Park Chan-wook’s BBC1 thriller The Little Drummer Girl has drawn its audience into the cloak-and-dagger world of espionage in 1979.
The adaptation of the John le Carre novel sees a young British actress recruited by an Israeli spy ring to infiltrate a Palestinian terror cell. But its production design by Maria Djurkovic – whose previous creations include Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Imitation Game and The Hours – is just as high-octane as the action that takes place.
The two-time BAFTA-nominated production designer reveals how she created its colourful and retro aesthetic.
How did you create the overall look of the series?
It is always the same in the early stages: I’m one of the first crew members on set, I meet the location manager and director and we see if we speak the same language and then settle on the overall aesthetic.
I never impose an aesthetic on something, it always comes from the written material. It’s a creative process: I find thousands of images with the help of my researcher Phil Clarke and then edit them – keeping what I like and getting rid of the rest. Mood boards are then created for each interior.
An all-embracing visual language was needed for The Little Drummer Girl to connect the characters, period and each interior. The story is set in various locations across Europe and the Middle East, so it would have been easy for it to look disjointed. I came up with these rules to create a mood and an aesthetic: clean modernist architecture and blocks of bold colour.
Bold hues feature strongly in the clothes the characters wear and in the set design. Where did the idea for colour blocking come from?
The bold colours originated from the visual research. I put the photographs up on the walls and the colour scheme jumped out at me. We needed to make an impact with colour without it being a distraction. I had more contact with the costume department than I usually do as I knew I needed them to be on board or it wouldn’t work.
The degree of boldness and strength of colour is the difference. Park Chan-wook let me use those hues, he just got it. When I showed him an image of Charlie Ross’s fuchsia-walled flat, he just smiled and said he liked it. Other directors would need more information, with him it was not necessary.
The idea for pairing orange-red with emerald green came from the padded cell in which Michel/Salim is held in the Munich apartment. We needed him to stand out against the waxed cotton interior, so we put him in a green suede jacket, but the hues were embedded in the aesthetic.
There’s a rule that costume designers follow that says you can’t put actors in the same colour as the background – and we broke it. We had Charlie in frog green dress against green wall in one scene.
What were your favourite sets?
I really liked Charlie’s apartment because it is her own space [the majority of the interiors in the series are safe houses] and reflected her personality. She is a feisty, spirited, young woman, so the boldness of the space felt right. The idea was that she had painted and furnished it herself, so we made the paintwork deliberately messy and filled it with junk-shop furniture.
The Yellow Submarine-style painted wall border was based on a black and white photograph on show at a photography exhibition on London squats during the mid 20th century.
The villa in Greece, meanwhile, had a strong look: we dressed it with pieces from 1960s and 1970s and made sure that they sat comfortably together. The Munich flat was created from scratch from an empty workshop in the UK.
Where did the filming take place?
The filming took place in the UK, the Czech Republic and Greece. The scenes that took place at the Munich Olympic Village were filmed in London. Greece stood in for Israel, Lebanon, Palestine and southern Yugoslavia, while Czech Republic was the setting for locations in Germany, Austria and northern Yugoslavia.
We needed to film in Greece because of the scene at the Acropolis and, of course, we couldn’t fake that. In the novel, Charlie meets Gadi Becker in Mykonos but the island was too far away for us to transport the filming equipment to. The holiday scenes are set in Naxos, but they were filmed on the coast near Athens.
We used Camden’s brutalist Alexandra Road Estate as the setting for the Munich Olympic Village as they looked so similar. An empty school in Oxfordshire’s Wallingford was used for the M16 office and other locations.
We had a hunch that the Czech Republic would be better at depicting Germany in the 1970s than the actual country as it had more in-tact midcentury Central Europe vibe. We found places in the Czech Republic and checked them with the German location manager I worked with on the film Red Sparrow, and he agreed that they worked better than Germany.
I had visited Cheb in the Czech Republic during a holiday in 1997 and remembered its colourful houses and how it had a similar colour palette to the show’s aesthetic. It hadn’t changed since then and was perfect for the stakeout scene in Austria.
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