"The King's Speech" is poised to be crowned with several Oscars on Sunday, Hollywood's biggest night of the year.
But the small, independent movie, which has been both a critical and commercial hit with more than $200 million in worldwide ticket sales, hardly received the royal treatment when it was filmed in Britain.
Starring Oscar nominees Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter, the picture tells the story of King George VI's triumph over a debilitating stutter. Given its positive depiction of the royal family, location manager Jamie Lengyel and the film's producers had hoped to get permission to shoot some of the exteriors at Buckingham Palace in London, and perhaps arrange a private visit for research.
Instead, they received a polite but firm "no" from her majesty's representatives, enforcing a strict "no drama filming" policy across the palace households (apparently exceptions are made for documentaries and news crews). Producers of previous movies about the Windsors, including "The Young Victoria" and "The Queen," faced similar restrictions.
The rejection posed a difficult hurdle for Lengyel: how to satisfy director Tom Hooper's insistence that the movie be historically accurate without being able to shoot at the actual places depicted in the film, which was released by Weinstein Co.
With a production budget of just $15 million, building elaborate stage sets was out of the question. So Lengyel had to find more than half a dozen estates and private residences in the greater London area that could stand in for Buckingham Palace and five other royal residences represented in the period drama, from St. James' Palace to Windsor Castle.
"The challenge was to find locations that could represent not only the grandeur of formal state rooms but also of the private areas, to get beneath the façade to show where and how the family actually lived," said Lengyel, who also worked as location manager for last year's action-adventure fantasy "Clash of the Titans."
To keep costs down, most locations had to be within an hour or so's drive of Elstree Studios in London, where the production was based.
Complicating matters was an unusually tight schedule: filming 35 locations in just 40 days between October 2009 and early January 2010 because of the limited availability of actors Rush and Bonham Carter, who was also shooting "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."
Because they couldn't get official permission to film at Balmoral Castle, in the Scottish Highlands, and Sandringham House, the royal family's Norfolk residence, Lengyel and the movie's designer and producer visited as tourists, discreetly taking photographs and video that they could use as visual references for the film.
"We were a little bit more investigative than your average tourist," Lengyel said. "We didn't trespass, but we were very keen to do as much research as we could."
In place of Balmoral the crew used Knebworth House, a gothic estate north of London famously depicted in James Mason's final film "The Shooting Party." The winter scenes set in Scotland were filmed in Wendover Woods in Hertfordshire during an unusually heavy January snowstorm.
The Crown Estate venue in Windsor Park, Cumberland Lodge, which is used mostly for educational conferences, stood in for Sandringham House for the filming of King George V's deathbed scene.
To represent Buckingham Palace producers relied on several locations. The ornate state rooms, entrance hall and staircases were filmed in nearby Lancaster House, which is used by the Foreign Office for special events. Because it costs about $30,000 a day to rent, filming was limited to one weekend.
Producers considered filming Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue's office in Dublin, Ireland, but got permission to film where he actually worked on Harley Street in Westminster. To create the look of smog-filled London, the crew painted several Georgian buildings a grayish-brown and pumped smoke into the streets (setting off multiple fire alarms).
"We had to dirty it down," Lengyel said, "and take it back to the way it was in the 1930s."