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OSCARS 2000 | ART DIRECTION

It's All in the Details

They don't get the $20-million paychecks or credits above the title, but they are major players in determining how movies look.

March 26, 2000|CHRISTOPHER NOXON | Christopher Noxon is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

Eve Stewart, "Topsy-Turvy" * For this period film, every detail was covered, right down to the unseen train ticket stubs. (Don't mention the typewriter.)

*

British art director Eve Stewart credits her "rather obsessive attention to detail" for helping furnish the lavish Victorian surroundings in Mike Leigh's "Topsy-Turvy."

How obsessive? While researching Gilbert & Sullivan's play "The Mikado," which plays a central part in the film, Stewart learned that one of the supporting characters traveled every day to the Savoy Theater from his home in the countryside. Armed with this bit of trivia, Stewart had train tickets printed that specified the particular coach a man of his class would have chosen, then tore off the ticket stubs and tucked them in the pockets of his trousers. No matter that the stubs were never actually seen on camera--Stewart says her job was to make sure every single object in this three-hour musical drama fit naturally in London, circa 1885.

This rather extreme approach to art direction, Stewart says, was necessary given the amount of improvisation Leigh encourages in his actors. "If the actors are improvising their socks off, the last thing you want for them to do is open a drawer and find some calendar from 1999 poking out," Stewart explains. "We made sure every cupboard and every drawer was full."

Stewart didn't stop with ticket stubs. Curtains, furniture, cigarette boxes, the paint on the walls, even the labels on bottles of elixir on dressing tabletops were all carefully chosen to suit the scene. "We did cheat on a few things," admits Stewart, who shares the nomination with set decorator John Bush. "One of the typewriters was two years too late. When Mike [Leigh] found out, he just raised his eyebrow and carried on. I felt like a naughty schoolgirl."

The result of all the obsessing is a far busier, more colorful world than is usually associated with Victorian England. "You always get this notion of this drab, sepia-tinted world," she says. "But we found that when you add it all up, these people's surroundings were really quite exotic and colorful."

This dusting-off of history is perhaps most evident at the Savoy Theater, the venue where Gilbert & Sullivan staged some of their most famous works. While rummaging through artifacts from the old theater, Stewart discovered a 6-inch-square patch of flocked wallpaper that once hung in the main auditorium. Stewart rounded up some friends from art school and set about reproducing enough of the wallpaper to recover the entire set.

"When I got the fluffy bits to stand up, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," she says. "It was a real exercise."

Stewart, who has worked with Leigh previously on "Secrets & Lies" and "Naked," says her first Academy Award nomination has pleased her more than she ever would have expected. "I'm desperately excited," she says. "Everyone else from the film is acting quite cool, but I'm just bursting." *

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