Production designer Sonja Klaus tells DQ how she reunited with writer Steven Knight to bring to life his adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and discusses her fresh approach to one of the author’s most iconic characters, the jilted spinster Miss Havisham.
Having previously linked up with writer Steven Knight on Taboo and A Christmas Carol, production designer Sonja Klaus didn’t need an excuse to reunite with the Peaky Blinders creator on his second Charles Dickens adaptation, Great Expectations.
“I love him. I’m a big fan of Steven,” she tells DQ. “As a writer, he dangles a carrot and starts creating the scenarios for you and the characters, and where they are and what the tone of the piece is. He doesn’t treat you like you’re an idiot.
“I read some scripts where they write every description. ‘She picks up the tiny pink cup with her very skinny hand and places it on the textured, old, wrinkled leather-top desk.’ [Knight] doesn’t do that. He doesn’t need to do that because you read it and you just go to that place.”
Taboo challenged Klaus to recreate 1814 London for a dark and sinister story of a man returning home from Africa for his father’s funeral, set against the backdrop of corruption and crime involving the East India Company. A Christmas Carol then tasked her to bring to life Knight’s typically subversive take on what is probably Dickens’ most adapted work.
Yet it’s Great Expectations – a story set in the early 19th century – that Klaus says has been their most difficult partnership, owing simply to the challenge of presenting the story’s most iconic character – the jilted bride Miss Haversham, resigned to wearing her wedding dress for the rest of her days – in a fresh and interesting way.
“It was particularly important for me not do the old crumbling wedding stuff, have the cake with rats all over it, put bits of old skanky cloth up in the windows and have a load of dust everywhere,” she says. “And the way Steven wrote it, it was quite dark. Like A Christmas Carol and Taboo, he takes you into the dark and then he’ll have another character to take you back out to that again.”
Great Expectations is the coming-of-age story of Pip (Fionn Whitehead), an orphan who yearns for a greater lot in life until a twist of fate introduces him to the mysterious and eccentric Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman) and her adopted daughter Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin), showing him a dark world of possibilities. When great expectations are thrust upon him, Pip will have to work out the cost of this new world and whether it will truly make him the man he wishes to be. The series is produced by FX Productions, Scott Free and Hardy Baker & Son for the BBC and US cablenet FX.
Klaus says that, from the outset, the series needed to be something that would make viewers sit up and take notice. “Great Expectations had to have great expectations,” she notes.
That much is guaranteed with Knight’s scripts and an ensemble cast that also boasts Ashley Thomas (Top Boy), Johnny Harris (The Salisbury Poisonings), Hayley Squires (Adult Material) and Matt Berry (Toast of London), not to mention a certain Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) among the executive producers.
But it was the conundrum swirling around the enigmatic Miss Havisham that informed Klaus’s early conversations with the production team.
“The drive was not to make it about this woman in this dress the entire time, just wandering about. Like, really? I don’t think she does that,” she says. “So it was a case of making it more real. You feel like Dickens was basing her on somebody he knew or an experience he had, because he does that in quite a lot of his writing anyway. And it was like, ‘What was she doing all day long?’”
Lifting the character off the page, Klaus wanted her to have a “strange” habit of chewing betel nuts, while her dress bears the stains of her opium use owing to the way she would clean her pipe on her skirt.
“She’s also quite into burning, which I got from my mother,” she says. “My mother’s 89 and she loves a bonfire. So we gave her a tub in her room where she probably burnt the letters she got from her lover or any people writing to her, enquiring for money or whatever it was.”
Klaus developed the character further by putting tiny labels on her belongings to suggest a possessive streak, while also describing her as an obsessive book reader. “She probably read all the books in the house – what else does she do all the day? We had meetings in the art department talking about that. And I used to play a game – whoever comes up with the best thing gets a prize. You don’t want her to just waft about, chewing on an old bun,” the designer adds.
That the character is a “nosey parker,” watching the outside world from behind the curtains, meant it was also imperative the production found the right house for her to live in – one that wasn’t an isolated country pile but rather a building in a bustling town.
Consequently, one of the key locations in the six-part series is Miss Havisham’s home, Satis House, which Klaus and her locations team found in the English cathedral city of Salisbury. Importantly for the production designer, the grand property had never been seen on screen before.
However, the team only used the exterior and didn’t shoot inside the house. Klaus then built a vestibule just beyond the large front door, which acted as a link between the real building and the interior rooms and hallways that were either constructed in a studio or recreated at Shirburn Castle in Oxfordshire.
“I designed an entire house based on using the house in Salisbury, and I worked out where Miss Havisham’s bedroom would be,” Klaus explains. “I worked out where the drawing room was, the corridors, all of that. You have to work that out because when the audience is watching it, you don’t want it to jump from one room to another like a kangaroo.
“I wanted them to know where she was going. But at the same time, I didn’t want them to know where she was going because that was the mystery of the discovery of the house for Pip. That was a whole thing, that Pip was to discover this place. So there’s this jungle you have to go through to get to places. But at the same time, I didn’t want it to be too confusing for the audience.”
The character’s bedroom, dressing room and a large corridor were shot at Shirburn, where the production team also created the Satis House brewery.
That Klaus was intent on building so many rooms was down to the fact she wanted the audience to know there had been some money behind the project, and also so that the cameras didn’t keep returning to characters stuck in the same place.
“I can’t stand that when I’m watching something,” she says, “so you’re working out percentages of how much viewing time you spend in each space and whether that justifies building them. I meet designers who say, ‘I have to build everything,’ but you probably don’t have to build it if it’s only half a page [of the script]. That’s a waste of money. But you have to be sensible because we had a lot of sets to do and they all had to be remarkable, because the characters Steven created were so rounded.
“You think about Jaggers [Thomas] – he’s so luxurious, mysterious and vile, and he’s the key to London. He’s the fixer. So you’ve got to give him some lavishness and thickness to where he is. The same with Wemmick [Rudi Dharmalingam] and all of them really, and not just shoving them in a bit of Georgian architecture.”
A veteran of period dramas – she also worked on Mr Selfridge – Klaus says these series never get any easier to make, despite her experience. Instead, each project throws up different challenges.
On Great Expectations, she was also tasked with creating a juxtaposition between the countryside and the grand scale of London – which ultimately meant filming in the city. “You can’t go to Ludlow, where there are lots of nice Georgian buildings, and pretend you’re in London,” she says. “You could potentially be in Clapham, maybe, or Battersea, or you could pretend you were somewhere else, but not when it comes to Fleet Street or Bond Street. You only have to go there and look at the buildings. Most of them are Georgian and they’re huge, so you have to fight for that.
“The Royal Exchange was written in the script, and there’s a very good one up in Manchester that would be a great match, but it’s full of shops,” she says. “It’s got a Costa [coffee shop] in it, and we’re not going to go and film that now, are we? That’s why we ended up at the Foreign Office, because it’s a brilliant match. Finding that and getting permission to go there was tricky. But again, you get a good location manager and you’ve got an executive producer who’s on board to support you and you’ll get it. And we got it.”
Filming street scenes also proved to be tricky, as the Foreign Office is close to the prime minister’s residence in Downing Street, where demonstrations meant production there was “very touch and go.” As a result, a lot of those scenes were also shot in Shrewsbury, which doubled for the two sides of the story – Pip’s world and London.
“We used a bit of Shirburn for his lodgings, but we had to show where he was, so we used stuff shooting up in Shrewsbury. Again, it’s always important to get those links together so there’s no jump and there’s a fluidity with the architecture. But filming in Shrewsbury had its own sets of problems. It’s a busy town, but it’s got some great streets that work for those places in the lower end of London.”
With advancements in visual and special effects, it might be a surprise to learn how much of Great Expectations was physically built. But Klaus believes CGI should never be seen as a “quick fix.” It was used in the series to add more trees on the marshlands and insert moats into the landscape, while also removing yachts that sometimes crept into the back of scenes set beside waterways. Painted flattages were also used as backdrops, rather than relying on blue screens that would be replaced in post-production.
“I got that [approach] after years of working with Ridley,” Klaus says. “Ridley loves everything to be real and a lot of directors I’ve worked with, they also love the real thing, and love that you can touch it and see it. For actors also, it’s very hard for them when it’s just a load of blue screen. I’m sure Avatar was really difficult because they’re acting with blue everywhere. It’s not real. That was their challenge. But that’s that, and this is this.”