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Designer Joseph Bennett talks Alexander McQueen, HBO’s Rome and eels in condoms

Did you always want to work in the creative field?

I’ve always loved drawing – in fact, my mother’s an artist. When I was younger I studied veterinary science for two years. It was during that time when I realised, actually, what I wanted to do and what I loved about it was drawing the diagrams with all the bones. And so I changed paths, and luckily enough, I got into Chelsea School of Art to do painting. So I studied fine art painting, which is great. I did a lot of portraiture and I just drew from life for three years.

How did you transition from drawing and painting to set design?

Painting’s quite an isolating job. It’s quite insular. You’re in a studio and you have to figure what it is you want. Funnily enough, I ended up working with a friend on music videos, short films and those kinds of projects because I like making spaces and experiences. It’s a way to transport yourself to anywhere you like. We can be in ancient Egypt, or inside your mind, or in someone else’s thoughts. I find that interesting.

What were some of your earlier, more unconventional projects?

I’ve worked with the guy that did videos for English rock band The Cure many years ago as his assistant. And he has a particular way of working. One time, we filled up a thousand condoms with water and put eels in them and shone light through them to make shadows. So there would be crazy ideas like that. That was great for someone like me – a young person who could hardly afford the money to buy a canvas and paint! To suddenly have someone who will go “here’s £100, go and buy 300 eels” was an experience I really enjoyed.

You won two Emmy awards for your set design work on Rome . What were some of the unique challenges you faced with the project?

What was interesting about that project was that I was lucky to get it. HBO had done The Sopranos, and wanted to do a show about Rome. What I wanted to do was make Rome so that you didn’t have to think about the background.

For example, if someone is shooting a series about contemporary London or New York, you typically have two people chatting in front of the camera, and the camera shots are relaxed, sometimes even hand held. We wanted to get that spirit for the set of ancient Rome. So we persuaded the producers that the best way to do that was to build a massive set.

So you don’t have to think about any post-production work or inserting a background in after – instead, you just film these people having a relationship with the space they are in. Ultimately, they gave us US$10 million to build a big set and another US$6 million to build the interior sets as well.

You’ve collaborated with Alexander McQueen on many of his earlier shows and also his posthumous Savage Beauty exhibition. How did your creative relationship with him evolve?

When you work with somebody a lot, the relationship develops. He was an incredible artist. And what was extraordinary about the way he worked was he would never be quite happy with how it was; he would try and make it better. I really understood that, coming from a painting background. You always try and build on what you have. It’s always a question of development.

The experience was always different on each show. Sometimes he would have a very clear idea of what he wanted, sometimes not. And one thing I can do quite well is draw. So I was able to visually place a rough idea in front of him on what I was thinking, and we would bounce ideas off one another very quickly.

How did he push the boundaries of what you could do?

What was stimulating about working with him was he would view space as something you could just cut like a piece of cloth. And I think that’s true to a certain extent. He was very impractical about it, he didn’t restrict himself with that kind of limitation.

Once he told me how he wanted a film screen that would twist and turn. This forced me to think how it would be possible to technically achieve. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that show in the end, even though we had worked on it. I remember doing a drawing for it and trying to figure out how we might make it work. In fact, I’ve got a lot of drawings of ideas for shows that we almost did. One day I should do a little book collection on all of them.

In 2012, you designed the royal barge for British Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee. Did you feel pressure to deliver?

Yes. But at the same time, you also have to think that it’s still the same job. That project was very complicated on many levels, not just because it was technically challenging, but because there was security and all sorts of layers, which I kind of enjoyed. In the end, we had to get the queen from A to B while looking good from many different angles. It was like a puzzle.