Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris sends viewers on a champagne- and banter-fueled tour through different eras of Paris, including the roaring ’20s and La Belle Époque. Aside from attracting some of the director’s best notices in years, Midnight was honored with four Academy Award nominations. One of those nominations is for Art Direction, an award that would be shared by production designer Anne Seibel and set decorator Hélène Dubreuil. Seibel, a French production designer with credits including Marie Antoinette and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, spoke with Co.Create about working with Woody Allen, why the best light bulbs are found in Germany, and how to establish an era. She guides us through the making of two different sets, and eras, in the film–the storied Moulin Rouge and the apartment of Gertrude Stein.
Can you give us a basic overview of what your role as production designer covers?
The production designer has to create the environment around the actors, and that covers everything. I start by doing the recce–the location scouting. For example, the slide show of Paris that Woody put at the beginning of the movie. I would look for those images, and give him an idea of shots I liked. That’s part of my visual job. If I can build stages for the movie, you can think of me as an architect. As a designer, I do the conception and then an assistant makes a plan, a construction manager executes the plan, and a set decorator looks for furniture and props. Then I figure out how to arrange everything in the room, like an interior designer. My job goes all the way down to the little spoon the actors put in their mouths–everything around the actor. I have an orchestra; a team of people who help me do it all. But I create the look for it.
What’s the most important aspect of production design on a project like Midnight in Paris?
The relationship with the director is most important because I have to visualize what’s inside his head, and what will serve the story. The relationship with the director of photography and costume designer is important as well. These people will enhance what I create, and it’s a joint effort to find the mood and look of the movie. I really like to work with people I connect with, and it was perfect working with Woody. He gave me carte blanche in terms of what we could try. I tried to figure out what he was looking for, and to recreate the Paris he was dreaming of when he was younger. It’s also important to have the right team of people who work with me closely, which I do. What is driving me for all these years is that we are builders of dreams. We try to make the audience believe by serving the director and giving him the place he can set his story.
Were you trying to present an idealized version of Paris, or one that was more historically accurate?
It was more than giving what I thought people would like to see. I based all my work here on two months of research, very deep research. I read a lot of books and watched a lot of video of the period, and took in paintings, and all these things. I put myself in every character of the movie. You cannot reproduce the exact reality, though. Sometimes everything’s in a studio and it’s all fake, but if it’s quite well done, you don’t see it. When I worked on Marie Antoinette, we didn’t film that much in Versailles, but people thought we did.
Can you walk us through the Moulin Rouge scene that appeared in the film?
It was a challenge to find the space. The location manager [Yann Jounic] and I found a place and I had the challenge to sell it to Woody Allen on the first day of recce [scouting]. I was very shy and there were the two of us in the middle of this modern concert hall with shiny black floor. I had done some illustrations of what I had in mind, and when I spoke to Woody, he said he could visualize it and we were going to make it happen there. I was very happy. I believed it, deeply in my heart, but when he agreed, I was relieved.
I tried to get as close as possible to the reality of the Moulin Rouge. It was a very specific wooden floor and balcony, and since I couldn’t use the actual place, I observed the original references and I observed what was most striking about them. It was the wooden floor (1), the balcony (2), and the chandelier (3), and a balustrade (4) that did not exist where we were. I was thinking, if I manage to put them in the place we found, the audience will have this image of it already that we will match; even if you look at it piece by piece and see it’s not the same thing. Movies just give you an impression when you draw the audience to the scene.
I was struck by the lighting fixtures in this scene; it seems like one of those subtle, crucial details.
Lighting fixtures are very important. So very often, when I do sets I think of where the light can come from and how I can help by already putting in the set an opening for the light or light fixtures. I have to coordinate with the gaffer to make sure that the light I’m using doesn’t interfere. The problem is that the new light bulbs, the economy ones, they give a different color. For Midnight in Paris, we had to change all the bulbs in the street because they were showing up green. We had to either remove the bulb or use a filter or bring our own lamppost.
For the Moulin Rouge scene, there was a big chandelier coming down from the middle, dumping down gallons of light to the pillars on the side. I made a row of lights (5) all around the chandelier, and all the light fixtures on the walls (6) and on the pilaster. We built around this metal pilaster that was there before. There was a period one I found in pieces in different antique shops, and the big standing one I found in England because in France they didn’t have anything like it. It’s kind of an interesting look. And the bulbs, we found in Germany. The bulbs give off this special kind of vibration that works well with a dimmer for the right effect. During the whole movie, Darius [Khondji, the director of photography] and I worked together closely on the light fixture. Everything was equipped in a certain way so Darius could put all the lights on a dimmer. Using the right shade we managed to make a different tone and create a warm color.
Can you walk us through the set of Gertrude Stein’s study?
Gertrude Stein’s studio still exists, but I just designed a flat in the mode of what she would have done, you know, in my head. She loved all artistic things. She was collecting art, she was reading books, she was collecting… cigarette holders. I put a lot of little details like these in the set. The colors as well. The colors might have been different than what she actually had. What we decided [she and Darius Khondji] was to give it this golden brown/beige look  from the period to help draw the audience into another era. I used a lot of reference. I didn’t copy only one thing.
I tried to reproduce this room quite well because it’s the room where she used to hang up all the pictures she was collecting . She was really in love with art. As you can see, she bought for peanuts very valuable paintings. All along the wall you have Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, all these painters of this time that she was buying from, and they were very poor in general and she was buying from and collecting. That’s the study where she used to sit with her girlfriend, Alice [B. Toklas] and they used to have tea there and entertain people. I tried to reproduce it. It’s not exactly like that because this is in a flat. I had seen the fireplace  in images in books, and it’s accurate from the period. So is the tea set . This is where, in the film, Picasso [Marcial Di Fonzo Bo] is showing Adriana [Marion Cotillard] paintings. It’s more of a sitting room.
Do you create the furniture or seek it out?
We have places in France and Italy where they rent furniture, antique shops. We go to flea markets. Most of the furniture, like the chairs  in the study, I reupholster and put fabric on it and change all the cushions. Most of it, you can’t make it. But you find it everywhere. Searching is the job of the set director. She finds the place and goes and gets things for me. But we manufacture most of the hand-props; like a diary or a notebook. On a very big movie, they make furniture.