How “The Great” Recreated 18th-Century Russia on a London Soundstage

Go behind the scenes of the Mongiardino-meets-Moscow sets.

December 3, 2021

In our ongoing series Screening Room, we go behind the scenes with the uber-talented production designers and set decorators of today’s most visually alluring TV shows and movies for a deep dive on how they whipped up such indelible backdrops.

. . .

The timeless film genre known as costume drama (or depending on the rating, the “bodice ripper”) is invariably filled with ornate wardrobes, stunning surroundings, and sweeping romance. In 2018, Oscar-winning movie The Favourite ushered in a new subgenre, mixing courtly goings-on with black comedy; last year, the film’s cowriter Tony McNamara brought that same spirit to television with the debut of his series The Great on Hulu, season two of which debuts this month.

The Great is the acerbic tale of the infamous Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia (played by Elle Fanning), and her marriage to Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), where power, intrigue, and political satire is the order of the day. The latest installment finds our pregnant heroine four months into her successful coup against her husband. Actress Gillian Anderson joins the cast this season as Catherine’s mother Joanna.

Russia via England: Hampton Court Palace, once the home of Henry VIII, is one of the shooting locations for the Winter Palace. The platform with the emblem was designed by production designer Francesa Di Mottola and sculpted by in-house prop makers and sculptors.Gareth Gatrell/Hulu

Italian production designer Francesca Di Mottola once again recreates a backdrop of 18th century Russia in all its glory. The Russian royal family’s Winter Palace, with its majestic architecture, plays a predominant role, with interiors filmed on a London soundstage. Several key real-life historic homes are also used as shooting locations, including Hampton Court Palace, the former home of Henry VIII and his various wives. The exterior of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton doubles as Catherine’s aunt’s house, while Hatfield House in Hertfordshire features one of the many outdoor locations that double as the Palace Gardens. When it comes to filmmaking, it often takes a village.

“While a lot has changed story-wise, we added stylistically richer layers due to the new set decoration and builds,” Di Mottola says. Growing up in Rome, the designer looked to her personal heritage for inspiration. “The [show takes place] in the second half of the century, and we went back to the roots and culture, using a lot of Italian Baroque churches,” as evidenced in Catherine’s coronation in the palace’s chapel. “I love their over-the-top detail and the extreme richness.”

Aunt Elizabeth’s perfectly appointed bedroom boasts wall tiles of the Kama Sutra.Gareth Gatrell/Hulu

Di Mottola notes that details are of utmost importance in a period piece, and since this is a black comedy, irreverence certainly makes an appearance. While the fan-favorite statue of Peter the Great riding a bear is gone from this season (it became a popular Instagram spot for tourists), Di Mottola added a bit of theatricality for Catherine’s baby shower scene, transforming the space by adding clouds lit from within and a fountain featuring two cherubs spitting out cherry vodka. The baby’s nursery draws from both Russian folklore art and the designer’s love of Italian architect Renzo Mongiardino, whose work inspired a fireplace with an opening shaped like a bear’s mouth. And make sure to pay special attention to Aunt Elizabeth’s (Belinda Bromilow) bedroom for a cheeky surprise: “It’s beautiful and refined, but as you get closer, you see [images of] the Kama Sutra—very typical of this century,” says Di Mottola.

The Palace is decidedly darker this season with lots of gilt and jewel tones forming the primary color palette.Gareth Gatrell/Hulu

For the palace’s furnishings, set decorator Monica Alberte sourced fabrics from Caserta, Italy and lanterns from Seville, Spain; she scoured 1stDibs and various prop houses for authentic Italian, French baroque, and Russian furniture and accessories, and had others custom-made. The season’s color palette also skews darker and richer than before, with lots of jewel tones—and, of course, gilt, gilt, and more gilt.

While The Great might be a revisionist tale of Russian political history, expect to see some true-life story lines play out, following Catherine’s love of the arts and science, her attempts to bring the Enlightenment to Russia, and her enduring yen for innovation. After all, not only was she the longest-ruling empress of Russia—she invented the roller coaster, too!

Many of the palace’s opulent rooms feature an inordinate number of chandeliers.Gareth Gatrell/Hulu