I was lucky enough to have a zoom meeting with New Zealand production designer, Felicity Abbott, to discuss her latest masterpiece, The Luminaries. The BBC 6 part mini-series, based on the prize-winning novel of the same name, aired on Sunday night. Set in the midst of the New Zealand gold rush in the 1860s, we follow the lives of travellers from all parts of the world in search of a new life and fortune.
To start off with, where are you calling from today, amidst the pandemic?
Felicity Abbott – I’m currently in Cape Cod, on the East Coast of the US. I was in the middle of a project here that shut down late March. I’m based in Los Angeles now though, have been for three years, but I didn’t want to go back there just yet as it’s quite chaotic at the moment.
Where were you born and raised? And did you come from a filmmaking background?
Originally from New Zealand, and not at all from a creative family. My mother has a creative eye, they worked in antiques, but I’m the only one to work in the creative arts
How did you get into production design?
Felicity Abbott – My undergraduate was in fine arts in Auckland. But I quickly discovered I wasn’t really interested in being an “artist” so to speak. I had a flat mate at the time who was delving into the film industry, and I ended up getting involved in some unpaid work in the art department of a couple of feature films. Then I got a paid gig on a film with the designer who did Once We Were Warriors. He encouraged me to go away and study because there wasn’t really anywhere to study in NZ, no courses, no female role models…I was looking around for inspiration and resources and couldn’t really find any. That led me to apply to do a Masters at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, which I was very fortunate to be accepted into. So I did 2 years there and then I also went to study in Paris at the International Film & Television School. Formal training really.
How did The Luminaries come about for you?
I was actually involved at pitch stage with the Australian director Claire McCarthy, and the cinematographer Denson Baker. We collectively put together a pitch document, which Claire took to London to pitch to Working Title, and it also went to the BBC. I hadn’t worked with Claire before but her husband was one of my class mates, Denson Baker, and I’d done quite a few things with him over the years. We were all based in Los Angeles so I knew her, but hadn’t actually worked with her at that stage.
Why were you so passionate to make The Luminaries then?
Felicity Abbott – Well I guess for me as a New Zealander, it’s such an important New Zealand story. I had read the novel, every New Zealander knows of The Luminaries. Ironically for me, it was the first time I had ever worked in New Zealand as a production designer. To be hired out of Los Angeles, for a British production, in my country of birth, was strange and kind of amusing. I really wanted to do a project in New Zealand, and I wanted to do a big international project. I really admire Working Title, the novel, and the BBC does such good drama. But for me, it was really about telling a New Zealand story, and doing a big period piece. There were so many attractions. I lived in New Zealand until I was 26, the whole landscape, the flora and fauna, are very much a art of my cultural makeup, and the way I see things. It informs my style and pallet.
As this is a period piece, how much historical research went into the production design? Could you explain that process?
For me as a production designer, research is everything. It’s the starting point and the fundamental point to everything. I started researching in Los Angeles, even just to do the pitch. There’s an emotional investment very early on. I accumulated over 4000 images. I looked at international archives because goldmining had moved around the world, and we looked a lot at Gold rush towns. We also spent a lot of time in the New Zealand national archives doing picture research on furniture and objects. I think the success of a project for me is based on the research. I love research. I have always been really fascinated by history, historical architecture, travel, and world building.
In terms of period films then, what would be your ultimate era to design for?
I’d love to do a 1940’s period piece.
The Luminaries has a stunning colour scheme, what was your inspiration behind that?
Felicity Abbott – Colour palette is really fundamental to everything I do. I find that colours start to come to me when I’m reading a script, and that’s when I know it’s the right project for me. I see things in terms of colour; it’s a language like any other language. Colours say different things. For me, it’s about having a disciplined pallet. I want the pallet to represent the characters in a particular way. In The Luminaries, we had a very distinct colour pallet for every single character’s environment, and that informs the set and costume. All the tones were taken from the landscape. I don’t like to introduce colours randomly, everything is planned.
‘The House of Many Wishes’ interior reflects Lydia’s character. I suggested to the writers that it be burnt, as Lydia’s character represents that notion of artifice, and gives the appearance that she has a lot more money than she has. Production design is a lot about character back-story.
Do you have another project lined up at the moment? And can you share what’s next for you?
I am in the middle of working on a Sony film, which is another adaptation of a novel by James Herbert. It’s directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos, set in New-England. It’s called Shrine.
How do you think the film industry will look, going forward, in light of COVID-19?
I hope things go back into production! It’s a very different situation in different parts of the world. We certainly can’t make films in the way that we used to, I know that writers are having to go back and look at scenes…obviously working with extras, you can’t have those numbers on sets. I think the thing that it needs more than ever is just a lot of communication and a lot of planning.
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