Great Expectations

Q&A: Production Designer David Roger

In 2012's Great Expectations, the once-magnificent Satis House rots from the inside out, a physical manifestation of festering, twisted love. Production designer David Roger combined an inspiring location, a deep connection to the novel, and a box of matches to create an iconic set. Roger, who discussed his work with Masterpiece's Barrett Brountas in March 2012, shares his images, sketches and insights below.

A designer for opera, theatre, dance, film and television, David Roger has mounted productions in opera halls worldwide, most recently flooding the floor of the Royal Albert Hall in his staging of Puccini's Madame Butterfly. His other Masterpiece productions include Persuasion (2008) and Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (2005).

David Roger

Select a topic from the list below to see David Rogers's thoughts, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.

Building the Forge

I understand you built the cottage and the forge? How did you go about it?

That was quite a tricky one. We looked at so many cottages, but they're all modernized inside, and we wanted this remoteness, this completely frozen dead world where love had died but for the one little bit of love: Joe's fire, in his forge. Joe's fire never went out except when Pip let him down, later, and he let the forge decline. We wanted that feeling in this huge landscape. But God, that was difficult. It was in a bird sanctuary, which is why there was no building on it, in the middle of nowhere, so you couldn't really drive to it. You could get a van out, but most of us went in quad bikes [ATVs]. We needed something that was at a crossroads, with roads that were symbolically ways out of this place, yet it was stuck in the marshes. So we built the whole thing.

I based it slightly on these little Scottish crofts I know, where I come from in Scotland, where they feel like they're sagging into the earth. But it was quite hard to get it aged, so we actually set fire to it, would you believe, and that was how we got it aged. Because you build it with new wood and it looks like a holiday chalet. So we burnt it and then painted it, and that gave it the look, black and aging. That was terribly exciting. It was extraordinary, actually, because there were lots of birdwatchers who would suddenly turn up, rub their eyes, as if thinking, where'd this come from? Sadly, we had to take it away again. So many people wanted us to leave that little cottage, and the birdwatchers could have sat in it. But we were told that in a bird sanctuary, you don't really want tourists coming to view it.

On the new Great Expectations

Did you have a favorite part of the production to work on?

It has to be Satis House of course, Miss Havisham's house. It's probably one of the most famous sets in literature. Everybody knows about Miss Havisham's crumbling house. So I think it would be one of the pinnacles of any designer's career. I can't really think of many other rooms or places that are more...you just say "Miss Havisham" and everybody has an image in their mind's eye.

There was a move in 19th century literature where places convey more than background. I think in Wuthering Heights, the farm on the moor is rather comparable: It's a character in itself, and I also feel it with Edgar Allen Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, where the house is living, breathing, and then finally collapses. It's where place is metaphor for the character of the person in it, and that was something quite new. And I think Great Expectations was a forerunner of it in this particular instance.

What is unique about Satis House in this production?

In this version, with Gillian Anderson's extraordinary portrayal [of Miss Havisham], the house was not completely a house of horror; it was a house of wonder, for that little boy. Pip came in and he saw beautiful butterflies, and ships and books and extraordinary art objects, and she had a sort of ethereal beauty, really. It's just that, as all her plans misfired, everything goes wrong. Not just in Satis house but in London and everywhere, everybody's plans fail. And Miss Havisham and the house are there, reflecting the entire story. As she loses her composure and becomes more and more extreme and manic and physically crumbles, the house starts to crumble, the butterflies disappear, the mold grows, the roof falls in, it starts to flood.

How did you achieve the look and feel of Satis House?

There was a mutual journey, I think, between the main actress and the design team. It was achieved with the costume designer and the hair designer and the makeup designer and the director of photography, Florian Hoffmeister, who just kept changing the lenses and the grading. It went from a kind of rich, sensuous, sort of Caravaggio type painting to become colder and colder and more monochrome, more Nordic, rather than southern or European, and more brittle and frosted. We kept looking at pictures of frost — you know, everything froze over metaphorically.

The Location of Satis House

How did you find the location for Satis House's interior?

It was hideous. We spent three months preparing the show and travelling from Scotland to Wales to London, looking for the right house. It [Langlebury House] was actually the first house I went into, of all the houses we saw, and when I went into that hall and saw that staircase, with the huge windows lighting it, I just thought this is it. But we still went and visited lots and lots and lots of other ones because while I saw the possibility, everything had gone from the house: the fireplaces had been stolen, and all the windows were boarded up, there was horrible modern flooring (it had been a school), and it had lost all its period detail. But I just thought that staircase sends shivers down your spine, and the geography was absolutely right; it worked. I thought Gillian could just float around that house like a ghost. Although it was a ridiculous amount of work, I stuck to my guns.

The Renovation of Satis House

You had to renovate the house?

We had to make fireplaces, we had to plaster the ceiling, make the old windows, and all those things that you take for granted like water pipes and switches and cabling and radiators and fire alarms, we just had to rip them all out, but that's normal.

It was a discovery, really, because the house was completely sealed up — all the windows had been boarded over, with false partitions. We pulled these horrible nightclub panels off the wall, and suddenly there was the original Georgian wood. And we did find, in the cellar, the shattered remains of the main fireplace, which we pieced together and then built the rest.

It's very exciting when you pull off a piece of horrible board and there's a wonderful old chimney behind. We pulled off one wall and there was the most beautiful old bow window that had been sealed up. It was like stumbling across the sleeping beauty castle and opening it up again. So we restored the house really, in the end, although it looks like we made a terrible mess! We did actually restore it.

The Decay of Satis House

You restored it only take it through a journey of decay! I suppose you had to film sequentially because you couldn't rerenovate the house...

No, we couldn't really keep sprucing it up again! We did have these paneled walls of mold that would go up and down all the time, to have the ability to go back in time a bit. We had these prepared fungus — real dry rot fungus — panels that we'd put up, with different stages of intensity. We had to make everything, really. We had to make our curtains and then distress them, make our wallpaper and then distress it, make our fungus.

Satis House's Details and Objects

What was the inspiration for all those fascinating objects around Satis House?

In the novel, there is a sense of Pip's world. It's very important that Pip lives in what I call "the edge of the world," incredibly isolated where all you've got is the sea. And he hasn't seen anything — it's a tiny little world. And then this house, this mysterious house down the road, inside it's full of these birds and creatures and things that he'd never seen in his life.

This was [screenwriter Sarah Phelps's] intention: to present marvelous and exotic animals and birds and butterflies...but all, of course, dead and atrophied and frozen in their cases. Because it would have been a very beautiful house at one time, but metaphorically, beauty had died there. It was still there, but it had died. And so [Phelps] makes a reference in the script — it's not in the book — that her brother collected all these things abroad, all things from other countries. The atlas that Pip becomes obsessed with and takes home for himself, and sees other lands and other worlds. His mind wakes up and over time he gets all these expectations, but the end is always there in the fact that these things are dead, so you know it's doomed a bit from the start.

Satis House: The Fire *spoiler alert

How did you create and manage the fire?

We were determined for her to die in that house. Normally with all that fire, you have to go into a special fireproof stage. So the fireplace was made out of concrete and the floor was made out of stone and the ceiling, we covered it all in fire retardant layers. All the silk walls were fireproofed about twenty times and it was all slightly terrifying really because you only have one shot at it — we couldn't have afforded to rebuild the room. But it meant Gillian could do that walk down the stairs, light the candle, go in, and of course she was replaced by a stunt double for the final conflagration. The stunt woman wore a stunt fireproof suit under that, but the flames were great because they suddenly went up her dress and into her wedding veil, and the wedding veil acted a bit like a hot air balloon — it floated up to the ceiling, an extraordinary pillow of flame, with a minimal amount of digital enhancement.

It was a terrifying day...But it did make such a difference. Because if we'd decamped to a sort of steel box in a film studio, I think the atmosphere would have gone too.

Satis House: The Ending *spoiler alert

How did you shoot the house's exterior, particularly at the film's ending?

That house [Holdenby House, where exterior shots were done] was an immaculate country house with perfect lawns and gravels paths, and there wasn't a weed anywhere, so it was a huge job to distress it. But it's left slightly optimistic: they just hold hands, really, and you feel like at last! The whole picture is brighter and the mist is gone. We did sneak a few little flowers in amongst the weeds — I don't think they registered, but we knew they were there.

In the novel the house has been torn down after the fire, and it's rather beautiful in the book really, it's got all the ruins shrouded in mist and she suddenly appears out of the mist and comes toward him. In its original version they more or less say it's too late, and he looks up and sees the evening star, which is her, her name, Estella, and it's unremittingly sad. But it was Wilkie Collins who told Dickens "You've got to give it a happy ending, Dickens!"

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