The Great is a Hulu original series created by Tony McNamara. It is loosely based on Catherine the Great and tabbed as “an occasionally true story” by having true concepts mixed in with a comedic farcical slant. The series follows the arrival of outsider Catherine (Elle Fanning) as she has an arranged marriage with Russian emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult).
Soon after, Catherine decides to overthrow the emperor with a coup due to his debaucherous, illicit, devious, crude, and heinous acts. Production designer Francesca Di Mottola was called upon to create the magnificent design detailing the 18th century. Di Mottola amassed comprehensive research on 18th century architecture, Russia, and the Winter Palace to grasp a notion of what Russia is.
The design was inspired by the concept of an enormous fraternity house with the idea of a modern apartment structure. Di Mottola explained, “Tony’s main idea was that he wanted this to feel like a fraternity house how Peter roamed this palace and scared the hell out of everyone. The palace was dirty and abused in a way by their drinking and debauchery with acts of sex. Mess had to be incorporated into the design. The bigger picture was creating this space, which gave the idea of how Peter was the real owner and he had free access to all the spaces creating public vs. private spaces. The characters’ apartments were all very different among themselves. In that way, we were going for a very eclectic design. There was this idea that we were creating an 18th century version of a modern apartment block, where there’s lots of different families and people inhabiting a bigger space and they might not know each other.”
All the rooms were specifically designed for each character. “For Catherine’s room, her rooms are very much in the Chinoiserie wallpaper vibe, it goes from her bedroom to the dressing room and a private salon. Peter’s bedroom is the biggest room within the stages that we built as a single room. It’s very masculine with darker colors, tones, has a massive fireplace, and it’s meant to be a space where he has parties and can do whatever he wants in his room. He also has a dining breakfast room; we made that much smaller, so it’s intimate, with dark tones, and quite bare.”
“Archie’s bedroom is the most Russian looking of them all because of items decorating the walls as it was inspired by Rudolf Nureyev’s apartment in Paris. My reference was the contemporary modern space of a Russian character in Paris. Orlov’s room is covered in bookshelves, books, little notes everywhere, and his bed is within an alcove. Georgina and Grigor Dymov’s room is a version of what a loft base would be nowadays. They have a single room with a bath within their bedroom. The tones in their room are quite warm with pinks and greens, where their privacy and intimacy lie.”
“Aunt Elizabeth’s bedroom is entirely decorated with the erotica style. Her walls are the most royal of all the bedrooms because we used three different shades of gold and aged mirrors covering all the walls. Marial’s room is a swing set we redecorated and used it for different characters and areas of the palace, such as Leo’s bedroom. It’s timber clad with beautiful 18th century paneling detail. When it’s Leo’s room, there’s a big tree that he planted in the room. We turned the big hallway into a big state room. That one was one of our biggest sets,” the production designer described.
The locations consisted mainly in Italy, U.K., woods, and gardens. Di Mottola highlighted, “We shot at Hatfield House and Ham House and Garden. We built that stripy tent in Ham House, where Catherine has a whole tent designed in the same fabric as Lady Svenska’s dress. Our main exterior palace and gardens were shot in Italy in Naples in the Royal Palace of Caserta; which is quite unique to come to the south of Italy and shoot the experience of somewhere that’s meant to be in Russia. Caserta is one of the biggest palaces in Europe in terms of size and scale we needed for the story.”
“We also shot in some interiors of the palace. That’s where we have that big statue of Peter the Great of the bear. That was a massive statue that I had made in resin, painted to look like bronze, and it’s at seven meters tall. We needed to find a location that had this monumentality that we were after. We have the most outrageous art collection. We have Caravaggio paintings that are in museums or churches in Italy, which were suddenly hanging in the walls of the Winter Palace in Russia. There were works of art that we decided to use because of the symbolism.”
“We were so adamant about not being in any way too specific historically; it really wasn’t about historical accuracy, although we wanted it to be grounded in the 18th century. We didn’t want it to look wrong for the period, but we also wanted to have some off-kilter elements. The design had to go with the risk reward, rather than historical fact. It was more about creating spaces for the characters to inhabit that added something to the story and creating a whole world from scratch.”
The production design in The Great is inspired and modeled from 18th century architecture, but with a modern impression that is specific to the mold of each character within the series. Production designer Francesca Di Mottola is a previous winner of the International Cinephile Society Awards, Festival del cinema di Spello, and the UK Music Video Awards (UKMVA) with nominations for the Satellite Awards and the International Online Cinema Awards (INOCA).