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Exploring the Art of Set Design: A Conversation with Cristina Casali On New Film Wicked Little Letters

As part of our latest interview series, we talk to Cristina Casali, a skilled production designer, about their artistic journey from art school to the distinctive world of film design. Drawn to the unique narrative of the new film ‘Wicked Little Letters,” in cinemas February 23rd, Cris shares insights into her meticulous approach to set design, from colour palettes to capturing the English charm of this true story.

Discover how the diverse themes of the film influenced her design choices and how collaborations with the director and actors Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman shaped the visual narrative.

Tell us a bit about yourself… How did you get into production design?

Art school was my initial route. Then, my journey led me to the world of music, particularly live shows such as the MTV awards and Smash Hits. Transitioning to television, I found my place as an art director and set decorator, and that’s where I stayed. As I continued, my focus shifted towards designing films. Films, with their well-defined beginning, middle, and end, resonate with me, offering a satisfying storytelling experience. I find this format more appealing on a personal level than the lengthy and episodic nature of television. During my earlier years, I dedicated a significant amount of time to designing films.

I love working on darkly humorous projects, so it was right up my street.

What drew you to working on the Wicked Little Letters project?

It’s such an unusual story. When I read the script, I couldn’t quite place it. The fact that it’s true is even more strange. So I liked it. And there’s a dark comedy aspect that I like. I have that sort of same sense of humour. I love working on darkly humorous projects, so it was right up my street. I went the standard route, interviewed for it, and got on well with the team. We all had a similar vision, which started a lovely adventure.

How do you approach set design, what’s the starting point?

I do thorough research before meeting with the director or producer, so I can approach the project with a well-formed perspective. Research provides answers to many questions, but valuable insights also come from discussions with the directors and producers regarding their vision for the project.

These conversations generate interesting design suggestions, and I collaborate with the Director of Photography (DOP), Ben Davis, to establish a suitable colour palette and overall mood and feel. For instance, in a comedy, it’s essential to avoid overly dark colour schemes.

For this project, locating a town with the right character was challenging. Eventually, we settled on Arundel, even though it wasn’t by the sea. To address this, we incorporated sea views through wide shots. The initial vision was to infuse the setting with quintessential English character, reminiscent of the 1920s, Victorian, and small-town charm, capturing the essence of a sleepy seaside village—creating an unmistakable English feel.

Were there any specific themes or motifs from the film that influenced your design choices, and how did you incorporate them into the sets?

The two families the narrative centres around are diverse, which had to come out. So one family is very much stuck in Victoriana, whilst the other is looking forward. They’re both going through difficult times, though, especially the women, which we wanted to be sensitive about. We wanted it to feel natural within the parameters I’ve mentioned but not like a documentary.

How did you work with the director to develop the visual experience for the audience?

Eventually, we stumbled upon a charming street lined with cotton cottages full of character. Once we identified this location, which resonated well with all of us, I collaborated with the director and the Director of Photography (DOP), Ben. Together, we delved into designing the interiors of these quaint cottages, envisioning them as homes for our two families. The scenes were carefully examined, considering both the architectural elements of the cottages and the activities that would take place within them.

For instance, we imagined Rose having a bath in the front room at one point, providing a glimpse into her living space. We explored various ideas and seamlessly incorporated them into the overall room design. This process involved not only understanding the architectural style of the cottages but also contemplating the specific colours that would best suit Rose’s character.

Tell us about working with Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman. To what extent does the cast influence your approach to set design?

It has to have an influence really. You start designing with their faces in mind. I start thinking about colours which work with them and their characters, which has a great bearing on everything. Jessie and Olivia are amazing together. They’re hilarious too. They have a lot of time for everyone and create such an enjoyable working atmosphere. Jesse brings an openness and flamboyance, impacting the elements we incorporated into her space. On the other hand, Olivia’s character demanded a more serious and restrained approach, reflecting the constraints of her background. Their faces and characters become integral to the design process and I envision them in the spaces as I work through the creative decisions.

The actor’s faces and characters become integral to the design process, and I envision them in the spaces as I work through the creative decisions.