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Set decorating on a classic period drama such as Anna Karenina is challenging enough, but when acclaimed set decorator Katie Spencer first heard director Joe Wright’s idea to set the whole film inside a derelict Russian theatre, her mind boggled … but the boggling soon turned to excitement as she reveals in this interview with Jane Ovaltine.

Q: You are no stranger to nominations and awards, but you must have been delighted with BAFTA and Oscar nominations for Anna Karenina?
A: Absolutely. I am really, really excited, because you are never, ever sure. Obviously, you hope! They announce the Best Actors and Best Film nominations live on the internet but then for the craft awards you have to wait for the rest of it to come up. At least with Anna Karenina it is top of the alphabet! It was only a ten-minute wait after the main nominations, but it is long enough!

Q: The derelict theatre in Anna Karenina mirrors Russian society. Can you give me an insight into how you brought that vision to life?
A: We were going down the traditional route of shooting but Joe Wright, the director, had decided that while travelling to Russia was incredible, filming there would be logistically and financially prohibitive. So we came back here and thought, ‘How do you change all this into Russia?’ Then he had his Road to Damascus moment of setting the entire film in the theatre. That gave everybody a lift. 

Q: I is all about artifice, right?
A: It is all about artifice. The book Natasha’s Dance (2002) by Orlando Figes was also a tremendous inspiration. Anna is brought low not by the deed she commits, which is the affair, but because she refuses to live a lie. So it is all that artifice, which you see everywhere, apart from with Levin. They do not even speak their own language at that point; it is all French for society and German for business. The crumbling, decaying theatre was the perfect analogy for the last days of the Empire.

Q: How do the various elements of the theatre reflect people’s position in society? We have the Oblonsky family living in the prop’s cupboard, for example…
A: Sarah Greenwood, the production designer, and Joe Wright (Director) locked themselves in a room at his house and talked about where to set various things. Having been to Russia we had seen St. Petersburg and Moscow being poles apart, with St. Petersburg looking very Western, forced upon the aristocracy by Peter the Great, while Moscow was still very proudly Russian, reflecting the Ottoman Empire. That is why there is a distinctive look between the two, with the Karenins living in quite an austere place. Putting the Oblonskys in the theatre seemed perfect, where it is warm and chaotic. Oblosnky is a man that you want to go and party with and so the eclectic mix of the prop room seemed to lend itself well to them. I think it all seems to fit.

Q: How difficult were the logistics of filming the theatre set? Were you constantly breaking it down and rebuilding it, or did Joe try and shoot in chronological order as much as possible?
A: No it was not chronological. We had 12 weeks from the new idea to the first day of shooting. There was the huge stage at Shepperton and then we built other sets on different stages, so the Karenin house was on a different stage and Levin’s interior was on another stage, but the theatre set within the studio was working 24/7. The first thing we shot in there was the ice rink because of the time it took to put it in. Joe Wright does like to shoot as much as possible chronologically, but there were times when you could not. That theatre was never dark. There was always someone in there working on it.

Q: How did you manage the transitions between the scenes, which are so smooth and wonderful?
A: People seem to either love it or hate it, which is fair enough, but I was talking to someone this morning that had seen the film and loved it, and they had said the transitions really helped them. The in-camera scene-changes, like the first time we see Karenin’s office and Anna (Keira Knightley) comes down the stairs and the scenery moves, some people like that and some people do not, and it helped the person I spoke to today to understand that they were in this artifice. One very clever thing that Sarah Greenwood (Production Designer) did was when we shot the train station. When we see the full-size engine, where Anna meets Vronksy (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) for the first time, we shot that at Didcot, a museum train station, and Sarah Greenwood built a proscenium arch of the theatre at the back of the station, so as Count Vronsky comes down he is framed by this arch and you probably do not notice it, but it is subliminal and you might notice it if it was not there. Of course when Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) goes from the world of artifice into real life, the doors of the theatre open and he goes through into the countryside. I thought that was a bold move. 

Q: What was your first, honest reaction when Joe told you that he wanted to set the film almost exclusively inside a theatre?
A: We had come back from Russia. It was a great adaptation by Tom Stoppard (Screenplay) but it was still a massive story and it contains the Levin story, not just the Anna Karenina story, and it was a struggle. We have done a lot of period drama between us and we know most of the houses in the county and you cannot make Chatsworth Russian by just popping a minaret on top. So when Joe Wright (Director) decided on his vision, everyone was taken aback but was then thoroughly enthused by it, because it was a new lease of life. It was not like putting life into an old dog. It made Anna Karenina fresh and exciting.

Q: With your background, though, could you readily see Joe’s vision or was it a bit mind-boggling at first?
A: To be honest it was very mind-boggling. On the surface you understand the artifice of Russia but then when you start to think about it, it becomes a bit like a Rubik’s Cube. It was a learning process all the way through, which went all the way up to the editing. 

Q: How important do you think Joe’s background was, growing up in a puppet theatre, when approaching a film like this?
A: I think it influences everything he does. His father is dead now but he is still very close to his mother and we have used his mother’s puppets in various shows and things like that. When you go there and see the puppet theatre, it is like a magic box. His sister is a puppet master as well. It was a huge influence – how could it not be? 

Q: Can you give me an insight into how closely you worked with Jacqueline Durran (Costume Designer) and the other designers?
A: Having worked with Jacqueline [Durran] a lot it is really important that we mesh what we do. What you wear and how you live reflects on where you live and what you do. We all come from a character background, rather than, say, interior design, which makes what we do much more character-driven. It is the same with make-up, too. You feed off each other and one change affects everyone. It is not just about the chair Anna [Karenina] sits on but how you dress it in the room, so the more you know about the character, the more it can inform the decisions you make.

Q: Given how stylised this film is, those discussions must have been more important than ever?
A: I think so. On the production design you want to keep things as authentic as possible because it is already weird enough. You do not suddenly want to see a 1950s chair in there! The brilliant thing was when the actors came in. One of the first things we shot was the Oblonsky [family] prop room and we were all thinking, ‘What are they going to make of this?’ They came in and just inhabited it. They are actors and they are used to acting on a theatre set, so that made it easier.

Q: Can you recall a great memory from this shoot?
A: When we shot in Russia and it was minus 30 — that will stay with me forever. It was so, so cold! On a warmer note, when the theatre set was half-built and unfinished and the costumes were half-finished, Keira Knightley walked onto to the stage in this half-made costume, just so could Joe could see her. There she was on a half-made set in a half-made costume with no make-up but we all immediately thought, ‘This could actually work!’

Published June 13, 2013

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Katie Spencer


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Set decorator Katie Spencer has worked with director Joe Wright on Pride & Prejudice, Atonement (2007), Hanna (2011) and Anna Karenina (2012). She has been nominated for four Academy Awards, including for her work on Anna Karenina, for which she was also a BAFTA nominee. Spencer won the 2008 BAFTA for Best Production Design with Sarah Greenwood, for her work on Atonement. Her other credits include The Governess (1998), Starter for Ten (2006) and both of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies (2009, 2011).

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