Midnight in Paris On A Shoestring Budget
Sony Pictures Classics
Young architect Anne Seibel fibbed about her English speaking skills to break into the production biz.
"I was doing a commercial for a friend and I built something really crazy, but it worked," said Seibel. "A designer asked if I spoke English and I said yes because I wanted to work with him. What I didn’t know was he was asking me to work on the James Bond (A View to a Kill.)"
Many years and English lessons later, Seibel has been the Paris based art director on films including "Munich," "Marie Antoinette," "The Happening," and "Hereafter." Her most recent effort is the Golden Globe nominated "Midnight in Paris."
Before landing the job of art director for "Midnight in Paris," Seibel met with Woody Allen armed with only a basic knowledge of the film’s plot. No copies of the script were sent prior to the offer or acceptance of the job. After discussing her background and previous accomplishments, Seibel waited five days before hearing she’d been hired, at which point she received the script and a tight preproduction schedule.
Knowing the film would be shot entirely on location with a minimal art department budget, Seibel focused on the dualities presented in the script: the duality of main character Gil, the duality of Paris split between left bank and right bank, and the duality of daytime and nighttime. By focusing on these divisions, she began developing palettes necessary to illustrate Gil’s journeys between present and the past, and quickly placed a call to director of photography Darius Khondji to discuss how they might create specific moods. They agreed that lighting should be a crucial building block to the story’s themes, and that all practicals should be set on dimmers to easily manipulate lighting within every period scene.
Prior to location scouting, Seibel dove into researching not only the period but the lives of the historical characters that appear in the film. She read material, studied photos, and watched a number of Dali’s films to help train her eye for the types of settings she needed to secure. In some cases, such as Gertrude Stein’s residence, she was looking for a room with the proper layout and fireplace that would be the shell she could build up and modify until it had the appearance of the Stein workshop. While it is conceivable to redecorate an interior to mimic a person’s study, finding a location that could double as the Moulin Rouge provided unique challenges.
Bars in the early 20th century France, the era of the Moulin Rouge, included wooden floors, multiple pillars, and a balcony that stretched the entire length of the room. Without the funding necessary to build a Moulin Rouge set, Seibel and her team searched for a suitable location establishment that had a balcony, eventually turning to La Cigale, an old theater that was converted into a concert hall. Because the location was extremely unlike the Moulin Rouge, Seibel brought Khondji to the space and the two established specific shots needed for the scene. She then prepared a number of illustrations that not only depicted how she would modify the space, but also illustrated the shot list of key character entrances and seating marks.
“The fist day I took Woody there I was really scared because if he had said ‘No it won’t work,’ we would have no options,” said Seibel. “We managed to create something that really looked like the illustration I had (of the Moulin Rouge.) I had noticed there were pillars, the balcony, the lamps, the big chandelier coming down, the wooden floor, the table cloths and all this. If you add all that, your eye, when you look at it, will be thrown by (all those details) and you recognize the Moulin Rouge.”
Once all the locations were secured, Seibel created corresponding mood boards. The mood boards help determine the color of the walls, furniture, fabrics, set decorations and lighting necessary for the scenes in those locations. The contemporary scenes consisted primarily of bright whites, glass, and silver. The period settings were primarily browns or beige palettes, with pearls and gold leaf. For the external scenes, Seibel took advantage of the nighttime shoots, using the practical light of period street lamps placed in accordance with the scene’s action, switching out awnings on buildings, placing morris columns in the background, and filling the foreground with cobble stones
With a restrictive budget affecting the modification of the locations used in “Midnight in Paris,” Seibel relied on obtaining authenticity of the period through details. She used ostrich feathers to create lighting sconces, hand-crafted lampshades and upholstered furniture with period fabrics. With set decorator Helene Dubreuil, she contacted Jacques A., a drape man Seibel has frequently worked with, to obtain vintage 1920s black and white drapes that were introduced to the Cocteau house. Even when the fabric isn’t noticeably placed, Seibel believes in its power to enhance a location.
“I asked the set decorator to find something containing the green on the wall,” said Seibel. “We found something that was warm that at the same time would nearly disappear from the place. Even if you don’t see them very well, they give a feel that makes the scene true and alive.”
When faced with the challenge of designing another house party beyond the gatherings at Gertrude Stein’s and Cocteau’s that needed to incorporate an orange, light green and gold palette, Seibel boldly suggested a location she knew Woody Allen would love: a “Fair Museum” filled with old merry-go-rounds and automats. Enjoying her suggestion that the merry-go-round symbolized the passage of time and trusting in her abilities to transform the giant warehouse into a glamorous party filled with gold lights and chandeliers. The magic of the setting sparked a child-like glee in Allen, and he re-wrote the scene to incorporate her idea.
After watching the film herself, Seibel credits Woody Allen’s directing and the clever editing of Alisa Lepselter in catching the magic of Paris in both the past and the present. She’s especially pleased with the achievements the art department performed, despite the constraints of a tight budget.
“The set looks real. I was thrown myself the first time I saw the movie, I didn’t think of the set,” said Seibel. “When they don’t give you a lot of money you have to extend your budget and you have to use your brain, and you have to give a different truth to the movie so there are all these little details. It’s the most fun thing to do, to create all these elements. I really love to do it.”