Behind the Screen: Bright Star with Charlotte Watts

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As meditation on the doomed love affair between the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), Jane Campion’s Bright Star is not a typical period film.  Critics have praised this intimate, unadorned romance since it premiered at Cannes this spring, as set decorator Charlotte Watts tells us, recreating its sets—all the way down to the upholstery nails—was no easy task.

DARRELL HARTMAN: You were working closely with production and costume designer Janet Patterson, who collaborated with Jane Campion on The Piano.

CHARLOTTE WATTS: Yes, and Portrait of a Lady. She wanted pared-down Regency interiors—very monochromatic. I know the mise en scène comes across as stark, but it’s also true to the class of the characters. These people were not affluent.

DH: I think period films often want to wow us with opulent sets.

CW: Yes, and that can be quite repetitive. I had three months to do research before we started prepping, and the things I was finding—perspectival wallpaper, farmhouses where they had painted the walls in pink and green stripes—is far from lush. Actually, these interiors were much more exciting to create.

DH: Tell me about the furniture. There’s not a lot of it, but it makes an impact.

CW: Janet wanted to see silhouettes—for the furniture to be spidery and very linear, so we went with darker woods. We stripped down all the sofas and had them re-stuffed with horsehair just to get that lumpy look. And we didn’t use the plump cushions you see in period films.  We made all the cushions ourselves, to make them feel lived in.

DH: So you weren’t just taking the furniture straight from an auction to the set.

CW: Oh, no. We worked with a fantastic upholsterer who really got into the feel of that time-the upholstery nails were really fine, with little red painted heads. And even though it comes across as stark, I think there’s a real warmth to the Brawne cottage.

DH: The china gets quite a spotlight in the Christmas dinner scene.

CW: We actually got that from the costume assistant, Christine Ezdard. She directed Little Dorritt [1988] and makes period costumes. She just happened to say to Janet, “I have this incredible tea service from 1812.”  We bought loads of glasses at the Paris flea market and found a Regency dealer at the Kempton Race Track. Once or twice every month they have an antiques fair there and hundreds of dealers come.

DH: Where was the film shot?

CW: Hyde House, in Luton, which is an unglamorous part of England, but it was surrounded by classic English woods. We had a freak snowstorm in the spring, which was perfect. The house was covered in snow when we were doing winter scenes. It was as if someone was looking out for us.

DH: I love the scene where Keats takes that stiff chair out to the orchard to read. It seems to sum him up so well: civilized, casual, and so delicate. Do you think that was a common thing to do at the time?

CW: Take inside furniture outside? Absolutely. That was just a sort of normal spindle chair that he would have taken out to sit on.