“It was quite emotional at times for him and for us,” production designer Jim Clay reveals when asked about bringing writer/director Kenneth Branagh‘s childhood to life on screen in his semi-autobiographical coming of age fable “Belfast.” “It’s daunting on one hand, but because we had that time with Ken and it was a direct insight into the world he remembered,” he says. Watch our exclusive video interview above.
Focus Features’ “Belfast” is drawn from five-time Oscar-nominated writer and director Branagh’s childhood experiences, following nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), his beloved Pa (Jamie Dornan) and his protective Ma (Caitríona Balfe) as they weigh up whether to stay in Belfast with his loving grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Oscar winner Judi Dench) after their neighborhood erupts in sectarian violence.
Clay says that while “the job of production designers is our work should be invisible and people should believe that’s a real place,” he says that on this film, because there was no existing sets or studios available for the production due to the ongoing pandemic, he was tasked to design and construct everything from scratch. “The street itself and the interiors of the houses were entirely constructed. Normally, we would have gone on to locations for this sort of scale of movie but, this is a new socially-distanced world, so those locations weren’t available to us,” he explains.
Not only was Clay tasked with recreating a version of what Branagh remembered from his upbringing, but he also needed to stay pretty faithful to what Belfast looked like in the late sixties. And to add another exciting challenge to the mix, he also had to ensure that the set complemented the film’s mostly black and white photography. “It’s really about contrast values,” he explains. “We were building the set and painting it in the normal colors, but I had to be sure that if I’m painting a door a particular color or a wall a particular color, and the window frame or the door frame a different color you just wanted to make sure that the contrast values will be quite strong.”
Ultimately for Clay, he says working on this film, one of a long list of collaborations with Branagh, was a joy becuase of how it resonated with him personally. “The script resonated as soon as I read it, and I think for anybody who’s ever had to leave home for work or whatever circumstances, it resonates with them. But, mostly for me, I think there’s a point in your life when you, if you’re lucky, you can sit back and comfortably look back and really appreciate and acknowledge those who’ve nurtured us and brought us up and I think that that’s the message that a lot of people got and it was certainly a powerful message for me.”
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