How a run down cinema was transformed for Sam Mendes, ‘Empire of Light’

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Sam Mendes film, Empire of Light,  is centred on an increasingly dilapidated multi screen cinema in the early 1980’s and the challenge was to find one that fitted the needs of the film and the production settled on Margate, a town on the northern shore of Kent.

I grew up in a seaside town in Southwest England, so this brought a lot back for me,” says Oscar  winning cinematographer Roger Deakins. “Margate brought a reality to this movie. I think Sam had a slightly different feeling in his mind for the town than some of the other locations we scouted – Brighton and Worthing and Eastbourne… Margate feels more like a Yorkshire seaside town.

I was drawn to this particular place because it offered so much opportunity in the scale of the visual landscape,” says Mendes. “It’s where J. M. W. Turner painted most of his famous paintings – he went there because he said that the skies were the finest in Europe. It’s where T. S. Elliot wrote The Waste Land, sitting in a bus shelter just outside of the cinema looking out over the beach and the grey sea that sits beyond. There’s a breadth about the place, which gives it poetry and a cinematic scope.”

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But perhaps the biggest reason Mendes chose Margate was it was there that production designer Mark Tildesley (No Time To Die, Phantom Thread, In the Heart of the Sea, 28 Days Later), found Dreamland: a former cinema and ballroom with an impressive art deco exterior attached to a seaside funfair. When Mendes saw the location, he rewrote the screenplay to match it. Scenes that had been set in a disused balcony were rewritten to take advantage of Dreamland’s ballroom, and a scene at the funfair’s roller rink was added. The location, which had seen better days, underwent a massive transformation from Tildesley’s team. The theatrical auditorium, which had been converted into a pea green bingo hall, became the Empire’s beautiful cinema: everything inside, from the seats to the material on the wallsto the proscenium arch, was installed by Tildesley and his team. Other aspects of the building were refreshed as well – the ballroom was given a much-needed facelift and the art deco ladies’ bathrooms were rebuilt – and then these sets were aged to be period-appropriate. “There’s an extraordinary art deco glory to it – there’s a sense that it was built in the 1930s and now it’s 1980 and it’s beginning to creak and crumble,” says Tildesley. “It’s an analogy with the story – the lead characters are weathered and broken people, and they need care and healing and mending.

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The one important part of Mendes’ vision and story that Dreamland could not accommodate was that it lacked a large art-deco lobby looking over the seascape. But Margate came through with a solution: steps down the street from Dreamland was a large open space where Tildesley could build a set of the lobby interior. “The foyer is a centerpiece – it’s where all of the characters meet. It had to be visually captivating,” says Tildesley. “The feeling you get is coming in from the seafront, which is cold and stormy in winter, into this delicious foyer with loads of sweets and popcorn, and then you watch a movie that takes you off into another world.” The set’s windows and doors looked out over the sea with a view that would match the Dreamland exterior shots. That proved a bit of a challenge for Deakins, but one that he welcomed.  “It was basically shooting on a location. Yes, it’s a set, but at the seafront, the light’s ever changeable and most of the work was in the daytime,” says Deakins. “Sam could have built a set on a stage with a green screen, but obviously, the downside of that is the naturalism of it. I don’t think we would have gotten the realism that we did if we had been a soundstage.”

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Another key design challenge for Tildesley was to replace Dreamland’s neon exterior signage with one announcing the cinema as the Empire, as well as giving Deakins enough light to capture the scenes at night. “We took down all of the neon and replaced it with our own, and we rebuilt the front façade – they call it the canopy,” says Tildesley. “Then, Roger was wondering how on Earth we were going to light these night scenes, so at his instruction, we installed festoon lights along the entire seafront.” The makeshift studio on the seafront was also where Tildesley would build other sets including the cinema offices, where Mr. Ellis conducts his illicit relationship with Hilary.

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The projection booth, with moveable walls to accommodate filming, and the interiors of Hilary’s and Stephen’s apartments, were all built in a hangar at Manston airport nearby. Hilary’s flat, in particular, represented a challenge for the design team. “Because Sam wanted to shoot in sequence as much as possible, we had to have everything prepared up front and then redress the set as it occurs in script order,” says Tildesley. “The set develops in the same way the story does; we project Hilary’s struggles into the set and show a progression as she deteriorates and recovers. Sam had an idea that the character would decide to repaint the room with extraordinary colours – purple and a dark green – and that she got halfway through and gave up. We also decided that she would start to write some of her thoughts on the wall. Those details give her state of mind more than just a messy room – it’s character-driven.”

Read our review of ‘Empire of Light’ here

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