Meeting with Anne Seibel, a star chef decorator in Paris who conquered Hollywood.

Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Sofia Coppola, Clint Eastwood, M. Night Shyamalan, these are the great American names that make up Anne Seibel's filmography.
Photo credit : Anne Seibel

Dive into Parisian decors with Anne Seibel, the very Hollywood-style French chef-decorator.

Meeting with Anne Seibel, French Oscar-nominated chief decorator, who reveals her secrets of Parisian sets on Midnight in Paris, Marie-Antoinette, Munich, The Devil wears Prada, the series The Sopranos, Sex and the City and The Eddy by Damien Chazelle, and much more…

Woody Allen doesn’t spend more than $10 million a movie. How did you approach the challenge of reconstructing Midnight in Paris, for which you were nominated for an Oscar, before meeting the director again for To Rome with Love and Magic in the Moonlight?

Anne Seibel: I was competing with four French César award-winning decorators when he chose me. But I had already worked with Spielberg, Coppola, Eastwood, designed big sets for GI Joe, Rush Hour 3. Another advantage is that Rick Carter, the decorator from Spielberg with whom I did Munich, is my mentor. Woody Allen’s very family-oriented. The sets cost €600,000. I used the D-system smart and he gave me carte blanche. We chose places with little visual pollution to recreate the Paris of the 1920s, such as the Rue de Rivoli and the 6th district. Gertrude Stein’s apartment is one of the biggest sets.

It is located rue de Fleurus, but you couldn’t turn there because it is inhabited and everything has been transformed. We therefore preferred to rent an apartment with the same considerations, at 24 rue René Boulanger in the 10th. The architectural elements were eye-catching and gave the impression of being in his apartment. However, I redid everything inside: the paintings, the colours, the lamps, the period furniture. I had done two months of research based on one of the most representative pieces, with the fireplace and the paintings by Picasso that she had bought. The outdoor scenes took place in rue Malebranche.

The Moulin Rouge was a challenge. How did you reproduce the structure at La Cigale?

Anne Seibel: In natural settings, the Moulin Rouge of the early 20th century no longer exists. La Cigale is the only place that matched the architecture. For each setting, I can often present three, but here there was only one possible place to propose to Woody. The whole team was distraught because if he said no, we had nothing else. I had prepared everything and studied all the scenes in the script. It’s the first set I’ve ever presented him with. I had only met him twice and it was my first feature film as a set designer totally alone, after an Indian film, Road Movie, financed by Marie-Antoinette’s producer. I was in the middle of the scene, scared.

The team told me “don’t worry, we are by your side”. They were mostly fifty meters behind me (laughs). I felt like a carpet salesman. So I explained to him everything that I was going to rework, take over, add: the square wooden pillars, installed under the passageway, small balustrades, gilded framed mirrors to widen the room, red hangings to hide the modern doors, lino made of fake wood to be patinated like the parquet floor of popular balls, a chandelier with fairground garlands painted in black, lamps in golden tones. With the tablecloths on the tables and the French cancan girls, the result would be incredible. I asked him “Do you see what I mean?” and he said “Yes, I have an imagination, we’ll do it here”. Everyone relaxed, I was exhausted (laughs).

What were your other challenges, Anne Seibel?

Anne Seibel: Woody does not use digital or erasure. This requires creativity and making movies. With the director of photography, Darius Khondji, we achieved a small feat in a nightly dialogue scene where Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard are walking in a street in Pigalle.

This neighborhood is full of neon lights now. I found a café with a very Parisian terrace and an old hotel at the corner of Rue Duperré on 9th. By putting up old signs, a vintage car and posters, it became a small, old-fashioned Pigalle neighbourhood, with prostitutes leaning against a wall or a lamppost. I had timed the dialogue and arranged what would fit into the scene, warning Darius not to overflow.

We managed to do 1920 in the frame, but at the back there was a red light and a kiosk. So I put up a Morris column to hide the fire, but I couldn’t make it to the kiosk. I was in a panic and then Woody said, “If they see your booth, it means I’m a bad director and they don’t listen to my actors.

From the first period transition, how did you move time visually from one period to the next?

AS: We played on very golden and more amber tones for the past, and cooler tones, in the blues for the contemporary. On the screen, the change in tone, value, light and colour can be perceived. All this work was done with the cinematographer. The scene of the car going up to the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont is magical. I hardly changed anything in this street, but the effect of the vintage car makes a change with the characters in costumes. Initially, this scene was to be performed on the banks of the Seine, near Notre-Dame, but at night, in August, thousands of young people drink, sing and dance on the quays. It was therefore proposed to build this small paved street, with this church, and to mark the time that changes at midnight by the sound of the bell.

Anne Seibel, a few years ago, you supervised the art direction of Sofia Coppola’s $45 million Marie Antoinette. You have re-imagined the rooms where the royal court resided and reconstructed Versailles in other heritage sites. How did you organize your specifications?

Anne Seibel: I prepared the estimate and broke down each set in relation to the script and the existing scenery, such as the Queen’s bedroom. Everything had to be encrypted (curtains, flowers, food…). It was huge, you couldn’t go wrong with the head decorator K.K. Barrett. We couldn’t shoot entirely in Versailles and with Sofia, no studio. So we reconstructed everything in several castles and made junctions to give the impression of being in Versailles. When the pen was put down with the kit, the budget was $5.5 million. They asked us to withdraw a million, so we thought we’d take out a set. In the end, nothing was cut. The queen’s chamber, reconstituted identically, cost €300,000. The film is rich because Marie-Antoinette arrives in Versailles and redoes everything.

In period films, we tend to skate. Everything here had to be glittering, new and gold-plated. We selected three kinds of gold to choose the most suitable for the light. Not green gold, but pink gold. We’ve had the room tissue made. Everything near the actors was woven by Prelle silks and the walls were covered with digitally printed fabrics. All the headboards have been embroidered by embroiderers. The trimmings were rented at 1200 € each. I often work with companions of the duty of the craftsmen of the tradition.

How did you proceed for this reconstruction in Versailles, a real treasure hunt for tourists?

Anne Seibel: These are classified châteaux, so we were very careful. Sofia had prepared a trend book, with mood photos. We did the opera at the Comedy Opera by fixing the dressing room. The impressive room of the Red King, with golden balusters, and part of the birthday party were filmed at the hotel de Soubise. When Kirsten Dunst visits Versailles, we see a slightly round room, it is also at the Hôtel de Soubise, just before she enters the apartments we shot at the Château de Millemont.

This whole part fits together very well. The fireworks scene at Versailles took place at Vaux le Vicomte, as did the battle between two children’s galleons (boats), which were rebuilt and worth the price of a Ferrari (laughs). The scene in her apartments, where she is in the middle of the cakes and which have been completely repainted, takes place at the Pontchartrain castle. The king’s dinner with Asia Argento takes place at the Dampierre castle. It was essentially assembly and furnishing but the rendering of the on-screen editing is bluffing.

What was the job at the Palace of Versailles?

Anne Seibel: We had access to the small theater, the chapel, the salon where the dinners took place, the gardens, the small trianon and the menagerie. We got the keys to the castle to access the roofs; we were able to climb inside the chapel in the roof frame, it was amazing! We can’t access it now. The shooting lasted 5-6 days, and only on Monday because the castle was open to the public the other days. I don’t know if it’s like that anymore. We’d set up the set on Sunday night and take it down on Monday night. It was quite an organization.

You also had the opportunity to work with Spielberg for Munich in the 1970s. What did you recreate in Paris?

Anne Seibel: Spielberg is the best of the best. I dreamed of working with him when I discovered E.T. as a child. The estimate was done by decorator Rick Carter, my mentor. Originally Munich was supposed to take place in France, but it was filmed in Budapest for tax reasons. Rick still managed to convince Spielberg to shoot certain scenes in Paris and entrusted me with this job for five days of shooting.

These are scenes of stunts. Given the theme of the film, everything was very controlled. A small market has been set up in the rue Mouffetard near the café Les caves de Bourgogne which is typically French and timeless, and a large market under the Bir-Hakeim bridge. Markets are complicated to set up because you need a lot of products and food to make it credible. I also built Papa’s (Michael Lonsdale’s) farm in the east of Paris, rebuilt a kitchen in the barn and a pergola in the garden.

You also took care of some Parisian sets on Le Diable s’habille en Prada

Anne Seibel : It was a combination because there was an American set designer, Jess Gonchor. I set up sets in the Petit Palais and outside the Plaza Athénée because the interior was recreated in a studio in New York. I also did a scenography work at the Palais Galliera with a whole floral interior for the fashion shows.

You also worked on Rush Hour 3, GI Joe, Beyond, Phenomena…

Anne Seibel : Yes, I was the art director for Peninsula Films, producer of Rush Hour 3, The Sopranos, The Devil Wears Prada. They entrusted me with scenes from films that were being shot in Paris. I have earned a reputation as a bilingual head decorator who follows Anglo-Saxon projects. On Rush Hour 3, it was about waterfalls at the Eiffel Tower on a dozen big sets. I got to know the Eiffel Tower by heart (laughs). I rebuilt a kiosk for an action scene, I took care of the lights and water jets for another scene where Jacky Chan falls into the fountains of the Trocadero, and another stunt at the Unesco with a car crashing into a truck.

Roissy airport was also developed, with Roman Polanski playing a commissioner. For Phénomènes, there was only one stage in Paris where an ice cream stand was built in the Tuileries. For Au-delà, the idea was to set up the office of Cécile de France’s publisher in a room in the Palais de Tokyo overlooking the Eiffel Tower.

And the Indian movie Befikre…

Anne Seibel: It was crazy and a lot of fun! We shot in the most mythical places in Paris. The film cost €8m, with 2,000 extras, 250 technicians and a €1.3m budget for the sets. We privatized the 2nd floor of the Eiffel Tower for a romantic dinner, mobilized the steps of Montmartre for four days for Bollywood dances. We shot on the rooftops of the Opera, the Louvre, in the Buttes-Chaumont park, on the stars of the Seine, at the Showcase, at the Sainte-Geneviève library, at the Saint-Louis hospital with a view of Notre-Dame. It was an incredible buzz, with six songs in the film, each of which required 30 sets.

You also explore series, such as The Sopranos for the only episode located in Paris, Cold Stones. What were the guidelines?

Anne Seibel: It was also a job for 50-60 000 €. In the Museum of Cluny, showcases with medieval jewellery have been built and the interior fitted out. For the rest, from the Royal Pereire brewery to the Grand Véfour, from the Marriott Hotel to the Palais Royal, it was a matter of redeveloping natural settings.

Same for Une Américaine à Paris, the last two episodes of the ultimate season of Sex and the City?

Anne Seibel : Yes, but it was very funny and very girlie! We did some landscaping at the Plaza Athénée and in the restaurants L’Avenue and Kong with Carole Bouquet. The old Pâtisserie Cador, opposite the Louvre, was magnificent. It’s too bad she’s missing. For this scene, we set up the cake shop. I found a screen that matched the dog sitting next to Sarah Jessica Parker. I remember, it was freezing cold as hell. We were all in down jackets while the actress froze on the Pont des Arts with her tulle skirt. I was fascinated by this girl and her professionalism; she never complained.

Anne Seibel, what can you tell us about The Eddy, the series by Damien Chazelle (La La Land) produced by Netflix?

Anne Seibel : I will recreate the universe of a jazz club in the current multicultural Paris. I did a study on the places where young people listen to this music: from iconic addresses like the Duke of Lombards and the New Morning, to lesser-known places like La Gare du 19e. The series is composed of 8 episodes and Damien directs 2 of them which take place in this most important place. Shooting starts on May 6. I found a place we like and prepared a project with mood boards and illustrations that will be presented to Damien, the writer, the American producers and French Netflix. Because everyone has their say.

Article written by Nathalie Dassa.

Cover photo credit: Anne Seibel.

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