When Stephen Frears, the director of The Queen, first interviewed Alan Macdonald for the job of production designer on the film, he asked him for ideas. “I suggested,” he recalls, “Lucien Freud paintings, with their tawny colors, for the part about the Royals, and for Tony Blair and the world of 10 Downing Street, Hello! magazine.” “Perfect,” was Frears’ riposte, and Macdonald was hired.For the film about Queen Elizabeth’s initially awkward and unsympathetic response to the death of Princess Diana, Macdonald faced a number of major challenges.Much of the film’s action takes place in Balmoral Castle, the royal family’s retreat in Scotland, and in Buckingham Palace in London. Both were out of the question for shooting, so alternatives were sought. “We found some terrific castles, but the owners weren’t interested when they heard what the film would be about,” says the production designer.Macdonald had meanwhile found some pictures of Balmoral from his research, and decided he shouldn’t be a stickler for accuracy. “It looks like a ghastly kind of beamed hotel from the 19th century. If I’d literally recreated what Balmoral is, it would have so detracted from the the film and the narrative.”Finally, castles in far-flung parts of Scotland were found. Says Macdonald: “They were a bit dilapidated, but the owners were surprisingly cooperative in allowing me to make the necessary changes. I was putting false walls, recreating reveals of doorways, taking down partition walls, re-hanging all their paintings, taking all of their furniture out and putting in my own.” After shooting four weeks in Scotland, the production moved to London. He recreated the formal spaces of Buckingham Palace, including the Queen’s sitting room where then newly named Prime Minister Tony Blair has two key encounters with the monarch, and the grandiose dining room where the government heads meet in “an appallingly rundown building the Royal Air Force had bought from the Rothschild family in the 1930s,” and turned into an officer’s mess.Another fundamental challenge was seamlessly integrating settings with archival footage. “At some points you had to be so accurate,” he notes. One of the key scenes is when Queen Elizabeth returns to London and sees the masses of flowers that have been placed outside the castle. “Of course it’s not Buckingham Palace,” says the production designer. “We built 40 feet of railings and went to the flower market, and bought all of the flowers they were going to throw out. We made 9,000 bouquets. What was filmed was a combination of fake flowers, decaying flowers, with some fresh flowers on top.”Macdonald was a furniture maker in the 1980s in London when he met experimental filmmaker John Maybury. After starting out making props for Maybury, he was soon designing all of the director’s art films and pop videos. He has continued the relationship in movies, serving as Maybury’s production designer on three films, most recently The Jacket, a thriller released in 2005. Up next for Macdonald is a film about Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, his wife and his childhood sweetheart, starring Keira Knightley and Lindsay Lohan.2006: Nominated, British Independent Film Awards, best technical achievement, The Queen.
Written by Jack Egan