Talking Mr. Turner

This post was contributed by Helen-Frances Pilkington, who is currently studying for an Arts and Humanities PhD at Birkbeck’s School of Arts.

Lifting the lid on some of the mechanics of preparing and filming Mike Leigh’s award-winning Mr. Turner biopic, Birkbeck’s 43 Gordon Square cinema welcomed Dr Jacqueline Riding (historical consultant), Sarah McBryde (production manager) and Tim Wright (artist) for a panel discussion chaired by Birkbeck’s Dr Kate Retford for Arts Week.

Shooting the Royal Academy exhibition scenes

Timothy Spall on the set of Mr. Turner with director Mike Leigh (far left), and art adviser for the film, Tim Wright (centre)

Timothy Spall on the set of Mr. Turner with director Mike Leigh (far left), and art adviser for the film, Tim Wright (centre)

Sequences of the film were set in the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. Based on the 1832 catalogue and the original invoices, the team reconstructed the Royal Academy’s exhibition rooms inside Wentworth Woodhouse by creating a structure inside several of the rooms.

To fill the walls, the team tracked down as many of the identifiable paintings from the catalogue as possible to recreate the actual rooms and hanging layout. To transform the high resolution scans into the paintings, the team varnished over 250 high resolution images.

The scenes in the film highlighted the material and commercial culture of the period: whether your work would sell or be seen would depend upon where it was hung and what it was next to. Varnishing days were opportunities for artists to amend their paintings to try and get them to stand out from the crowd in a highly competitive market-place and, in one scene, Turner does just that by adding a red buoy in his sea-scene.

Painting like Turner

To shoot the film, Timothy Spall (playing Turner) would need to be able to paint like Turner. To aid Spall in this, Wright developed a foundation course in fine art to teach him the basics of drawing, painting, perspective etc. for two years. After this, they studied Turner’s unfinished works and copied others to understand how Turner painted and what personality traits these techniques revealed.

This enabled Spall to bring out the physicality of painting and the different speeds of working. As part of this training, Spall also learnt how to instinctively handle brushes, palates and cloths which was essential for the film due to Leigh’s improvisatory approach.

Understanding Turner

As historical consultant, Riding was responsible for the research coordination of the actors and extras on set. What became apparent from research is that whilst much had been written on aspects of Turner’s life, his familial relationships, especially those with women, had been only slightly researched.

These areas required more research input but also gave greater rein to the actors’ imagination. Riding noted that all the actors needed to inhabit their characters so dossiers were created for all characters. This enabled the actors to develop a naturalness with their character and their props so as to wear their learning lightly in the improvisations. All agreed that the characters in the film were informed by immersive research but were ultimately the individual actor’s and Leigh’s imagination of that individual.

Filming Turner

McBryde’s role was to project manage the logistics of the film including transporting everyone and equipment to the sets, catering, toilets and power. McBryde regaled us with a couple of anecdotes on the challenges faced.

For the Cornwall location which stood in for Margate, the lanes were too narrow to get the power generators down so McBryde had to arrange with the utility company to get a temporary power point installed for the duration of the shoot in Cornwall. For the Rain, Steam, Speed painting, McBryde had to source not only were the engine and carriages from different locations but a track of the right gauge had to be found to maintain the historical accuracy.

After the close of the formal panel, discussions continued over a convivial glass of wine and an excellent evening was had by all.

Find out more

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts, Categories . Tags: , ,