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A PDC Interview: Anna Falguères

Anna Falguères is a French production designer working in both France and Belgium. Among her work are the films "Eden" and "Things to Come" by Mia Hansen-Løve, "Summertime" by Catherine Corsini, "Private Property" and "Our Children" by Joachim Lafosse.

You started out in film working on friends’ student films before landing your first job as an assistant on a commercial shoot and then working your way up through the art department ranks, from prop master to decoration to art direction in independent film. How has that trajectory (as compared to a more formal training in film design/drafting) shaped the kind of designer you’ve become?

The trajectory I took certainly shaped the designer I became. Obviously, there is positive and negative in this very unusual way of learning.

On the good side, because I worked with tiny crews on my first few projects I think I developed a strong taste for a sensitive and emotional approach [to filmmaking] and an appetite for independence. As a child, I was always impressed and struck by people’s interiors. When I went to someone else’s house, I was quiet and observed a lot. Instead of asking questions, it was my way to understand the people who lived there, to read a part of their personality. The colors, the objects, the light, the smells, everything was telling me something, and I liked to imagine their stories starting from their interiors. This strange passion I had as a child became like a reserve which I could draw from when I started working on set design or even as prop master. Even today I sometimes go back to those memories while reading a script. What’s more, I made the set dressing by myself for a long time and was also very close to objects when I worked as a prop master. I continue to find my first creative direction through a particular object, wallpaper, a light… Tiny things sometimes but which echoed with my first ideas and intentions [for a script].

On the downside, because I worked in a lot of natural locations and supervised set decoration by myself for a long time, it took me some time to feel comfortable with larger crews and construction work. But I guess this is part of the process. Experience, challenges and good collaborations made me realize that for a long time I had missed out on the enjoyment of collaborating with specific members of a formal production design crew. In any case, I really liked to exchange and learn from new collaborators, new projects, new crews.

On this side of the ocean, production design in independent movies is certainly very different work from the larger scale productions in the American film industry. Sometimes I can tell in the first few minutes of a huge Hollywood film that they’ve already spent the equivalent of a budget I have for an entire independent movie. Nevertheless, I still love to be blown away by that kind of production design work and would one day love to witness this long work process.

Are there things you wished you had known when you began in the industry?

Of course. When I began, I had no fine arts formation, no architectural awareness (which are the two backgrounds required to debut in production design here). I only had my sensibility, my desire and taste. When I think about it, that was quite lightweight! I only did four or five student films when I was asked to do my first feature film in which Isabelle Huppert was the main character [Nue propriété, directed by Joachim Lafosse]. It was both very lucky and pure madness at the same time. But I wanted so badly to learn that I managed to do it. For “Nue propriété” the whole team was between 19 and 25 years old, and I remember the first lunch we shared with Isabelle Huppert. We were all there, looking like students, offering sandwiches and I was thinking: she will never come back and do the film with us… But she did, and I learned a lot observing her.

Because I was living in Belgium and there was no production design section in the different film schools, I was like a non-student among the students. I was very happy to have my independence from school rules but at the same time I was quite disappointed to not be able to learn about the technical aspects of filmmaking. As I was sometimes [a single-person art department] on projects, I spent a lot of time on sets dawdling with the different departments, asking questions, and chatting. That was my “as you go along” learning process.

The part I really was passionate about was photography. I wanted to learn more about the camera work and the light. Fortunately, I did several of my first features with a friend as D.O.P: Hichame Alaouie. They were his first projects too and together we learned to collaborate between production design and camera work. We shared our questions about colors and fabrics a lot, and I tried to help his work with the right lamps - which are a very important part of the sets for me – every decision we made was made with respect to the light and this is something I still love to work on.

For my other weaknesses, I tried to compensate by making my own private film school: observing, meeting and reading. Today I think it was the good way for me because I learn best by experimenting first.

Are there lessons you learned from mentors or designers you worked with that you've tried to apply in your own process? When I was just beginning, I worked with Veronique Mélery (set decorator on Jackie/ Phantom Thread/ Marie Antoinette) and Philippe L’Eveque. They are a pair of very talented set decorators. They have a huge love for culture and design history and they have remarkable taste.

They were the first to note my desire when I was still a prop master trainee. Later they contacted me to be their assistant set decorator. When I worked with them in Brussels, our days always started with an early meeting: 6:30 AM at the flea market. Philippe wanted to be there early when the sellers opened their trucks in order to be the first to see the merchandise. As he ran from one truck to another, I was in charge of getting a first look around at everything that was already unwrapped. The point was not to find something specific, but rather to be surprised or drawn by something. I had to let my eyes roam free and be caught by colors or shapes. That was a very special approach to the work and I’m very grateful to them for having shared this with me because I believe letting your sensibility speak and letting yourself be surprised is a good process for reaching the right combination of intellectual and emotional parts of the work.

As we don’t have rental houses or prop libraries for production design in Belgium, the flea market and the whole antique dealer district were the places I learned the most. Philippe and Véronique taught me the most important: a taste for objects and furniture history and confidence in my eyes and feelings.

In Brussels, you can occasionally come across the contents of an entire house spread out on the ground at the flea market and our mornings there were sometimes brightened with small treasures. These are very beautiful memories for me, and when I have the opportunity, I still love to go to the market early. In the springtime, it’s paradise.

You’ve designed many beautiful location-based films that feel very intimate (like L’avenir, La belle saison). Do you seek those kinds of projects out or do they find you?

Maybe it’s a bit of both. It’s true that directors think about me for these kinds of projects but on the other hand, I think I also give the projects a very intimate touch because that’s my way of thinking and diving into the project. As I work a lot in independent film, I often read scripts like a window into the director’s intimate self. It’s always a wonderful part of the work to translate their universe, memories and what they want the audience to understand about characters through the sets.

I get a lot of energy from this challenge and I love to build the sets in order to make them become very intimate. In a sense, I really work to try to deliver a past to the different characters.

What is your approach to location scouting? How do you approach selection of locations when you’re working with a location scout?

I really love to work with location scouts. I’ve worked several times with the same scouts and they became real close collaborators.

As a general rule, I’m always there during this period, accompanying the directors while they search. I love to be part of the process from the first photos we receive to the day we find the location. For all that, the work can be very different depending on the project, the production and the director’s way of considering this part of the process.

At the beginning of my career I scouted locations by myself sometimes for specific projects and close friends. That was the case for “Last Winter” by John Shank. For that movie, which was shot in the center of France on the plateau of Aubrac (a very remote area), I spent three weeks with a wonderful guy from the area that I didn’t know before searching for the main location, which was an isolated farm. We had bought very detailed maps, and I decided to go and see each farm we could identify as little rectangles on the map. There was more than one hundred I think. We had a great time going all over the countryside searching for each farm we could find on the plateau. We got lost sometimes, invited in to eat or drink… We met incredible people while doing that, and we saw incredible interiors. Finally, on our last day, the last farm we saw was the right farm for the film.

For “Suzanne”, the director asked me to write my own descriptions of the locations I imagined and I followed the whole process until we found what the project needed.

Location scouting is a wonderful job and so essential. It’s a perfect way to understand and get to know an area. That’s why I always try to be very close to this process.

What is your approach to color? At what point in your process to you begin to think about a palette? In “L’avenir” for example, in addition to creating very collected apartment for the main character Nathalie, it feels visually like such a serene, coherent palette. There is this delicate balance of muted ochres and warm earth tones with cooler blues. How did you arrive at that palette? Is it driven by an emotional intention or is it rooted in research about a particular character type? How do the locations you select impact or shape that use of color?

Colors come at the beginning, particularly with Mia [Hansen-Løve]. Before pre-production began with the crew on “L’avenir,” we met each other and talked about the film and the intentions. She gave me her references, autobiographical and not, and named artists she would like to see appear in her film. For “Things to come”, beyond the work on books [editor’s note: there are an extensive, curated private libraries in several sets], she wanted to highlight Danish impressionist painters, including Vilhelm Hammershøi.

So for colors we started there: with the Danish impressionists. From there we decided to use their palette. Very soft tones which could change with light and feelings. We knew soft tones were not enough and would maybe be too gentle if they were alone so we added the color of lighter wood and the green of nature through plants. To introduce a little bit of this natural green, we decided to find a modern architecture apartment with a view onto a park, like what one might find near the Parc de Vincennes in Paris.

When we found the location in Lyon, the apartment was a real mess. The owners were old scientists and were so passionate about their work that there were boxes and boxes of their research all over the place. All the rooms were full of objects, books and things we didn’t want to use for the film. But the way the light came in, the way we could go from one room to another and the view on the park convinced us that it was the right space. I knew lighter colors on the wall and soft fabrics would make this apartment very nice.

The main emotional intention was to create an enjoyable interior, full of memories in order to then feel the difficulty when the character goes through a time of separation [from her husband]. The more the couple’s past seemed happy and serene, the more the void left by the husband would be felt.

Can you talk a bit about the challenges of doing period films (like Suzanne, La belle saison) on smaller budget films? What are some of the strategies you’ve relied on to conjure a different era given the constraints of budget and time?

First of all, I would say the best way to deal with the constraints and a key factor is a good location scouting work. For me, it means finding a location that allows you to envision the period in question. When I can imagine furniture, people from another time and feel a good spirit in the location, I know my crew and I will be all right. And hopefully most of the time the director, D.O.P and I have the same feeling and we all agree for the same location. When that doesn’t happen, the worst-case scenario is just in front of you. But I believe this kind of major disagreement happens less and less with experience.

After we find locations, then comes the time for decisions about fabrics, wallpapers, paint and set dressing. In a practical way of speaking, I think we’re lucky in France and Belgium to still have a lot of true vintage resources. When I don’t have the budget to make an old wallpaper, I still can find a true retro one for a very good price. And it’s a bit like this for every single thing. It’s a kind of daily treasure hunt. It’s crazy; it takes a lot of dedication and faith but it’s worth it! Even if no one truly realizes the work required.

For some years now, second-hand websites help us a lot in the research and art departments crews use such sites mostly for finding specific objects or particular furniture. It really helps in finding what we need, alongside prop-houses in the UK, Germany and France, antique dealers, and the indispensable flea markets.

When we’re in the countryside like for “La belle saison” or “Suzanne”, one of the other key elements would be what I call a “resource person” — people who live in the area around locations and can really help us in our research and even sometimes for specific handicrafts. For “La belle saison,” which took place in the early seventies in the middle of France, we were looking for an old milking machine and an old combine harvester. Even if you can find this stuff with a lot of persistence and a bit of chance, if you don’t know the guy who can make it work like it did in the sixties you lose a lot of precious time. That’s why I always try to connect with people who are close to the characters. In this case it was old farmers and mechanics in the region. Most of the time, they’re very happy to help us, and we are so pleased to have them too. I really like this kind of unexpected collaboration.

But overall, the real reason we can manage to make period films like that on smaller budgets and in a more or less artisanal way is because, and mainly because, these projects were set in lower social classes. It would have been impossible to get all the furniture and props of a richer social standing for this kind of budget. This is a point that people and producers sometimes forget but it really makes a big difference.

Are there particular resources you’ve returned to from one project to the next? Sources of inspiration?

Sure. There’s my large collection of wallpaper and fabric samples, and always new books of photography and paintings.

When I’m working on a period movie, along with the basic research process, I like to go on the French INA website [the National Audiovisual Institute, which houses French radio and television archives,] to watch movies from that particular period and listen to music. I love to find new songs that date from that specific time and take them along with me on the project.

I like to search in my memories and other’s people memories too. And of course, if I can, I will do a flea market or two with the script in mind to see which objects and colors will catch my attention.

You previously wrote (for the PDC Forum) about creating a kind of book in preparation of each new film project, where you write about the characters. Could you explain a bit about that book? How does going through the exercise of writing out your ideas about the characters, independent of mood boards or collection of visual references, help you in defining the look of a film?

It helps because it takes time and it’s a time I need to understand the project and let the images come to me. I like to try to put words on the feelings and intentions [that the script elicits]. First I write what we will need for each sequence, the obvious, then I try to think about the character’s trajectory and add sensations that can be conveyed through the sets, tiny details we can add. Writing this little booklet alone is really the process I need to be drawn into the project and grow close to the characters. When I’m finished with this work, I know almost all the major stakes by heart and I’m ready to open my thoughts to the crew and exchange with the director.

Thank you so much for doing this, Anna.

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