Like “Rocketman” costume designer Julian Day, production designer Marcus Rowland loved the fact that the film wasn’t going to be a standard biopic of Sir Elton John’s life, but rather a stylized fantasy musical.
“Dexter [Fletcher, the director] always had that in mind when I was first meeting him,” Rowland told Gold Derby at our Meet the Experts: Production Design panel, moderated by this writer (watch above). “We’re not doing a historically accurate portrayal of his life. It’s his recollection of his memories. So that gave us a lot more freedom, which, I feel, is one of the fun things as a designer. We weren’t slavishly following accurate, historical locations … or places that were in Elton’s life. We were able to reimagine it. We always started with as a basis, we looked in reference — and there’s a ton of references for Elton — but like Julian, we started with Elton and [went from there].”
Rowland got the chance to visit John’s house that was filled with various collections, including an art gallery, giving the designer a “sense of his personality.” The singer also had a laissez-faire attitude toward the project, wanting to be “surprised” by the creations. “It puts a lot less pressure on you,” Rowland said. “I mean, yes, you don’t want him to be disappointed, but if you’re constantly worried that you’re doing something that he’s going to find difficult or want to try and recreate, that would’ve been awkward, I feel like. We were very lucky that he had the confidence and the trust to allow us to run with it.”
Rowland’s team built 30 sets, mostly in a warehouse in London, much of them for the elaborate music sequences. The biggest challenge of designing for a music set piece — like the “Honky Cat” number that finds John (Taron Egerton) and his manager/lover John Reid (Richard Madden) cycling through various rooms, including a department store — was coordinating with the choreography and the song itself.
“For me, it was a very quick start [and] also they were just getting into the music and reinterpreting it and Taron was doing his own take on it. So we were sort of waiting on the composition of the music as well before we knew exactly what the performances were, so it all sort of happened at the same time,” Rowland revealed. “The challenge is just trying to keep everything moving forward. You’ve got so many elements happening at the same time and trying to work out — it’s not just the individual sets — but trying to work out a general feel for the whole film and find that within the process. … That scene came together once we had the track late in the day. We orchestrated the pieces we had to fit the track.”
While the general public wouldn’t know what, say, John’s bedroom really looks like, there are some well-known locations in the film, like the Troubadour, where John debuted in 1970. Rowland’s interpretation was a “pared-down version” to capture the essence of the famous L.A. nightclub.
“It was quite difficult to get a sense of what the layout was, and obviously it’s changed a lot through time. The real place is interesting. It’s got character, it’s quite messy. We basically did a pared-down version. We built the sets to accommodate the action that needed to be in there,” he explained. “There’s quite a bit of rework, where they’re floating up in the air, so there’s a lot of wiring. It’s a flavor of the real place. We used the middle door rather than the end door. Hopefully you catch the spirit of it. The color’s different and the backstage area’s different.”
In fact, Rowland hadn’t even been to the Troubadour until the day before our panel. “I’ve now been to the Troubadour! I went yesterday. That was my first time,” he laughed. “I walked past it last night and it was quite unique sort of re-engineering it in my head.”
Video by Shane Whitaker.
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