Wonka | Production designer Nathan Crowley on practical sets, chocolate, Christopher Nolan and more

nathan crowley wonka design
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Production designer Nathan Crowley talks to us about his work on this autumn’s sweetest blockbuster, Wonka.

Wonka, Paddington director Paul King’s prequel to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, takes place in its own unique plane of reality. Like Roald Dahl’s original books, it’s a reality that’s sort of like our own, but also lightly fantastical – everyday, but with flashes of the magical and unexpected.

Or, as production designer Nathan Crowley puts it, “It was really about world creation in a whimsical way, but not fantasy – it’s a very fine line.”

Known for his deployment of large, practical sets – particularly on such Christopher Nolan films as The Prestige, The Dark Knight and Interstellar, for which he was Oscar nominated – Crowley brought all his creativity to bear on the vibrant, turn-of-the-century world of Wonka. It’s a story that required the creation of a huge subterranean lair tucked away beneath a cathedral, an equally sprawling town square, and a labyrinthine guest house stuffed with its own secrets and unusual characters.

Here, Nathan Crowley talks affectionately about his work on the film, its mix of the practical, location filming and CGI, and even finds time to reflect on his earlier career, from Steven Spielberg’s Hook to Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, and more besides…

Congratulations on Wonka. Being a production designer involves coordinating with a lot of people, I’m sure, but I should think this is the first time you’ve had to work with chocolatiers as well?

Nathan Crowley: Yeah – it’s not a bad job!

So from a creative standpoint, what was your way into working on Wonka?

Well, the way into it was, Paul [King, director] hired me. But I really like to start with the big picture world-building first, then getting down to the small stuff. And luckily, I had Lee Sandales as set decorator and Jamie Wilkinson, the prop master, who could work from the other side as I worked to figure out what Willy Wonka’s world was architecturally, cinematically and musically. And then they started developing the confectionery with a real chocolate maker, Gabriella [Cugno].

So the way I started is really about trying to find a place. I started by looking at Europe, but we were in lockdown, so I couldn’t go to Europe – I used Google. And with Paul, we were searching around Europe thinking, well, maybe we could go to a real town square and find this careful balance of Roald Dahl’s books. That’s really a childhood fantasy for all of us, if you grew up with his books – which I’m sure you did. You know, there’s a sort of childhood emotional nostalgia – there’s a connection. So you have to find that in the imagination of the books.

It was really about world creation in a whimsical way, but not fantasy – it’s a very fine line. It’s capturing the romance of those books. We looked around Europe, thinking, ‘Well, you know, I’m always game to shoot in a real place.’ And it’s probably good because, as you try and achieve that as a build, things tend to shrink. But by the time we got through it, and we were still in lockdown, we realised we just needed to build the town square. And through all that research and wandering around Europe in the computer, we realised we could actually make a sort of ‘the best of Europe’. We could mix architecture and find the whimsical world of Wonka in that. So it was a joy.

It was a joy to mix parts of London, parts of Paris, parts of Belgium, parts of Italy – your favourite bits. The difficulty in that was twofold. It was really making sure the architecture didn’t jar, and then being true to the Wonka, Roald Dahl world. To make this sort of whimsical, wonderful world that [Willy Wonka] comes in and affects. He basically changes that town. And then we expanded [the set] – we shot in Lyme Regis, we shot in Oxford, we shot in Bath.

So Lee and his team, the chocolatiers, came and said, ‘Okay, we need to do cake shops, we’ve got to do the Galeries Gourmet, full of the finest food and confectionery in the world.’ The place Willy’s always wanted to go to so he can open his shop.

We had whole departments who just made cakes, and we had Gabriella making chocolate, so you could taste the chocolate. I mean, it was very fun coming at it from both ends. I have to say, I had such a good time making this film.

There’s a definite sort of sense of glee in the film isn’t there? It feels like everyone had a great time making it.

Yeah, it’s fun. And when you see it, there’s a joy to it. It’s also extremely funny, especially Keegan [Michael Key].

It’s interesting, because as I was watching it, I was thinking that you’re never quite sure where you are in Europe – the signs are in different languages, even.

Yeah, and that’s very purposeful. It gives you a memory of something, so you feel comfortable with it. I believe strongly that production design should go quietly, and just push you into a place without being noticed, so the story and the characters can live in it. So hopefully it touches on a bit of everything so that everyone has a connection with it, and accepts it and goes with it.

Do you draw a lot when you start on a film?

Yeah, I mean, it’s everything. I sketch stuff – I have a lot of notepads, trying to sketch stuff out, and then put it into 3D. I like using 3D sculpting programs. I have 3D printers. So I just use any method. I mean, we didn’t have AI back then, but I wish we did!

I mean, [AI] is great. Once you have something – an idea – you can experiment. On a separate note, AI is like having a time machine, because you can jump through all the bad ideas quickly with it. So often, it’s a sort of a collage of craziness, in terms of an idea, a reference, a model. It’s very fluid.

It’s little things, like the chocolate shop is based on Willy’s childhood, or his idea of this enchanted garden. He grew up along a river with a willow tree, which is where the chocolate tree comes from. So it’s his memory of his childhood, which is ultimately what you’re trying to connect the audience with – [you want to] put them back in an enchanted garden.

For instance, when you’re learning to ride a bicycle – where did you learn to do that? Can we touch on that? You know? None of that’s in the film, but we’re trying to emotionally connect [with the audience] all the time.

My background is art school, obviously. But you learn as you go through your career. When Photoshop came up, I had to learn that.. Then 3D came in, and the 3D printing came in. You must adapt. And I think film, the way you work is, ‘I’ll take any new tool, and use it, and it’s part of the toolbox’. And now we have AI, which is part of it – it doesn’t run it, it’s just part of it.

Credit: Warner Bros.

There’s a certain amount of nervousness, isn’t there, around AI. I mean, that’s partly what the strikes were about, wasn’t it?

Yeah, but that’s for the actors. If you want to use an image [of an actor], then a singular payment doesn’t do it. AI for us is just another tool. I mean, often we – as the art department, production, design, set decorating – we’re very much crunched for time. So you’re looking for speed, you’re looking to develop an idea before you have to start building it, and getting it to a point that you like it enough and it works that you can start to build it. So you’re looking for faster and faster tools to narrow that time down.

You’re looking for input from all your art directors. So 3D printing, Photoshop, and now AI can speed us up as we test things, because we don’t get the opportunity to design something and test whether we missed something better. Because it becomes a deadline and then you have to start building it. So you often work in a hurry. You’re ‘Jack of all trades and master of none’ as I say!

Read more: Wonka review | The origins of Willy stand up

Talking of things connecting and marrying up, I was wondering, is there a challenge to making real-world locations mesh with the sets you’ve built? So, for example, you mentioned Lyme Regis where you’ve got the steps and you’ve extended it out digitally…

Lyme Regis was key for me. I know Lyme Regis, I’ve always looked at that Cobb because The French Lieutenant’s Woman was shot there, and I’ve always liked Lyme Regis. It’s like, ‘Wow, that’s a good Cobb.’ I’ve always found it amazing.

So we I went down there. Film crews don’t like travelling too far, because [equipment is] heavy. But they all agreed that we can go down there and film for a limited amount of time. So if you stand on the Cobb, and look at the hills, you’ve got the changeable outline – with Graham Page’s visual effects help, we can turn that into the city. Then we have the place that Willy arrives that holds the whole story [together]. And so that was key – Lyme Regis was key for me.

Location filming in Lyme Regis, with a CGI landscape courtesy of VFX supervisor Graham Page. Credit: Warner Bros.

We knew we were going to build the town square. Apart from anything, we could then manipulate it into the Roald Dahl world. Musicals require a lot of control, because you’re doing big numbers over and over again. So we knew we had to build that. But you can’t just rely on one set for a film because I think the audience will get claustrophobic and bored of it. And so you’ve got to expand yourself.

I often use arches to transition me out [of a set]. If you look at the town square, you’re always exiting through an arch. But the idea is you don’t notice that, because you suddenly end up in Bath or you end up in Oxford. The idea is that the arches transfer you without you noticing. If you do notice them, I haven’t done my job well enough! And so we expand the world into those places and give the audience almost a breathing moment. You want to give them a pause and then transfer them into a different space. So there’s a rhythm to the design, if that makes sense.

Credit: Warner Bros.

Yeah, it does. I’ve heard architects say that, when they’re designing buildings – there’s a rhythm to buildings and how you move from one space to the next. It’s interesting how it applies to filmmaking.

The great thing about film is I can build you an arch or a doorway and tell you, ‘Australia’s through there.’ And you go through that same arch and Australia is through there! But I can say, ‘Oh, it’s just left of the Gherkin [building in London]’.

That’s why film is brilliant. It’s magic. That’s the joy of film. And if you do well, the audience will go, ‘Yeah, of course! Sydney Harbour is just past the Gherkin.’

I was really interested to read that you worked on Hook as a set designer earlier in your career with [production designer] Norman Garwood.

Yeah – Norman started me off.

What are your memories of that? Do you think there are hints of Hook in Wonka? They both have flamingos in them for one thing…

Yeah! Hook was brilliant. I was 23, and I’d just arrived in LA and was trying to get some work. I was doing odd jobs and I bumped into a guy who I was at art college with in a bar, and he said, ‘Oh, they’re looking for people on Hook’.

So I went to meet Norman and he hired me. And it was brilliant. Norman is fantastic. I thought, ‘wow, this is how they make films’. I walked past stage 30 at Sony, I think it was, which used to be MGM. And they had Hook’s ship. They’d flooded the stage and had a tank, and there was a ship the size of HMS Victory on the stage. And then of course the tank leaks – because all tanks leak. So there was this river crossing the Sony studios. And I just thought, ‘wow, this is how all films are made’.

I had no idea that, obviously, this wasn’t how you always make films. But you know, it was brilliant. The most fantastic way to start, because it was, like, anything is possible in cinema. That was always the optimism of Hook – it was like, ‘well, we’ve got to do Hook’s ship. Let’s just build the ship.’ And they’re, like, ‘can we float it?’ It’s like ‘yeah, probably!’

I worked on Braveheart, and I will always remember we had to build a battering ram to bust down the gates of York – for real. CGI was in its early infancy – in fact, Photoshop had only just arrived. We built this battering ram, we built the gates, and I forget who it was, but someone came up to me and asked, ‘Is this battering ram going to work, Nathan?’

I said, ‘I’ve no idea – this is my first battering ram!’

But it did. It was like, ‘that’s cinema!’

Credit: Warner Bros.

You also worked on Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula [Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992]…

I worked on it for 11 months – I was second unit. Oddly, Norman Garwood, at the end of Hook, came to me and said, ‘You don’t know anyone in Hollywood, do you?’ And I said, ‘nope’. And he goes, ‘I’ll get you a job. We’re starting Dracula’. Norman was a massive help to my career. They assigned me to second unit. I was really the art director – I didn’t really get any credit on that. But it was like film school, working on second unit.

It was using all the in-house practical filmmaking methods – puppeteers, two-way mirrors, shadow puppets. We did all of the hydraulic stuff. That was my film school, Dracula. And that has continued on all the way [through my career] – I still work like that. If we can do it practically, we will.

[On Wonka] hydraulics was part of it, and special effects are always part of my sets. It’s like the elevator under the church – we need to build a shaft and we need the hydraulics to do that. And then we need to make that work, we need to bring that elevator unit, just the doors, into St. Paul’s. So you go in there, we cut to the elevator shaft on the stage, we go down and we move the bottom bit of that elevator, so the underground level, and then we come out of it. So you connect it.

Or if you can’t get the elevator in there, you take the elevator grill and you just let the camera sink with it attached to the dolly, and it looks like you’re going down. That all comes from Dracula. That film school of the Coppolas. That was my film school, definitely.

That actually makes you a good match for Paul King, I thought, because the way he makes films almost feels like you’re peering into a picture book, just like Dracula.

He [Paul King] loves the mechanical aspect of [filmmaking], like Willy Wonka’s chocolate box. How it’s like the TARDIS – you open it and it opens and opens and opens. He loves that, engaging with mechanical elements. We have CGI now, but if we can do enough of it practically, we can inform CGI how the lighting works on it, so it’s that careful meld of real and non-real and what that balance is. Not relying on one clear thing. And being okay with cutting and moving set pieces, too.

It’s what I was talking about with ‘Sydney is around the corner next to the Guerkin’. You break it down. That’s the way we make Christopher Nolan films – you just break it apart and do most of it practically. So then you apply that to this film, with Paul King, I think I can really help, because I’ve been around the block. I was lucky enough to cross practical filmmaking before CGI really took place, so I got an education in practical filmmaking and camera tricks. I was very fortunate.

Credit: Warner Bros.

Yeah. So it’s using things like forced perspective and those classic tricks.

There’s lots of forced perspective in Wonka. You know when they dropped down into the sewer tunnels? There’s forced perspective on that. It’s only 10 foot long, but because it’s a single camera position, [we could use] forced perspective. It’s not CGI backgrounds – all the backgrounds through the arches are painted. And then the one through what I call the ultimate arch, which is the curving shop street is actually painted-in perspective. So it’s hand painted. Again, you use the arches as a frame, and also to draw your eye to the foreground. So the background will play, if that makes sense.

The great thing about having CGI now is, when the tram comes through that arch, and it’s too close to the painted backing, Graham [Page], the VFX supervisor, can then change that background. But he doesn’t have to change it all the time – he just does it for that one shot. Again, it’s the mixture of old and new techniques, as I always say.

That must be so much more exciting for the actors as well to be able to do that – the more they can see, the more immersed they can be, surely.

Yeah, and also it’s so much fun. The tree rotates – we put it on a big hydraulic turntable and we get to play with that. It’s like, ‘let’s test it out. Let’s get on the tree and spin it.’ It’s like being a kid.

‘Well, we got the tree spinning in the chocolate shop – what about a river? Why don’t we get that spinning the other way?’

We have all these great special effects experts that we can say, ‘Okay, I need a turntable, we need to build this on.’ You go over to the sculptors, and say, ‘I need to sculpt a river, but it needs to be lightweight so I can spin it.’

There’s this sort of journey I believe in, where the great thing about having an idea and bringing it to a full set is, you have a journey of what I call art direction, which allows you to change and manipulate a set and sculpt it, and make it a better place than the original concept. It takes his own journey to become something more by practically building it.

That makes sense. So what are the practicalities of turning Hugh Grant into an Oompa Loompa?

Well, that is true, brilliant visual effects work. I mean, I have to say, Listen, this film is the perfect mix of practical, VFX, story. That llies with your Graham Page, the VFX supervisor – you need to talk to him. They did a really good job on that, and that was not simple. But the new world of VFX is in that place – where you find character and humour in a CGI element, and then make it believable on set. That is really difficult. So hats off to [visual effects company] Framestore for doing that. That’s every bit of help you can get. I have to say that was all them. And Paul, and I actually really liked Hugh Grant’s character.

Credit: Warner Bros.

It’s great.. So going back to the chocolate box you mentioned earlier – how much of that did you physically build? Obviously, it’s very complex mechanically.

Again, you build as much as you can. So as part of Jamie Wilkinson’s team and Lee Sandelle’s team… I call them the watchmakers, because they can work on a different level. They’re almost like automatons, [what they make] – they can mechanically make stuff. Some of their work is just brilliant. So you can actually get a lot done physically – like an enormous amount of that was physical. And you have the brilliance of those guys who can work at that detail level. So you do as much as you can until you can’t.

I’d have to identify each scene and tell you what was real and what was added [with CGI]. The mechanics of it – you’ve got all these cables and electronics coming out the back of that box, off the set, and someone’s running it. That’s the joy, the joy of that department – they work on a small scale, and then you have the special effects folks who work on a big scale.

Looking back through your career, you’ve worked with some amazing directors. But I’ve realised that one of the earliest ones you worked with was Abel Ferrara…

Yeah, Abel Ferrara! [Laughs] That was when they’d just finished Bad Lieutenant. We did Dangerous Games, with Harvey Keitel. And that was my first full art directing job. And Madonna was in it! I don’t know, I feel a bit like Zelig – I just disappear! I worked with Alan Pakula and Gordon Willis in Dublin as an art director [on The Devil’s Own, 1997]. You know, these great filmmakers. At the time, you’re young and you kind of don’t realise that these are the kings of film. I found myself quite fortunate. You need a bit of talent, a lot of luck, and to be in the right place.

Read more: Wonka | Could it save the Christmas 2023 box office?

So how did you work with Christopher Nolan on Insomnia? That was your first film with him, wasn’t it?

Yeah, I got a call. I was on a US aircraft carrier on the Pacific Ocean, finishing Behind Enemy Lines. And we’d been awake for about a week with these jets going on and off. And I’m sitting on the bow coming into San Diego harbour and my phone had been off because it was out of range. I was exhausted with all the flying going on, and then the phone rang.

They said, ‘Can you get up to LA to meet this young guy who just did Memento? He’s called Christopher Nolan.’

It’s like, ‘okay’.

So I got a car, drove up to LA and I walked into his apartment – I think he was pretty broke back then. And I remember it was him and Emma [Thomas, producer and partner]. I brought up some ideas and he was into it. Then I said, ‘Where did you grow up?’

I grew up in Islington, but my best mate was in Highgate. He said, ‘Oh, Bishop’s Road.’

I said, ‘What? What number?’

We realised he lived two doors down from my mate! But he was younger than me. So anyway, we got on very well. Memento was a hard film for him – it was a hard film to market and sell, and it was very low budget. For Insomnia, I showed him that we can build stuff, and it started with that. Like with the lake house [where Robin Williams’ character lived] – ‘Let’s go up to northern BC [British Columbia] and build a lake house!’

And what comes with that? ‘Oh shit, there’s avalanches all around you.’

I think that was how we started: ‘how do we stop avalanches?’ [Laughs]

Then it was, ‘Oh, why is this called Bear Lake? Is it because it’s barren?’ No, it’s because there’s grizzly bears here! [Laughs] It was the start of our outdoor filmmaking. So that’s how we started our adventure.

That’s incredible. So to bring us back to Wonka – is there a particular set or scene or something important in the film that you’re particularly proud of?

I get immense joy out of the town square and actually building the Galleria on the town square, so you can pass out of the Galleria and into the town square in one camera move. Obviously, you can split it up and people do it most of the time. But I really love the idea that t was there and the light from the town square came into the Galleria. So I’m very sort of proud of that connection where it’s all one and we can enjoy moving through it. I think there’s a freedom of camera movement because of it.

I also like the underground lair. I love the fact that the elevator in the church, you press the cross and it goes down. I like all that gimmicky stuff – the sort of James Bond stuff as I call it. Those two sets are probably my favourites. And what a fun film to watch. It’s just fun and whimsical, and Timothee [Chalamet] does a great job. He wears his heart on his sleeve. I feel like we definitely touched on the character and the place.

Well, with that I’m sadly out of time. Nathan Crowley, thank you very much!

Wonka is out in UK cinemas on the 8th December. Why not read our five-star review?

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