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.