Few things are more alluring in the TV and film world as a fresh-faced starlet, but Tony McNamara's script for Hulu's The Great proves good writing is still the most enticing draw to the industry's best creatives. The writer behind Oscar winner The Favourite has created another instant-smash dark comedy with the "occasionally true story" about Russian empress Catherine the Great, and production designer Francesca Mottola and costumer Emma Fryer were the perfect duo to help bring McNamara's modern spin on 18th-century Russian royalty to life.
"When you get a set with a story so well written, you're just in awe of it all," says Mottola. "It was a real interesting piece to design for when you're a designer supporting a comedic script with the craziest scenes."
The writing was so good, in fact, it earned McNamara a 2020 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, and director Matt Shakman a nom for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series.
The Great was Mottola's first experience working on something that gave her the freedom to not be so reverential to the period. While it was important to her to look at the architecture and interiors of the legendary Winter Palace, she wanted to keep the set grounded in 18th-century grandeur while bringing a modern flair to the world of Elle Fanning's Catherine the Great.
"We didn't want to re-create that world; we wanted our own world altogether," Mottola says. "I read books about Catherine, Baroque art, Russia's Tsarkoye Selo Palace—which Catherine did inhabit for a time—but then I put all that away and tried to start fresh."
Mottola's biggest challenge had to be faced right off the bat: the fact that there were dozens of different rooms and spaces to create, many of which had to be specifically individualized for the strong personalities of the characters who inhabited them.
"We wanted the palace to feel so big that it allows for different styles in each room," Mottola says. "We wanted it to feel like the people didn't really know each other, and the variety of styles enhanced that notion."
Catherine, for example, arrives at the palace with a child-like sense of wonder and is soon crushed by her romantic naiveté. Mottola chose to deck Catherine's walls with chinoiserie wallpaper, which she says gives a strong sense of femininity to the room but also feels overwhelming and suffocating, like the palace walls quickly become for Fanning's character. Inspiration for this room came from the Swedish Royal Palace's chinoiserie pavilion.
Mottola also found a great deal of inspiration for both the set's private quarters and indulgent party scenes from Instagram, which she says is a huge tool in her creative process. She was enamored with the work of famed Italian architect, production designer, and interior designer Renzo Mongiardino, who, according to The New York Times,"liberated late 20th-century interior design from staid authenticity and historical correctness." No wonder he served as a major source of inspiration for this loose telling of Catherine the Great. Mongiardino was no stranger to regal interiors himself, as he often designed homes for European royalty.
While the interiors were filmed in a studio in East London, the exterior locations were filmed across the U.K. and Italy. Mottola says the Russian front was filmed in Kent, while the main facade for the Winter Palace was filmed in Naples, Italy, where the cast spent two weeks filming on other sweeping landmarks, like the Royal Palace of Caserta.
Costume design for The Great was another tremendous feat, undertaken by Emma Fryer, who has designed costumes for a range of movies, from Shakespeare in Love to Hustle with Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson.
Fryer says her initial inspiration for the show's illustrious costumes came from a Vanity Fair photo shoot for the Emmys back in 2013, where a group of actors were dressed in formal wear, but it all looked very loose and everyone seemed relaxed. She wanted the costumes for the palace dwellers to embody this sense of ruffled elegance.
"I think you always have to go into the real world of the period and then look outside of it if you want to turn it on its head," Fryer says. "There was lots of referencing at the beginning with period paintings and historical referencing as well as a look into modern fashions to bring both worlds together. At the beginning, I took myself to big department stores and went around different floors to look at the designer fashion world today."
Fryer says 18th-century men's fashion was easier to work with because you can do lots of different layers and make them look more disheveled, while feminine costumes brought you into the world of corsets and underpinnings.
Fryer's biggest priority for her costume design was to create costumes that reflected each character's individual style and strong personality. She spent hours with Elle Fanning flipping through ideas and ensuring she would feel confident and comfortable in her many costume changes.
"You start envisioning all these little details once you start chatting with the cast," Fryer says. "They might say something that ends up sparking inspiration for using a certain fabric or doing something slightly different than what you had in mind. There were lots of very specific choices driven by everyone’s character, and the costumes actually had very distinct roles."
Some favorites include Catherine's blue coat with fur trim and a fur hat (all faux, as directed by Fanning) worn in the 10th episode, as Fryer says the whole outfit helps Catherine shift away from the character she was when she first arrived at the court as a young romantic.
"Though we haven't moved in huge amounts of time as this point in the show, we see this change in her and start to see this stronger woman emerge," Fryer says. "It's a little nod to Russia with the fur as well."
While promotional material for McNamara's The Great immediately alerts its audience that the show is quite a loose interpretation of the Russian empress, its fresh take on Russian royalty in the 1700s provides delicious insight into how the Tsars may have lived, dressed and dined in more recent years if they had not experienced such a fateful end in the early 20th century. It immerses us into a world that is brash and aggressive yet beautifully ornate, offering a glimpse of the glamour and gore that embodied the lifestyles of royalty for centuries.
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