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Regal Research Aids “The King’s Speech”

One of the biggest joys of working on the film “The King’s Speech” for production designer Eve Stewart was the meticulous attention to detail she shared with director Tom Hooper.

“Tom’s a real researcher as well, so he spent weeks and months with me looking at documentaries and past films and newspapers,” said Stewart. “We were both really keen to get the period spot on so   It’s always a joy working with him because he’s so equally obsessed with the details.”

Stewart dug into the archives of various magazines and periodicals as well as various photographic libraries that documented the Royal family during the 1930-40s.  She also went on tours of the royal houses in order to properly convey their structure in the film, and   viewed collections of fabrics and materials stored at the Queen Victoria and Albert Museums.  To create the world of Lionel Logue’s character, Stewart culled from a very different historical source: her own family.

“I come from London’s East End, so I talked to some ancient relatives and they told me what they had in their own rooms, really,” said Stewart.  “Because they didn’t have enough money to buy furniture or many objects, they often would just have these really loud patterns to make up for it.  It was absolutely amazing how colorful it was.”

Feeling it helps to define the period she’s working with, Stewart will use original materials whenever possible.  The bold, graphically painted wallpaper in Lionel Logue’s office, for example, was original wallpaper form that time period.   Today’s paint and wallpaper is made by an entirely different process with different ingredients.  Feeling strongly about utilizing material true to the period, Stewart found painters who were still able to make the paint and paper using the old techniques allowing her to fully replicate what would have been seen on the walls in 1930s London.

“We did mix a lot of our own paints, we also printed some of the wallpapers ourselves, and generally used a lot of the old techniques,” said Stewart.  “I was very lucky to have some painters that still knew how to work like that.  The paper was much thinner, and it wasn’t sealed with anything.  Contemporary paper can be wiped with a damp cloth.  You couldn’t do that at all then.  Literally they would just print a thin layer of color onto these very fine papers, almost like blocking papers.  When they did glue them up, they really stuck.”

Although Stewart and her team used a lot of antiques as well as outfitting the sets with the proper types of paneling and wood grains, the painters were adept to doctoring the material.  For instance, to achieve a specific grain, the painters would rake a metal comb across the finish.

Having originally studied painting in college, Stewart eventually gravitated towards the film world, all the while maintaining close relationships with her art class cohorts.  Although none of the former students studied film, their skills have been applied to countless movie sets and props  throughout the last twenty years.  In “The King’s Speech,” many of the recording devices, including microphones, used during the early radio broadcasts were not accessible for the film.  Stewart’s “tribe” of former art school classmates reconstructed all the necessary gear.  Stewart’s background in painterly techniques was also directly incorporated into the film .

“The walls in the back of the treatment room, where Lionel treats the King, reflect a lot of my whole painting love,” said Stewart. “It’s very piercing, it’s the London architecture, it has that very romantic kind of feel, like being in a garret which you find only between Paris and London.

This particular room had a skylight that flooded light throughout the room.  This was not a typical feature of the time period, however Stewart and her team felt the addition of light and the blotchy, crumbly wallpaper on the background enhanced the emotional intensity of the connection between Lionel and Bertie.

“That is not typical;  we increased what was there, we adapted the location,” said Stewart.  “I felt it was really important.  Remember they are acting their socks off and really going for the story.  When I first read the script, I thought ‘They are looking at the same wall for two hours so I better make it interesting.'”

Many of the scenes in “The King’s Speech” required a snowy backdrop.  The people Stewart hired to generate snow were rarely needed, for Mother Nature perpetually beat the team to the task.  With a production schedule that required Stewart to complete her work in eight weeks with a generous amount of time dedicated to location shooting, Stewart’s biggest challenge was dealing with an unusually snowy London winter.

“We battled with the weather the entire time, we were generally in four feet of snow.  Each day I was shoveling trucks up the hill and trying to skip down paths with my prop guys carrying things, so it was all amazing trying to get it done,” said Stewart. “The walls were cold and wet, so nothing ever dried.  I think of it like giving birth.  Now I remember it with fondness but at the time I was practically squawking.”

While Stewart production design has left a memorable stamp on contemporary films such as “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “Revolver,” she takes great pride in the details she brings to her period work, as seen in  “Topsy-Turvy” and “Vera Drake.”  She spends time balancing historical accuracy with the emotional realities of the characters, a difficult task she embraced in “The King’s Speech.”

“It’s really important for me to get it right, I don’t want the narrative to be interrupted by anything that I do wrong,” said Stewart.  “I think you have to try to create earnest worlds, and it’s usually in the details.  I was trying to say that outside in the real world things looked a bit grim;  there was the depression and people were poor, and the streets were  foggy and damp and miserable but once you went inside it became warm and homey and people had a lot of soul.”