The production design of “Midnight In Paris” – conversation with Anne Seibel

November 18th, 2011

Midnight in Paris” is the latest production written and directed by Woody Allen. A young couple, portrayed by Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams, travels to Paris on the eve of their wedding. As Owen’s character falls in love with the city, the movie takes an unexpected turn, exploring a nostalgic – and at times over-idealized – fantasy that a life different from ours would be much better. The opening sequence of the movie, with the camera lingering lazily on stunning Parisian vistas, sets the visual tone for the entire movie, with fantastic performances from a star-studded cast.

Anne Seibel is responsible for the flawlessly executed production design of the movie. Over the last couple of decades she has worked on numerous productions, from “Marie Antoinette” to “Munich”, from “Swordfish” to “The Happening”. I am quite delighted that Anne has agreed to answer a few questions I had about her work on the movie and her craft in general.

Kirill: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Anne: I studied in an architecture school, and I always liked doing art props for dance shows and family productions. My family was not in the movie business, but rather in science and medicine, and I went to study architecture. One day a friend of my parents offered to take me to a movie set, and I was very curious to see what happens during the shoot. There I realized there was an entire team of people doing what I was doing at home – making the sets – and it attracted me. I realized that with my background in architecture I can be part of such a team.

After finishing the school I had a chance encounter with someone working in the movie business, and when he asked me what I wanted to do, I told him that I wanted to do sets for movies. He offered me a job to draw a few sets for the fund-raising presentation. After working there and meeting a few people I have decided to call ten best designers in France to get an assistant position.

And then one day, I met a big designer named Serge Douy at the bar and he told me that he has a small job to mirror an english crew coming to Paris to film a movie, and he needs someone who speaks english. I asked which movie was that, and he said that it’s a James Bond movie – and I screamed inside my head.

Kirill: And that was “A View to a Kill” in 1985?

Anne: Exactly. That was my opportunity to start working on english-speaking american productions. I made friends with set decorator Jille Azis whom I was mirroring, and I went with her to her next movie, “The Living Daylights” which was shot in Morocco with a french speaking crew. From there I continued working first as an assistant art director, and later as an art director, on additional productions that came to France. I also did french movies as additional education with great designers, most of whom are now gone. And as time went, I learned my skill from great production designers that I worked with.

Kirill: What are your impressions working on american movies shot in Europe?

Anne: Sometimes I am hired as an art director to recreate the Paris parts of the movie outside France itself, in Budapest or Prague, for example. This happened on “G.I. Joe” with Ed Verreaux and “Munich” with Rick Carter. On other movies, such as “Rush Hour” or other scenes in “Munich” I work in France. Even “Marie Antoinette” is an american movie, even though it is about french history. I worked with K.K. Barrett as a supervising art director, and it goes very deep into the local history and culture, which might be difficult for an American to understand in detail – same as it would be difficult for me to research and recreate New York or London, more difficult because it’s not in my blood.

We were doing “Munich” with the production designer Rick Carter in Paris, and for financial reasons some parts were shot later in Budapest. At first I thought that I would not be doing those parts, but he called me and asked me to join him in Budapest to continue the work, and it was fantastic.

Marie Antoinette, detailed bedroom plan. Click to see fullsize image.

Marie Antoinette, detailed bedroom drawing.

Marie Antoinette, bedroom location before decoration.

Marie Antoinette, bedroom location after decoration.

Marie Antoinette, final stills.

Kirill: I was just recently watching “Marie Antoinette” again, and it is so unbelievably rich in color, texture and incredibly lush set decorations. How did it go on your side?

Anne: It’s one of my best memories. It was such a nice and warm vibe working with Sofia Coppola. I did a lot of research, and had a real thrill doing all the construction. It was such a pleasure to go into the smallest details reproducing Versailles, to see how it was done – a really good way of learning history, better than at school. It was fantastic to go to Versailles, to meet the people who maintain the gardens and to talk with historians. I met this completely mad woman who is collecting everything about Marie Antoinette, and it was really incredible to see some of the pieces. It’s a really interesting part of our job to do the research, to put yourself in a different period.

We also spent a lot of time on small details. For example, we made extensive camera tests to find the right color of the gold. We didn’t want it to be too pink or too green, and you might not have noticed it, but it does not feel cold. We looked very carefully at colors and fabrics, and how they reproduced on the screen.

Kirill: This brings me to your latest movie, “Midnight In Paris”. It also has a very stylish look from the very first opening sequence. As the production designer of this movie, what was the initial exploration stage between you, the cinematographer and the director?

Anne: Woody Allen movies are different. The very first thing they told me during the interview – no construction, as Woody does not spend more the 10 million dollars per movie. With such a small budget for art department it was a challenge to do this movie in France. As soon as casting was over and I started working on it, I spent a lot of time researching the period. It was about two months before the shooting started, watching films, reading books and other materials.

I had very little discussion with Woody Allen. I saw him for an hour in New York, and about half an hour in Cannes after I’ve already looked at different locations that I could transform and adjust for the different periods of the movie. The contemporary period was the simplest, even when we tried to achieve a certain look with the cinematographer Darius Khondji. When I first met Darius, I gave him all my research to get on the same level. We worked closely, particularly on the colors and light of the period – brown, maroon and beige – and brighter colors for contemporary, to give a sense of passing from one period to another. And we had these great conversations about colors that I wanted to use, and how it fit into the look that he was targetting. We also talked a lot about the lighting and the practicals that we equiped in a certain way to affect the mood. I had another DoP (director of photography) calling me and asking how we managed to achieve this unity of lighting – and it’s because we worked together from the beginning on colors, texture of the shade, vibration of the bulbs and dim of the lights.

We had a task to find a modern location which we could use for 1920s within the budget restrictions, to find a solution that makes the viewer believe that it is a location from that period. “Moulin Rouge” was a particular challenge for me, my art director and my construction manager. The original building from the beginning of 20th century does not exist anymore, and there are very few concert halls or theaters that could be used to reproduce the original structure. We found one concert hall that hosts rock concerts, with a balcony running around it, and I took Darius there to show him the space that I will transform with false wooden floor, built ballustrades, drapes and period lights. I chose this place and studied a few visual elements that would attract the audience’s eye – light bulbs, peelers, table, railings – particular pieces that I found in the period references from my initial research. We managed to achieve the look we wanted with the mood and lighting by Darius, and if you look at the references, it’s the same feel.

Mood board for the “Moulin Rouge” set by Anne Seibel.

When I went there with Woody, it was completely empty, and I thought that if he doesn’t like it, we don’t know what we’re going to do, because we only had one place. We used drawings and mood boards, and I sold the idea of shooting at that place, and everyone was waiting as Woody and I were standing alone in the middle of it, and he said “that could work”. Everyone was relieved, and that’s where we did it, a combination of finding little tricks and keeping within the budget.

Kirill: You mentioned that you wanted a distinct look for each period, but the first transition was almost unnoticeable. Owen Wilson gets into the car, goes into the nightclub, and it took me some time to realize what is happening. Was that intentional as you slowly introduced different costumes, lighting and colors?

Anne: As the car goes up the road, we started removing modern items, as the car itself, and the people and their costumes are telling that it’s different. It’s not telling it straight away as it can be people going to a dressing party, but as they’re stepping outside, they come into a place which has the real look of 1920s, the costumes, the furniture, the mood, and that slow transition was intentional to make people realize what is going on. We want to make a bit of mystery surrounding the midnight, and I like the way we did it.

Kirill: How much time overall did you spend on the movie?

Anne: The filming was seven weeks, the official preparation was also seven weeks, and I personally researched for two months before that. We shot it during the summer, as Woody calls them “Woody Allen summer projects”.

Kirill: What happened during the preparation?

Anne: When Woody came five weeks before the shooting began, I had visuals and mood boards to illustrate my vision. Most of the time it worked, and we only spent a lot of time on the Pigalle set. Woody wanted to go to that district which is very modern with a lot of neon lights, traffic and sex shops. We looked around a lot of little streets, and we ended up in Pigalle narrowing the space. If you go out of the frame, it’s all modern, but within the frame it was our magic – change the facade, change the lighting, change the coffee shop furniture, the posters, the cars in front – just the magic of dressing.

A sketch of a 1920’s restaurant exterior.

The decorated exterior of “Polidor” restaurant by Anne Seibel.

There was also a place that I found, and I really liked it, and it was completely unusual and not even part of the script. Some of the Zelda Fitzgerald’s cocktail parties were supposed to be in an apartment, and this place I found was a museum for fair pieces, with old merry-go-rounds and game machines, was so incredible, with such a strange dark ambience, that I had to take Woody there. When Woody went there, he was like a child and he changed the script to have the party inside this place. It was the look of the place that made him change the location.

Kirill: Did you spend a lot of time decorating the hotel room where Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams stay in the modern period?

Anne: We shot it on location in “Bristol” hotel. We changed things according to the script – the lights, the curtains – just dressing it with props and flowers. We didn’t do anything major, but there are always some adjustments to do, especially with lighting because it’s very complicated to film in a small area. We did a lot of research on different hotels, and this was our favorite.

Kirill: Did you enjoy working within the tight limitations of the budget?

Anne: It’s a challenge, but at the same time the budget is never enough, even on big movies. You just never have enough money. I enjoyed this challenge, and I liked that the producer Raphaël Benoliel brought this movie here [Paris], and he made us feel as one big family on the set. It was a pleasure working with everybody, communicating, working for Woody Allen, making his movie the best we could.

Kirill: Do you have a favorite scene?

Anne: I really enjoyed “Moulin Rouge”, mostly because of the set, and all the scenes with Gertrude Stein [Kathy Bates]. I also liked the surrealistic wedding at the taxidermist “Deyrolle”, where we created special lamps with feathers, working around the wild animals. We managed to create a different look for different scenes, instead of going for a traditional look of apartments or restaurants, and I’m very pleased with this movie.

Mood board for the Gertrude Stein set by Anne Seibel.

Final decorated set for Gertrude Stein location by Anne Seibel.

Kirill: You worked on different types of productions, periods and looks. Do you have a favorite one?

Anne: Contemporary movies set in usual locations interest me less. Woody’s next movie, “Nero Fiddled” is set in Rome, and although it’s a contemporary movie, I tried to find unusual locations to serve the script, giving various different look at the same time. I’d love to be able to work on a fantasy movie, where you can completely let go of your imagination and go crazy, like on Tim Burton productions.

Kirill: Can you recommend a few of your favorite productions?

Anne: It is hard to choose a few. “Midnight In Paris”, of course, is my first recommendation. The film I will watch again and again with a true pleasure. “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”. I am a fan of Tim Burton and Terry Gillian. Recently I enjoy very much the Polanski film “The Ghost writer” and I liked “Avatar”, for the look of it, and because I’m a great fan of Rick Carter. I really loved what he has created in the Avatar world.

Kirill: Do you start analyzing the production aspect of movies when you go to the cinema?

Anne: Sometimes. I look at it, because it’s my job, and I like movies in general. When I saw “Midnight in Paris” for the first time in Cannes, I was drawn into it even though I worked on it. Woody did a really beautiful film with what we created for him. When you work on a movie, you don’t realize what will happen and what the director is going to do with it. It was very clever in the way he put things together, and I was totally drawn into it and I believed in it myself, even knowing how we set up the scenes.

Mood board for the “Deyrolles” surrealistic wedding by Anne Seibel.

Anne Seibel on the constructed set of “Deyrolles”.

And here I’d like to thank Anne Seibel for the interview and the supporting materials, and Rebecca Fayyad of Sheldon Prosnit Agency for putting me in touch with Anne.