“It was important to me that it (Golda Meir’s house) feel intimate, that the character could move freely through the spaces. I wanted it to feel warm, like the house of a mother and a woman of the world.” Arad Sawat.
In conversation with Golda production designer, Arad Sawat.
From Our Boys, and Portman’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, to Sabri Maranan, Beirut, Foxtrot or Norman – Arad Sawat’s projects are engaging, visually distinctive and artistically singular. His latest, Guy Nattiv’s Golda is no exception. Starring Oscar winner Helen Mirren, it charts the highly tense drama of the Yom Kippur War, as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir battles against the odds to save Israel from utter destruction. The film brings to the fore Meir’s legendary dedication to the Jewish people, her uncompromising leadership and compassion. Here Arad Sawat reflects on collaborating with Oscar winner Nattiv, his designs helping convey the leader’s true character, and highly nuanced art of production design.
HG You have collaborated with major talents including Oscar/BAFTA contenders and winners, what would you define as your unique skill?
AS I have done a lot and feel I have much more left to do. I am happy to have had the opportunity to collaborate with talented artists whom I admire greatly. I suppose I have a skill for imagining places and events and then constructing them in a physical fashion, down to the smallest details, with form and cinematic style that helps the film unfold.
If I had to put my finger on a crucial component of my work, it would be authenticity. It is important for me that the audience experience the world of the film in a real way, as true to the story as possible.
I do my art as a phantom; I am there all the time, around the clock, even if I am not seen, creating entire worlds with living, breathing characters and stories in every frame. If I have done my job well, and my production design feels authentic, I get to be invisible. I am lucky, because I build entire streets with a history, rules and life that the audience gazes upon directly, with excitement, never asking if they really do exist. Blink twice and they’re gone; at the end, the light always comes back on. That’s the magic of it.
HG The film’s overall tone is grey and subdued
AS Yes, the colour palette is nicotine, grey, green, olive and brown. These shades are brought out by textures of wood, burlap and concrete. In fact, it is a restrained film, and the overall look was designed and constructed to support her character.
I suppose the most complicated challenge was shooting London for Israel. It necessitated a great deal of work on a bible of concept art, an overview of exactly how the film should look and feel, featuring extensive research, planning, and construction of each set and each development down to the smallest detail, while cooperating with crew members who have never been to Israel and were not all familiar with the history and the visual components of the reality I wished to create.
Luckily, my talented art department, led by set director Celia De La Hey and Supervising Art Director Andrew Munro, came through beautifully, and it was a fascinating experience, collaborating with them and their teams.
In terms of the architecture and design, Guy and I spoke at length about how the art should go beyond mere historical documentation. We were constantly searching for visual and cinematic ways of building the escalation in Golda’s world and bringing it to the screen.
I had planned a system of structures that narrowed, structures with extreme perspectives, slanted or low ceilings that would appear to be closing in on Golda as she walked through them and they folded behind her. The office set, the hospital set, the government cabinet rooms, Golda’s house and “The Pit” are all sets that were planned out with hallways and boxy spaces, coming together to form a maze Golda moves through, the maze of the war.
She leaves her house, walks through the smokey government hallways and offices, and heads downstairs into the war, The Pit (the operations bunker). I wanted it to feel as if the air is let out of the film as the character makes her way down these hallways. Each set was designed with period accuracy on the one hand, and as a narrative tool on the other hand, with flexibility and artistic intent.
Golda’s House: I built and designed the house as a simple, ascetic space with a low ceiling. Golda’s house is the color of nicotine, comprised of a living room, kitchen, bedroom, culture room, bathroom, and hallways. It was important to me that it feel intimate, that the character could move freely through the spaces. I wanted it to feel warm, like the house of a mother and a woman of the world. I wanted to bring the audience as close as it could get; the house is rich with details, and all of it is close to the character and the camera.
The artworks on display were all custom-made according to references, and each detail was carefully chosen. This is a very restrained process. I felt it was important that Helen/Golda and Guy walk into Golda’s house and not a set. To see Golda walk into her home was the moment that moved me more than any other in the film.
The Prime Minister’s Office and Government Complex: The Government Complex offices are dignified yet reserved and functional; this is a place without any personal aspects, where the offices stay the same even as the prime ministers change, they simply add a picture on the wall. Here, too, the spaces are all shaded the color of nicotine; this is a place full of heavy smokers. The set is comprised of a staircase, hallway, conference room, secretarial pool, staff room, and the prime minister’s office. Each room was built down to the smallest details.
The Pit: An underground bunker. Accessed through a deep staircase into the earth and a long hallway with a slanted ceiling, leading to a war room divided into subspaces by glass walls (map room, wiretap room, HUMINT, etc.). In the middle of the set, a U-shaped conference table faces screens showing strips of film from the battlefields. This space features a brutal look and atmosphere, made of concrete pillars with exposed piping. It was important to create a bunker that is safe—while also trapping Golda and the generals in with the horrors of war. The Pit is also a prism for presenting and analyzing materials from the battlefield; for Guy it offered a wonderful opportunity to place Golda directly in front of the visuals and sounds of the battles, and allow the audience to experience the war through her reaction to the sights and sounds. It is fascinating.
The equipment, the televisions, the screened footage, they were all functional on the set, which necessitated editing and producing content for the screens. This isn’t something to be taken for granted, and I’m glad we did it that way, as it gave the set a living and believable feeling. This is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg, there are many additional spaces that were equally important, such as the Agranat Committee room, the television studio where Moshe Dayan’s iconic interview was held, the Ben Gurion airport, the hospital where Golda received her treatments, and so on, all coming together to make the world of the film Golda.
HG Did you know Guy Nattiv before this collaboration? What was the collaboration/life on set like?
AS We did not know each other before this film, but I was familiar with Guy’s work and was eager to collaborate with him. He came to me, and I am grateful for the special bond between director and designer, which to my delight feels so natural. On set, we were a creative force, it was prominent, the fact that we shared the same vision for the film.
Day by day on set, I tried to be present for every decision and assist Guy, the director of photography and the producers, to make sure they arrived for the next shooting day with everything prepared and everyone knowing what was to come. It was a rather large operation, and everyone had their hands full. I found myself everywhere on the film. It’s a wonderful orchestra.
HG What was your first reaction to working on a film about such an iconic figure?
AS From my perspective, as an Israeli Mizrahi artist, Golda, the first female Prime Minster of Israel, was an obtuse and distant leader to me. Her famous statement, “They aren’t nice” (in reference to Israel’s Black Panthers, a Mizrahi protest movement), still echoes in my memory. From this starting point, I found in the film Golda a wonderful opportunity to get closer to an iconic figure and see her as a person in distress, as a leader in conflict, and to walk with her through the grid of hallways and offices, with the smoke and war closing in, stifling her.
The first image that came to me was Golda in her white orthopedic shoes, surrounded by military-issue leather boots stained with the mud of war. This gave way to the concept of the set for “The Pit” (Israel’s underground military operations room), which is the battlefield in the film.
HG To those unclear about the role of a production designer, would you share a few words on what the role entails and how your vision ‘fuses’ with that of the director? Do you follow a creative brief set by the director?
AS The production designer is responsible for the look of the film. This involves designing and constructing an idea for a place from a unique perspective, while using sets, styling, visual effects and other tools. The designer creates a visual concept for an entire world, plans and builds out the film’s physical reality, within which the director breathes life into the story. It is not about documenting an existing reality but rather constructing a look and style that supports the narrative. All this comes from a process where the director and I meet, a creative and intense process where we exchange ideas assisted by concept art, references, and blueprints. I was also engaged in fruitful dialogue with the director of photography on Golda, Jasper Wolf, primarily regarding perspective, shape and light, but also about film and life in general.
Overall, I try to incorporate, as much as possible, the thoughts that come up in my meetings with the director and the director of photography, and combine them into the design and the world of the film. Every thought that can add something positive is welcome, and my artistic dialogue with them continues throughout the shoot and often after, all in order to bring the director’s vision to the screen.