How ‘Saltburn' production designer “went to town” on the film's titular manor

Production designer Suzie Davies reveals how the titular manor in ‘Saltburn’ provided a creative playground for her team and just how that bathtub was created.  

By Ellie Calnan 19 Jan 2024

How ‘Saltburn' production designer “went to town” on the film's titular manor
Saltburn; Cr: Amazon MGM Studios

Among the minotaur sculptures, Caravaggio-inspired paintings and crystal chandeliers that filled the set of Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn was something that became known as ‘Emerald’s shit table’ filled with, for want of a better word, knickknacks. “Whenever the composition of the shot was too beautiful, too much like a glorious British historical film,” production designer Suzie Davies explains, “we'd have to throw in some bright coloured sweets or an inflatable, a silly umbrella or something like that. And that was that balance. Beauty and ugliness.”

When word first got out in early 2022 that Fennell was prepping her Promising Young Woman follow-up with producers MGM/Amazon Studios, MRC and LuckyChap Entertainment, Davies begged her agent to “just get [her] in the room”. The Oscar-and Bafta-nominated production designer behind Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner was surprised to learn just how much thought Fennell had already given to the film’s aesthetics.

“When I'm designing and trying to find the visual style I try and go backwards a bit into the story,” Davies explains. “And [Fennell] had done that over and over again. She knew exactly what colour Felix's four poster bed would be, for example. This story had been in her head for seven years.”

Davies brought on regular collaborators in art director Caroline Barclay and set decorator Charlotte Dirickx with costume designer Sophie Canale rounding out the team. References for the film spanned from Downton Abbey to Korean horror films and from Caravaggio to Annie Leibovitz. “We put all those images in a big bowl, mixed it up and squeezed it and we got Saltburn at the end,” Davies says.

A creative playground

With five months to prep, Davies began her search for the titular manor where Barry Keoghan’s Oliver would spend the summer with the exorbitantly wealthy Catton family. The property (intended to remain anonymous but has since been revealed as Northamptonshire’s Drayton House) had come about after a trawl through the usual stately homes used for filming had come up empty.

“We wanted somewhere really fresh,” the production designer says. Feelers were then put out, as Davies puts it, “a bit like Felix would perhaps put them out - someone would call someone who would call someone” and Saltburn was found.

The house provided a rare playground for a production designer in that Davies and her team were given the freedom to paint the walls, rip up carpets and remodel entire rooms. “I've never been had so much free rein on a property of that scale, because it's usually National Trust or English Heritage where you obviously have to be very mindful,” Davies explains. “The family allowed me to go really go to town on [the property].”

A perfect example of this is Felix and Oliver’s shared bathroom where one of the film’s most talked about scenes occurs. Originally a bedroom, Davies and her team ripped out the furnishings and replaced the carpet with tiles while the real bathroom next door was boarded up and turned into a corridor.

Then of course there is the bathtub which had to fit a 6ft5 Elordi in it. “And I had to consider the logistics of getting a cast iron bath into that room with a load of water in,” Davies says, explaining that the house wouldn’t cope with the weight load.

Instead, a little movie magic was added to two fibreglass bathtubs with one cut in half to accommodate Keoghan’s scene. 

Outside of Saltburn

The Saltburn manor may be the star attraction, but it is Oliver’s family home which provides the pivotal plot twist in revealing the protagonist’s true humble beginnings.

Filmed at a real house in Watford, Davies used the backstory of Oliver’s mum being a National Trust member as a point of reference for the interior. “She’s got these very ornate curtains for such a house because she’s been inspired by all the National Trust properties she’s visited,” Davies explains. “She’s probably got a coffee book table of Saltburn.”

For the film’s earlier scenes at Oxford, exteriors were shot on location while the interiors were built in various disused houses and old business headquarters around northwest London. Felix’s accommodation, for example, was filmed at a language school in Watford.

“We wanted to feel that Felix had lucked out with getting one of the best rooms in the college where he overlooks that beautiful courtyard of flowers and it's quiet,” Davies explains. “Whereas Oliver, even at that stage, gets the worst room on campus.”

Small legions of audiences have taken umbrage with minor inaccuracies to the film’s time period, set across 2006 and the summer of 2007, such as the family watching Superbad when it would not have been theatrically released until September of that year.

“I’m not doing a documentary,” is Davies’ response. “I'm much more interested in the characterisation of people. Some designers and some producers will hate me for saying that, but I just think it’s a vibe and an essence that I'm after not a specific time.”

Latest news & features

Featured profiles

Promote your services with KFTV

Choose from three profile types - Basic, Silver and Gold

Create Profile

We offer a range of display advertising opportunities.

Learn More