Film designers tell me one of their favorite genres is the period film. Authenticity and creating a believable setting that takes the viewer back in time is of utmost importance. For the Academy Award nominated film 12 Years a Slave, production designer Adam Stockhausen (credits include Moonrise Kingdom and the upcoming Grand Budapest Hotel) faced the task of designing the true story of Solomon Northup (played by Best Actor nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor) who portrays a free black man from Saratoga Springs, NY and is kidnapped and sold into bondage in 1841 Louisiana.
The various sets ranged from Solomon's home and the brick cell that makes up his hellish existence to the beauty and grandeur of two contrasting Louisiana plantations ( Michael Fassbender's Epps and and Ford played by Benedict Cumberbatch). Adam took time during his busy Oscar season to share with me the design process that earned him and set decorator Alice Baker an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction.
Cinema Style: What type of research did you do for the sets? Was there any particular design influence in the way of books, films and designs of the period?
AS: We did loads of photo research as well as looking at etchings, paintings, and maps of the time. Photography really exploded just a few years after the film takes place, so with care taken for period mistakes, we looked through the Historic New Orleans collection for incredible views of the levee wharf as well as plantation life. As for books, the two most important were Back of the Big House by John Michael Vlach and a collection of paintings by Marie Adrien Persac. These really covered the extremes... from the postcard beauty of the plantation estates to the real-deal anthropology and architecture of the working farm machinery.
CS: What were some of the most important considerations of the time period that were considered "must haves" for your designs?
AS: The overwhelming consideration was for our time and place to feel and be real. We didn't want scenery. That mean finishing outbuildings inside and out and completing the sets so we could see in any direction. We absolutely didn't want a feeling of museum neatness or historical distance. Anything that grounded us and made Solomon's life feel real and immediate was welcome.
CS: What sort of color palette did you use?
AS: We started with the incredible green of the landscape in Louisiana-- and the sun-bleached whites and creams of the plantation architecture. For the New York sequences, we tried to use deeper, more saturated colors as a counterpoint. With that framework in place, the tricky part was getting separation between the plantations. Solomon spends his years at several and they had to remain distinct. We tried to heighten the lush deep greens at Ford's and the blasted/desaturated brown and grays at Epp's.
CS: Where did you find the set items?
AS: We found pieces all over - attics, barns, museums, antique stores. There was no prop warehouse where we could load up on perfect antiques. Michael Martin and Alice Baker (propmaster and set decorator) assembled everything one piece at a time. They would head out on long drives on the weekends through Louisiana and Mississippi searching and would come back with the most amazing artifacts.
A special thanks to Carla McDonald and her feature on Cinema Style in The Salonniere.
Happy Oscar weekend!
Photo Credits: Fox Searchlight