In Poor Things, Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest (out December 8), Emma Stone is a baby. To be specific: Emma Stone plays Bella Baxter, an unhappily married woman who throws herself off a London bridge only to be resurrected by a demented surgeon (Willem Dafoe) who replaces her brain with that of her unborn child. It’s a Victorian futurist Pygmalion, or a gender-swapped Frankenstein. The very funny film, based on the novel by Alasdair Gray, follows Bella’s journey from toddler-woman to fully sentient (and sexually liberated) adult, with feeble attempts from men to repress and possess her all along the way. To create the look of this manic movie—which takes place in zany versions of 19th century London, Lisbon, Alexandria, Paris, and on a steamship at sea—Lanthimos turned to production designers James Price and Shona Heath (the latter a long-time collaborator of fashion photographer Tim Walker) and encouraged them to go nuts.
Price and Heath reject the word “steampunk” to describe their work, even though it seems like the obvious descriptor (“It’s like saying Voldemort,” says Heath); as they tell Vogue, they prefer thinking of their sets for Poor Things as “a fantastical, adventurous, surreal magpie world, as seen through Bella’s eyes.” Lanthimos wanted an Old Hollywood feel, and thus shot the movie at a studio, using painted backdrops. Four large-scale Escher-esque sets were built on several enormous soundstages in Budapest—the London set took 16 weeks to build, while Lisbon took 20. A skilled team of craftsmen and artisans constructed composite sets (sets featuring more than one room or location) from the ground up. “All of our sets were done that way, because you’re trying to create a unique world that everyone’s got to buy into,” says Price. “It all starts with us. Everybody else follows the world that we create, so it’s a great responsibility, setting the tone and making it believable for these characters to inhabit that world.”