One of our most respected film designers returns to his theatrical roots next month with a new version of Frankenstein at the National Theatre. With movies such as The Constant Gardener, Happy-Go-Lucky, 24 Hour Party People and The Killer Inside Me to his credit, Mark Tildesley has spent the past two decades working with mostly British directors including Danny Boyle, Michael Winterbottom, Mike Leigh and Roger Michell.
So why the sudden decision to forsake the world of big bucks and even bigger egos for the smell of greasepaint and the roar of the crowd? ’I’ve longed to return to the theatre for years,’ Tildesley explains. ’After I left art college, I formed a touring company with another designer, Francis O’Connor. We went round the country for a year, doing shows for schools. I did a bit of everything – directing, producing, scene painting, set construction. So when Boyle called me out of the blue and said he was directing Frankenstein at the National Theatre, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.’
Boyle and Tildesley agreed that they didn’t want their Frankenstein to look remotely cinematic, nor to resort to the usual bolt-in-the-neck Hammer film clichés. ’It’d be what everyone expected so we wanted to use the space [the cavernous Olivier auditorium] to maximum effect and try to draw the audience in to the moment. Neither of us had enough experience of the theatre to know not to do certain things, so our approach has been quite unusual and a bit free-fall.’
Tildesley studied theatre design under Richard Negri at Wimbledon School of Art in the late 1980s and worked in the theatre for two years before moving across to film. Serendipity doesn’t begin to describe his introduction to the movie business. ’I was building a guillotine for a stage version of The Three Musketeers in an alleyway near London Bridge when a film producer happened to walk past, we got chatting and he offered me a job.’ One thing led to another and Tildesley finished up designing his first feature film, surf flick Blue Juice, in 1992.
Tildesley says the big difference between working in film and theatre is that when a screenplay says ’They go to the sea’, a location unit treks off to a seaside shoot, whereas on stage you have to find ways of evoking the sea that feed into the audience’s collective imagination.
’I’d forgotten how much I love the lyrical possibilities of designing for the stage. Big budget films can become like a factory process, where you feel quite detached from the end product. Theatre is a lot more intimate than movies and you are mostly left to your own devices,’ he says.
When they first started work on Frankenstein, Boyle was in post-production with 127 Hours, so initially a lot of their collaboration was done by phone and e-mail.
Boyle works in a very visual way, so he came to the project with some ideas about creation and energy. One of these was a ceiling full of lightbulbs based on the work of an installation artist he’d seen. So we have a very large mirrored ceiling above the audience that contains about 4000 bulbs. When the creature first opens his eyes the audience will be subjected to this immense blast of light.’
He continues, ’My usual working relationship with Boyle (they have made three films together) is him saying ’Let’s do this’ or ’Let’s change that’, which you can do with film because you have the money and the facilities. But in the theatre you have to stick with what you’ve decided. It’s an unstoppable force, time means you have to get it right.’
Whether he is creating film or theatre productions, Tildesley finds the input of others to be a vital element in his creativity. ’I’m very much a collaborative worker in either medium and that’s what I enjoy most about what I do. It is not my style to say, “Here it is, deal with it.” I’m not great at being on my own. I’m always ringing people or popping out to bounce an idea off someone,’ he says.
Far from giving up his film designer side – he has two new movies, Your Highness and One Day, coming out this year, as well as a couple more on the starting blocks -Tildesley relishes the idea of bestriding both disciplines. He is not actively seeking further stage jobs – he wants to see how Frankenstein turns out first – but he certainly seems to have enjoyed every minute of his time at the National Theatre.
Frankenstein previews at the National Theatre from 5 February. Your Highness will be released in UK cinemas in May