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Recreating the Troubles
by: May 10, 2010 Print

At least it wasn't the Icelandic ash cloud that prevented Eve Stewart (Becoming Jane, Vera Drake) from accepting her Genie for achievement in art direction and production design in person. The British art director, who won the accolade for her work on Kari Skogland's Fifty Dead Men Walking, was stuck in the mountains in Italy filming a car commercial and had to have a colleague accept the award on her behalf.

Still, she's thrilled to have gotten recognition for her work. It was the first time she'd worked with a Canadian director, and "in a jump" would work with Skogland again. (Skogland also snagged a Genie for adapted screenplay for the gritty IRA thriller set in 1980s Belfast.)

"It was brilliant, you don't get many chicks doing scum films," she comments. "They tend to do rom-coms, which is a shame.

"[Skogland] appreciated that I just wanted to tell the story of Fifty Dead Men Walking with proof and sensitivity to both sides," explains Stewart. "I've worked in Belfast for years in theater at the height of the Troubles, so I was quite informed about what you could do and what you couldn't do - knowing which people to approach, treading sensitively about asking certain members of your Northern Irish crew not to go in areas they don't feel comfortable in."

Those were among some of the obstacles involved in working on this film, making it (sorry) no walk in the park. Because money had been flowing into Ireland over the past few years, Stewart noted that many of the backstreets and related areas had become quite gentrified and the effects of that resulted in what she calls the bane of her existence: plastic windows.

Of course, modern plastic windows wouldn't help her achieve the rough look and feel of 1980s Belfast that was set in her mind, so along with a crew of 20 prop designers, she spent about a month cutting "thousands of wooden frames and putting them on everyone's windows. We popped these in and out constantly, then built giant barricades in the middle of town."

Stewart and her team also had a little luck on their side, as they were able to get a hold of the original painters from the '80s to recreate the political billboards and wall paintings from that time. Because they were working with a low budget, they also rounded up a group of children, gave them handfuls of chalk and set them free to complete the graffiti.

Landing the right props with limited funds was also a challenge. Even though they were able to rent props, Stewart recalls having to sift through yard sales, auctions, and haggling with locals for original furniture. The city was also sensitive to weapons and armor being brought into the vicinity, so they were kept under lock and key "in giant boxes so no one would run off with them."

But perhaps the most difficult props to secure - army vehicles - ended up becoming one of the simplest, thanks to what Stewart calls "a complete hairy madman who [had] about eight sitting in his backyard!"

She laughs as she remembers the authentic bomb-proof Jeeps parked in his yard, all covered in reinforced steel fencing. "We just put out a call, and he came to us and said, "Hello, I've got all these.'"

Working with a low budget is nothing new for Stewart and it's a skill she's mastered over time. Though she's been working in film for the last two decades, she also spent about 15 years as a theater designer at the Old Vic and National Theatre in London.

"It was really good training because it made me really be careful with money," she says. "If you've got a prop, you really understand why it's there and you don't just stick it there for its own sake. It's not about your own designer ego, you always have to support the story and the world you're meant to be visualizing and help the audience see it, too."

With that, she also stresses that creating a realistic scene isn't just for the viewers' benefit. "I'm really, really into creating a bubble of belief for the actors as well," she emphasizes. "So that when they're on set, they're not just greeted by doors that don't open. It helps them get the best out of their performance."

Other techniques employed included careful use of color - or rather, lack thereof. Bright colors were kept to a minimum and only reserved for some of the costumes. Stewart wanted to reflect the grey weather since the constant muted natural light in Belfast prevented much color from shining through anyway.

She just wrapped up work on The King's Speech, starring Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter, and is working on Late Bloomers. She's definitely keen on the idea of working on more Canadian projects down the road. "In my naive way, I thought it'd be like American culture, but it was completely different," she says. "Much more learned with British senses of humor."

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