While many films have been set in Venice, Kenneth Branagh’s latest murder mystery reveals a less glimpsed—and more ghostly—side of the city. A Haunting in Venice, based on Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie, finds Hercule Poirot, played by Branagh himself, in retirement in the Italian city in 1947. However, given the Belgian detective's knack for getting ensnared in a mystery, he is soon enticed into attending a séance in a grand palazzo on Halloween night, where a murder reveals possible supernatural occurrences. Once inside the house, Poirot is haunted by unseen spirits in his search for the truth.
To create a period version of Venice, Branagh tapped production designer John Paul Kelly, who had limited experience visiting the Italian city prior to shooting there.
“It’s jaw-droppingly extraordinary,” Kelly says. “To arrive at the airport, get in a water taxi and get zoomed across this lagoon into the Grand Canal is the most extraordinary thing in the world. It’s a city that defies logic because it’s just floating. The sheer age and beauty of the buildings is amazing. And it’s a lovely place to film.”
While A Haunting in Venice is set entirely in Venice, most of the film was actually shot in the studio in London. They spent a week on location during a particularly cold January and captured areas of Venice that may be less familiar to tourists. Here, Kelly explains the movie magic behind the film, as well as his recommendations for visitors to Venice.
What was the biggest challenge with setting the film in Venice?
I visited Venice very early on with Kenneth Branagh to work out what the setting should be and what the feeling should be. But also to look at the practicalities of whether we could film in Venice, how much we could film in Venice, and whether we wanted to build some or all of the palazzo. We looked at a lot of beautiful buildings. We realized that we probably wanted to set it in the backwaters of the of the canals that have a tucked-away, secret feel. But we couldn’t find a palazzo with interiors we liked, or that was right for our story—with a secret garden on the roof and things like that. So we came back to London and decided we would build our own palazzo at Pinewood Studios.
How did you capture the period version of Venice that we see in the film?
The film is set in Venice immediately after World War II—it was a pretty different place. Venice had been spared from the bombing, which seems extraordinary. But as a result it was very much a home for refugees. We wanted to show a Venice with bread lines and markets and windy streets. It wasn’t about the Venice that’s usually depicted on the Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge and what you see today.
What locations did you use in Venice?
The house where Poirot lives was actually split over a few houses. Palazzo Malipiero is where we shot his gardens. The Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello di Venezia is where we shot that beautiful roof terrace at the beginning and end of the film. We shot around a few famous squares. We put in a market on San Giorgio Maggiore island. But the main job from a production design standpoint was referencing all these lovely places we'd seen and then actually building them as a palazzo in Pinewood.
How much of the house did you end up building?
We built all the interiors. We built a huge exterior set outside so we could have the waves crashing against the walls and the shutters slamming and the rain. We also built the exterior so we could have our own gondolas come into the building. To have that level of control on location would just be impossible, particularly on a stormy night. Kenneth was very keen for the sets to feel like a full environment that wasn’t half-built with green screens. He was really adamant that when the actors stood in the middle of our palazzo in Pinewood they felt like they were in a palazzo in Venice.
Was your palazzo inspired by any real places that people can go and see?
It’s a mixture of places, most of them private houses. The Doge's Palace, in Piazza San Marco, is a building that was influenced by 500 years of architecture, from Byzantine to Eastern European and Asian to Roman Classical, and those ideas are layered over a lot of periods of construction. A lot of palazzos, ours included, did the same thing. It’s a real mishmash of styles. The film is about this idea of a house with history and with layers. We fabricated an idea that maybe our palazzo had been built on the ruins of a monastery or a church, which gave us all those creepy corridors. So I can’t pinpoint any particular reference, but I think most Venetians would look at our set and feel like they recognize it.
Where did you stay while in Venice?
We stayed at a very functional hotel while filming in January, but when we went to scout we actually stayed in some of the beautiful palazzos and they were a great inspiration for the set: Ca’ Sagredo Hotel and The Gritti Palace. A lot of the grand hotels there, like Hotel Danieli, are old palazzos. They have a similarly impressive layout, so you can get a feeling for what those houses were like.
Is there anywhere you would recommend people visit?
For museums, Doge’s Palace, Palazzo Franchetti and Academia de Musica. For restaurants, Trattoria alla Madonna and Osteria Da Fiore. If I have any piece of advice it’s that it's very easy to get caught between the San Marco square and the Rialto Bridge, which is a busy, touristy, and very beautiful part of Venice. But what I would really recommend is to go off the beaten track and get a little bit lost wandering down side streets. That’s where the real beauty lies. It does have a reputation of being such an incredibly busy place with tourists, but it’s very easy to find yourself going down these little streets. It’s a very real place as well as a tourist place.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler