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UK Production Designers: Alan MacDonald

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With his recent work on The Queen, Alan MacDonald has had to tread one of the trickier paths that you can as a production designer: depicting a world where the audience thinks they know exactly what it looks like, but the reality is subtly different.”We were dealing with the fact that everyone that came to watch the film already had a vision of what they were going to be seeing,” he says. “But in fact we were dealing with private spaces, rather than the public spaces. We were going behind the scenes, but had to be so believable that it wasn’t going to detract from the narrative. I think the problem with doing something about the Royal Family and (their Scottish residence) Balmoral is that behind the scenes their taste levels aren’t really what one would expect from one of the richest families in the world. In fact, Balmoral was quite kind of garish in its decor, as it hadn’t been updated for decades. If we’d have portrayed it as it really was our audience would have been slightly bemused and it would have detracted from the film.”So, MacDonald throttled back on the Royals’ mania for tartan and garish interior design and instead drew the color palate for the film from the muted beauty of the wild Scottish highlands to construct sets fitting for a monarchy.The art budget was challenging, but MacDonald is used to that. He cut his teeth making pop promos in the mid-1980s where, due to budgetary constraints, he ended up being the designer, the art director, the set decorator and the construction crew all rolled into one. During that time he linked up with director John Maybury (the two worked on Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U promo), a relationship which led MacDonald to his first feature film, Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon.”Working in promos meant that I was able to experiment and develop a style and way of working that I wouldn’t have had if I’d started in the art department as an art director or set decorator,” says MacDonald. “I think I was allowed to be stylistically braver. Some of the promos were slightly more theatrical and avant-garde and I was able to experiment more, and if you see Love is the Devil those notions of experimentation come through in that work. In the film that I’m doing at the moment (The Best Time of Our Lives, also directed by Maybury) I think that our experience in pop videos has also allowed us to bring a more theatrical approach to it.”Despite some of the names attached to the project (Keira Knightley for one) it’s a small budget again. This is okay by MacDonald. “That way we don’t have big studio producers breathing down our necks all the time.” He says that in real terms budgets actually seem to be going down and, for all the perceived success of a reinvigorated British film industry, especially in period drama, actually working in it is not getting any easier.”My way of working is that I’m very anti wastage,” he says. “I like to work directly with the director, and so my first way of cross-referring the scale of the budget with the ambition of the project is to look at locations and suggest alternative ways of doing the scene, substituting huge street scenes for something shot in a maze of alleyways, for instance. It’s all about achieving narrative ambitions, whilst at the same time being able to finance areas of the film that really need developing.”

Written by Andy Stout

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