Oscar-nominated ‘Mr. Turner’ designers talk costumes and sets of Mike Leigh’s biopic

J.M.W. Turner biopic “Mr. Turner” has been praised for its recreation of the world Turner's world manner that only director Mike Leigh could pull off. And of course instrumental in fabricating that universe was costume designer Jacqueline Durran and production designer Suzie Davies, each of them Oscar-nominated for their work on the film.

A common starting place was trying to envision the world of an individual so famous, but whose actual appearance is not very well known. “We had a researcher, an academic, who researched every known piece of information about Turner before we started,” Durran says. “There aren”t that many portraits of him – about 10 – and she put those together and found books that were most succinct. We didn't have a script [because Leigh eschews the norm in this regard], so we knew a lot would depend on the relationship between Mike and the actor and how they chose to approach Turner.”

Davies started with Turner”s art work, naturally, in building the design of the production, scattering some sets with in-progress works, others with completed exhibits. “When Mike offered me the job in 2012, I went immediately to the National Gallery and saw Turner and so much of his work and sketch books and diaries that were there,” she says. “I was literally holding Turner”s sketch book. We used art as our main reference and all of the people who had rights to Turner”s work gave us the rights for free.”

Something that Durran and Davies had to work on together was developing the world in which Leigh”s characters would live. Durran notes that the lack of a script early on did not hinder her. “When I work with Joe Wright, I meet with him maybe before the actor is even cast,” she says of another collaborator. “I go ahead and flesh out his ideas for him, for the story he wants to tell. With Mike, it”s completely the opposite. It”s completely based in the characters and the actor. I”m not designing costumes for a story; I”m designing costumes for a character. I”m asking, 'What would this character wear when they”re working? When they”re eating?” The only thing [that can become a problem with this approach] is that there might be scenes you would not have thought about and you won”t know what the character would wear.”

Nevertheless, Durran notes, mistakes don”t arise with the frequency they do when everyone is reading a script and having different images of it.

“Mike is known for his collaborations with people,” Davies says. “We had offices all together where he was working with actors and the art department on different floors. As the rehearsals progress, we”d meet at lunchtime, I”d get him up to speed with where we were on locations and bits of research. You felt part of the process. You”re expected to have an opinion and give an opinion, so it”s very fulfilling. As things moved on, Mike explained the type of story he wanted to tell and I”d think how we”d built that set and how we”d find that location.”

Adds Durran, “It is a collaboration and it”s easier to feel that in a normal Mike Leigh film that doesn”t have a historical counterpart. Normally, you have no idea who this character is – someone is being created in the course of the conversation. Sally Hawkins would tell me in 'Happy-Go-Lucky' where her character grew up, would buy her clothes, and I”d go out and we”d arrive at something that looks like character. Here, however, we were sort of trying to match something from historical reference. But Tim [Spall, who plays Turner in the film] felt that there was some very scruffy Turner and that was how Tim felt his Turner would be.”

Davies was careful to use the sets to convey that Turner was a different character in different circumstances. She compares two different places where much of the movie was set: Mrs. Booth”s house in Margate and Turner”s home in London. The latter required much consideration about the sorts of paintings that would be hanging on his wall and the fact that, though he was an artist, he had to fit into conservative elements of society. This was not the case down in Margate.