Her biggest undertaking yet has to be the lavish adaptation of famed musical Les Misérables. The playful and refreshingly down-to-earth UK-based BAFTA and Oscar nominated designer took time out to chat with us about her experiences of working on the film, past projects and her beginnings in the industry. We discuss how she got involved in the project and talk through some of the biggest challenges that she faced.
Les Misérables is released in the UK this Friday 11th January.
HeyUGuys: How did you become involved with the film?
Eve Stewart: I’ve work with [director] Tom Hooper a number of times before. We collaborated on The King’s Speech and The Damned United, so it was a good working relationship to start with.
What sort of challenges did a huge project like this present for you?
It didn’t really throw up any different challenges – there were just more to contend with. You’re always faced with the task of trying to tell a story and to catering for each and every scene within the film. There was just more to deal with this time around.
Your past work has been mostly in period films. Has it been a conscious decision on your behalf to stay within that type of cinema?
No, I’d love to do something different, but no one ever asks me (laughs). I did a lot of theatre before I started in film and much of that was period. It’s just how things have panned out. I think my research methods have been key to working in this genre, because I’m quite a history anorak. I find everything I possibly can about the subject I’m working on, and I think that’s where Tom and I are similar.
Do you think key crew member can get typecast like an actor?
Yeah. I think I’ve been labelled ‘the bonnet lady’ (laughs).
For the uninitiated, could you tell me a little about what your job entails?
If you’re a production designer, you’re potentially in charge of overseeing everything that you see on-screen which is photographed by the DOP (Director of Photography). You’ll read the script and then be involved in choosing every location, every set and every prop. You’ll also become the overview of costume and make-up too, to pull it all together.
How much crew do you have working underneath you?
In the actual art department, you have the art directors who are very technical and make sure things are happening and we’re on target, cost-wise. You then have a variety of drafts people who draw it all up, and a couple of assistants.
I’m renowned for having an incredibly small team, because I believe it’s better that you work with people you’ve done jobs with previously, and who you can trust. I also work this way to ensure everyone has a good time, too. You work long hours, so you want people around you who you like.
I guess your role is similar to that of the actual director in the sense that all these people are helping to create your vision.
Between myself and Tom, we’ll come up with an idea of the world we want the characters to inhabit. The art directors will then help facilitate that vision, technically. Ultimately, it’s my job to create the world that Tom, or any other director, has in his/her head.
Les Misérables is a hugely iconic piece of work to adapt. Was there anything you took from the stage production which you felt really worked, and incorporated it into the film?
I really love the [stage] production and I’ve seen it loads of times. Everyone seems to love the moving barricade, when it twists around and moves together, but I think we captured the spirit of that version, rather than anything in detail. Research-wise, we started from a naturalistic point of view, but then we embellished it with the theatricality it needed, with all the singing involved.
Tom Hooper’s approach to having his stars sing live on set must have presented some interesting challenges for you?
The only time for us when it was tricky occurred towards the beginning, when we were all getting used to the singing. For example, we had to make the horse’s hooves from rubber, so they wouldn’t make much noise. We had to modify a number of things like that for sound.
The singing itself was really moving and extraordinary. You know what it’s like when people start to choke up when they’re singing, and the emotions take over. The crew were sobbing all the time.
You’re won a number of awards for your work, but are there any in particular that you’ve been really proud of?
I really liked winning the Art Director’s Guild Award in American, because that is awarded by your peers who know all about what you’re actually doing, so that was really proud of that.
How did you get your start in the industry?
I trained in theatre at The Centre School of Art and then The Royal College [of Art], where I did architecture. I ended up doing a number of theatre productions and I did a play for Mike Leigh who later asked if I’d like to be the art director for one of his projects. I thought it sounded like it could be a good laugh. He then asked me to art direct [his 1993 feature] Naked and then I just jumped up really fast and was lucky enough to design [1999’s] Topsy Turvy.
A large period piece like Topsy Turvy must been quite tough for you?
It’s interesting because but at the time, it didn’t feel large. It was only looking back afterwards that I realised the scale of it. I think it wasn’t as daunting because it was all essentially theatre sets, and I was pretty skilful at working amongst that world by then.
Do you have any advice for those interested in entering your profession?
Go and find young directors. Work with them for free and stick to them like glue so you can hopefully move up the process together. Don’t become a stalker, obviously (laughs) but try and spot the ones you think have good ideas and decent visions, and throw your lot in with them.
In the case of Tom Hooper, do you feel you can now communicate in shorthand with each other?
Yes, definitely. I’m pretty skilful at drawing and I think that works well for him when we’re having discussions about things, as I can very quickly illustrate his ideas and we can get to what he’s looking for swiftly.