been proved right: they have been geniuses at taking a relatively small budget and making it look like something that could absolutely compete with US cable.

Frith Tiplady, executive producer and head of production at Tiger Aspect, explains: “Caryn Mandabach had the relationship with Steve Knight and got the commission. The BBC asked them to partner up with a UK production house. I like to think that Mandabach came to us because of our production expertise in delivering quality on screen – interpreting the writing to deliver the best show.

“We are definitely clear on our roles and really respect what the other brings to the party. I am sure Caryn agrees. Together we have made something really special. I think it’s been a brilliant partnership.”

Knight’s scripts define Peaky. “We are here because of Steve’s words,” says Glazebrook. Tiplady concurs: “We really see our job as being like the LAPD – to protect and serve. The strength is in working with Steve, realising his vision and protecting him as the writer.”

The show’s gothic texture is grounded by a deliberately cinematic look and feel rooted in the grime of 1920s post-war industrial Birmingham, which also has more than a nod towards Sergio Leone and Ridley Scott. That production design is led by TV period veteran Grant Montgomery.

Frith Tiplady
Frith Tiplady

“When I first read the first script I wanted to be part of it,” says Montgomery. “Giving it a very cinematic look from the get-go helps give it integrity,” he adds. “It goes for very much a cinematic quality of storytelling. That comes really from Steven’s scripts. When you read those, you think you have got to bring everything – cinematography, prod – so of course it becomes even more high end.

“It is also then moving from Birmingham to London – from industrial second city to first city – and you have to bring all of that to the table. So the journey has to become very clear visually.”

History and a rooting in actual events is one of the things that grounds the show. So how important was this in Montgomery’s work? “Initially the industrial world was dark black and the houses were black, so it was very important for me to get that right,” he says. “And the minute detail – if you notice in season one they are all using oil lamps, and then when they go to season two they have electricity and wealth – all those details that show the changing of the period and of their status.”

Of similar importance, says Montgomery, was the use of exteriors to take viewers out of the present and give a sense of reality in the past. The challenge of creating that experience was “huge, because you don’t have an art department budget. There isn’t a Hollywood budget to build a street,” he explains. “It takes a lot of money to do that and we don’t have it, so to try to convert locations and make them as big as possible was the ambition of the show right from the start.

“Every exterior was really hard fought for, with us thinking about how we were going to do it. Maybe we would only shoot half of a street. For example, in season one you had the whole street, while this year we only had half of it – but being sneaky with our angles made it seem like more than it was.”

Peaky is reported to have cost £1m an episode to make, but in fact that figure is an underestimate. “It was about £1.3m, £1.4m and probably season two was more like £1.4m, £1.5m,” Tiplady reveals. “But that’s not surprising. It’s exactly what a big period drama costs.”

So how did the funding come together for the show? “For series one we needed more money than is traditional in UK television,” she says. “The BBC supported it through the licence fee, and we had huge help from Endemol Worldwide Distribution, which placed a very good advance. EWD and Screen Yorkshire brought in match-funding, which together was almost a third of the budget.

“What’s interesting is that series one was done before the government’s tax break and series two was done after the tax break, so they have different funding models. The change went hand in hand with the creative ambition for series two, which was so much bigger that we needed more money.

“The difference between season one and season two is probably about £250,000 an episode. So it’s a huge amount of money, and the tax break went into a huge hole. It enabled us to deliver our vision. Without it we would have had to curtail Steve’s ambition, which is something we don’t want to do.

Tiplady says the real investment was that “we were in there for the long haul. It wasn’t about series one – for us it was always about getting series two, getting series three. Steve wanted to write a saga, and if you get into bed with that kind of extraordinary writing, they you need to have faith that you can deliver quality and potential for going forwards.”

Of course, the success of Peaky Blinders lies not just in its script, nor its look. The stellar performances of lead actors Murphy and Sam Neill, joined by Tom Hardy and Noah Taylor in season two, are also a big part of the show’s success.

For Tiplady, the production has been dependent on the goodwill of the lead performers. “We operate with no options for them so there is a definite love for the project,” she says. “We are punching above our weight.”

Jamie Glazebrook
Jamie Glazebrook

A haunting goth-punk soundtrack, curated by singer-songwriter PJ Harvey and Paul Hartnoll of electronic dance duo Orbital, lends a dark and unsettling texture to the show from the off. Not least with their choice of Nick Cave’s vengeful anthem Red Right Hand as Peaky’s theme tune. The White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys and Johnny Cash add to the dark-days soundtrack.

Tiplady says the show’s strong emphasis on pre-recorded artists presented its own challenges, not least because of the way the music industry itself is funded: “Music is extraordinarily expensive, very confusing and very complicated. I do think royalty-wise it needs a massive overhaul. The costs are such an important part of the process, but economics often force you down the composer route.

“When you are trying to do something creatively different like we are doing in Peaky, the only way we can do it is to get those artists involved at the production stage, which is fantastic and has worked extremely well – but that is very unusual and very hard.

“The music industry is finding other ways to explore things creatively. If the rights could actually shake up and release us then potentially we could see more shows like Peaky just being really rewarding for everybody. But I think the setup is so antiquated and I am not quite sure who it is looking after at the moment.”

With season three now confirmed (the producers announced it via Twitter in November), what are the challenges ahead? Glazebrook says: “I think we have a little bit more time. We were very tight in series two and, to an extent, Colm McCarthy was already directing when the final episode came in. So we were flying blind. Everyone who has seen that final episode will see it was pretty much all in new locations. That was hard, so we don’t want to put our director through it again.”

“We are going to have slightly longer to actually produce the show, so in essence that makes things 100 times more easy,” says Tiplady. “The driving force with Peaky is to keep pushing quality high and deliver an extraordinary viewing experience to the audience. Maintaining that is crucial to all of us, so that will be the challenge.”

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