Production Designer Mark Tildesley tells IndieWire how he gets the details of the Empire’s lobby down to the right Maltesers packaging.
When it came to recreating an early 1980s cinema in a British seaside town for Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, a crucial part of the success was in seemingly the smallest of details. The film marks the first collaboration between the filmmaker and acclaimed production designer Mark Tildesley. Childhood memories immediately proved to be the perfect starting point for the fellow Brits.
“We started talking about our cinema experiences growing up and I told him about a vacation I took to the Isle of Wight,” Tildesley told IndieWire. “It was awful, freezing cold, and my mom said, ‘Let’s go to the movies.’ You would move from this green, blue, dark, cold thing into this warm space. It was almost like a mother’s womb.” Tildesley evoked warmth and brightness with rich carpets, red velvet curtains and “a sense of grandeur that says something amazing is about to happen.” The beverage stand was the focal point.
“You stand in front of this display case and your eyes burst,” he said. “It was a pleasure. It created a real sense of escapism. Cinema could allow people to think, live and dream differently.” These possibilities were why Tildesley and Mendes decided to give the food stand its own character in Empire of Light. Recreating the confectionery selection was one of the things the production designer and the other creatives tackled on day one.
“There are a few prop companies in the UK that deal with this sort of thing, but one specializes in old packaging,” he explained. “The paper has a certain color, texture and everything. It’s amazing how you remember these details. Some of them were very different from what they are now. Even the scale and size were different, whether it was candy or cigarette boxes.”
When it came to sweets – or “sweets,” as they’re called in Britain – the process involved contacting the manufacturers and discussing whether or not to use brand names. The tobacco products presented their own themes.
“There was a real problem with cigarettes because the studios don’t want anyone to see smoking and you can’t be seen to encourage it.” To solve that, Tildesley and the graphics and set decoration teams had to develop fictional brands, a process he described as “a bit tricky” since they also had to be based on the original names and designs. “People used to smoke in theaters all the time, and it’s mentioned in the film.”
To recreate the candy, they took a different approach. “We bought vintage crates, disassembled them, and then worked backwards with the printers,” Tildesley said. “Modern printing techniques feel slightly shiny. If you look at them together, there is texture and patina on the originals that are older. It’s pretty hard to define exactly what it is, but the paper was the place to start.” He described the older materials as “a bit bolder and more textured card stock,” while what the industry uses today is “much smoother.”
Maltese and opal fruit (the latter now being sold under their Americanized brand name, Starburst) were particularly difficult candies to reproduce. “Sam has been like an Exocet rocket on all of these things, and I’ve stood up in these meetings and it’s been incredible to get into the detail of exactly what we’re going to use,” Tildesley said. “It was like time travel when you stood in front of them. You are taken back to the moment you stood there as a child. It’s a powerful, visceral and emotional thing, and I’m not sure I expected it.”
The importance of detail radiated from the concession stand to the foyer and beyond, but not just for aesthetic reasons. “When you drive a performance-oriented and character-driven piece, every little bit in that set tells you something about the person,” he said. “When the performers enter this place, they live in it, and it has to feel right for them.”
The selection of posters for the theater lobby was a “bulk project” that involved, in part, purchasing several original posters for films of the time starring Mendes, who had scripted some of them. According to Tildesley, he was also keen to make sure they felt right next to each other. As with the candies, the use of paper, textures, colors, and prints all played important roles in establishing their authenticity. The next hurdle was obtaining permits for on-screen use, which extended to the series of stills and photographs paved through the projectionist’s booth, dubbed the “man cave” by the production designer.
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
“Sam and I got this big sheet, eight by four, and put photos on it,” Tildesley said. “We knew the ones we thought would be classic that he would have and then picked the others that we thought he would pick.
“If you have the studio and they have the rights, you can do it easily,” he said. “You also have the other situation where you not only buy the rights to the poster or the photograph, but you also buy the photographic rights from the people who took the portrait photos and then the performer themselves. There was a lot of wrangling.”
However, Mendes was a man with a plan – and another plan in case the first one didn’t work. “We only got one or two at the last second and we had the replacement poster ready in case it couldn’t go through.”
“In the end, sometimes the studio had to take a little risk and decide whether or not someone is going to look for them,” he said, laughing. “Sam always had a good escape route when we couldn’t get something.”
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/12/empire-of-light-how-they-made-the-vintage-candy-1234792043/ Empire of Light: How Did They Make the Vintage Candy?