Production Designer Maria Djurkovic: “A love of good aesthetics was in my DNA"
by Viktorija Samarinaite
by Viktorija Samarinaite
Maria Djurkovic can be definitely recognized by her award-winning work as a Production Designer on movies like “Billy Elliot”, “The Grey Zone”, “The Hours”, “Vanity Fair”, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, “A Bigger Splash”, “The Imitation Game” and “Gold”. What does it take to design believable, aesthetic and successful sets? To Maria Djurkovic it is all about the visual resources and constant replenishment of her mental library: she keeps looking at the architecture, art, costumes, going to the museums, exhibitions and staying curious.
Dreaming about being locked in the museum
Maria Djurkovic is a lot of things, but firstly she was a little girl, who spent her afternoons in front of a TV set waiting for costume dramas on BBC. Even her dolls wore period dresses, but M. Djurkovic had no intention of becoming a princess herself. She wanted to be a Production Designer from the age of eight years.
“My father was an Art Director and my mother - a Fashion Designer. A love of good aesthetics was in my DNA. I loved being taken to the museums as a child, especially the Victoria and Albert museum in London. I would sit in a historical costume section copying them for hours on end. My dream was to be locked in the museum at night, on my own and to be able to try on all the clothes and play in all the room settings.”
Maria’s parents did their best to encourage her creativity: she always had the access to any art materials she could dream of. Naturally, Maria Djurkovic graduated in Fine Art at Oxford and before figuring out her true passion she spent 3 years at the BBC. Maria Djurkovic started off as a holiday relief assistant, basically filling gaps while colleagues were on vacation. On a daily basis she did a bit of drawing and set dressing, above everything she was learning to stand by.
Eventually, she was offered a permanent position and decided to stay at the BBC: “In those days getting this position could take a long time. I started looking after other people's sets and assisting on bigger shows. By some fluke I was given a small show to design and I realised very quickly that it was what I wanted to be doing”.
It would have taken years for Maria to become a Production Designer at the BBC, so she went freelance and after working on various productions realised that to deliver, she needed to be fully engaged in the process: “One of the first lessons I learnt as a Production Designer was that I need to know the things I want to be doing as much as those I do not.”
To this day in order to keep motivated Maria Djurkovic tries to design films that she would actually like to see herself: “Attempting to do good work is the best motivation”.
Accredited to travel in time
Although Set Decorators, Art Directors, Costume and Production Designers are not always the first in the spotlight during the Awards Season, the persistence, creativity and hard work of Maria Djurkovic has brought her BAFTA, Art Directors Guild and Academy Award nominations for Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game”.
“I think the aesthetics of a film are highly undervalued. It is great to be acknowledged, but I am very cynical about the whole awards thing. “The Imitation Game” certainly is not my best work, but certain films do better than the others during Awards Season. Contemporary films are rarely included and quite often the design has to be loud or overt to be noticed. I often get very frustrated, for example a film like “Roma”, whose pitch perfect design was too understated to get the recognition it deserved.”
“The Imitation Game” was a multi-layered and complex project, which required not only to stay within the period frame, but also to design Alan Turing’s environment full of subtle aesthetics and hints at a beautiful mind of this genius. Out of pure instinct Maria Djurkovic sought to reflect what was going on in Turing’s head, so every scene demanded a thorough attention to details and plenty of visual codes. To understand the message, the audience has to crack them: “It wasn’t just a wallpaper, it was the aesthetic I used throughout the film”.
After the war Alan Turing and his team were instructed to destroy all the evidence of the famous code-breaking machine. To design a believable prototype Maria Djurkovic had to spend long hours at the archives and museums to find all the documents and reenactment photographs: they were declassified only in the ‘90s.
“I always feel extremely privileged to have access to such important historical documents. In the last film I did “The Dig”, which is about Sutton Hoo discovery of an early Saxon burial ship, me and my team had access to similarly wonderful photographic archive material at the British Museum. Sometimes it’s not so straight forward, but there is always a way of finding resources to help. It is impossible to say how long the research takes, because it is an ongoing process,” - says M. Djurkovic.
Being a Production Designer
There is that one project in any career, which was the most challenging. Among all the films Maria Djurkovic worked on she names such a one within seconds: “Every film has its challenge, but probably a film I did early in my career called “The Grey Zone” was the most demanding one. We had to build two crematoria at Auschwitz in the field outside Sofia in Bulgaria. This was before Bulgaria had any kind of film infrastructure. The budget was tiny and the matter was depressing beyond belief. Never has doing research taken such a physical toll on me; I had a permanent headache for weeks on end”.
More often than not filmmakers tend to choose the same staff to work with: Scriptwriters, Actors, Operators, Composers, VFX specialists, Set Decorators, Art Directors and Production Designers. Maria Djurkovic has developed a long-lasting relationship with a Swedish film director Thomas Alfredson, who she worked with on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “The Snowman”. In one interview Djurkovic sweetly called him “the director of my dreams”. M. Djurkovic claims that a perfect Director must have imagination, talent and originality on many different levels, be great at storytelling and working with actors and scripts, be visual and impeccable with music, be brave and unorthodox: “I have a slightly irreverent personality and I always gravitate to similar personalities. Such a tough job!”
For director’s Stephen Daldry’s movie “The Hours” Maria Djurkovic had to create three separate worlds with exciting three-dimentional characters within one period narrative. How does Maria find the thread that glues all the pieces together?
“It is always very important to me to create an aesthetic, mood, colour palette for any given piece. I often start with art from the particular period. For a film that centers around Virginia Woolf, looking at the activity of Bloomsbury group and Omega Workshops was the obvious starting point. That gave me a very clear direction to steer all 3 stories forward.”
Reinventing working methods
Art Directors and Production Designers rarely work at home. They are needed at a few places at a time: researching, location hunting, keeping tabs on props and set decor or supervising sets. Global lockdown has shaken the cinema industry to its core, but not all the preparatory work was shut down.
“I have been very fortunate in that I was asked to do visual mood boards for three different projects during lockdown. Working with my brilliant visual researcher Phil Clark we were doing what I love the most - digging into new worlds. Then from the comfort of home we did all the important editing, found visual life in each piece. I have also worked on several commercials which seem to be going strong, certainly in the UK. Also, I have just started on a film and I will be on a new territory discovering how to run an art department under all the restrictions implemented by the pandemic.”
This interview is a part of an interview series prepared by the International educational programme “Art Department Masterclass” aimed to introduce cinema enthusiasts to the work behind the scenes and to encourage a professional dialogue between the beginners, amateurs and professionals of the film art department.