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Making the Cut

Making The Cut: IFTA-winning Production Designer John Paul Kelly
01 Jan 2016 : Seán Brosnan
John Paul Kelly won his first IFTA Award for work on the ‘The Theory of Everything’
Coming off a wave of international acclaim as well as an IFTA Award for his work on the ‘The Theory of Everything’, John Paul Kelly took time out of his very busy schedule to talk us through the theory of being an award-winning Production Designer.

Already armed with a Primetime Emmy Award and a BAFTA for the television movie ‘The Lost Prince’, Kelly has just added to his tally with his first IFTA win for the Oscar-winning Stephen Hawking biopic.

First off – congrats on your win last month– how does it feel to have landed your first IFTA Award?

‘Thank you. It’s nice to be honoured, especially at home.’

Your work on ‘The Theory of Everything’ was of course acclaimed outside of Ireland too - some were surprised you didn’t land an Oscar nod earlier this year – at what point of production did you know you were on to a special project here or did that come after?

‘The project had a special energy from very early on. This was a lot down to our director James Marsh but it also felt that Eddie Redmayne’s commitment to the character was particularly evident with his very early involvement. The dedication was contagious and no stone was left unturned when researching Stephen and his life. The creative team were all very close and communication was good but it wasn’t until we sat together for the first rushes screening that we thought we might be on to something special.’

Were you nervous taking on this project at all? Stephen Hawking is such a universal figure and you’re tasked with designing a world to help sensitively portray his physical disintegration…

‘There is of course a responsibility when creating a film world for an historical figure but essentially every film is a drama and just an interpretation of that life. It is not a documentary. My approach is to learn as much as possible about the historical facts and then pick and choose the moments that best tell the story of the drama that we are creating. Good storytelling is the important thing.’

When we were talking to you last year, you mentioned playing with the size and scale of everything around Stephen to make him seem smaller as his illness takes over - even tampering with the size of his wheelchair…..?

‘Yes, the wheelchairs gradually increased in size until they were almost 30% oversized. This was to help Eddie contort his body and look more shrunken in the chair. Obviously he has a much bigger frame than Stephen in real life.’

With an approach like that – did it take much figuring out on your part to know when the set should be out in front and when it should just sit quietly in the background?

‘Hopefully the set helped to tell the story both historically and emotionally. The gentle nature of the piece and the slow progression of Stephen’s illness meant that in the main the sets needed to change gradually, gently creating a backdrop for the characters. Scenes like the May Ball were moments when the set could become more celebratory in that particular case to help with the romance and charm of the scene.’

But of course the story is an ultimately uplifting one about the indomitable spirits of Stephen and Jane, was it hard to strike a balance there when designing for the film?

‘We all felt that the story was essentially a happy one. Benoit del Homme (the cinematographer) lit the sets using lots of colour and sunshine. We all felt that Stephen never felt sorry for himself so we wanted to reflect this in the look of the film.’

How much collaboration would take place on a project like this? Was there much to-ing and fro-ing with the director, producer, costume designer, make-up artist or even the actor himself?

‘We all worked very closely with James the director and each other. Costumes complimented set colours and visa versa. We took turns as creatives showing the gradual progression of the Hawkings’ life. If the wall paper changed, the hair style didn’t, for example, helping to minimise obvious time jumps.’

Shows like ‘Vikings’, ‘Ripper Street’ and ‘Penny Dreadful’ shooting in Ireland seems to have opened the doors for many Production Designers to get their work out on to the global stage – it would seem there has never been a more fruitful time if you are an ambitious production designer in Ireland?

‘Agreed and those big TV shows really are changing the face to television. In the digital age television and film are becoming more on a par in terms of production value, budget and audience. Exciting times.’

I’m sure The Theory of Everything and all the success that went with it has been a whirlwind but can you let us in on what is in the pipeline next for you?

‘I’m in pre-production for the latest Bridget Jones film.’

Check out the trailer for ‘The Theory of Everything below:

IFTA Q&A Series: Joanne O’Brien on Costume Design
IFTA Q&A Series: Eleanor Bowman on Cinematography
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