Helen Scott interview: ‘Small Axe’ production designer
Helen Scott served as production designer on all five films in Steve McQueen’s Amazon anthology series “Small Axe,” but the task wasn’t as intimidating as it sounds. The reason? She had all five scripts at once.
“It became daunting later on, but having the five scripts in front of us, it was kind of doable because we could work out what the art was and where each film sat within the arc and get an overall feel for the whole project,” Scott says during Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: TV Production Design panel (watch above). “We never lost sight of the fact that all of these stories are connected. They’re all of the same family. It was just trying to [find] the nuance of each film. Each film came from a slightly different time zone — they were all set in different times, they were all in London, they were all different characters, so they have their own life and their own face and own meaning and own tone. I supposed what we were trying also to do was give it an umbrella as well visually.”
“Small Axe” tells five different stories of West Indian immigrants in London in the ’60s and ’70s. Scott had early conversations with McQueen about the “meaning and the thrust of each story,” but the Oscar winner had no specific requests or looks in mind. “He also is very trusting of his team. Once he knew that we kind of knew what we were talking about and once he was secure in the knowledge that we had done all our research … he was very happy to let us out on a long leash,” Scott reveals. “He was great in that way. He sort of lit little fires everywhere, and we reacted and expanded.”
All of the films are based on true stories except the second installment, “Lovers Rock,” which arguably features the most memorable scene. The film follows two teens, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Patty (Shaniqua Okwok), sneaking off to a blues party at a house; inside, Martha meets Franklyn (Micheal Ward). The star of the film is an extended, hypnotic and sensuous dance scene as the partygoers sway to Janet Kay’s “Silly Games.”
For Scott, who had grown up during that time, she knew exactly how to approach the scene, and that in this case, it was more about ambience than anything.
“I suppose it grew from my own memory of that time. I knew the detail of it. I knew it’d be in a big, empty, freezing cold house with no central heating. It’d be damp. I knew the state of the building. I knew how it would feel and how it’d smell and what the finishes would likely be like. Then we just did loads of research into all the details — the records, the sound systems, all the kind of wiring, the food,” she explains. “It was a sort of exercise in atmosphere, really, rather than visuals. And for that story, it was important that everything the actors came in contact with was absolutely honest and real. It wasn’t about the big picture in a way; it was a sensory experience.”