On Radioactive, production designer Michael Carlin created a sense of enormous scope with a relatively modest budget, recreating period environments from five countries, for a story spanning more than a century.
Based on a graphic novel by Lauren Redniss, the drama tells the story of Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike), the pioneering scientist who changed the world with her discovery of radioactivity. Intercut with episodes from Curie’s life were scenes that spoke to the consequences of her work, staged at Hiroshima, Chernobyl and other destinations.
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To carry the viewer through time and space, Carlin would transform sections of Budapest and Spain, to achieve a diverse assortment of looks.
But for the production designer, Radioactive is one of two dramas in the awards conversation this year, the other being The Mauritanian. Directed by Kevin Macdonald, the STX title tells the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), a man held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center for over a decade, without charges, who doggedly pursues freedom and justice in his case.
Below, Carlin reflects on the ambition of Radioactive, and the highlights of his experience, on the set of The Mauritanian.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with Radioactive? What excited you about the idea of designing this film?
MICHAEL CARLIN: The producer, Paul Webster, told me about it. We were doing another movie quite a long time before Radioactive went into production, and he said he had this fantastic graphic novel that would make an amazing film, but he didn’t know how to make it. I looked at the graphic novel a few years before we made the film, and then Jack Thorne wrote the script. Then, very quickly after that, [director] Marjane Satrapi came on board, and this is still probably more than a year before we started production.
Visually, the graphic novel is even more diverse, in terms of spaces and periods of time, than the script, and the film is a reduction of the script that we set out to shoot. But it was just incredibly exciting. It starts in Poland in 1870, and then we were in Washington in the ’40s, and Nevada in the ’50s, and then back to Paris. It just jumps around all over the place, and there’s this amazing hospital sequence that ties the whole thing together.
I’d never met Marjane, but I went and spent a week over in Paris with her, and we just tried to work out how to [bring the film to fruition]. Because the script was incredible, but it still had to be distilled into physical spaces that you could actually film in. So, we kind of came up with a blueprint, and for a designer, it’s one of those amazing opportunities that don’t often come along, just because of the diversity of spaces, and how the sets and the spaces really needed to tie the whole thing together.
Then, there was another gap while they tried to cast, and then waited for Rosamund [Pike] to become available. We did some more work, just talking and refining, and then ended up in Budapest.
DEADLINE: Tell us more about the blueprint you mentioned. How did you figure out how to tackle a project that compasses such a diverse assortment of locations and time periods?
CARLIN: What we started with was, Marjane and myself and Stéphane [Roche], the editor, made these little animatics—edited cartoons of how the various sequences worked. Then, [we] just wrote a list of everything we needed.
Most of it was really trying to work out how to join all of those things together, and work out what all the transitions were, what kind of shorthand we could come up with to let people know that they were somewhere different. For some of them, [like] 1940s Japan to Paris, it’s pretty easy. But Paris-to-Paris, with different sequences, [wasn’t]. So, we broke all of that down, and then just started to work out where to do it.
I’d made a couple of films in Budapest, which is a good place to build. There’s a lot of Soviet architecture that worked for the ’50s Nevada stuff, and there’s a lot of late 19th, early 20th century architecture that worked for the Parisian bits. So, pretty early on, we settled on trying to make it there.
Then, I did a movie there called Colette, while we were waiting for Rosamund to become available. I did a lot of scouting on the weekends, and [certain challenges] quickly became clear, because it’s an incredibly ambitious movie. But also, you know you’re never going to get a huge budget to make a film like that, because it’s a fairly niche project. So, we just had to be incredibly inventive about how we would pull it off, and a lot of the discussions were really about how that was going to work.
So, the process was half creative and half logistics, and films in that budget area are always a bit like that. You have a vision for the film, and then you have to try and work out a strategy to make that happen.
DEADLINE: What kind of historical research did you get into, prior to shooting?
CARLIN: A hell of a lot of photographic research, for all of the different zones. For the Parisian and Russian and Japanese stuff, we basically tried to make it look very, very real, and we were just faithfully copying or recreating, as much as possible, documentary photographs from the time. Except we did a hell of a lot with color. Because we were working mainly with black-and-white reference, but the green of the radium became stronger and stronger through the story, and that was another form of glue to tie it all together.
Where we went a little bit off piste, in terms of accuracy, was with the Nevada Doom Town part of the story, because the reality of it was actually very prosaic and a bit boring. I would say we ramped that up a bit, but for most of it, we were just trying to pretty faithfully reproduce the zones that we were in. So, we built a pretty much one-to-one replica of The Enola Gay [bomber], and a pretty authentic Japanese street for that sequence.
Budapest was expanded amazingly from about 1870 by [Gustave] Eiffel, the French engineer, and [Josef] Hoffmann, the architect, so there’s a lot of architecture there that’s a great basis to work from. You just have to do these massive interventions on the street, to take it back to the period when it was built. We built a lot of facades of shops and installed them in existing streets, over the top of existing architecture, to achieve all of the Parisian stuff, and they were all based on the [Eugène] Atget photographs, pretty much, from the late 1890s.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about your designs for the Nevada Doom Town? In what ways did you depart from the visual reality of it?
CARLIN: I suppose the reality of it was, it was post-war, and it was very basic. [For] the Doom Town sequence that they blew up, they would just build a house in the middle of the desert and blow it up. It didn’t really create an environment, so we wanted to create a town in the desert, and it was a bit more of an idealized, early ’50s town, rather than what they actually produced to blow up. [For] the underground testing station, we found this amazing, Soviet-era control station for the electricity infrastructure that hadn’t been demolished, and we built a big observation window into that, and turned that into a big control center.
[In reality], the early nuclear tests were very haphazard and makeshift, I suppose is the word, and we wanted to make it feel a bit more like the 1950s dream of the future. So, that stuff, we pushed quite a bit. And at that point in the film, we were trying to push this idea that green is radium. So, everything was green.
DEADLINE: How large were the builds for environments like the Doom Town and Chernobyl? And what went into bringing them together?
CARLIN: For Doom Town, we built five houses with one practical interior, in which we shot the dummies melting, and all that stuff. We built the interiors in Budapest and built the exterior town in Almería, in Spain, where they used to do all the Spaghetti Westerns. So, we built five houses and a hundred yards of street, and it was extended in CG.
With Chernobyl, we used Russian-era architecture for the exteriors in Budapest, in three sections. So, we worked in an existing power plant—not a nuclear one—and built all the corridors, and the very iconic floor from Chernobyl into that, for the post-explosion stuff. In the ’70s version of Chernobyl, we built a monument in a bit of green space, in the middle of a Russian-era housing estate in Budapest.
Then, [there’s] the interior that Marie Curie walks through in the dream sequence at the end, when she’s walking through the hospital. Basically, we occupied this massive building in the middle of Budapest to create the hospital, because it had a mile of corridors and it was empty. We could just build in there for weeks and weeks to create all the different [corridors]. In the hospital sequence, all the rooms connected to each other, and we were able to be there for long enough to build all the different periods into the existing architecture. We could have done it on a stage, but it would’ve just been a massive, massive stage, and this location offered that possibility.
In this location—just sort of incidentally, in the basement—there was a massive, Soviet-era theater that was very similar to one of the ones in Pripyat, that’s in all the famous photographs of Chernobyl. Pripyat’s the town next to Chernobyl that was evacuated after the explosion. Basically, we did some plate photography of the famous [Pripyat] theme park that’s all rusting and overgrown, and into this theater, where the stage was, we built a wall of windows. There’s lots of photos of the empty swimming pool in Pripyat, and we basically took that window [from that building] and built it into this theater. Then, on a blue screen outside of the window, you see Chernobyl now, which is basically plate photography.
DEADLINE: What was it that allowed you to realize the ambitious vision for the film on a limited budget?
CARLIN: The main rationale was just incredibly inventive use of locations, and manipulation of existing locations. And we built quite a bit on the stage. But if we’d had double the budget, we probably would have built a hell of a lot more for real—like the hospital, for example.
It was partly because I had this time, doing the other movie in Budapest before we started, that we were able to find quite a lot of spaces for this, to do the streets. And some of the apartment interiors were existing locations. It’s a very economical place to work, if you’ve got the time to set it up properly, and there’s some brilliant local talent. So, the financial element of it was more like, “Okay, we’re going to go to Budapest. How can we go there without bringing a load of people with us, putting people in hotels?” It was very much a local Hungarian team, rather than bringing a load of people in.
So, it was more about that, rather than relying on visual effects. But also, the visual effects company, Union, they’re a pretty established outfit. They’re used to working in the independent arena, where you can’t throw money at every problem. So, it was a big collaboration with them, as well.
DEADLINE: What about your work on Radioactive are you most proud of?
CARLIN: I think some of the street scenes we pulled off were pretty impressive. Again, it’s a mixture of creativity and logistics, because you know what you want it to look like, but then you find out you’ve only got four days to do it. We were doing some pretty massive interventions on some of the streets, so it was good to get that right.
But the main thing was the hospital sequence. [Marie] had to do this amazing, physical journey, going through a hospital in Poland in 1870, and through a door, into 1950s America, and down an enormous corridor, and into another space in 1914. The fact that we could do it for real, and then through the interior of Cherobyl, all pretty much in the same place, was great fun to do, and good fun to look at.
DEADLINE: What did you most enjoy about your time on The Mauritanian? And what kinds of challenges came with that project?
CARLIN: We’ve gotten some really great messages from people who were there. [Stu] Couch, who’s the character played by Benedict Cumberbatch, has seen the film, and he took some of his friends who he worked with there [to the shooting location]. We actually built [the detention center] in South Africa, and it was just a horrendous place. So, it was pretty dark, actually, working out what those spaces were, the degree of deprivation that they created.
But the process was amazing. I went and spent some time with Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who was there, and wrote the book about it, and I’d done a hell of a lot of picture research before I saw him, but everything was mislabeled and stuff. He was able to go through all the photographs and go, “This is where I was at this time. That’s where I was at that time. That’s fake; that’s from another period.” And because he’d spent years in these tiny, little, metal boxes, he could tell you pretty much exactly, to the inch, how big they were, and every detail. He could tell you how many holes there were, in the mesh in the cage that he lived in, for the last few years. So, then, it was just a matter of recreating it.
Then, because it was so many years that he spent in so many different places, we’d just have to work out a way, logistically, of trying to physically create all those different spaces by converting one space into lots and lots of different places. His involvement in the film made it really special. And Tahar Rahim does this amazing performance, and almost becomes Mohamedou. It was incredible.
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