Emmy-Winning Production Designer Gemma Jackson on Bringing Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ to Life

     May 25, 2019

aladdin-gemma-jackson-interviewIn this live-action adaptation of the Disney animated classic Aladdin from director Guy Ritchie, a lovable street rat (Mena Massoud) who has made the streets of Agrabah his home would gladly leave his life of thievery behind, while Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) longs to experience life outside of the palace and among the people. When the two cross paths and learn that they each long to break free from what is expected of them, they find themselves caught up in an evil scheme that leads them directly to a magic oil lamp and the larger than life Genie (Will Smith) inside of it, who has the power to grant wishes and the hope that those wishes will be used wisely.

At the film’s Los Angeles press junket, Collider got the opportunity to chat 1-on-1 with production designer Gemma Jackson (who won an Emmy Award for her production design work on the HBO series Game of Thrones), who talked about the opportunity to bring the vibrant and multi-cultural city of Agrabah to life, the aspects of her design that we might not notice just from watching the film, her reaction to seeing everything working together, her collaborative relationship with filmmaker Guy Ritchie, how she ended up on this career path, and her experience as the production designer on the first three seasons of Game of Thrones.

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Image via Disney

Collider: It seems like, if you’re a production designer, this is the kind of movie that would be a dream to work on.

GEMMA JACKSON: Totally!

How exciting is it to get to create and design an entire city, like you got to do with Agrabah?

JACKSON: It was an absolute ball. I had the best time, ever, doing this film. I loved it. Creating a city is not something that you do, every day, but I think it came together quite well, and I had a fantastic team. We worked really, really hard to get it done and built. We were very lucky, we were doing it in Britain and the weather was fabulous. There were lots of half-naked workmen painting and plumbing. It was a hoot. It was great. It was really, really nice. We had quite a lot of soundstages full of all of the palace stuff. And then, we built downtown Agrabah, all on the back lot. It was a very, very enjoyable job.

It seems like the saddest part of it all is knowing that it has to be torn down and taken away.

JACKSON: Yes, I know, but I also quite like that about it. It’s like, “Right, off to the next.” I quite like that element of filmmaking.

I would imagine that there are so many things that we can’t see, just from watching the film. If we had the chance to walk around this city, what are the things that we should know about?

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Image via Disney

JACKSON: I just think that you would have seen an awful lot more. That market was quite a large set. I work a lot with greens, on any set of any film that I do. I always bring greens people in. That’s the way that I do stuff, and I’ve got a fantastic team. All of the palm trees had to come in and, of course, the minute you start putting them in, it all comes to life. We actually had a beautiful olive tree in one corner of the market, that was really a thousand years old. You probably didn’t really notice it, but I know it’s there. And when they jump across the tanneries, or the dyeing place, that was quite gorgeous. You didn’t really see a huge amount of that. There was a beautiful archway that was a complete lift from an archway in Marrakesh. It was all bits and pieces put together. I think what you get, as an audience, is a lovely mixture of everything. There were so many requirements of all the different action sequences, and they just ran from one to another, shooting it all.

In order to do something on this scale, the production design and the art design need to fit together with the costumes. What’s it like for you to see all of it together, with the people living and moving around in it?

JACKSON: It’s fabulous. As a production designer, I’ve got this fantastic team. We built great big models of the town and the palace. So, gradually seeing it coming together, you’re doing paint samples to see how everything is going to work together. It actually works rather well. The paintings in the bedroom of the palace have Persian details. I love all that stuff. This was my world, and it was an opportunity to bring so many elements to it. It was pretty lovely to build a backlot like this. There were streets, corridors, and alleys. It was quite complex. There were several different courtyards which were painted. Overall, there was a lot there. There’s a little schoolroom, in the middle of all that, and so many things that were tucked around corners. And of course, there are some bits that I felt weren’t really seen. We did some additional stuff, the following year, so I tried to put things back. It all seamlessly goes together. One of the sets we don’t see so much of is Jafar’s study, which was pretty gorgeous. That was one thing, for various reasons, we don’t see so much of. But you never know, when you first start designing and building, because they’re still working on the script, they’re still working out the characters, and they’re still working out the structure. Sometimes, it just shifts. There’s always going to be something you’re going to lose, so I don’t feel bitter or twisted about it. That’s just the way it works.

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Image via Disney

What’s it like to collaborate with a director like Guy Ritchie?

JACKSON: He’s really nice to work with. I’ve done three films with him now, and I have to do another one. He knows what he doesn’t want. And then, when things start moving and gelling, he’s very responsive. If he doesn’t like it, he’ll tell you that it doesn’t work. If it does work, he’s pleased. He’ll come along and say, “That needs to be 10 feet higher. I think I need a larger area.” So far, he leaves a lot to me. I think we work together because he likes the way I put things together. I have a really good time with him, and I think he’s really happy about this. I’m so happy about it.

You’ve received a Lifetime Achievement Award for your work, from the British Film Designers Guild, which is very cool. How did you end up on this career path? Is this something you set out to do, or is it something you ended up doing?

JACKSON: I went to art school, and did painting, but I wasn’t a very good painter. My sister’s a painter, and she’s completely driven. So, I moved into theater design and did that for about eight or nine years. I loved it, and that was more my thing, but it was the ‘70s, and I was doing fringe theater, which was very low budget, and you had to work every week, or you couldn’t pay your rent. And then, some women were doing a small-ish film and they wanted to an all female crew. In about ‘81, that was really hard to find, particularly in the lower paid echelon. Somebody I know said to me, “Would you fancy that?” And I went, “Yeah, why not?” I’ve always been like that, and I hope that I’m still like that. So, I went and did it, and it was fascinating. I thought it was ridiculous that they spent all of this money on food, when I could have built another set with it. And then, another film came up. I got into the union, which in those days, was really important, more so than it is now, and I just kept going. I absolutely love it. One thing has just led to another. Game of Thrones, obviously, was a huge thing, but John Adams, before that, was even more huge. And I loved doing Bridget Jones’s Diary. I’m terribly proud of that. And then, things have just grown, and here we are, doing Aladdin, which is just bliss.

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Image via Disney

Especially with the series ending, what was it like to have the experience of being the production designer for the first three seasons of Game of Thrones?

JACKSON: It was a phenomenal experience. I spent two weeks in the library, in Downtown L.A., researching before they’d even started production. I’d finished on John Adams, and I’d gotten to know people at HBO who said, “Look, we’ve got this amazing project. We’re not quite sure, but have you got any time and could you do some research?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” So, I went to the library, and it was before internet was so easy, and the more I looked, the more I realized that anything could happen. All I knew was that it was all of these different worlds, which I like doing. I started working out King’s Landing, vis a vis Westeros, and just tried to find the differences. I didn’t even know, at that point, if I was going to design it or not. But then, actually getting the opportunity to design it was brilliant. At the end of my three years, I needed to do something else. Some people did the whole eight years, and more power to them, but I don’t quite know how they managed it. I think I wouldn’t have had a marriage left anymore. We were all in Belfast, and it was an incredible thing.

Aladdin is in theaters now.

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