Uncovering Italy’s Superlatives in people, places and things

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Francesca La Grande

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Production designer Francesca di Mottola

Francesca di Mottola loves making puzzles, but hers are not anything like you’re used to. They’re more like life-sized doll houses meetsInception. Di Mottola, production designer and art director with films like I am Love and television series including 1992, 1993 and The Great in her credits, is all about creating intricate worlds of personalities with art, furniture, and design within architecture and 2020’s The Great could just be Di Mottola’s greatest puzzle.

Creating Catherine the Great’s world

Consider The Great di Mottola’s first venture into a period, her first flashback of a few centuries. A clever and comedic fictional biopic on young Catherine, the epic Empress who set the Russian patriarchy afire.  An ten-episode season, The Great is set in late 1700s in a fictionalised interpretation of the Russian royal family’s Winter Palace and stars Elle Fanning as Catherine and Nicholas Hoult as her husband, the depraved party boy Peter III.

Set concept illustration for The Great.

Resplendent and decadent are the only words to describe the set design and it was up to di Mottola to create the lavish vibe.  Di Mottola racked in hundreds of hours of research – in archives, art and architecture collections, and Instagram – sourcing and discovering interior designers and palaces in Russia, Sweden and Italy, and then intensely researching in order to create two dozen rooms – living quarters, dining halls, libraries, common areas and more.

“It was like creating a puzzle”, describes di Mottola, who is keen to note that historical design accuracy wasn’t the foremost goal, but more like guidance to create personalities. “I just let myself be inspired by what those characters meant to me and to Tony.” 

By Tony, she means Tony McNamara, the award winning screenwriter behind The Great who told Di Mottola that he wanted the feel of the “right” period but advised that there was “no need to be meticulous about it. I want you to have fun.”

Finding inspiration

Francesca di Mottola’s set design on The Great, Catherine’s bedroom.

Fun is definitely what di Mottola’s sets are about. Remember, Catherine the Great and Peter III were that era’s power couple, with anything but a happy marriage. Peter was a bit of a dunce party boy, lording over a rough-around-the-edges court, beautifully created by Di Mottola, while Catherine set her sights on upgrading to a more European, cultured vibe. Di Mottola paid homage to Catherine’s ambitions by lining the walls of the palace with paintings – period and anachronistic- to showcase “Catherine’s desperate attempt at making Peter reform his court and educate him and the court to the European values of Enlightenment through Art and Science.”   IRL, after Peter’s death, Catherine founded The Hermitage, one of the world’s most extensive art collections.

The marble staircase at Reggia di Caserta, on location of The Great.

While the series’ ensemble casts included characters very loosely based on historical figures, others are fabulous composite inventions such as Gregor and Georgina Dymov,  the Great’s very own IT couple who happen to be Peter’s best friend and his wife, aka Peter’s mistress.  Di Mottola captured the couple’s habitually chic vibe by creating  an 18th century version of loft-inspired bedroom, complete with inset bath and luxurious period fabric which di Mottola found in an antique market and then reproduced. 

“In creating a world, it was just more like the freedom of not being tied up to what exactly did the Winter Palace look like when Catherine, not yet Catherine the Great, arrived at the court,” di Mottola explains. She describes how she mentally envisioned the palace vibe as a sort of period tower apartment, whose homes were unique to each of the inhabitants. ”Details on their personalities were informing each of the spaces in the rooms. Each one contributes to each personality.”

Inspirations came from all over, including her childhood backyard, aka Italy where she lived and grew up from the age of 7.  Di Mottola was inspired by interiors of Renzo Mongardino, the Palazzo Reale of Torino and the splendid Reggia di Caserta, which was also used for location scenes including interior courtyard, great fountain,  theatre, and marble staircase.

The Reggia di Caserta.

“There’s always a challenge for designers. So if there’s good material, if there’s a good script, if there’s a good story that you can be of service with, that’s what really excites me.”

Setting the stage

Each room and location of The Great is eye candy, and adds yet another dimension to the intense and crazy personalities of The Great. Di Mottola created the multiverse palace across four stages at London’s Three Mills Studios. The intricate sets were modular and turned around into other rooms.  “We redress them, change the doors, change some details.” For example, the emperor’s lavish bedroom turned into Orlov’s book- filled bedroom.

Orlov’s book filled bedroom on The Great.

Construction, decorating and dressing was a nine-month gestation by a team 100-person deep of set designers, decorators, art department, draftspersons, prop team and three construction crews.

“I felt when I was walking into workshops of an actual sort of architecture once upon a time ago like a Renaissance building would feel like. So many people working on different details at the same time, and it was so exciting and so amazing to just walk by. it was quite emotional, actually”, says di Mottola.

Flashback to the 90s

Di Mottola did have another flashback in time whilst working on 1992, a television series about the political landscape of Rome and Milan in the early 1990s, the setting a little bit closer to home for di Mottola who was in middle school during those years.

“I think creating an Italy which is no longer was so much fun because I have memories of what it was- not only, the specifics of what the computers and the first phones, you know, but also a general sense of atmosphere of those times.  And what was fun also was, bringing the ’80s into it because it’s 1992 and you’re looking at the ‘80s.”

The Great Season 2

Stayed Tuned: The Great Season Two debuts November 19, 2021.

Interviewed by Erica Firpo.

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