On Set With Production Designer Belle Mundi
On the set of Thessalus and Medea
Belle Mundi’s recent film credits include the production design for the period feature Draw on Sweet Night, contemporary romantic comedy Chicklit, the fantasy feature Arthur & Merlin, sci-fi short Pulsar, and sci-fi comedy The Seventeenth Kind. She was also art director on the feature film Kaleidoscope (currently in UK cinemas) starring Toby Jones, and was the series set decorator on the US/UK Sony Crackle TV series SNATCH (starring Rupert Grint), set decorator on National Geographic’s MARS (Series Two, Episodes 5 and 6), and the UK Gold TV comedy The Rebel (Series One, starring Simon Callow). As well as working in film and TV Belle also art directs commercials and designs sets and costumes for theatre and events. Interview by Massimo Barbato. Film set photos by Mathias Falcone.
1. What was your design process for Thessalus & Medea?
Once I had read the script and broken it down, talked to Jan and Massimo, and had seen the location, I created a mood board and then focused on sourcing the key props and minimal design elements. I knew of a couple of prop houses that had Greek props but there wasn’t a huge choice. The location was in itself very evocative and labyrinthine, which was perfect, although there were some modern elements to the space that needed to be masked, so that required some planning. One key aspect of the design was to provide authentic oil lamps and braziers to light the scenes and give a period feel that looks beautiful on camera. I had several discussions with Simon Rowling, the DOP, about how to achieve this.
Medea’s hideout after Belle’s transformation
2. Where did you go for inspiration?
Jan was influenced by Fellini’s Satyricon, which I knew also and it was great to watch the film again, that really set the mood. I had also seen the opera Medea, and Harrison Birtwistle’s Minotaur, brilliantly designed by Alison Chitty, who taught me at the Motley Theatre Design course. From these I have a strong impression of a highly stylized visual language where less is more, that is a few well-chosen props and scenic elements can speak volumes, and this theatrical expressive approach was suitable for our eventful Greek drama. I wanted to start with an authentic Ancient Greek feel for the design, in order to create a world that was utterly convincing for Medea the sorceress. The paintings on Greek Attic vases are fascinating windows to another world, and great for reference so I spent some time looking at reproductions of vases from the time that the story of Medea was originally written.
(Top) Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘The Minotaur‘, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; (Bottom) Satyricon (Fellini, 1969)
3. What was the biggest challenge in creating the set for Thessalus & Medea?
The modest budget meant everything on set took on great importance so all the props and scenic elements had to be right. Also, the location was very physically challenging in that it took some time to get all the props and equipment to the rooms where we filmed (up and down a lot of steps underground) and we didn’t have much time to dress the set. I had a great team to help with this however and a very supportive director and producer!
4. What was the most satisfying part of this film project?
Seeing the set and props become Medea’s home, and then seeing Medea inhabit her home and feeling that she belonged there.
Medea’s personal possessions
5. As a production designer, what do you think is the most important aspect of your job?
Understanding and supporting the vision of the director and the challenges of the script, budget, and schedule, in order to bring the imagined world(s) to life. And working efficiently as part of a large team of people.
6. Which of your set designs are you most proud of?
I like certain design elements from several films I have worked on, especially the period films. However, I was pleased with the romantic comedy Chicklit (directed by Tony Britten), which is contemporary but involved some fantasy and historical designs also. Most recently I was the art director and set decorator on Kaleidoscope, starring Toby Jones and directed by his brother Rupert Jones. This was an independent film with a small budget but I was very proud of how it turned out. It has just been screened in London cinemas and is now in selected regional cinemas. I was also the series set decorator on SNATCH, a medium budget ten-episode TV series for Sony Crackle and now available on BT TV, which required a lot of work but I was quite pleased with how that looked.
Belle on the set of Thessalus and Medea
7. How would you advise someone starting out in production design?
To be passionate about designing, but also to realise it demands a huge amount both mentally and physically, plus it requires a range of skills and life-experience, and to be ready for those challenges. A commitment to the job is important so you can build up the experience needed to hone your skills, and this may mean you don’t have much of a social life when you are working on a film! Actually doing the job is the best way to learn, although a solid grounding in art department skills such as drafting, breaking down a script and budgeting are essential.
When you first start out try to work on some short films and low-budget films, and/or you might get work on a large studio feature or TV series as an art department runner, assistant, or junior draftsperson and work your way up. It is important to believe in yourself and your skills but always be willing to learn from more experienced people around you. Every new project brings different challenges, even for experienced designers, and you have to be flexible and brave in how you find solutions – you are the problem solver working to a budget and a schedule.
More than anything you need to enjoy working with a team of people and aim towards being a confident and inspirational team leader – you are only as good as your art department. It can be an incredibly rewarding career, and it is seldom boring!
8. Where can we see your work next?
As I mentioned, Kaleidoscope is in selected cinemas at present, and the SNATCH ten-episode box set is available on BT TV. With regard to new projects, I am hoping that the sequel to the Arthur & Merlin story will start filming in 2018 and there are some other exciting projects coming up. Updates will be posted on my website at www.bellemundi.com.