Living on an island might sound like the perfect getaway for some, but production designer Mark Tildesley recommends you check the weather before you set sail.
As the man responsible for creating the small 1920s Irish community in Martin McDonaugh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, he and his fellow crewmates had to endure tough conditions that made their jobs nearly impossible. Most sets for the film, centered on two friends, Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson), and their failing friendship, needed to be built on Ireland’s Aran Islands (specifically Achill Island and Inis Mór) on the North Atlantic Ocean.
“The wild Atlantic way,” Tildesley said with a laugh during a recent interview. “The truth is, when we built the sets … the weather was atrocious. I mean, foul, wet, and we were drenched. There was no wet weather gear that could keep you dry. You had to have two or three pairs of clothes to change in.”
At the time, it was miserable, but Tilsesly can look back on it now and say it was quite the “adventure.” Lucky for him and others, once McDonaugh and the cast arrived, which also included Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan, “the sun came up and it shone the entire film.”
The Irish film would not be the only challenge for the English production designer. He also lent his talents to Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, a drama set in an English coastal town in the early 1980s. Though he could rely on his own experiences of going to the theater as a child, he didn’t expect all the work that would be required to bring it to the big screen.
Tildesley spoke with AwardsWatch recently to share his creative process behind both Oscars contenders.
The harshness of The Banshees of Inisherin
Tildesley has been a big fan of McDonagh’s film and theater work for years and had wanted to collaborate with the Oscar nominee for some time. Working on The Banshees of Inisherin also would give him an opportunity to explore the west coast of Ireland, which, up until then, the farthest he had ever gone was just outside of Dublin.
“I was overly excited about the idea of trying to find some extraordinary mythological island off the west coast,” Tildesley said. “I looked it up, and it is a rock in the middle of the sea with nothing else.”
But all of that played a part in creating a harsh environment in the film. Brother and sister Pádraic and Siobhán (Condon) live together and experience turmoil in their lives in different ways, whether it be Pádraic’s row with Colm, or Siobhán wanting to move away from the island. Tildesley decided to build their home in an area where there were plenty of rocks around to emulate the roughness in their lives.
By contrast, Colm is a fiddler who reflects on his life and wants to do more with the time he has left. Because of his artistic and dreamer qualities, Tildesley went for a more softer and romantic design with his home. Colm also has a record collection, letters and other connections to the outside world, which is why his home is located near the water, a gateway to the mainland and rest of Europe.
There weren’t many period houses left on the islands – the production designer said he watched a documentary from the 1950s about working and living on the land and how it attracted poets and other artists – so most structures had to be built. However, they used an original whaling cottage on Achill Island for Colm’s house. The script did pose one issue with the site, though: It had to be burned down.
“We had to build another cottage on top of that original so we could protect it,” he said. “The local guy was very cool in the end. We talked him into it. It’s been in his family for generations, and it’s historically very precious, so we were very careful.”
Finding the star of Empire of Light
With Empire of Light, also Tildesley’s first collaboration with Academy Award winner Sam Mendes, it brought back memories of going to the movies with his family on vacations.
As a young child, he and his family would head to the south coast of England where the weather was typically rainy and “relatively miserable,” he said. On days when the family couldn’t spend time outdoors, they would head to the local cinema.
“I remember on one of these holidays, it was lashing rain and we went to see the first Star Wars movie,” the designer said. “You’re damp and you’re going into this warm place, and it has that sort of slightly exotic feel of velvet curtains and the smell of the popcorn, the warmth of that popcorn, and all the sweets and the way it’s lit.”
“You go deeper into this womb-like place, this dark place,” he continued, “and then there’s just a few little lights on, it’s very calm, and then the credits roll and you’re gone to Tatooine.”
The theater is the star of the show in Empire of Light, which is one part an ode to cinema employees and another part a love story between Hilary (Olivia Colman), a single, middle-aged woman who works at the Empire cinema, and Stephen (Micheal Ward), a new employee whose kind and tender demeanor attracts her attention. Before filming could start, the crew had to find the perfect location.
Tildesley and Mendes first looked at the south coast seaside town of Brighton, which Tildesley described as having a “very white, Victorian stucco English look.” However, they couldn’t find a cinema right by the coast, as it was written in the script.
Someone then suggested they look to Margate on the southeast coast. There, they discovered an area that seemed “slightly lost in time,” Tildesley said, and one that was very contained, almost like a film set.
But most importantly, they found their star. At the end of the bay stood the old art-deco Dreamland Margate Cinema from the 1920s. The exterior of the cinema was used in the film (with some touch ups), along with a few interior shots of the defunct upstairs area and the auditorium, which had been rebuilt from a bingo hall.
The interior of the Empire Cinema was built just a few doors down inside an old amusement arcade space. Tildesley said he used a lot of the motifs, shapes and artwork from the original cinema in their build, while also picking particular spots for certain amenities. The concession stand is in the middle of the lobby to keep Hilary and other employees under the watchful eye of manager, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), he explained.
“There was quite a bit to do,” Tildesley admitted, but because Mendes wanted to shoot in story order, cinematographer Roger Deakins wanted to use real light and they both didn’t want to shoot in a studio, it was necessary work.
The process also ended up being quite emotional, he added: “The idea of bringing the cinema back to life is really quite moving, I’ve got to be honest. When we first projected our film inside that cinema, it was like, wow, this is cool.”
Reflecting on both projects, Tildesley simply said, “I’ve had a great year with really amazing experiences.”
Both from Searchlight Pictures, The Banshees of Inisherin is in select theaters and currently streaming on HBO Max, Empire of Light is only in theaters.