It’s an imaginative race for production design, highlighted by the complex world building of “Dune,” the hand-crafted eclecticism of “The French Dispatch,” the exotic romanticism of “No Time to Die,” the baroque moodiness of “The Power of the Dog,” the childhood nostalgia of “Belfast,” and the expansive noir exploits of “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and “Nightmare Alley.”
An Old World quality inspired by nature permeates Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (Warner Bros.). Production designer Patrice Vermette oversaw an assortment of large-scale sets at Origo Studios in Budapest. There’s the castle of the Atreides family on the ocean planet Caladan and distinguished by its Norwegian vibe with mottled hues. The interiors of the desert planet Arrakis have an Egyptian influence with stark browns, ochres and arid reds. The goth-looking planet, Giedi Prime, contains dark, cavernous interiors, where they also built also the steam bath of the large, imposing Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). Additionally, Vermette, art director David Doran, and concept artist George Hull created the ornithopters: huge winged flying vehicles that resemble dragonflies. Built by London prop makers, BGI, they had a wingspan of 129 feet and they were 75 feet long.
For Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” (Searchlight), Oscar-winning production designer Adam Adam Stockhausen (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) conceived different visual worlds in both color and black-and-white for this collection of “New Yorker”-inspired stories set in a fictional French city. They shot in Angoulême with its unique vertical stacking of spaces and twists and turns and little viaduct crossovers. They even found an old felt factory that they converted into a miniature studio. There were more than 125 sets and a lot more one-offs and setups than in “Grand Budapest.” Among the highlights: a series of abstract frescoes painted on the prison walls by a criminally insane artist (Benicio del Toro) that were actually created by co-star Tilda Swinton’s real-life partner, artist Sandro Kopp. (Stockhausen is also in contention for Steven Spielberg’s remake of the beloved “West Side Story” musical, from 20th Century Studios, which colorfully re-imagines the divisive New York City of 1957, with iconic reverence and a more period-accurate depiction of the Puerto Rican neighborhood.)
“The French Dispatch”
For Daniel Craig’s swan song as James Bond in “No Time to Die” (MGM/United Artists Releasing), production designer Mark Tildesley paid homage to legendary franchise designer Ken Adam with an enormous and exotic underground set built built in the massive tank at Pinewood’s 007 Stage. The set serves as an abandoned World War II island base of baddie Safin (Rami Malek), containing Japanese and Russian touches. The island contains a testing plant of giant silos and a subterranean factory below. Overall, it evokes both “Dr. No” and “You Only Live Twice” in size, scope and shape language. There’s brutalist concrete architecture, long, dark corridors, and a circular door that leads to the factory. There’s also a section with water filled with large glowing light sticks.
The baroque-looking Montana ranch house figures prominently in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” (Netflix), the psychological western about toxic masculinity, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons as a ruthless and sensitive brothers, respectively. They’ve lived in the family house all their lives, and the dark, oppressive setting contributes to the tense mood. Oscar-winning production designer Grant Major (“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”) oversaw the set of the house whose geography also contributes to the character dynamics, particularly a broad staircase that becomes a perch for Cumberbatch’s cruelty. Additionally, a Spartan bedroom with two cots conveys the deep connection between the brothers.
With “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (A24), starring Denzel Washington and McDormand, Joel Coen embraces the inherent theatricality of Shakespeare’s play in black-and-white with Expressionistic imagery. Production designer Stefan Dechant (“Pinocchio”) was inspired by early 20th century modernist stage designer Edward Gordon Craig’s use of large geometric blocks and emphasized hallways and staircases to evoke the nightmarish state of mind and emotional barriers between the characters.
“No Time to Die”
Black-and-white also infuses Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical “Belfast”(Focus), his childhood remembrance of growing up in Northern Belfast during the violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants in 1969. As a result of the pandemic, they weren’t able to shoot on a real Belfast street, so production designer Jim Clay (“Death on the Nile”) oversaw the construction of an entire street at the end of a runway at a small international airport in England. But this gave Branagh the freedom to create an authentic sense of detail with hills and countryside over the rooflines in one direction and shipbuilding docks in the other, while also reflecting the stirring of a child’s imagination from movies and TV.
Guillermo del Toro explores different modes of Expressionism in his reworking of “Nightmare Alley” (Searchlight), the ’40s psychological thriller, with grifter Bradley Cooper teaming up with various women (Toni Collette, Rooney Mara, and Cate Blanchett) on a ruthless journey to attain the American Dream. Production designer Tamara Deverell (“Cabinet of Curiosities,” “Star Trek: Discovery”) oversaw an array of sets that convey the underbelly of the geek-show carny world and the glam artifice of high society.
Contenders listed in alphabetical order. No film will be considered a frontrunner until we have seen it.
“No Time to Die”
“The French Dispatch”
“The Tragedy of Macbeth”
“The Green Knight”
“House of Gucci”
“The Last Duel”
“The Power of the Dog”
“West Side Story”
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