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Designers David Gropman and Renee Ehrlich Kalfus Dip Into the World of Chocolat

By John Calhoun
Live Design
Mar 1, 2001

The camera swoops down on a French village, charmingly set atop a hill, as snow softly falls. The snow may be digitally applied, as is the river that flows across the bottom of the frame. But otherwise, according to Chocolat production designer David Gropman, the town of Flavigny-sur-Ozcrain appears just as he found it. The look and setting of the 10th-century Burgundy hamlet—not to mention the coincidence that Anis de Flavigny candy is manufactured there—so perfectly suit the storybook tone of Lasse Hallström's movie that it's somewhat surprising to hear Gropman say, “I was actually trying not to find the most beautiful village in France. I was looking for a medieval village that was not sugar-sweet. There are places that are irresistible—but we did resist.”

The designer apparently felt that with the substance of the title in plentiful supply, there was already enough sugary sweetness on screen. Also, the conception called for Lansquenet, as the village is known in Chocolat, to be a place where the chocolaterie opened by voluptuous newcomer Vianne (Juliette Binoche) would be met by disapproval and suspicion. “The architecture and style of the village wanted to exemplify the ethic of the people of the village,” says the designer. “Flavigny had a beautiful starkness and simplicity. It also had an unbelievably brilliant relationship between the three buildings that had to interact, which were the church, the town hall, and the chocolaterie itself. And because it was a small, intimate square, it was very easy for the camera to take in the relationship of the three buildings.”

Of course, changes had to be made to the square. “The thing it didn't have was any businesses,” says Gropman, who was nominated for an Oscar last year for his work on another Hallström movie, The Cider House Rules. “It seemed critical to the story that if we were going to create the chocolaterie in the square, other businesses needed to exist around it. So we changed facades and added signs to give the various residential properties commercial identities. We created facades for a cafe, a beauty salon, a post office, a pharmacy, and so on.”

There was also the matter of period setting. The movie of Chocolat, which is based on a popular Joanne Harris novel, is set in 1959, though in a village like Flavigny—or Lansquenet—time does seem to slow to a crawl. “It's interesting, because the book is actually set in the present,” says the designer. “But there's almost no sense of it: just a few references. It wasn't until I was about halfway through the book and Joanne Harris writes that one character has a VCR in his apartment, that I thought, ‘What?!’ I think Lasse felt that if it was set in the year 2000, it would be harder to appreciate the fable quality of the story. By setting it back to 1959, it gives the audience just enough distance. And as a designer, you realize almost immediately from the research that the way people lived in those little villages in 1959 is the way they lived at the turn of the century. I tried not to play very much into the contemporary culture; I thought it was better not to be too specific, to give it a timeless feel.”

Much of the period signification was left to costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus. “Very early on, we found these two fabulous photographers, Robert Doisneau and Lilly Ronas, who took endless pictures through the provinces of France exactly during that time,” says Kalfus, who like Gropman, is a frequent Hallström collaborator. “The photographs capture marketplaces and village life, so you could really see the characters—we saw bakers, hairdressers, whatever our townspeople consisted of.” For Armande, the Judi Dench character who rents Vianne the space that becomes the chocolaterie, Kalfus saw a photo of “a strong French elderly woman” that seemed to nail her look.

Similarly, for Armande's conservative but well-dressed daughter Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss), “I remember a picture of a woman in a flea market, and I said, ‘Oh my God, that's her,’” says the costume designer. “Because she was kind of prim, but the skirts were flared. Most of the townspeople still looked postwar, but by 1959, the 50s had struck a certain person; certain women looked of the period. Whereas the older people and the kids were sort of timeless in those towns. Mostly anybody over the age of 50 was in mourning, it seemed.” Of course, when Vianne and her daughter arrive on the scene clad in matching red hooded capes, it stirs things up. “Vianne would have come into this town having been to Paris and everywhere,” Kalfus says. “She brings the sassy, sensual elements of the 50s, the stuff of Brigitte Bardot or Claudia Cardinale. She really rings of the times—corseted and cinched, very curvaceous, clip-clopping around in high heels, making everybody mad.”

And making things worse by opening up a vividly painted chocolaterie during Lent. This interior, constructed on a stage at Shepperton Studios in England, is the heart of the film. “The back story is that the shop was a patisserie, run by Armande's husband, and which has been closed and derelict since his death,” explains Gropman. “So the original design was based on research of French patisseries. As far as the architecture of the space, it's somewhat drawn from the interior of the house we used on location in Flavigny.” Although only the window and doorway of the building were shot on location, “I took rough dimensions of the interior, and tried to make that work. The space did in fact have the sort of strange, diagonally placed walls that we ultimately used onstage. The only major change was to add the stairway to the second-floor apartment.”

Then, Gropman continues, “The transformation [into the chocolaterie] was conceived as what would have been possible for one woman to accomplish in a fairly short amount of time. Paint, obviously, was the easiest way to transform a simple commercial space into something more exotic, and somewhat shocking.” Turquoise-colored paint, to be exact—a common hue in South American culture, where Vianne and her chocolate recipes are rooted. “It was very funny, because one of David's battle cries is, never do blue,” says Kalfus. “And then he comes up with that color. But I knew the color palette that I was doing with the characters in there was going to be fine—all the rusts and corals and reds would be beautiful.” Gropman also gives cinematographer Roger Pratt a lot of credit for being able to work with that turquoise, and “still make everyone's faces glow with life and color.”

In addition to the painted walls and ceiling, Vianne creates some artwork for the walls, making use of sun designs and other Mayan-influenced images. But the designer kept set dressing somewhat to a minimum. “We tried to not let her decoration of the space look too complete, because I wanted to convey the idea that she had limited resources and limited time,” he says. “I wanted the space to feel somewhat spare and underdeveloped.”

What completes it, of course, is the most important piece of set decoration—the chocolate. Gropman particularly enjoyed his research into this aspect of the film. “I began by visiting a lot of chocolateries in Paris, both on people's recommendations and also just by wandering around the city,” he says. “There is one wonderful chocolaterie named Cacao, and they specifically sell chocolates made from molds of Mayan ruins and masks and figures. So we availed ourselves of their artistry. There are also many wonderful books about chocolate.”

The movie's chocolate expert was Walter Bienz, a Swiss chocolatier who created most of the goodies that are actually eaten in the film. “Whenever a character came into hand-to-hand or hand-to-mouth contact with chocolate, it was real,” says Gropman. “Other than that, it was all artificial; we had enormous amounts of Plaster of Paris chocolate on the set.” These pieces were made by the property crew from the same molds used for the edible chocolates. “The molds were either period molds that we found, and that were made out of tin, or more contemporary molds, which are made out of plastic,” says the designer, who along with the rest of the art department became something of an expert on chocolate-making techniques. “Chocolate can either be poured into molds if you're making specific shapes, or it can be made into bark, a thick layer of chocolate, or it can be squeezed through cloth tubes to make nipples of Venus, for example. The prop department at Shepperton was like a small chocolate factory for many weeks, with quite an impressive production line.”

The chocolaterie interior was only part of the Shepperton stage set. Says Gropman, “We also recreated, full size, the entire town square outside the window, because there were so many key scenes that involved people coming and going to the chocolaterie. We wanted to have more than just a simple backing.” The Flavigny square is about 60' × 80', making it “quite intimate for a town square, but possible to do on one of the larger stages at Shepperton. It also gave the cinematographer the opportunity to light both day and night scenes much more effectively.” Once it was built (from casts of the original building fronts), the town square set ended up being used not just as a backing, but for occasional outdoor scenes. “To show you how much we had to take advantage of the stage set,” says the designer, “neither Judi Dench nor Johnny Depp ever worked in France.”

Depp plays Irish traveler Roux, who arrives with fellow itinerants in Lansquenet via riverboat, scandalizing the town and awakening Vianne's non-culinary desires. “The boats were built entirely from scratch, from stem to stern,” says Gropman. “We wanted them to look like French peniches, or flat-bottom boats, as opposed to English barges.”

Like Vianne, Roux provides a contrast to the prevailing mode of dress and behavior in Lansquenet. “I thought of him as her counterpart, her people,” says Kalfus, whose other guiding idea for Depp's ponytailed character is summed up as “pre-hippie.” Whereas leading male citizens of the town, like Alfred Molina's Comte de Reynaud, are dressed in uniform, conservative black, Roux is in earth tones and “50s stripes,” the costume designer says. “The elements of his wardrobe were made up of pieces of things that had existed since the 40s, while the color brought him into the 50s. I just felt he should look sensual and sexy, which is not very hard to do.”

To go along with his appearance, the stern, pious Comte is put in what Gropman calls “ecclesiastical” surroundings. These include his dark-toned town hall study, which is far more characteristic of Lansquenet interiors than Vianne's chocolaterie, and his chateau, which is of a piece with the study. The chateau exterior was shot near Flavigny, while the interior was created at an English manor house; the study was a stage set. The production moved around a lot and moved quickly—from a May 2000 start date to a late summer wrap to a December release date through Miramax Films.

Kalfus and Gropman first worked with Hallström on Once Around, the Swedish-born director's 1991 American debut. The costume designer, whose other credits include Dead Man Walking and Snow Falling on Cedars, also worked on Hallström's 1993 movie What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and Gropman, who also designed Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Nobody's Fool, and A Civil Action, rejoined the production team for The Cider House Rules. Hallström, Gropman, and Kalfus will next take on The Shipping News, based on the award-winning 1994 novel by E. Annie Proulx. That film will be shot in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland starting this March—not exactly France in May.

Indeed, working on Chocolat seems to have been something of a lark. Kalfus, for example, loved shopping for vintage fabric in London and particularly Paris. “We found an entire basement full of period shoes in Paris, and we did a tremendous amount of flea marketing on weekends,” the costume designer recalls. “All of the women were in earrings and scarves that were appropriate for the time, and all of that was shopped.” As much as possible, the principals' clothes were made from vintage fabrics. Kalfus remembers with particular fondness a delicately flowered party dress and hat worn by Judi Dench, whose ailing character throws a blowout bash for her 70th birthday. “That was made from this incredible 30s chiffon bought by a friend of mine in a Sotheby's auction,” she says. “I'm getting very nostalgic talking about it.”

Gropman reserves his nostalgia for—big surprise—the chocolate. He has also refined his tastes in the candy. “I was never one to sit down with a box of chocolates, but I had to get into training for the film,” says the designer. “I have to say, now I can eat nothing but dark chocolate. It tends to be more pure cocoa than milk chocolate, and have less sugar in it. It just tastes so delicious. Every time I see the film, afterwards I have to have a piece of dark chocolate.”

-- donated by Anna

-- photos added by Zone editors