Warning: This post contains spoilers for the “A. Malcolm” episode of Outlander.
A successful 18th century printer’s press like the one owned and operated by one A. Malcolm — a.k.a. James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser — doesn’t just spring up overnight. No, the lovely Edinburgh-based print shop where Outlander‘s long separated couple, Jamie and Claire, had their six-episodes-in-the-making reunion on this week’s super-sized installment took well over a year of careful planning and construction by the show’s production design team, headed by Jon Gary Steele. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, Steele reveals that his crew started work on A. Malcolm’s shop midway through shooting the show’s second season. “Halfway through one season, we always start on the next,” he says, which means his team is already deep into designing Season 4 while Season 3 is still airing. “It takes a lot of time to get these sets done.”
And key sets like the print shop are treated with exceptional care. Not only is it the scene of what’s arguably the season’s emotional high point so far, but it’s also an environment that fans of the Outlander novels have been waiting to see brought to life… and they’ll know if the details aren’t exactly right. Fortunately, Steele is as detail-minded as the show’s devoted fan base, whether he’s building Jamie’s printing press or the brothel pied-à-terre where the Frasers continue their reunion. “The reaction we get from the fans makes us excited and proud, because they love the detail, so we work harder to make everything better each season,” he says.
We spoke with Steele about building a working version of “Bonnie,” Jamie’s beloved printing press, and the little details he hopes fans notice in the episode’s two major sets.
As I understand it, you built an actual printing press for Sam Heughan to operate in the print shop scene.
Yes, we paid a specialist who does these recreations for universities, libraries, and museums, and had two of them built while we were filming Season 2. We also had someone come in and show Sam how to work it. Almost everything you see on that set was made [for the show]: every counter, every piece of print. I’ve had people ask me, “Why didn’t you put the print shop on one level?” I wanted two levels, because I thought it would be more visually interesting if Claire had to walk in and look down for the iconic scene of the reunion. I pitched it to Ron [Moore, the showrunner] and Matt [Roberts, the writer and producer] as it being a precursor to a factory. His store is upstairs, and then down below you can see all the workings. It was all built on one stage, and there’s catwalks and stairs that you can take. The downstairs was split in half with a wall of glass like the glass upstairs. It makes it more interesting for the camera. We didn’t want it to be a box: we wanted it to be possible for them to shoot it [from many angles].
Jamie names his printing press “Bonnie,” and in the book his name is carved on the frame. Did you replicate that detail?
I don’t think we did. I wish we had remembered to do that! We tried to fill the set with detail and make sure that no matter where you looked, it looked period-correct and that there’s stuff to shoot through, as well as hanging paper drying everywhere. We did tons of research and saw that printing presses in the 1700s had these tool leather walls, so we did our own version of that. That’s the most ornate part, and it’s in the store where Claire comes in. It’s more utilitarian downstairs.
Is this the model for how a well-off printing press might have looked in the 18th century versus a less-successful publisher?
Yes it was. We try to make everything look beautiful; even the ugliest stables, we try to make look as real as possible, but also beautiful in a way. And that’s what we tried to do here. For example, we spent a lot of time on the “A. Malcolm” sign that hangs outside. We knew it was a hugely important thing for fans of the book. I told the graphics people that I wanted to put lots of symbols into the sign, so we did all sorts of research into different symbols and incorporated them. There’s tin, because there’s tin in the press, as well as Jamie and Claire’s initials. We also wanted to be able to shoot through it so they could have camera on one side, while Claire comes up to it on the other. And they really did make signs like that: they were cast-iron and were pierced, so we tried to make it period-correct like that.
Like many of the sets, the printing press is predominantly lit by candlelight. How does that factor into your designs?
We worry a lot about it. Back in Season 1, we used to joke that everything had to be brown with a bit of gray. It’s been fun to see more color appear. There’s a lot of red in the printing press, and we couldn’t use red in Season 1 because that was the color of the redcoats only! But everything is thought about with the candle in mind. We have candles, candelabras, and chandeliers on almost every set, and we also build fireplaces because that’s what they did in the 18th century: it was a source of heat and light. For exteriors, we have metal braziers. The DPs love them, and they look really good on film. When you shoot in a courtyard, it adds a little burst of golden color. We always take samples of colors and fabrics and hold them up next to the costumes, with candles next to that to see if they look good in candlelight or not. The DPs always make it look beautiful.
What’s one detail about the printing press you hope viewers at home notice?
My favorite part is the storeroom upstairs because of the walls. We put little bits of gold on the molding around the doorways and the bookcases when you walk into the room. I remember a carpenter going, “You want gold in the touch-up?” I told him that it’s just a highlight. When it’s lit with the candles and chandeliers, the gold shimmers in the light. That’s my favorite thing. Also, the tool leather walls that aren’t tool leather, but look like it!
Let’s turn to the Edinburgh brothel. You’ve designed a lot of brothels for the show already. How did you want this one to stand apart?
What I was trying to do was take this space and cover it in old rugs to make it look like a harem. The way I described it to Ron was, “I want to put built-in daybeds everywhere, with one in the center for the madam. And then everything around the openings will be covered with rugs.” He was like, “Rugs?” And I said, “Yeah, rugs. It’s not Paris — it’s more downscale.” We were trying rugs, and at first none of them matched, but then we found some we loved and made duplicates and covered the walls in the whole place so it creates a tapestry of rugs. And it works! It’s crazy, but it works. [Laughs]
And that was entirely your own invention?
This is my fourth year on the show, and you always want to do something different. We’ve done tons of taverns and a couple brothels before, and we know fans love this stuff. So even though it has to be period correct, we want [each set] to be special. Everyone on this show wants it to be special in every scene and in every detail, be it the armorer who does the guns or the set decoration or the costume designers or the props department. When you see Claire’s medicine kit for the next season, it’s like a piece of art — it’s stunning.
Speaking to the beauty aspect, Jamie’s private room does seem a bit more romantic than an actual brothel likely would have been.
Anywhere that Jamie and Claire are going to have a romantic scene we try to make as sexy as we can, even if it’s a barn. They ended up having more scenes there than we thought, and the crew was actually a little angry about shooting in this little room. I was like, “This is way bigger than it should be. It’s really just a room in a brothel — this is the triple the size!” They need that room to shoot; it all works out and looks great.
Since they have to film so many intimate scenes, do Sam Heughan or Caitriona Balfe have special requests in terms of the kind of mattress or bedding they prefer to lie on?
We only try to make sure the bed’s big enough for Sam, because he’s 6’3″ long! There was one scene where the rug they were going to be on was really abrasive, so we had to swap that out. But they’re very kind and generous to us, and never really ask for anything from us. They always come and say thank you to all the departments about how beautiful everything is. That’s a good thing, because we’ve all been on projects where it’s not like that.
Any hidden details about the brothel you want to call out to eagle-eyed fans?
We put these little columns on the madam’s daybed. It was built especially for her so she could lounge on this giant daybed with thousands of pillows — kind of like an opium den, but it’s Scotland! So we put these big twist columns on there, as well as the fireplace mantles. Someone said, “That’s a little bit much for a brothel,” and I said, “If you can’t do it in a brothel, you can’t do it anywhere!” There’s certain sets that have to be exactly period correct, but we try to have fun with it [when we can].
Most of your pre-Outlander production design credits are films that take place in contemporary settings. Has it been fun living in the past for three seasons?
I love it! It’s the most fun stuff I’ve ever done. I love doing things like American History X and Cruel Intentions also, but it’s a dream to do the 18th century, because it’s such a beautiful period for design. We build so much stuff and research continuously; everybody in the department is always looking through books or magazines, and Google is huge. What’s interesting is that in Season 1, we would type “18th century” into Google and you’d get Game of Thrones or other period shows. Now when we’re researching stuff, we see pieces of our own sets! I should have stock in Google. [Laughs]
Outlander airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz.
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