Production Designing "The Banshees of Inisherin" and "Empire of Light"
Production designer Mark Tildesley on the "Empire of Light" set (photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)
Mark Tildesley discusses the two films and working with their respective directors, Martin McDonagh and Sam Mendes

Earlier this year Mark Tildesley won his first Art Directors Guild (ADG) Excellence in Production Design Award for No Time to Die and now he’s again in the conversation for Guild honors--and more this awards season--for two films: The Banshees of Inisherin (Searchlight Pictures) and Empire of Light (also Searchlight), directed by Martin McDonagh and Sam Mendes, respectively.

The films marked the production designer’s first time working with Mendes and McDonagh. Tildesley struck up a quick rapport with both, noting that he’s a long-time admirer of McDonagh’s work, going back to the director/playwright’s theater endeavors and then extending to film.

“We both grew up in south London,” related Tildesley who was trained in live theater like McDonagh. In some respects Tildesley felt a kinship in that he and McDonagh both had the experience of creatively diversifying into making movies. “I watched him [McDonagh] develop as a filmmaker,” recalled Tildesley who nearly worked on McDonagh’s first feature, In Bruges (2008), but a scheduling conflict got in the way of that prospective collaboration. Writer-director McDonagh famously worked with actors Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson on In Bruges. Now some 14 years later, McDonagh, Farrell and Gleeson came together again on The Banshees of Inisherin. And this time, Tildesley joined them.

As soon as he read McDonagh’s script for Banshees, Tildesley knew he had to work on the film. Banshees read to him like a treasured piece of “Shakespearean folklore,” a story that was “super simple but really meaningful on so many levels.” 

Set on a small fictional island, Inisherin, off the west coast of Ireland, the film introduces us to Pádraic (portrayed by Farrell), a kind-hearted man who lives with his sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon). Though seemingly mundane, life is good for Pádraic who’s content to enjoy the companionship of his sister, care for his donkey, and to meet daily at a pub with his best friend Colm (Gleeson). But one fateful day, Pádraic discovers that Colm no longer likes and doesn’t even want to talk to him anymore. This sea change is unprovoked--and maddening to Pádraic who can’t fathom what he did to deserve this. Thus begins a downward spiral of self-doubt, depression and anger, in essence a waking nightmare for Pádraic which impacts others as well. But in the torment there is also humor just as kindness occasionally emerges from mean spiritedness.

Lensing by Ben Davis, BSC took place across the Aran Islands, a group of three isles at the mouth of Galway Bay off the coast of Ireland. The three islands are Inishmore, the larges, Inishmann, the second largest, and Inisheer, the smallest.

For the most part, set construction--including Pádraic and Siobhan’s cottage and the village pub--took place from scratch on locations that advanced McDonagh’s goal of Inisherin being a distinctive character unto itself in the film. McDonagh, Davis and Tildesley took advantage of the looks that different remote islands offered--playing up vast and epic backdrops, elements like sparse and green, inspiring and isolating, the feeling of being windswept, and picturesque awe-invoking framings of the sea.

Tildesley found the Inisherin being created for the film to be “a very strange but wonderful place” that felt “so fitting for this story about two people trapped in a world they can’t escape” as they experience a falling out. Also trapped but ultimately freed is Siobhan

In last week’s Road To Oscar, the film’s editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, a Best Editing Oscar winner in 2021 for Sound of Metal, said that Siobhan and Inisherin itself were “the sanity” of the story. In many ways, observed Nielsen, “she was the heart of the film.”

During the pandemic, Tildesley noted that he, McDonagh, Davis and first assistant director Peter Kohn were in lockdown for a stretch in an Irish locale. They used the time to map out varied aspects of the film, including production design which best supported the story and helped in the shaping of the characters. That production design, the environs created, continued Tildesley, were infused with colors and costume design (by Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh) that went a long way toward defining the habitats of the protagonists, and thus the protagonists themselves.

Tildesley noted that getting around about--and on--the islands was challenging. A lot of resources and people couldn’t easily be brought in. Thus the production had to rely heavily on locals, like a stonemason among other craftspeople described as lovely discoveries by Tildesley who has Irish heritage but hadn’t been further than Dublin before. He enjoyed the experience of soaking up the people and the ambience of the islands. The environs went beyond nature to include how nature was tapped into and used as building blocks--ancient patterns of rock walls akin to a labyrinth of sorts in McDonagh’s script. Hence that stonemason came in handy at times.

Empire of Light
The alluded to immediate rapport Tildesley enjoyed with Mendes emerged during a phone chat between the two about the writer-director-producer’s Empire of Light, which is set in and around a fraying but still beautiful cinema house on the south coast of England in the 1980s. Tildesley noted that both he and Mendes grew up in the ‘80s and connected with each other in the context of the story. Tildesley was drawn to the narrative of an unlikely bond between a white woman named Hilary (Olivia Colman) and a young Black man, Stephen (Micheal Ward), who work at the Empire theater. “It’s a liaison which helps them heal each other,” said Tildesley, as Hilary grapples with mental illness and Stephen is impacted repeatedly by rampant racism in the U.K. during that era.

Tildesley recalled going to the U.K.’s south coast which he and Mendes found to now be overdeveloped and not reminiscent of what the director remembered in his youth. The south coast thus didn’t work for the film. A suggestion was made to go to the east coast, where the city of Margate proved much more in line with the movie’s era and story. A fortuitous discovery there, noted Tildesley, was a fairground with a cinema house that hadn’t been used for quite some time. While its glory days had passed, the art deco theater built in the 1930s fit much of the bill for the Empire movie house. Tildesley had to rebuild the front facing, including fashioning an Empire sign which lent a slight Americana feel. The interior was difficult to work in due to asbestos and varied restrictions of what they could do--but that sense of a disused structure dovetailed well with a section of the Empire that was closed off--a hidden venue where Hilary and Stephen could spend some alone time, even along the way repairing the wing of a pigeon, one of many birds making that abandoned area their roost. 

The old cinema house on the fairground also had an old auditorium which Tildesley had gutted, rebuilding its stage, all the walls and revamping the floor. The vintage real-world site thus after this work was done gave Mendes a great deal of what he needed in one location.

Furthermore, just 10 or so doors down was an amusement arcade which had gone up in smoke. Tapping into Serious Stages, a U.K. company specializing in temporary building and stage construction, Tildesley and his colleagues created a grand interior staircase, a foyer, offices and cinema space. In essence a venue feeling was created reminiscent of what Mendes and Tildesley came to know as youngsters--coming out of the cold during a rainy holiday into a movie house, seeing the concession stand, sweets, popcorn, the red carpet, plush curtains and entering this dark theater where movies like Star Wars would unravel, sparking a sense of childhood awe. So in addition to being a character study, Empire of Light serves as a small homage to the cinema.

Speaking of cinema, Tildesley said that one of the highlights for him was being able to work with cinematographer Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, CBE on Empire of Light. Tildesley described Deakins as “the grand master of lighting, so understated, gentle and caring, a craftsman, a real filmmaker.” The production designer said he learned a lot from Deakins, marveling at the DP’s care and attention to detail--as well as knowledge that confidently could provide a heads-up that, for example, the ceiling doesn’t need to be painted since it won’t appear on screen. Like all great DPs, Deakins know what is and isn’t needed. On the latter score, he would save crew unnecessary time and effort, enabling artisans, including Tildesley, to “focus on what’s important.”

Deakins has a track record with Mendes. The DP won his second Best Cinematography Oscar in 2020 for Mendes’ 1917. (Deakins’ first Oscar win came for in 2018 for Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve. Deakins has been nominated thus far for 14 Academy Awards.)

Tildesley additionally found it gratifying to work with Mendes as well as to address the topic of mental illness in Empire of Light. On the former front, Tildesley described Mendes as laser focused, planning and knowing what he wants, having a distinct vision for a film--yet not to the point where there’s no room for surprises or new ideas. 

The production designer also felt a courage on the part of Mendes to make “a character study about mental illness.” Tildesley said he was proud to work on a film tackling that subject, helping to raise awareness and empathy for people and those around them impacted by it.

This is the second installment of a 17-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 95th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 24, 2023. The 95th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 12, 2023.

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