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Interview With John Paul Kelly – Production Designer of Stephen Hawking Biopic ‘The Theory Of Everything’
25 Nov 2014 : Seán Brosnan
‘The Theory Of Everything’, the long-awaited Stephen Hawking biopic chronicling the life of the genius theoretical physicist and his battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is out in Irish cinemas in early 2015. The challenging job of moulding story and set seamlessly together to portray Hawking’s embattled cosmos fell to Irish production designer John Paul Kelly.

Already armed with an Emmy and a BAFTA for the 2003 TV movie ‘The Lost Prince’ and two IFTA nominations for ‘The Guard’ and ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, 2015 may well see an Oscar nod too as the film has premiered with positive reviews and a lot of buzz. Here, IFTN catches up with John Paul Kelly to talk about the theory of being a production designer.

IFTN: Tell us about your work on ‘The Theory Of Everything’.

John Paul Kelly:The challenge with this film was its requirement to span three decades in storytelling. The film is set in the timeless world of Cambridge academia and the idea was to slowly introduce change to Stephen's world. This was done very gradually and in close collaboration with lighting, costumes, hair and makeup. We wanted Stephen's world to modernise, but as with real life, so gradually that it was almost unnoticeable. Not until the final scene of the film when the story rewinds do we realise the long journey we've travelled. As time passes Stephen's body shuts down and becomes smaller so in contrast we wanted to create a world that, like his mind, fame and achievements, was expanding around him. He starts his story in small wood panelled rooms in halls of residences and his world gradually grows until he inhabits huge auditoriums full of thousands of people. We even increased the size of wheelchairs gradually until the final chair is about 30% bigger than it should have been, allowing Eddie Redmayne to look smaller in the chair. Theory was a great experience with a fantastic team and great collaboration between departments.

What training/education did you receive to become a Production Designer?

I studied an architecture BA in Kingston University London followed by an MA in Design for Film at the Royal College of Art London.

What was your first job in the industry?

I designed low budget promos and television for a few years after college. My first Art Directing job on a film was ‘Last of the High Kings’ in Dublin, with the wonderful designer and mentor Frank Conway. The first feature film I designed was Carine Adler's ‘Under the Skin’.

What do you enjoy most about being a Production Designer? And what do you consider the greatest challenge?

Collaboration and collaboration! It is the best job in the world when a room full of creatives come together to create something beautiful. We are envied by artists everywhere who are limited to working alone. Collaboration is not always easy of course and dancing past egos becomes an essential skill of the job. The Production Designer is of course the head of a large team and getting this team to work well together is key to the role. Everybody has something to give and needs to feel like they are responsible in their own ways for the finished result and hopefully even had fun along the way. Fun is the key to a happy art department. I trained as an architect and changed discipline when I realised that set design was architecture without all the boring pipes, insulation and building regulations. There was no going back! I remember being in the National Gallery and seeing Patrick Lavery's The Artist's Studio. It was then I realised that what attracted me to the room in the painting wasn't just the architecture. It was everything; the costumes, the lighting, the composition. That was the moment when I realised that I wanted to make films.

Describe your typical working day and the equipment you use.

An early start is the best way to get a bit of space to design. I know this sounds odd as the role is as a designer but the day can fill very quickly with everything else except sitting at a drawing board or sketching ideas. These other jobs might include recces and meetings. So many meetings..... Director, DP, Production, Locations, FX VSX, Accountants. The lists go on and on!

What Production Designer has influenced you?

I really like Stuart Craig's (three-time Oscar winning PD of all the Harry Potter films) work as a production designer. He never forgets that storytelling is the key to good design. There are moments when the sets need to sit quietly in the background and there are moments when they need to come singing and dancing to the front. Judging this well is what makes a film design work well for me and ultimately what contributes to the making of a good film.

What Irish film or TV show would you have loved to have worked on?

‘The Quiet Man’ because I used to dream of it as a child, complete with thatched cottages and half doors!

What films and TV shows did you enjoy growing up that may have encouraged you to work in the industry?

Growing up in the 70’s in Ireland meant a healthy dose of ‘Wanderly Wagon’. Not the finest of VFX jobs I admit but it was enough to get me thinking of design! I enjoyed Hollywood musicals as a child (probably because they were always on the telly) and I loved the sets so much. I liked that they looked like sets, probably because it made the job of film design real in a funny kind of way. Give me subtle design nowadays any day!

What’s the difference between working on an Irish production and working on an international production for you?

None. Irish art departments and crews are amongst the best trained and professional in the world.

What advice would you give to anyone wishing to get into Production Design?

Draw like crazy, get a portfolio, watch films, watch more films. You'll be told it's a hopelessly competitive world and it is but persistence pays. If you're good and you want it enough just keep at it and keep knocking on doors. They will open. Once inside, be a jack of all trades and don't be grand. The best way of learning is by looking. Oh and don't forget to smile.

‘The Theory Of Everything’ will be released to Irish cinemas on January 1st, 2015.




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