Schooled in the hothouse world of 1980s pop videos, Michael Carlin has become a respected designer on high-profile, low-budget British feature films. He talks to Nick Smurthwaite about visual story telling

How did a talented young Australian sculptor find himself re-arranging the furniture in some of England’s finest 18th century stately homes? Michael Carlin was well on his way to becoming one of Australia’s leading visual artists when, in his early 20s, he succumbed to encephalitis and was unable to work for two years. ‘When I re-entered the world, I decided I didn’t want to be a sculptor any more,’ he explained. ‘I’d always been interested in film but, as a child, it never occurred to me you could be part of the process of making one.’

Carlin emigrated to Britain in 1986 – ‘I’d always preferred British films to Australian ones’ – and worked as a carpenter on the Peter Greenaway film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. His main source of income at this time was music videos – small scale at first, but more lavish as his pool of contacts expanded.

‘There was a fantastic youthful energy about the music video scene in the 1980s, with crazy million-dollar budgets, but it is a young person’s game and I kind of lost the appetite for all-night shoots and excess,’ he says.

He switched to feature films, and worked as art director on the 1993 film Backbeat, about the fifth Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe, set in 1960s Liverpool. Soon after, he landed his first film as production designer – the 1996 movie Fever Pitch, based on Nick Hornby’s bestselling novel.

Going from music videos to low-budget feature films, Carlin found that the resources were far more modest, and the constraints much tighter. ‘The most daunting thing about heading the art department was the responsibility for saying to the people employing me, “Actually we can’t do this because we don’t have the money”,’ he explains.

The collaborative nature of film-making means that the affable Carlin spends as much time locked in discussion as he does being creative. ‘It’s all about bringing people together and agreeing on what you all want,’ he says. ‘It is quite fun in a way, being the spider in the middle of this complex web.’

He says there is always a joyous honeymoon period which he describes as being ‘like playing in the sandpit, with no financial or logistical constraints’, followed by the pre-production period when you have to work out what’s possible, come up with a plan and then make it happen.

Crucial to this process is relating to the film’s director. ‘The relationship between designer and director is always different,’ he says. ‘With some, you’ll be shut away in the art department till midnight, discussing whether this colour goes with that colour. With others, you won’t see them from one week to the next.’

He says The Last King of Scotland, directed by Kevin Macdonald and filmed in Uganda, was a huge learning curve because their planning and expectations were constantly thwarted, not least because props and equipment kept going missing. On one occasion, filming a scene involving 300 Ugandan extras, Carlin had to stand in for the director when the shooting schedule went awry. ‘I had the most freedom on that film,’ he says. ‘We took huge risks, and we often thought it wouldn’t happen, but it paid off in the end.’

The Duchess, by contrast, required endless delicate negotiations with the National Trust over what was, and was not, allowed in the stately homes used to evoke the life and times of the 18th century Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, played by Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. ‘It was usually about the excessive use of candles,’ says Carlin. ‘The trust would say “You can light six candles in the whole house”, and we’d end up lighting 300.’

‘Filming in these great houses presented all manner of logistical problems, but it felt more real to us,’ he adds. ‘We took a lot of furniture out of the rooms and stripped them down to make them feel less cluttered, putting the focus on the actors. You had to have one foot inside what life was like for these people in the 18th century, and the other foot in the present, [to make it] comprehensible to a young, modern audience.’

The Duchess opens in cinemas throughout the UK on 5 September

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