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They were up for an Oscar after their work on Atonement, but set designers Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer are far too busy to bask in the limelight. They talk to Nick Smurthwaite about their next projects


Los Angeles was recently gripped by Oscar fever, but production designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer, joint nominees for their work on the British film Atonement, were too busy to care. Their attention is focused on The Soloist, the $60m (£30m) film directed in LA by Joe Wright, Atonement’s young director, who finds himself the most sought-after talent in Tinseltown.

So high is his stock that Wright was allowed to import his own British family of creatives to work on his first Hollywood movie. That includes Greenwood and Spencer, who were part of his Pride and Prejudice team, and before that on the award-winning TV series Charles II The Power and the Passion, starring Rufus Sewell.

The new film, a real-life tale of a violin-playing tramp who had trained at New York’s Julliard School of music, is being shot documentary-style in downtown Los Angeles, using 250 real homeless people as extras. ‘It couldn’t be more different from Atonement if it tried,’ says Sarah Greenwood, who has transformed a street 3km outside LA’s centre into a duplicate Skid Row, the area where the homeless live.

It is the first time she and Spencer have worked in LA, and they are finding it enlightening. ‘As Brits working in the States for the first time, we’ve come to everything with a fresh eye, finding ordinary things that the locals might see as mundane – such as the way their dustcarts flip bins over when they collect rubbish – all rather exciting.’

The two have worked together since they were both attached to the now defunct design department at the BBC. When the BBC phased out its in-house designers in the mid-1990s, Greenwood and Spencer moved from TV to film, designing Keep the Aspidistra Flying and The Governess, set in the 1930s and 1940s respectively. These were followed by three more low-budget British movies with contemporary settings/ Born Romantic, This Year’s Love and Starter for 10. Greenwood and Spencer have also designed the new period drama Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

Spencer fleshes out Greenwood’s visions with character detail. ‘Katie is so much more than a set decorator,’ says Greenwood. ‘She is always the first person I’ll turn to, to discuss ideas gleaned from the script. Designing for film and TV is always as much about understanding and interpreting the script as it is about the visual effects. Everything starts with the script.’

What they both like about Wright is that he never does the same thing twice. ‘Each project has had its own distinctive character,’ says Greenwood. ‘Charles II was very rich and stylised, Pride and Prejudice was naturalistic, Atonement had a dream-like quality, and The Soloist is more like a documentary. Joe is the opposite of an auteur, always collaborative, always inclusive. I never discount any of his ideas about design, however bizarre they may seem to me at the time. From the start I knew I’d found my creative match.’

For Atonement, Wright wanted the scenes in rural England in the 1940s to look ‘ripe to the point of rottenness’, while the scenes on the beaches at Dunkirk aspired to a dreamy quality, akin to the work of master film-maker Federico Fellini.

‘We were all exhausted because it was right at the end of the nine-week shoot,’ explains Spencer, who spent a lot of time looking at World War II material at London’s Imperial War Museum in preparation. ‘We had to suggest atmosphere through the design, so there were no bodies or wounded, not even any blood.’

Both Greenwood and Spencer started out working in the theatre, but the collaborations with Wright seem to have sealed their cinematic fate. Greenwood says she might consider TV if it was tempting enough, but she doubts she would ever go back to designing for the theatre, because ‘it would be too drawn out and constraining’.

Being contenders for an Oscar has been a mixed blessing for the two women as they are working so hard on The Soloist. ‘There has been a big marketing push, so when we haven’t been working flat out on The Soloist we’ve been busy promoting Atonement,’ says Greenwood. But they’re not disappointed: ‘Winning an Oscar can be a double-edged sword, because future employers might say “We’ll never be able to afford them”. The joke is we’re all on a 38 per cent emergency tax rate in the US. So while we’ve been making this big budget Dreamworks movie, we’re all broke.’

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