Simona Migliotti Auerbach Creates Film Worlds Using the Tools of Production Design

StudentFilmmakers Magazine: What was one of your most favorite movies that you designed and why?

Simona Migliotti Auerbach: One of my most favorite movies that I designed was the beautiful period movie, “Incantato” aka “Il Cuore Altrove” by Director Avati. Using Rome as an evocative city location, through soundstage sets and real locations, we intended to show how people lived in the past and dreamt about the future. The story took place in Italy in the 1930’s, but the first thing the director told me was that he likes to represent settings that were stuck in time from a previous period – in this instance, at the beginning of the 20th century.

He wanted to show an Italy that never changes, a country stuck in time, evolving very slowly. In the past, any changes in old Europe were difficult and happened slowly. The director wanted to give his audience a nostalgic feeling – a sense of melancholic contemplation of the lost past with all the traditions and the culture’s patterns that have vanished since then. In other words, an evocative 1930’s pastiche of Italy’s sweet’s life. The story took place between Rome and Bologna – one city in the center, the other in a provincial northeast of Italy. So, what do we have here? A melancholic feeling of the past and a version of the 1930’s that most likely resembled 1914 featuring two cities – Rome, the capital, with all the history and glorious past and the Vatican City and Bologna, a long-time traditional university city with an active and creative middle class.

After receiving the script, the first thing to consider was if I had to build sets or just find real locations to dress. The story of “Incantato”, as noted earlier, takes place between the two Italian cities, Rome and Bologna. Each city provides a distinct way to view life – conservative versus innovative. Rome is the eternal city where nothing changes. In “Incantato”, Rome is where the family business is located. The tailor shop has been in the same small square for generations. It represents the family nest in the heart of the city. It is the setting where nothing changes, and the family has its roots. Bologna, city in the north of Italy, is full of universities, overflowing with learning and yearning and continually more open to change and new relationships. This is the place where the Professor Nello Balocchi, the son of a famous tailor to the Pope, would love to start a new independent life as a teacher. It is the adventurous city, brimming with bright lights and constant movement.

Barber Shop
(Film, “Il Cuore Altrove” [Incantato]. Barber shop set.)

StudentFilmmakers Magazine: Can you tell us about the worlds you created using the tools of production design?

Simona Migliotti Auerbach: Designing movies, my purpose is to identify the places inhabited by the characters, to represent the emotional truth of the story and the characters through their environments, and to embrace the director’s intent and vision. In this movie, I had to create two distinctive different worlds. The first was Rome and the Vatican as the heart of the city where the tailor’s intent, after losing one of his twins, was to not let his remaining son leave the family’s location: the tailor shop (that I depicted like a nest). Rome, the Vatican and in particular the Tailor shop, is as a metaphorical nest, warm in its wood panel and with red drapes which also suggest the Vatican’s cardinal color. The second world, Bologna, needs a brighter color palette which better represents a liberal city where free, uninhibited and adventurous young girls from different social classes and backgrounds, could lead vibrant lives. The principal Bolognese environments were: (1) a barbershop that serves as a center of a social life; and (2) a boarding house that was supposed to be a former villa renovated by the larger than life widow, Sandra Milo together with many other includes Angela home, private clubs, elegant restaurants and hotels.

Designers find many different situations in the script. Sometimes, most environments represent spaces assembled by the inhabitants over a period of years. In the tailor shop, the idea was to show layers of props and piles of possessions as a result of years of intense work taking place over generations. In other environmental situations in Bologna, the female lead character Angela and her entourage of upper-class friends shows a complex sense of style. Some of them wore the style of an earlier era. We represented characters that did not share the same social status.

Set Nello Bedroom
(“Il Cuore Altrove”. Set, Nello’s Bedroom.)

StudentFilmmakers Magazine: Can you tell us about some of the production design challenges on this film and how you overcame challenges and created solutions?

Simona Migliotti Auerbach: In the movie, “Incantato”, the Vatican tailor shop set was a character itself.

The shop was considered a central element of visual definition. In the screenplay, this location was located in the center of Rome. For this reason, I went on location scouting to visit all the little squares of the city that in some way still maintained the semblance of an early 20th century exterior. One of the best places is Piazza Campitelli, near Piazza Margana. I created in this location a retrofit, a small construction of the shop exterior fitted on the actual shop. This retrofit was a replica of the entrance door and façade built in the studio. Because of the interior’s central role in establishing a cultural background of the lead character, the audience already has a feeling for the tailor shop’s owner played by Giancarlo Giannini even before he comes on screen.

The details you don’t see had intrinsic value for the actors. It was a real challenge to embrace the director’s vision and to deliver the “character” of the shop’s traditional owner. In this case, it was a proud and passionate tailor working for the Pope. His beautiful, but not overly-designed shop, expresses the tailor’s character. His working-class origins were also delineated through the presence of all the women working at their sewing machines where they shared the same space, lunch breaks, hopes and private moments. The red drapes and little ecclesiastic garments such as the Pope’s red shoes directly recall the Vatican tradition and establish patterns. The wood floor pattern and wood panels that cover the interiors create a solid, dark and warm environment that remind one of a nest, the nest that the son would like to leave.

I wanted to feel that the Vatican City was right outside the door. For this reason, I asked the lead man, the person responsible for helping to dress the set, to spray and burn incense just before anyone entered the set and to cover all of the wood surfaces with a shiny polish. I recalled these smells from the actual old wood panels when I was a child visiting my godfather’s tailor shop in Rome. I remember the beauty of the different patterns of the fabrics, yards and yards of fabrics and love sitting on the wood shelves and on the counters. It was like being embraced by their nest!

As a Designer, you will find yourself working on location, scouting locations, transforming a location, shooting at one location for another. Sometimes you must match a location to a studio set. This last situation was exactly the case of the barber- shop set. In the script, the barbershop is located in Bologna as are the boarding house, the school, the mansion, and the railway station as well. After scouting around for an old barber- shop with the characteristics of the appropriate period, I decided to build this set and many other period interiors at Cinecitta film studios. In this case, I needed to build an interior/exterior set because we had scenes to shoot outside the shop. I also recreated a part of the historical portico of Bologna just across the front barbershop. Along with the construction of the shop, the furniture in the barber- shop was built by expert carpenters at Cinecitta Studios because it was impossible to find similar pieces and too expensive to buy as well as rent original pieces. Many sets of “Incantato” were built in the studio, others were real locations.

What do the architecture, furnishings and décor communicate about time, space, place, and the people who live there? Many locations in little villages in Italy in the past, such as Nepi, Tivoli, Caprarola, were the Pope’s temporary residence. Outside the capital Rome, little villages maintained the old look and fantastic interiors, and nothing was redecorated for decades. What a fantastic opportunity to recreate the period!

Sometimes, you can have in the script locations that are inaccessible. In this case, filming the Vatican City interior was not possible. However, Villa D’Este at Tivoli was the perfect substitution. In this case, I was looking for the all-important artists who were involved in the Vatican interiors painting and decorations. In particular, we knew that many of the artists involved in the Vatican decoration, such as Federico Zuccari, Livio Agresti, Antonio Tempesta, were also in Villa D’este, a beautiful residence created for Cardinal Ippolito D’Este in 1550. Later in 1660-70, also the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini, responsible for the magnificent work of art at San Pietro cathedral, was involved in Villa D’Este.

Simona Migliotti Auerbach - Concept Art
(Photo taken at college lab during concept art course taught by Simona.)

StudentFilmmakers Magazine: If you could share a couple of quick production design tips for new and aspiring filmmakers, what would they be?

Simona Migliotti Auerbach: It is important to remember that the design work is about interpreting the director’s intent and vision. We need to pre-visualize the film. Your work is to translate the script into visual images. It is better to proceed when you have a working metaphor – a psychological, atmospheric and emotional image. The key to the look of the film is not an imposed or personal attitude toward visual style.  Your work as a set designer is about becoming a storyteller. In the script you will find information about the time in which the story takes place and where. You are now working on the history of the setting itself and need to create an historical breakdown. If you have a barbershop, can you try to imagine which kind of activity was there before it became that kind of shop? What type of person used that space previously?

Simona Migliotti Auerbach Creates Film Worlds Using the Tools of Production Design

Simona Migliotti AuerbachSimona Migliotti Auerbach’s Filmography

Production Designer :

John and Mary
“The New Garden”
“Trophy wife”
“La seconda notte di nozze” (Incantato)
“Ma quando arrivano le ragazze”
“La rivincita di Natale”
“Il cuore Altrove”
“The Invisible Collection”
“Black and White”
“The life of Rita Levi Montalcini”
“Evil Clutch”

Art Director/ Art department :

“Trooper ” (concept art)
“The morning Glory” (concept art)
“The Darjeeling Limited (Concept Art/ Ass. Art Dp.)
“Rome” HBO ( Art director stand-by-draftsman)
“The life aquatic ” Art Director
“Francesco” movie 2001
“The Conquering Knights”
“Padre Pio” (Padre Pio )
“The Nanny” (La Balia )
“Exquisite Corpses” HBO
“Come and go” Art Dir. Set Decorator
“Mother by chance”
“An Oscar for two”
“Magic Green”
“Il ritorno di Fantozzi”
“Strange love”
“Spaghetti House”

Set Decorator :

“Francesco” movie 2001
“The Conquering Knights”
“Padre Pio” (Padre Pio )
“The Nanny”
“Exquisite Corpses” HBO
“Come and go”
“Mother by chance”
“An Oscar for two”

Award & Recognitions:

2006 Premio di Qualita’ for “Ma quando arrivano Le ragazze”
2004 Premio di Qualita’ for “Il cuore Altrove” “Enchanted”
2003 Chioma di Berenice Award ,Best PD for “Enchanted”
2003 David Di Donatello Award Nominee for best PD “Enchanted” “Il Cuore Altrove”

Simona Migliotti Auerbach Creates Film Worlds Using the Tools of Production Design

Jody Michelle SolisInterview conducted by Jody Michelle Solis. Associate Publisher for StudentFilmmakers Magazine (, HD Pro Guide Magazine (, and Sports Video Tech ( Magazine. “Lifelines, not deadlines. Motion Arts. Fusion Everything.” If you’re in Dallas, sign up for Jody’s Yoga Class.

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