Production designer Martin Childs approached the quasi-historical drama Quills, which focuses on the Marquis de Sade's latter days at Charenton, like a puzzle. "The event in Doug Wright's screenplay, I came to realize, could only happen if all the rooms were in a certain relationship to one another," says the designer, an Oscar winner for Shakespeare in Love. "It became a puzzle to work out how that could be done--and then, to turn that back into architecture as it might really have been, rather than taking the real architecture of Charenton Asylum, and try to force the story into it, which might not have worked."
The time of the Philip Kaufman movie, based on Wright's play, is the early 1800s; the place, Napoleonic France. The Marquis (Geoffrey Rush), notorious for both his sexually outre fiction and his similar real-life exploits, has been committed to the asylum; here, he lives in comparative comfort, surrounded by his favorite things, including his all-important collections of dildos and writing quills. He continues to compose his lurid novels, which are smuggled out of Charenton by the laundress (Kate Winslet). But when a stern administrator (Michael Caine) arrives to supplant the kindly priest (Joaquin Phoenix) who runs the asylum, the Marquis' privileges are gradually stripped, until he is left naked in a bare cell--no pen nor ink nor dildo in sight.
So he whispers his latest story through Charenton's decaying walls. Passed from inmate to inmate, it finally reaches the kitchen, where the laundress dutifully writes it down. "You have to establish that that could happen in this building," says Childs, who built the set at Pinewood Studio in England. "In order for there to be lines of communication between the rooms, then it was essential that the building take on a life of its own. Once you establish that there is weather not only outside the building, but inside it, that the walls are leaking and almost seem to move with drippage at certain points, you can believe that there are holes between the cells where communication can take place."
The set was unusual in that the rooms were built adjacent to each other, just as it plays in the story-passing sequence. "We didn't employ the 'magic of cinema' here," Childs says. "It was so the people playing the inmates could understand how the scene worked." Since the asylum set was built as one large piece, it took up a lot of space, but a bend in the corridor of cells helped it fit snugly on the Pinewood stage. "In a way," says the designer, "that was the first thing I thought of, to get that bend so when you stood at one end of the corridor, you got a series of arches, and in the final, tiny arch, you would get a glimpse of the 'forbidden' cell--the Marquis de Sade's cell."
The real Charenton is no longer extant in its early 19th-century form, and Childs' research revealed that the building was a centuries-evolving structure. "That gave us the chance to use lots of different periods of French architecture," he says. "So whenever you got close to the bowels of the building, I would employ the architecture of French Cistercian monasteries, and once you got to certain exteriors, I was able to use 18th-century facades. This gave the sense that the building had been there forever."
The asylum exterior was shot at Luton Hoo, a 19th-century English country home previously seen in such films as Eyes Wide Shut and Mrs. Brown, also designed by Childs. "One of the fortunate things about the UK is that in the 19th century, it was fashionable for people to build grand houses in the manner of the French 18th century," he says. "We Frenchified Luton Hoo further by adding chateau-like roof shapes and a facade. Which again, was useful dramatically, because at the end of the film the chateau burns down, and it gave us something to destroy without destroying the underlying building."
Childs' next film after Quills was From Hell, a Jack-the-Ripper tale shot in Prague, on a huge East End of London set. The designer would like it to be known that stories of period ghouls--or period anything--don't comprise his only specialty. "I don't want people to think I can't do modern," he says. "I long to--like Helena Bonham Carter--burst out of my corset and do Fight Club."
Quills will be released in November by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Photo credit: David Appleby ©Fox Searchlight.