Below The Line Screening Series hosted a presentation of Mr. Turner Friday, Nov. 21. The Silver Screen theater of the Pacific Design Center welcomed director Mike Leigh, costume designer Jacqueline Durran and production designer Suzie Davies for a Q&A post screening.
Mr. Turner explores the life of British painter J. M. W. Turner. From one eccentric happening to another, Turner, played by Timothy Spall, turns heads with both his paintings and abrasive, while also charming, personality.
True to Leigh’s usual format of filming sans script, the cast of Mr. Turner provided performances based solely upon conversations with Leigh, informed by his extensive research of the famous painter. According to Leigh, Spall even took painting lessons for two years in preparation for his role as Turner, with research and authenticity as the most critical concern of all involved.
While the look and story presented by the film was inspired by Turner’s paintings and biography, Leigh stressed the film’s separation from the brand of biopic. “We wanted the film to be informed by Turner’s work, Turner’s Palette,” said Leigh. “It’s not a biopic. It’s a distillation. It’s an impression. It’s a reflection on Turner.” The film was shot on an ARRI Alexa.
Much like the process of the film’s actors, gaining direction for their every choice through conversations with Leigh, both Durran and Davies spoke of extensive conversations with actors to inform their costume and production design choices. Durran explained, regarding costuming the period piece, she sought to get into the mind of each character through conversations with the well researched cast. Understanding what an individual would do in that time period, to inform her wardrobe choices, “…is what is impossible, but what you’re aspiring towards,” expressed Durran. Additionally, Durran explained the presented look of Turner as iconic, thus a lack of change as the timeline of the film leads Turner towards old age and death. For the entirety of the film, his costuming remains true to the commonly expected look of Turner, based on photographs, wherein he’s dressed in a black coat and hat.
Davies stressed the care taken to find each location in the film, in order to ensure each frame looked like a Turner painting. From researching paint colors and wall papers that would have been available at the time, to actually having access to and studying Turner’s personal space wherein sketchbooks, painting tools and palettes – complete with dried paint – are preserved, Davies shared in the endeavor for authenticity. “Usually on a film I create visuals and storyboards to help visualize what we’re going to produce for the story,” shared Davies. “With this particular film, they’re already done for me.”
For the two prominent galleries featured in the film, the Royal Academy and Turner’s personal gallery, research and precision persisted as authenticity measures while producing replicas. For the Royal Academy, 283 paintings were re-created using photographs printed through high-end printers on carefully chosen materials. Plans hand-drawn by Turner were used to build a replica of Turner’s personal gallery, wherein he kept his own painting for public enjoyment and inquiry.
Mr. Turner is set for a limited release Dec. 19.