With its grand state rooms, magnificent staircases and French style interiors the National Trust’s Petworth House proved the ideal location for several scenes in Scott’s new epic. Transforming the house into an authentic setting for such a large and fast-moving production was an exciting challenge for the team at Petworth.
Napoleon is a spectacle-filled action epic that details the checkered rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, played by Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix. Rather than rely on constructed sets and CGI to set the scene, Ridley Scott and his team chose wherever possible to find real locations that could double for the palaces and stately homes that were the backdrop to Napoleon’s life.
Production designer Arthur Max found many of these in the UK: “There is enough neo-classical architecture in England to make it possible, probably because a lot of the design that comes out of France and England is based on Italian classic Palladian architecture.”
The production team fell in love with Petworth House because its features are more typically French in style than English, with large state rooms and items in its collection that reflect many generations of its inhabitants’ taste in the objects and architecture of continental Europe. Petworth House offered the authentic look and feel for several key moments in the film.
After two weeks of preparation, filming took place over two days at Petworth House in March 2022, with thirteen of the principle cast members on set, including Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby, and 120 supporting artists and 200 crew. It was by far the biggest production ever to take place at Petworth.
The pivotal Victim’s Ball scene where Napoleon meets Josephine for the first time was filmed in the Beauty Room, Marble Hall, Carved Room, Little Dining Room and Grand Staircase. The Red Room and Square Dining Room were also filmed in the background of these scenes, filled with dozens of extras to add depth to the frame.
Visitor operations and experience manager Sue Rhodes said: “It was astonishing to see the Victim’s Ball being filmed. Part of it was done in one shot, with the camera moving through many rooms, all dressed for the period and atmospherically lit. The house looked gorgeous, much as it would have when it hosted balls and events like this hundreds of years ago.”
The Square Dining Room doubled for artist Jacques-Louis David’s studio where Napoleon’s coronation portrait was painted, and the Marble Hall was used for a meeting between Napoleon and his generals, which can be glimpsed in the film’s trailer. An important aspect of the shoot was the extensive amount of production design required. While all the scenes were pre-planned with storyboards, Ridley Scott and his cinematographer Dariusz Wolski would decide where to position the camera when they were on location, which meant every corner of each room had to be prepared and ready to be on camera. The two days of filming therefore required seven days of dressing the house.
“Despite the challenges of such a huge production” Sue Rhodes explains “it was a fascinating experience, and the cast and crew were incredible. So professional, and very respectful of the house. Ridley Scott was particularly impressed with our art collection!”
From November 25 to January 1, visitors to Petworth House will be able to see the Marble Hall, Carved Room, Little Dining Room, Red Room and Square Dining Room beautifully decorated for Christmas. The income generated from the production will directly help care for Petworth’s collection and park, as well as enabling several conservation projects in the future.