Mr Flibble Talks To... Mummified Penguin
As filming continues on action-sequel Mummy II, multiple Oscar-winning set decorator Peter Young settles down with his penguin pal to talk about Tim Burton, dead bodies and a lot of James Bond's left over gold...
9 February, 2001
Peter Young
Mr Flibble's right hand provided by
Andrew Ellard

Mr Flibble asked Andrew to offer Peter a tenner to do up his penguin home. Andrew stuck to the script, asking how different directors approached the design of a film?

Some aren't interested and some are. I have worked with a lot of directors - John Boorman, Nick Roeg, Donald Cammell, Tim Burton, Ken Russell. Some are very visual, and care... and in some ways [they] are more difficult. Some directors - such as Tim Burton, and indeed Ken Russell - are very, very interested, and that goes exactly the same for production designers.

Some production designers want you to be innovative and to extend their vision and they don't mind what you do to their 'canvas.' And there are some that are very, very specific, that want you to show them every single prop and every chair leg and every cup and every saucer.

In a way, it's a little tedious; I don't like it very much. But equally, Tim Burton is like that, and he trusts me - I don't find him a problem. Some people may well find him a problem because he is very strict and fussy. Tim Burton comes up to the art department and wants to touch everything, he's very tactile.

You worked on John Badham's Dracula (1979), Mr Flibble recently talked to that film's cinematographer Gil Taylor. What do you remember from that film?

John Badham had just directed Saturday Night Fever (1977). It was a lot of fun, and it looked a very good film. Peter Murton was the designer and I was the set decorator. It was a very good looking film and I'd like to see it again. I haven't even seen it on tape!

We work with all the cinematographers, but we're sort of removed once we've given the cinematographer what he requires and you've discussed how he's going to light it - if he's going to do it with candles, or if he's going to do it with lamps and he doesn't like that shade. As you get more and more experience in you craft of field, you know the sort of little foibles and preferences of certain people.

Mr Flibble voiced his disapproval of puppetry. Andrew held his beak closed asking if Peter had to make a lot of allowances for the puppet mechanics when he designed the sets for The Dark Crystal (1982)...

Yes an awful lot of allowances because everything had to be brought up on rostrums so the puppeteer people could get up underneath. It was all up on rostrums. [Jim Henson] was very appreciative. He was a hard taskmaster, and he was very appreciative of everything that you did.

What was the atmosphere like on the set of Supergirl (1984) - with funny men like Peter Cook and Peter O'Toole it must have been very unusual...

You've got all my credits haven't you! Supergirl was fun. Total fun. We did that on the back-lot at Pinewood Studios. [There] was a lot of improvising; I'd say three-quarters [of the film was] improvised.

Was it as much fun as Club Paradise (1986)?

Club Paradise was the most fun of any movie. But I usually find that the films that are the most fun are useless, useless films. The films that are unpleasant to make are the most successful and usually the better films. Club Paradise wasn't particularly good, but it was an absolute riot of fun.

We were 8 weeks, 9 weeks, shooting in swimming costumes - and the whole set was on a beach - smoking ganja all the time; the whole unit in Jamaica. It was absolutely extraordinary. It was like Club Paradise - it was parallel to what was happening in the film. I don't think that the film was particularly good or particularly funny, but it was awfully good fun.

Mr Flibble put his underpants on outside a pair of tights. Andrew took this as a cue to ask about Peter's Oscar winning decoration of Tim Burton's original Batman (1989)...

Decorating Batman was absolutely ghastly; it was torturously awful. Because Anton Furst, the designer, is a genius, and his ideas had to be interpreted; and indeed Tim Burton's. Tim Burton wanted to free reign and Warner Brothers wouldn't allow it.

Tim Burton hadn't been under the umbrella of a large studio, and was unhappy about the restrictions imposed upon him. Anton had 25 to 30 in the art department, so all the time people were complaining, complaining, complaining. He found it difficult to delegate.

It was like being at art school, in as much as there were 20 or 30 art students doing their own innovative things, but half the time they had no relationship to what was required or what Tim wanted or what Anton wanted. It couldn't be used.

Everybody says it was a marvellous film, and indeed it was and I'm really honoured and pleased to have worked on it, and it was marvellous work - Anton and Tim push you to boundaries that you don't think that you can make. Which in a way is very stimulating, and indeed it won me my first Oscar. But, as I said to you, the experience was not an easy [or] a pleasant one.

Mr Flibble has yet to win an Oscar, but he said he's got his speech written. Were you expecting to win?

I didn't expect it on Batman at all. On Sleepy Hollow I almost expected it, but personal situations prevented me from going, so I couldn't go anyway. So Rick Heinrichs, the designer, went and picked it up for me, and subsequently they sent it to me through the post. It arrived in a box.

Like Batman, Judge Dredd (1995) also had that kind of massive, sprawling, retro-fit city. Are you a glutton for punishment?

I don't know why I'm always given those sort of sets. I mean, they're always superheroes. Like Dracula, The Saint (1997), Superman One, Two, Three (1978, '80, '83), and Judge Dredd. All those superheroes - I don't know why, it's just gone in that direction. They're nice to do, those big street sets, I like them. I don't know why; I go sort of mad. It's like creating a fantasy world. I'd rather do big street sets than interiors [of] spaceships. I don't think I'm very good at interiors [of] spaceships, although I've done them.

Mr Flibble said he was a bit of a 007 fan. Do you have a favourite design moment from Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)?

The helicopter sequence, and all of that rooftop chase, was all done at Leavsedon. All on the backlot, all built. I think it was a marvellous piece of film-making for everybody concerned, because I defy anybody to tell you where Thailand finished and Leavsedon took off. You couldn't see the join at all.

Mr Flibble heard there were a lot of rewrites on that film...

There are always a lot of rewrites. Sleepy Hollow never stopped. In the last ten years they all seem to be rewrites, rewrites, rewrites. But there were a lot, yes. [On Tomorrow Never Dies] one moment the stealth ship was full of gold bars, and then it all changed. The British were supposed to be taking gold bullion out of Hong Kong for the year 2000, and the baddie was supposed to steal it. We've got all those gold bars ordered and made. I've still got some in my garage!

You've just done another film with that director, Roger Spottiswoode - The Devil's Pale Moonlit Kiss (2000)...

It's a romance, really; but it's sort of unrequited. Someone dying of cancer... It's a bit depressing, actually. I think it's a bit of a downer.

Do you find the subject matter affects you?

It affects me. Recently I've had a lot of death in the family - my mother died and my best friend died - and Mummy II is all about death. I mean it's quite camp and it's quite kitsch, but it is based in death. [Working on] Mummy II is nothing but tombs and mummys and skeletons and skulls and bones.

You think it doesn't affect you, but after you've been doing it for a few months and you wonder why you're a bit exhausted or down or whatever, in a way it's like externalising all the grief and other things that have happened to one personally. It does have an effect on you, yes.

Finally, Mr Flibble is rather confused. At what point does a piece of set-decoration become a prop?

Usually if it's related to the actor or the action it's a 'prop.' If the film is dismantled - like the pyramids and the mummy cases in Mummy II - at that moment it's set dressing. Say you've got a mummy chamber in the British museum, and you've got a Sarcophagus inside with a mummy. At the moment it's set dressing - it's a bit of old tat! It has no value at all to the public. Unless Rachel Weiss or Elizabeth Taylor has sat on it or touched it - then it has more value, more worth. It's then a famous prop. 'As used by Johnny Depp' or 'Marlon Brando.'

Mr Flibble would like it to be known that he will be auctioning a collection of his old belongings shortly.

Mr Flibble enjoyed talking to Peter Young, and now that it's over... Mr Flibble is very cross.