Papers, plans, diagrams: the making of The Draughtsman’s Contract

Documents held in the BFI National Archive offer revealing glimpses into how Peter Greenaway’s period mystery The Draughtsman’s Contract took shape, from Greenaway’s first application for funding to its innovative poster design.

Peter Greenaway, cinematographer Curtis Clark and costume designer Sue Blane on location for The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)BFI National Archive. Photo by Simon Archer

The BFI National Archive’s stunning 4k remaster of The Draughtsman’s Contract was recently unveiled on British screens, almost exactly 40 years after the film’s first release. Back in November 1982, Greenaway’s debut narrative feature about an arrogant draughtsman implicated in a murder mystery was hailed as a landmark in British cinema. The director’s unique compositional style, heavily based on classical painting, invited much praise, with critic Alexander Walker declaring the film “the most stunningly original… this year” and “visually… one of the most elegant that’s ever been made in Britain”. It ran at one London cinema for six months, continuing even after its TV broadcast on the brand new Channel Four (the film’s co-funder), proving that British art cinema could be financially successful. 

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)BFI National Archive

An extensive paper collection relating to The Draughtsman’s Contract is housed at the BFI National Archive and offers fascinating insights into the making of the film. The survival of this material is largely thanks to Mary Jane Walsh, who worked for the BFI Production Board at the time; Sue Blane’s fabulous costumes are also preserved at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Walsh engaged with practically every aspect of the film: “I helped with the auditions, I spent time at the Old Vic workshop where the costumes and wigs were being created and made many visits to the location to help out with ironing, sheep wrangling, etc. I was also involved with the publicity and promotion of the finished film and I even compiled the credits – though sadly, I forgot to add my own name.”

The Production Board, the BFI’s funding arm at the time, had already supported two of Greenaway’s films: A Walk Through H, to the tune of £7,000, and The Falls, which received £30,000. In his original application, he requested a modest £60,000, planning to shoot on black-and-white 35mm film and print on to colour stock in order to “find a visual equivalent for the black and white world the film’s main character draws in black on white paper”.

Peter Sainsbury, head of the BFI Production Board, had encouraged Greenaway to attempt a feature film and later remarked that when he read the script “it was as though Greenaway had been waiting for the BFI to catch up with him, so accomplished was its narrative, its characters and its themes.”

Peter Greenaway’s application to the BFI Production BoardBFI National Archive

Despite some grumbling by other applicants, the BFI allocated £150,000 to the project, which was matched by the newly formed Channel Four in exchange for broadcast rights. The project gradually evolved as Greenaway, plunged into his first experience of directing a full-blown production with real actors, learned the ropes with the assistance of an incredible team of creatives who each went on to have long and successful careers: Lucy Boulting (casting), Bob Ringwood (art director), Sue Blane (costumes) and Curtis Clark shooting on Super 16mm colour stock. 

A key part of the pre-production process was finding the perfect location. Stanway House in Gloucestershire was an early contender, but Groombridge Place in Kent won out, the elderly gentleman owner welcoming the crew and equipment into his home. However, Walsh recalls that there was one thing he was adamant about: “He didn’t want any publicity, so it was agreed that the name and precise whereabouts of the house would not be listed in the credits. People were desperate to find out where it was but we all kept quiet, though The World of Interiors magazine eventually tracked it down.”

Greenaway’s rich, witty dialogue is brimming with references to history, art, religion and sex, and the actors were under strict orders to speak the lines as written; since they were all professional actors there were only occasional fluffs. The daily continuity sheets in the BFI’s collection reveal some of these, including one that was kept in the film: Anthony Higgins’ substitution of ‘roberoom’ for ‘wardroom’ was kept, Greenaway perhaps enjoying the added alliteration. 

Continuity sheet for The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)BFI National Archive

Other interruptions to the shoot included the intrusion of unwanted noise – passing ice cream vans, planes (the house is on the flight path to Gatwick), trains and boilers firing up all necessitated retakes. But distractions are what the film is all about, its inspiration being a project Greenaway embarked on in the summer of 1976 to sketch different aspects of a house, which was constantly derailed by more interesting activities. These diversions included persuading interlopers to move out of the way, chasing sheep, eating and letting children draw, all of which found their way into the film. This reflects the competing imperatives in Greenaway’s work – his fascination with the narrative power of classical art and his joy in diverting or derailing serious creative pursuits with less highbrow activities such as game playing or engaging with nature.

The film’s setting was carefully thought out and in the film’s pressbook Greenaway reflected on his approach to making a period film:

“Historical movies have the same imperative preoccupations as those of the science fiction genre – the need and insistence… of creating an imaginary world that is entire and self-sufficient in look, feel, image and dialogue. However, unlike science fiction… the historical movie has an already prepared scenario… and I have found the demands and disciplines of inventing a wholly fictitious plot in an already prepared historical background fascinating and exciting. But there has been no attempt at exact and faithful reconstruction, the pursuit of which has only a limited appeal, and since I have no interest in a chimera of ‘realism’ stylistic liberties have been taken which could not satisfy a history perfectionist.”

Actors Hugh Fraser and Neil Cunningham between takes on The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)BFI National Archive. Photo by Simon Archer

These liberties can be seen in Sue Blane’s costumes, which are more exaggerated and extravagant than those likely to have been seen in southern England in the late 17th century. Blane found working with Greenaway stimulating, especially his thoughts on “editing in the negative” and his interest in the space around the action. She recalled how the low budget required a lot of ingenuity and cost cutting, with reams of cheap calico cleverly crafted into lavish period dress. Decorating the garden appropriately also had to be done on a shoestring, with the crew shifting the small number of wooden obelisks and bay trees to different locations throughout the film. 

Peter Greenaway on location for The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)BFI National Archive. Photo by Simon Archer

A consummate storyteller, Greenaway initially wrote a prologue so lengthy that it had to be cut down substantially to allow the plot to get under way. This meant that a tale featuring his alter ego, Tulse Luper, ended up on the cutting room floor and Greenaway and his editor John Wilson eventually got the prologue down to eight minutes, as plotted on a diagram he drew of the film’s proposed structure.

Continuity script showing a scene mentioning Tulse LuperBFI National Archive
Peter Greenaway’s diagram of the structure for The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)BFI National Archive

This diagram can be spotted in the striking poster for the film by Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson, who picked out items from the production paperwork to use in their design, including Greenaway’s handwritten dialogue additions.

Poster for The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)BFI National Archive

The BFI’s collection offers a fascinating record of the production of this groundbreaking film, which is now delighting and intriguing new audiences on the big screen and on Blu-ray. Its humour and visual appeal remain remarkably fresh.

Designing the original poster for The Draughtsman’s Contract

by Michael Coulson and Nichola Bruce

In the 1980s we worked as a creative duo under the names Muscle Films and Kruddart. Kruddart was a self-deprecating name (Krudd – rubbish) for our commercial design work, and Muscle Films was the name we worked under for our film projects.

In 1982 the BFI hired us to design a wide-ranging marketing campaign for Peter Greenaway’s new film, The Draughtsman’s Contract. The scale of the campaign was unusual for the BFI, but their press officer, Mary Jane Walsh, believed The Draughtsman’s Contract, a murder mystery with a dense convoluted plot, was not only a great independent film but one that, if promoted correctly, would have huge crossover potential with the general public.

We began the campaign by commissioning photographs of the lead actors in the style of formal portraits of the 17th century. We knew we could also use these publicity photos for the film poster, but we felt we needed more information from the filmmaker before we could begin the design. We arranged to meet Greenaway at his London studio where he showed us his personal archive of background material – notes, scribbles, drawings and script plans – all of which gave us an insight into how he developed ideas for his film and how we might design the poster.

Back at our studio in Shoreditch we began sifting through the Greenaway artwork. Included in the cache was an acetate grid used for animation. The grid’s rigid black-and-white lines were broken up by Greenaway’s personal working marks and scribbles, giving it a beautiful painterly quality. It was where the poster began. Its structure held in place the disparate elements of Greenaway’s material and allowed us to eventually build up a dense collage of graphic elements. The process was exciting. It felt as if we were searching for clues towards a final design, like the many clues Greenaway had sown throughout The Draughtsman’s Contract.

We had the beginnings of a concept for the poster design but no central image. We loved the glossy publicity photos we had commissioned but felt they overpowered the other material.

Poster for the Plans and Conceits exhibition

A new approach was needed – something to complement the complex nature of the film. We were excited by the torn billboard posters we saw in London, with the layers of fragments of images on the ripped paper sheets making surreal juxtapositions. Perhaps this could be a way forward?

We started to tear, burn colour copy and degrade photos of the lead actors, Janet Suzman and Anthony Higgins, until they started to have a different quality – like the billboard posters. We then added the now transformed photos – colour, black and white, burnt – to the pieces of Greenaway’s sketches and drawings on the animation grid. The final result was exciting and vaguely subversive – nothing like a conventional film poster.

In Creative Review, Jim Davies it described as “a collage incorporating torn photographs, photocopies, line drawings and ornate calligraphy, full of cryptic clues and riddles that reflect perfectly the atmosphere of sinister nuance that pervades the film”.

Our relationship with Peter Greenaway continued with an exhibition of costumes and drawings called ‘Plans and Conceits’ for The Draughtsman’s Contract’s UK premiere at the Edinburgh Festival. We subsequently designed the poster and Faber book cover for his film The Belly of an Architect (1987) and the poster for his documentary series Four American Composers for Channel 4.

The Belly of an Architect (1987) poster


Frames of Mind: The Films of Peter Greenaway runs at BFI Southbank from October to December 2022. A selection of his films are also available for free and for subscribers on BFI Player.

Peter Greenaway will be in conversation at BFI Southbank on 9 December.

The Draughtsman’s Contract is back in cinemas and on two-disc Blu-ray in a 40th anniversary 4K remaster by the BFI National Archive now.

The Belly of an Architect is out as a BFI dual format edition (Blu-ray and DVD).

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