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‘I wanted Giacometti’s studio to have the feel of a prison’

Final Portrait, a new film from Stanley Tucci, chronicles Alberto Giacometti's struggle to complete his landmark portrait of James Lord. Here, the movie’s production designer talks to Lucy Davies about recreating the artist’s ‘mythical’ Paris studio

In the winter of 1926, Alberto Giacometti moved into new studio premises on the rue Hippolyte Maindron, in Montparnasse. He was 25 at the time, and had spent the previous three years moving frequently between cheap hotels and sub-let workshops, yet to establish his reputation. The new home-cum-studio had been acquired on a similar whim. ‘I planned on moving as soon as I could,’ he told a friend at the time. ‘It was too small, just a hole.’

Instead, Giacometti stayed for the next 40 years, colonising the adjoining buildings and cocooning himself inside. When he died, in 1966, it was left scarred by his creative scrimmage, doused in globs of paint and clay, and crammed with bits of wire, scraps of hessian, brushes, rags and oil, his toothbrush, his threadbare clothes, stools, a divan, an old iron bed, and — if his biographer James Lord is to be believed — thousands of dollars in banknotes.

Lord, an American art critic, met Giacometti in a café local to the studio, in 1952. The pair hit it off immediately and, in 1964, the artist asked if he could sketch his friend’s portrait. It would take, said Giacometti, ‘an afternoon at most’.

Geoffrey Rush plays the increasingly tortured Alberto Giacometti, wrestling with his creative demons and his portrait of James Lord. Courtesy Vertigo Films

Geoffrey Rush plays the increasingly tortured Alberto Giacometti, wrestling with his creative demons and his portrait of James Lord. Courtesy Vertigo Films

In fact, the intense sessions wore on for the best part of three weeks, as Giacometti fussed and raged, scraped and repainted, repeatedly reworking Lord’s features on the canvas. The sittings — 18 of them in total — ended only after an exasperated Lord imposed a final deadline by leaving the country.

The story of the making of this portrait, which Giacometti gave to Lord as a gift, and which Christie’s sold in 2015 for more than $20 million, is now the subject of a film directed by Stanley Tucci, adapted from Lord’s 1965 book, A Giacometti Portrait.

Final Portrait, in which Geoffrey Rush plays the haggard, plaster-dusted Giacometti and Armie Hammer a suave, preppy Lord, was shot over four weeks at Twickenham studios and on location around London, where parts of Bermondsey and Greenwich (with a little help from special effects to recreate the river Seine) stood in for Paris.

Key to the film was the recreation of Giacometti’s studio, which, over the years, came to assume an almost mythical status. It appears in accounts by his writer friends — Samuel Beckett, for instance, and Simone de Beauvoir, who said it was ‘submerged in plaster… cold, with neither furniture nor food — he takes no notice, he works.’

The team worked closely with the Giacometti Foundation, including visiting its vault in Saint-Denis where the contents of his studio are packed away in labelled crates. Courtesy Vertigo Films

The team worked closely with the Giacometti Foundation, including visiting its vault in Saint-Denis where the contents of his studio are packed away in labelled crates. Courtesy Vertigo Films

It was captured in hundreds of photographs, too — Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Queen were just some of the magazines to have commissioned the artist’s portrait, and well-known photographers such as Brassai and Robert Doisneau chose to portray Giacometti’s craggy, gaunt form, with its bush of salt and pepper hair, in among his tools and paintings.

All of which meant that, when production designer James Merifield began work on set, he had a wealth of material to guide him. Merifield knew immediately that he wanted to reproduce the studio entirely, rather than relying on a real artist’s studio as a location. Partly this was because it allowed the team to install a lighting rig and shoot at any time of day, but ultimately, Merifield says, he wanted to create, ‘a space that Rush could feel seamlessly at one with’.

‘It was very important to me that when he arrived on set he felt immediately immersed in that world,’ Merifield continues. ‘I am there to support that; my set is there to support that.’ He went as far as reconstructing Giacometti’s pissoir out the back, which the artist had thrown a wooden plank over to stand on when he washed. You don’t actually see it in the film, ‘but I did it so that when you walk in, you think, “Shit, is this how he showered? How gruesome is this!” ’

Video: Final Portrait - Official Trailer

Merifield made subtle alterations to the studio layout, too, moving the bedroom so that it was staged opposite the studio and installing a large window between the two, which allowed for ‘visual interaction between Giacometti’s wife and his lover; all those lovely reflections in the glass’.

He also enlarged the size of the room, to allow the camera to move around among the sheer number of props. At 23 metres square, the real studio was notoriously cramped, although tall. ‘If we’d stuck to those dimensions we would have had to move every one of the hundreds of bottles and brushes and sculptures every time we wanted to shoot from a different angle,’ says the production designer.

‘It was very humbling to see the easel he worked at. At the Giacometti Foundation I leant over to pick up a stool — I probably wasn't supposed to — and the bloody leg fell off!’

The team worked closely with the Giacometti Foundation, including visiting its vault in Saint-Denis where, alongside those of the artist’s works not currently on loan, reside the contents of his studio, packed away in labelled crates. ‘It was very humbling to see the easel he worked at,’ says Merifield. ‘I leant over to pick up a stool — I probably wasn’t supposed to get it out at all — and the bloody leg fell off!’

As well as scrawling and scribbling all over the walls of his studio — and even those walls have been preserved — Giacometti drew all over his wardrobe. ‘Without seeing it in the flesh I would not have known that he’d drawn a head on one of the panels. I was able to use that in the film — you see it in the scene where the pimps break in and ransacks the place, pulling the wardrobe over.’

‘I was keen to get across the wetness on the floor,’ explains production designer James Merifield, ‘the idea of plaster building up on the stools and on his clothes, the cigarette ash’. Courtesy Vertigo Films

‘I was keen to get across the wetness on the floor,’ explains production designer James Merifield, ‘the idea of plaster building up on the stools and on his clothes, the cigarette ash’. Courtesy Vertigo Films

Alongside the portrait of Lord, many of Giacometti’s other works feature in the film, clustered on every surface, in varying stages of completion. Part of the message of Final Portrait  is that Giacometti felt unable to finish many of his pieces. His friend Jean-Paul Sartre described Giacometti’s Sisyphean ‘search for the Absolute’, and the artist’s revisions are often painfully evident.

In the film we see him battling grievously with the conviction that he will never be able to paint Lord quite as he sees him. Over the years, such angst reduced him to what one critic described as ‘an armature of a man, a bonhomme of gnarled steel and chicken wire... as though he'd been boiled down to his essence’.

Working on the film taught Merifield that, ‘for Giacometti, creating was incredibly painful. He never found perfection; it was always a work in progress… I didn’t want the studio to feel welcoming, I didn’t want it to feel like somewhere you think, “How creative, I can’t wait to work in here.” I was keen to get across the wetness on the floor; the idea of plaster building up on the stools and on his clothes, the cigarette ash.

‘Giacometti saw the whole process as a kind of purgatory; like a hair shirt. I wanted it to have the feel of a prison — that’s why tonally it’s all ochres, sepia — they added a grey filter afterwards, which works well, I think, because so many of his paintings are monochrome.’

Rather than an exact representation of the works that would have been in the studio during that specific three-week period in 1964, Merifield went for ‘something more general. There were pieces that stood out for Stanley [Tucci] and I when we visited the vault, such as the big head that acts almost as a partition between Lord and Giacometti, and that Giacometti goes to and touches. It was a wonderful thing to have looming so large in that small space.

‘We also wanted one of the walking men that Giacometti is famous for… I had a team of sculptors recreating them at Twickenham. And the Foundation lent us three fakes that they had secured from the black market — but in the end, they were sort of immersed and lost in the overall bumpf.’

The Foundation did set a condition, though, that all of the sculptures Merifield had had made would be skipped when the film wrapped. ‘I gave Stanley a secret little something as a parting gift,’ he admits, ‘but everything else was destroyed the day we stopped shooting. I think they were nervous we would have a little session on eBay ourselves.’