As public focus on diversity in the film industry intensifies, it’s more important than ever to highlight the work of the amazing and talented women who have devoted their careers to film production. This is why I jumped at the chance to interview Eve Stewart, an Oscar-nominated production designer who has been working in film, television, and theater for 20+ years. Her latest project, The Danish Girl, is—visually speaking—a masterpiece. And that’s hugely thanks to her.
A production designer’s job is to oversee all visual elements of a film and help shape its visual theme. While the screenwriters and actors tell a story on camera, so must the production designer. The Danish Girl, for example, tells the story of Lili Elbe, the first trans woman to ever undergo gender confirmation surgery. As the plot progresses and evolves, so do the visual elements of the film (something Stewart took great care to ensure).
Before talking to Stewart, I didn’t fully understand what a production designer does. After talking to her, I think it’s one of the most exciting jobs in the world. Stewart is part historian, part designer, part treasure hunter, and part cajoler. No day is the same and with every film comes more unique challenges.
Below you’ll find our conversation (lightly edited for clarity).
Jezebel: Jumping right in, I thought The Danish Girl was so visually stunning and I was really taken by the color choices—all those royal blues and saffron yellows. I was wondering if you could talk me through your process—what goes through your head while reading a script, what stands out to you, and how you come to those visual decisions?
Eve Stewart: My first point is to always talk to the director—Tom Hooper—and then I start doing an awful lot of research. I dug into archives and photographs of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. I even went to the hospital in Dresden where Lili was treated, so I did lots and lots of things like that, but what mostly appealed to me was their art. I found that that was the key into the whole project and that’s how I formed my palette.
At the beginning, you’re right—there are lots of blues and greys. We looked to contemporary artists of the time who were working in Scandinavia—in Copenhagen. There was one particular one called Hammershøi and he painted a lot of architecture. That’s really where Lili and Gerda’s apartment came from because I felt it expressed where they were at that time. And later, when Lili starts blossoming, that’s when we looked to Gerda’s paintings because they’re so interested in Lili and so fascinated with her. And also they represent a real color shift in their lives and that’s what we tried to do—reflect that.
In the press notes, you mention how the art nouveau styles in Paris—where Lili and Gerda move after Lili starts living more openly as a woman—were much more feminine. Hearing it put that way—it was something that I emotionally registered, but didn’t register logically, which is very cool.
Oh, great! Because ostensibly, you’ve got to hang back. You know, I’m not a big egotistical designer. I tried to support the characters and the story wherever I could. They did come from a rather buttoned up society in Copenhagen and when they get to Paris—it was at the height of art nouveau, which expressed the higher echelons of the artist society in which they began living. It just hit so many buttons. The curvaciousness, the—as you say—femininity, the warm soft colors—golds and pinks. It just summed up a time that I haven’t seen that much on screen. I’m so excited to show that slice of European history.
It felt like sitting in a painting for two hours.
It was amazing in that the more I read and the more I heard stories and anecdotes about Lili—I mean, Lili was a piece of art for her own sake. She became her own creation. The background as a painting was just to support that.
That actually leads perfectly to my next question. Do you feel that working on a film that portrays artists puts pressure on you to create something more visually stimulating?
Yeah, of course. I was very nervous because obviously we’re reproducing a lot of Gerda’s art and, to some extent, Lili’s art and there’s this great anxiety because you want to be deferential to their art, but at the same time you need it to work cinematically within the narrative that the director is telling. So we did sort of alter things, change scale slightly while still telling the truth about what their art was. It always had to be well-connected with the narrative.
You’ve worked with Hooper on a number of films, right?
What brings you back to that collaboration? What makes a good working relationship between a director and a production designer?
Tom and I are both interested in understanding the world that the characters live in—fully investigating their world and trying to portray that in the most sensitive and true way that we can. It’s very character based and I find that incredibly appealing. As a human being, I’m sort of nosy. I want to know details of other people’s lives and immerse myself in them. I think working with Tom gives me a chance to do that.
One thing I was impressed by was how many women filled high ranking production roles on this movie. Is that typical?
You know what? In the last couple of years, it’s begun to really shift. It’s taken a long time and I think we women are kind of just hanging in there and our talents—particularly in design and management and multitasking—are finally getting recognized. It’s a real thrill, particularly in production design roles, but also in camera work and directing—not just the traditional roles of makeup and costume.
It is a real thrill to see more women around. And it makes for a much happier shoot really—the balance.
By a million miles. A film crew should be a reflection of society—you can’t really exclude part of it.
And for a movie that’s so much about gender—I get really into the women in Hollywood stuff, so it’s really exciting to see that shift.
It’s really important that we make noise about how successful we are and what inroads we’re making into different roles. And we can only keep going and bring the next generation with us.
That’s great. Back to the movie, was there a location that you found that felt like a major score? Is there a set that you’re most proud of?
I was so thrilled to work with the people in Copenhagen at the harbor. Because when we first looked at it is was populated by cafes and tourists with pleasure cruises chugging up and down all day. It was such a thrill to meet, to sway, to cajole, to charm all the historical boat owners around the coast. To sway people to bring in their ships. The joy on their faces when they all came together was thrilling.
So you have to be a very skilled people person to do your job. You have to get people to loan you things and participate…
All the time! Even in Brussels, we were persuading museums that never had filming before to allow us to film. We had to promise to be careful. Yeah, you have to really be a people person and respect other walks of life. You can’t arrive in your big boots, like “I’m a film company, let me in.” You have to persuade and get people on board and I think it enriches the project.
In Copenhagen, I had people coming to me, like “We just had a catch of herring. Do you want me to bring them in?” “Oh, yes please!” Chucking fish guts around everywhere.
Sounds very glamorous.
Were all the sets on location or were some of them built?
Because it was such a short shoot, we had to build the two main sets. We built the Copenhagen apartment with the art studio and the Parisian apartment. That was the amazing thing because it was quite a low budget picture and we were trying to build this very glamorous Parisian apartment. It was slightly difficult to get the moldings and everything. Ages ago, I was in Wales looking for antiques and I found this old French panelling being sold in a barn somewhere. So I just said to my art director, “I bet we can buy some panels on Ebay.” So we looked on the magical Ebay and there it was—enough panels on Ebay to make almost all of that set.
Oh, my god!
I know! And they arrived in these terrible container boxes. It was like that show where you have to open the mystery door. Like, “OH, we struck gold!”
What did people do before the internet?!
It was such a joy, such a surprise. It was almost like it was waiting for us.
I love the scavenger hunt element of it. It’s so exciting.
I only have one more question for you—looking through your credits it seems like you do a lot of period movies.
Do you prefer those movies because they’re so historically rich and challenging?
I love them, I really love doing them, but I think what happens is you gain a good reputation for doing them and then you get asked to do more. I’d equally love to do something set on a rocket ship or Mars or something.
Ultimately, though, I think period pieces lend themselves to my rather investigative side. I really like to find information .
You know, this added a whole new layer to the movie—just to hear what your work is.
I’m also excited to see what your Frankenstein project looks like.
I loved it! It was so much fun! I did so much work with scientists, trying to learn all the stuff you would need to actually bring something back to life. If I see someone drop in the street, I could probably do it...
Your brain must be such a random grab bag of knowledge.
Yes! Tons of random facts that all pop out… hopefully at the right time.
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Images via Focus Films/The Danish Girl.