'The Limehouse Golem' and 'Peaky Blinders' production designer Grant Montgomery reveals how he creates grisly, cinematic worlds.
The Limehouse Golem, Juan Carlos Medina's latest film, is a well-executed period piece, taking place in 19th-century London. At times, the film feels like a dinner-theater melodrama gone fascinatingly awry. As i opens, Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke) is accused of killing her husband; nothing seems further from possible. She is a well-loved, semi-bawdy stage performer, a member of London's theatrical demimonde. A series of outrageous murders by a mysterious figure christened the "Limehouse Golem" is filling the public imagination; Lizzie's arrest seems like an afterthought in the shadow of this larger public concern. Bill Nighy plays John Kildare, the rigid, gloomy-faced inspector in charge of getting to the bottom of Lizzie's case, because it is commonly believed her husband might have been the Golem. As we watch the film, we can trace the inspector's gradual understanding of the perverse scenario in the folds of his brow and face.
The characters grow out of their surroundings like figures in a painting brought to life.
Much of the pleasure of watching the film comes through immersion in its world: the world of the theater, the world of the bars the actors like to frequent, the world of the court, the world of the jail. The characters grow out of their surroundings like figures in a painting brought to life. No Film School asked the person responsible for designing their world, Grant Montgomery, a few questions about his method. If you're a Peaky Blinders fan, you already know his work; he is also the show's primary production designer.
No Film School: Can you tell a little bit about what your typical research process is for the films and shows you work on?
Grant Montgomery: I feel I research all the time. I think, as a designer, you should be inquisitive about the world. I adore history and I read widely. For Limehouse, I looked at William Blake and Atkinson Grimshaw, but also westerns, in addition to historical research about the music halls. I am curious about how people actually live, and the more you try to inhabit that in your imagination, the more you can extrapolate the world you're working on. I visit galleries and exhibitions. I watch films and read, read, read. Every day is research; it's where my inspiration comes from.
NFS: How did you go about deciding on the look for the various interiors in this film, particularly the theater, the inspector’s office, the jail, and the tavern?
Montgomery: I read about music halls, and the more I read about them, the more the history revealed that they were not all in conventional spaces. Some were in pubs and pop-up spaces. That allowed me to design, instead of a proscenium arch theatre space, a more creative thrust stage. I kept thinking of Lizzie: how would the music hall look to her? It's her escape. It's a bright golden world compared to the so-called real world, and hence I went for an antique gold finish. It's really designed through her eyes.
My approach to inspector Kildare's office was inspired by Se7en, for sure. It was a nod and a wink to the police station from that film. The cells were a homage to Francisco de Goya via Newgate Prison. Talking with Juan Carlos, we kept coming back to Goya's engravings of prisons. Then I thought: let's not create an obvious prison interview space, but instead create a larger dark place with columns that becomes a space of shadows in which the characters can move in and out of the darkness and light as their dangerous relationship escalates. It becomes a performance space, just like the music hall. Essentially, it's a very theatrical film. It's all about performance, and the key performing areas are the prison, the music hall, and the courtroom.
"I wanted all the interiors for the key characters to have a reflection of the character to misdirect the audience."
I wanted all the interiors for the key characters to have a reflection of the character to misdirect the audience. Hence, Lizzie's bedroom has birds on the wallpaper and is narrow and small, as if she is a caged bird. John Cree's bedroom has red woodwork and dark, rich wallpaper, slightly bohemian in tone, with busts of writers, all reflecting his idea that he is a man of the literary world, which he is not. It's actually Lizzie who watches over him; her bedroom right next door allows her to spy on him.
Uncle's space has a hint of "the Orient" to it, but if you look closely, we added in Victorian dolls' heads that give a hint as to his dark hobbies. None of the interiors are straight period pieces; I played and pushed colors everywhere to reflect the Grand Guignol approach. I kept thinking of Dario Argento.
Lizzie's mother's hovel is wallpapered in the Old Testament, and it actually contains key images of the film's death and destruction. I adore layering sets in this way.
NFS: What was your inspiration for the crime scenes? When I look at them, I tend to think of David Fincher’s Se7en, which you referenced already. What did you have in mind when you were plotting them out?
Montgomery: I didn't watch Se7en in preparation for the film, but its images were already imprinted in my mind for inspiration. I wanted to create the look of the wet plate photos of the Ripper case, so that was also a reference point. Added to that, Jane Goldman's brilliant script gave us the geography of the murders. But we did have fun creating them and then photographing everything properly in a wet plate process, which gives all the photos of the scene of the crime a distinctive period look. All the photos were created with cameras and not in Photoshop; we had special time put aside for that, because all the photos are key to the telling of the story.
NFS: How did your work on Peaky Blinders, which is also very atmospheric, assist in or inform your work on this film?
Montgomery: Funnily enough, it was also work on the BBC period adaption of Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White that informed my approach, along with Peaky Blinders. Peaky has a very distinctive color palette, and that informed Limehouse, especially the antique gold for the music hall.
NFS: What made you feel this was a project you wanted to work on?
Montgomery: I was sent the script and I read it at one sitting, and the writing just leapt from the page. I could see the world in my mind's eye. I immediately read it again. I knew I wanted to design this incredible world.
NFS: What’s the most important thing a production designer should remember when developing a period piece like this?
Montgomery: Try to remember your first responses to the script, the first colors that came to you on the first reading. It's your purest response. You are trying to breathe life into a piece, and facts are often truly stranger than fiction, and the more you research it, it will reveal a different period than the one you thought you knew.
"Facts are often truly stranger than fiction, and the more you research it, it will reveal a different period than the one you thought you knew."
NFS: The world of the theater, and the way in which it once reflected current events quite blatantly, both in Europe and in America, obviously figures into this story quite a bit. What were the challenges of bringing that particular part of the film to life?
Montgomery: In the U.K., there are only three real remaining music halls and we simply couldn't access them for the amount of time we needed to film in them. It would have simply meant shutting them down for months. To that end, that meant we had to design and build our own music hall.
I knew of an old mill. We took that over and converted the interior, and I designed the whole set to sit inside it. It gave us the full world backstage and in the front of the house. I really wanted it to have a tarnished slightly down-at-heels look. I had two huge devils based on William Blake's paintings created to sit on either side of the thrust stage. He was a London artist, but his apocalyptic imagery suited the world of the Golem. It was a tight schedule to build that in time.
NFS: What interests you about the distant past, as a production designer?
Montgomery: I simply find it fascinating to engage in recreating the past. There is a wonderful quote from the book 'The Go-Between': "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."
I just find it fascinating to visit those foreign countries. It's like a form of time travel. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do this kind of work. For me, it was a joy to create the world of The Limehouse Golem.