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Saltburn Production Designer Suzie Davies on Lucking Out with the Perfect Location and Working with the Great Mike Leigh

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Barry Keoghan in Saltburn (Credit: MGM)

Emerald Fennell‘s Saltburn is an effective dark comedic thriller that acts as a suitable follow-up to the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s previous film, Promising Young Woman.

Fennell’s second feature stars Barry Keoghan (Eternals) as Oliver, a financially-deprived Oxford student who becomes fast friends with the popular and super-wealthy Felix (Jacob Elordi from Priscilla), becoming close enough to be invited to Felix’s luxurious family home. There, Oliver begins interacting with Felix’s eclectic extended family, played by Richard E. Grant, Rosamund Pike, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, and Carey Mulligan (reuniting with Fennell in a smaller role).

As much as one might marvel over the quirky behavior of Felix’s family and how Oliver contends with them, one of the movie’s true stars might be its title “character,” the large mansion referred to as “Saltburn” where most of the movie takes place. It’s a marvel over of a location, which seems unreal and something that would have to be built or cobbled together using visual effects.

That isn’t the case at all.

To bring the titular Saltburn to life, Fennell turned to Oscar-nominated Production Designer Suzie Davis, who worked with Director Mike Leigh on his most recent films, Mr. Turner (for which she received that Oscar nomination) and Peterloo. 

Below the Line spoke with Ms. Davies over Zoom a few weeks back to discover that the search for the location that doubles for the expansive Saltburn was much quicker than anticipated, and she informed us about what was involved with dressing it up to help define the film’s distinctive characters. Of course, we also had to ask her about working with Mike Leigh, even though his next movie (like all his work) remains a closely-guarded secret.

Suzie Davies on the set of Saltburn (photo courtesy Ms. Davies)

BTL: I know you didn’t design Emerald’s previous movie, so how were you approached for Saltburn

Davies: I’d heard from my agent that [Emerald] was about to do a second movie, and I loved Promising Young Woman. I was like, “If you do nothing else, get me in the room.” I got in the room, and we seemed to hit it off. It was a joyous script to read, and just knowing Promising Young Woman, she’s got an unusual, original storytelling aspect, and I wanted to be part of it. I was very lucky to get the gig and off we went.

BTL: I assume her sense of humor in real life is as dark as her movies.

Davies: Yeah, definitely. She’s very clear on what she wants, and that’s great, and because she wrote it as well, from a design perspective, that’s useful because the speed in getting answers of, “How would this be? What would that be?” is there. She knows it, and she wrote it, she can change it, she can decide very quickly on how she wants that visual storytelling to take place.

BTL: I’m curious about the movie opening at Oxford. Were you able to shoot at Oxford at all or did you have to recreate things?

Davies: Yeah, it was a mixture. We shot in Oxford for real for a couple of days, and then we did some of the interiors elsewhere, cheaper, easier filming location. From the beginning, we wanted Oliver to feel separate, so even when we turn up, he gets the worst room. Felix lucks out with the best room and probably ensuite, his own bathroom, and Oliver gets the worst one by the bar, where everyone stands out, smokes [cigarettes]. Even from that beginning, we wanted just to separate the haves and the have-nots, so to speak.

BTL: I never went to Oxford. I assume the worst rooms at Oxford are still better than NYU dorms.

Davies: They are. They’re amazing. It sort of depends which college you go to, and we looked at quite a few, but the hilarious thing was that we looked at one particular student’s room that just was perfectly dressed as a Felix room. Emerald and I spoke a lot not just about the look and shape of the film, but all the other senses – the smell, the taste, the feel of it  This one particular student’s room was great to go in, just to know, “This is Felix’s room. ”

It was hideous, and I don’t think this student had any idea that he was living in such an amazing place. Maybe it’s difficult to live in those environments, but they’ve got beautiful landscaped courtyards to look over and men that tend to all the maintenance and things like that, and it was just awful. It was literally underpants and socks and leftover takeaways on the floor of this amazing property, but hey, it was a good reference for us.

BTL: Did you have a set decorator or art director that you’ve worked with before that you brought onto this show?

Davies: Charlotte Dirickx is my go-to set decorator. We did Mr. Turner together and worked together since then, and we just have that lovely visual language shorthand that enables us to get through designing a film with speed, which is often what you need.

Barry Keoghan in Saltburn (Credit: Amazon/MGM)

BTL: Were you one of the first people involved, or you and DP Linus Sandgren, or was she already casting people before she found a place?

Davies: When I came on board, I think she had cast maybe two or three roles. I don’t think we’d quite had Linus or not. Obviously, I have a little bit more time because my prep is a bit longer than most, just because we need to find the location. When Linus came on board… it suddenly speeds up preproduction when you get a DOP, because their time is not as much, so we have to do an awful lot when they come on board. I think I had about three or four months prep, and I think Linus probably came on two months in.

BTL: Were you still doing location scouts when Linus joined up or had you already found a lot of the places already?

Davies: I think we’d found most of them. Again, brilliant with Emerald, she knows straightaway what works, so I don’t think we changed anything. There was a possibility of shooting the maze elsewhere, but in the end, we did it we’re at the real house with a combination of smoke and mirrors and construction. There wasn’t a real maze there, but we built aspects of it and then everyone does their magic – edits, CG, post-production – all of that, and you’ll never know.

Suzie Davies on the set of Saltburn (Courtesy Ms. Davies)

BTL: Was Saltburn mainly one location where you could shoot interiors and exteriors, or was it just that amazing exterior, and then you found or built other places for everything else? 

Davies: We lucked out. When I read the script and realized that we’re in this one property for all this time, I was like, “Okay, we need to find this.” I’ve filmed a lot of period films. I’ve been in probably every filmable national trust building in the UK, and none of them worked for this film. I was like, “We’re gonna have to spend ages looking for this. We’ve got to find it,” thinking I’d be spending weeks driving around posh houses, but we actually found it on Day One.

I think Emerald knew a little bit about the property, and when we got there, and we drove up, I had an Oliver moment of just looking at the house and going “wow.” There literally was no point going anywhere else. It was perfect. It was really important to see it with Emerald, because we both felt the same. Immediately, it was like, “We could do this here.” She was able to manipulate the script, to suit the real location, because it offered so much to our world. It’s amazing, 127 rooms. It’s languishing in its environment. You can always feel it, leaning back, smoking a cigarette with a martini in its hand, going, “Come on, then. Do your finest.”

BTL: Did it look that good when you first saw it or did you still have to put shrubbery and dress it up to look that nice?

Davies: I’d love to say I did all of it, that it was all a build on a backlot. I would love to say that. It wasn’t. A lot of the exterior was there. We added to it, we embellished it, we turned up the dials a bit. We put a two-meter glitter ball in one of the summer houses for the party scenes. We had big fire pits burning everywhere. We had the neon lights. We added to it, but we were lucky with the owners of that particularly gorgeous property were really into what we were doing, really loved the fun of it.

I don’t think we left them with a bitter taste. I think they enjoyed the whole process, because they’ve not had a film crew there before, and I hope they don’t have another one again. It’s brand new – no one’s seen this. You’re not seeing it on Downton Abbey or any of the other things. It was a joy to work in that environment.

BTL: I hate this saying, because it’s one of the biggest clichés in filmmaking, the one about the location being a character. In this case, it’s absolutely true. Could you give us some idea of where this location was in England? North? South?

Davies: In the Midlands. I think people could probably work it out, but it’s in the Midlands, I’m not gonna give it away, because I don’t want any other designers going there.

BTL: Of course. It could also become a tourist attraction. 

Davies: I think it could. It’s so heavily fortified. There are so many codes that you have to press to get in, and it’s probably about three miles from the nearest road. It’s in its own place. You can’t see it from the road. It’s thousands of acres of farmland around it.

Suzie Davis on the set of Saltburn (Courtesy Ms. Davies)

BTL: Working with Linus, was this location large enough where he could shoot and do anything he wanted with his camera crew, or did there have to be alterations to make it work?

Davies: A bit of both. I did augment some of the rooms, like the bedrooms and the bathroom are all art department. We painted, we changed a bedroom into a bathroom and a bathroom into a dressing room and painted those walls in that high gloss, so it looks like wet oil paint on the walls, and the wallpaper with that muscly sinews in the bathroom. The joy of working with someone like Linus is that when you’re on location, it’s difficult. You can’t move a window, you can’t take a window out. You have to deal with what’s there.

Also, we’re on the first floor and in Farley’s room, we were on the top floor, the fourth floor in the tower. They worked for us for the composite nature of our sets and spaces, so you could walk through, especially when Felix shows Oliver the rooms, you walk through a room, through the room, through the room. We were given that, and it’s great to deal with, but Linus, he’s so clever,  can deal with it. Him and his lighting team can light those rooms just with cranes and all sorts of things. We gave him practical lights. I know my set decorator Charlotte really works closely with what practical lighting we have on set so that’s our source and how we use that. Also, we filmed on film, which was just brilliant – I hadn’t done that for ages –  so you get that lovely richness of the colors.

I think cinematographers can make or break designers, and it’s probably the other way as well. We could have screwed each other, but I think we managed to complement [each other] just right on this film. He made my sets sing. I’m so grateful for how he lit and made the film. It feels like an oil painting that’s melting in the heat and the distortion of the film. You can almost smell it.

BTL: I assume some visual effects are involved, like you mentioned with the room for four flights up, but do you know in advance how much visual effects will be needed to add to what’s there or to change things?

Davies: Visual effects, we do know in advance because we plan it. I might have given you a bit of a wrong steer there. We didn’t need visual effects for up on the fourth floor, it was how Linus managed to get the lights up there sort of thing. Usually, we try and find things on the ground floor so they can light it.

For instance, the maze, I knew that needed to be a collaboration, so the top shot is VFX — smoke and mirrors, really. On the whole, we didn’t have that much VFX in there. Because it’s that sort of film, you don’t want to notice any of the cleverness of filming – that was completely separate from our storytelling. [This story] needed to look beautiful, sumptuous and needed to overwhelm you almost with colors and visuals, but not in a clever way, just to take you on that journey, on that ride.

Suzie Davis (R) on set with Mike Leigh (L) (courtesy Suzie Davies)

BTL: I remember when I spoke to Mike Leigh for Peterloo, I was really amazed when he mentioned that visual effects were involved with that. I just assumed he gets his cast and crew, put them into a time machine and take them back in time for those locations. 

Davies: I don’t think he’s ever really been into much CG or VFX, but we needed to do set extensions on the St. Peter’s field. We built the first floor of the properties around it and then extended.

BTL: A little birdie (actually his publicist) told me that he’s working on something, and I know from talking to him and his actors that he has a very specific way of building up the characters and script, so as a production designer, how early are you involved with his movies? Are you doing a similar thing working on the design of the movie as he is for the characters and story?

Davies: Yeah, absolutely. I came on for Mr. Taylor, I think about six months prep on it, if not more. Those two period films I’ve done with him, because we knew it was going to be about Turner, the artist, but I came on six months, and I think Tim [Spall] had already been rehearsing. It’s a case of every day, I will probably have lunch with Michael. I’d pass him in the corridor, and he’d just tell me what he’s been up to, and he’s thinking of perhaps doing something in the Royal Academy, the summer exhibition. I go up with the location manager, and we’d see what we can find or how we would do that and come back. “We found this, and we could probably do that,” and I’d need his house, so we’d go off and come back and then you start speaking to the actors who are speaking the story and it’s just like gold dust for me.

It’s really changed my design, to make sure the environments I give the actors are sincere and authentic, so they don’t have to worry, “Where is my teacup? Which is the chair I sit in? What car do I drive? Where’s my bedroom? How do I live here?” It’s like they come in and they go, “Yeah, I would live here.” That’s because we’ve spoken about, “What color would your wall be?” and they just give me little nuggets and I then expand it. We keep informed with Michael all the way through. “We’re doing this we’re doing that,” and little nuggets will come from all the rehearsals. As he refines his story, I refine my set, and then we come to filming, and it’s off we go.

BTL: I’m sure that’s a similar case with Saltburn and its actors. Anyway, it’s great talking to you. I love Mike Leigh and can’t wait to see what he does next, because he’s always full of surprises. 

Davies: We’ve just finished filming it. We’ve just finished his “Untitled ’23.”

Saltburn is now playing in select theaters and will expand nationwide on Wednesday, Nov. 22.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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