Miss Potter

MISS POTTER is an enchanting love story inspired by the life of Beatrix Potter – the most successful children’s author of all time.

Set in London and the Lake District in 1902, the film stars Academy Award winner Renée Zellweger as Beatrix Potter, and charts the developments of her early career and views on the world as she opens her eyes to the true nature of her relationship with her publisher, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor). Despite delighting generations of children with her tales, there is one that she has kept secret…. until now.

Behind the Scenes – MISS POTTER
Ever wondered how a location gets transformed for a major feature film? Finding and dressing the right location for a shoot can be tough, especially for a large budget feature film.

We caught up with Martin Childs, the designer for MISS POTTER, who explained how and why Yew Tree farm in Coniston was transformed into Beatrix Potter’s beloved Hill Top Farm (the inspiration for many of her later stories), and offered the designer’s take on the problems with selecting a filming location, monster pigs and the process of making ideas come alive on screen:

“…On our third trip to the Lakes together, MISS POTTER’s director, Chris Noonan, and I were trying to work out how to use Beatrix’s own Hill Top Farm as the location for the movie¹s Hill Top Farm. Why wasn’t it perfect? It had to be: our core audience would know it so well, its little slate porch has become familiar to millions, and it is still full of Beatrix¹s own’possessions.

Beatrix’s own choices had shaped it. Yet when we visited it, we were frustrated: it may be great for stills photography, but for moviemaking it was impossibly restrictive. Such are the surroundings (barns built later by Beatrix and therefore outside our period, a wonderful but precious heritage garden) that staging any scene (and we had many to stage) forced us too close to the front door and left us with nowhere to put the camera. The National Trust, its owner, were keen for us to use it – it seemed pretty ungrateful of us not to jump at it.

Driving to the station to catch our train back to London, we were shown one more farm to add to Beatrix’s portfolio of real estate. It wouldn’t have a name, it would just be part of a montage sequence. It was Yew Tree Farm and it took little time to realise that it should be our Hill Top. We were confident enough for it to be the only Hill Top candidate we’d show to our cinematographer, Andrew Dunn.

Its disadvantages were few, and to us insignificant: we’re calling it Hill Top and it’s at the bottom of a hill; all Potterfiles know the real thing, and we mustn’t alienate them. At risk of oversimplifying my job, both of these would be relatively easy to overcome with carefully chosen camera angles (next time we’d have Andrew with us) a more historically photogenic paint finish, and the addition of glazing bars and familiar Hill Top greenery. Once these were achieved the task would be for our greensmen to take it back a hundred years to become a working garden again.

I photographed it from its most ‘Hill Top’ angle and took the photo home to form the basis of a concept drawing I would use to convince anyone who needed convincing, and the National Trust needed convincing. Aware that they would be disappointed that in our view Hill Top couldn’t play Hill Top, I went to great lengths to show via a sheet of A4 paper that Yew Tree could not only play Hill Top better, it was the only farm that could play it at all. I realised I had become stubborn about our decision when I added the pigs. Now is the time to confess that I drew an oversized, out-of-scale, monster pig, plus more piglets than would ever be necessary, wandering wherever they wished, simply in order to make the National Trust fearful that if we were to bring them along to the real Hill Top they would probably destroy that wonderful heritage garden. This way we might get our way. Art and politics are inextricably linked.

We returned with Andrew Dunn and the drawing. Andrew was convinced. The location was so full of possibilities we were spoilt for choice. The movie’s art director, Mark Raggett, listed all the points we would have to negotiate with the National Trust, chiefly colour (Yew Tree was too white for Hill Top), our wish to dig up the lawn, and, replacing an existing wooden fence, a dry-stone wall across the entire width of the site. After many conversations, and with the enthusiastic blessing of the tenant farmers, a real wall would be built, with no showbiz plaster fakery. (It now looks as though it will be there for good.)

About three weeks after the dry-stone waller started we were ready to shoot. The greensmen, all real gardeners but with a filmmaker’s knowledge of how much should be living, how much could be fake, made a working farm out of Yew Tree’s tea garden and, using photographs of Hill Top, fixed matching wisteria to the wall. We built a shelter for the pigs which would be taken down when we were finished, assuming the pigs didn’t take it down first. A bonus was that the outbuildings at Yew Tree, unlike those at Hill Top, predated Beatrix’s arrival, in some cases by centuries.

If you look at the concept drawing you’ll see the real Beatrix in the doorway, lifted from an old photograph. The moment we saw Renée Zellweger in the same pose it was clear to all that the right decision had been made.”

Martin Childs

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