“Poor Things” Production Designers Shona Heath and James Price on Going Gleefully Mad for Director Yorgos Lanthimos
When we first meet Bella Baxer, she’s a bit unusual. Not in a physical sense. All her arms and legs are accounted for, and playing the character is Academy Award winner Emma Stone so that you can be the judge of her beauty. But something about Bella is off. Turns out, she’s the creation of Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a renowned London scientist who reincarnated her adult body with the brain of a child.
The mashup is a delight to watch as Bella carries a joyful and unbridled curiosity, dancing the hallways of Dr. Godwin’s home and asking unchecked questions over dinner that become an amusing source of humor in Poor Things from Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite). But Bella is more than an experiment to the doctor. He’s her educator, mentor, and protector until he’s not.
Creating the scientist’s peculiar residency were production designers Shona Heath and James Price, who blended period aesthetics with a modern approach to make the ornate, detailed, and sculptural quarters, which included from scratch studio builds for the living room, hallways, dining room, and Bella’s bedroom. “The styling point Yorgos wanted was a studio move from the 1930s but how it would have been made today,” Price points out. “But the big thing was he wanted it to look like nothing else before. That’s when the fun started.”
A focal point for the designers was Dr. Godwin himself, whose face is scarred as if different sections of it have been stitched together. “We started with Baxter, who would have designed his home the way he was a surgeon,” says Heath. “He sort of cut and built his house in a very unusual way.” The pair referenced medical drawings, incisions, and architects who approached their craft in a similar way. “John Soane was someone we looked at as he sort of cut up architectural styles and put them back together. A sort of brutalist approach,” notes Heath. Connecting different architectural styles became a running motif, as well as finding eras that didn’t quite exist. Say, something out of the Victorian era but had a futuristic quality that matched the otherworldly and psychedelic style of Dr. Godwin and Bella.
At the same time, the production designers made the home “soft and comfortable” as Dr. Godwin “wanted her to be happy and live in a beautiful environment.” It meant adding padded walls and padded floors to protect Bella in her unwieldy state. Colors were muted, a mix of whites, blues, greens, and browns filling the space. “The home really grew out of these two characters,” says Heath.
They also worked in a way that set decoration, overseen by Zsuzsa Mihalek, became part of the production design. For example, inspiration for the dining room came from Dr. Godwin’s love of collecting plates. Recesses in the wall allowed the display of dozens of blue and white porcelain stoneware decorating the walls. In the lounge area, helmets become architectural details instead of an afterthought. In the dining room, they wanted Dr. Godwin and Bella “to feel small, almost like dolls,” so they built chairs double the size to make them appear tiny.
“As we are designing these buildings, it’s all happening together, so the set decoration is part of the architecture, and the architecture is part of the set decoration,” says Price. Other details inside the home added to the storytelling. A painting of an English countryside made it seem like the outside world to make Bella feel free, while decorative motifs and deep textures shaped a lived-in patina. “The set dec team did a fantastic job sourcing items that sat outside the era,” adds Heath.
When Bella leaves her home, the wanderlust visits the sprawling streets of Portugal, sails to the slums of Alexandria, and finds her sexuality in Paris. Each environment is designed as a reflection of where she’s at in her journey. “Bella has a completely open mind with no preconceived notions about society. It was that freedom that we put into the designs,” says Heath.
Reflecting those ideas is a vivid color palette of purples, blues, and gold layered into the locations. Miniatures were also key design elements, like the exterior of the ocean liner. A 6-foot-long boat was constructed and shot against LED panels that showed the painterly sky. “One of the things people say about miniatures is that the water doesn’t scale the same way. But we wanted to play into that. That the scale will feel wrong,” says Price. “We wanted to be mindful that our miniatures felt like miniatures.”
Reflecting on the project as first-time collaborators, Heath was impressed by Price’s translation of the creative into a physical, while Price was taken aback by her creative ideas. “After 20 years, you get conditioned into a way of thinking because you’re always trying to strive, mostly but not always, for photorealism, so you start going down a certain path. Working with Shona was like being back at art school, and anything was possible again.”
Poor Things is in theaters now.
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Featured image: Kathryn Hunter and Emma Stone in POOR THINGS. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.