Stephenie Lesley McMillan was born on July 20, 1942 in Ilford, Essex and raised in Chigwell. After working for the architectural firm Stillman & Eastwick-Field in London, where she is said to have developed “an appreciation for space and design” she moved on to become a freelance stylist working for the likes of interior design magazines and eventually TV commercials. This lead to a celebrated career as a set decorator working on films such as Chocolat, The Secret Garden, Notting Hill, A Fish Called Wanda, and of course, the Harry Potter franchise. In 1997, she famously won an Academy Award alongside Stuart Craig for her work on The English Patient.
McMillan was marred to writer Rusell Miller and later the film-writer Ian McMillan. Both of whom she would ultimate divorce. She has a partner, the writer Phil Hardy, and two daughters from her first marriage, Sasha and Tasmin. She died on August 19, 2013 due to complications of ovarian cancer.
Despite the transitioning of directors and producers in the Harry Potter franchise, McMillan remained in the art department as a set decorator for all eight films where she was tasked with recreating the visions and ideas of production designers. Some of her most memorable creations included the Room of Requirement’s mountains of lost objects and transforming the Great Hall for the Yule Ball in Goblet of Fire. She was more recently involved with collaborations for the designs of the The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and The Magical World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida and Leavesden, Hertfordshire respectively.
Her process of developing set décor ideas began with reading the script and noting particular items that anchored certain scenes or of which a heavy amount of the characters’ conversations revolved around. On the following steps she commented:
Then we just start finding them. At the beginning of a film it is quite exciting — you have a list of all the sets you’ve got to do and an approximate price against them and then it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, really. Gradually, you fill everything in.
She, alongside Stuart Craig, was nominated for an Academy Award in Best Art Direction-Set Direction for The Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and Best Achievement in Art Direction for Goblet of Fire (2005), Deathly Hallows – Part 1 (2010) and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011). She was also nominated three times for a BAFTA Film Award in Best Production Design and lately won two Art Directors Guild for Contribution to Cinematic Imagery and Excellence in Production Design in 2012.
“The key to set decoration is noticing the little things. You learn through observation. Look around and see what’s in a person’s room. I always look to see what books people have sitting behind them in interviews. It’s the details. Sometimes that means spotting an old art deco bath in a Tunisian market or a kidney-shaped dressing table sitting in a rubbish tip.” – on how to successfully decorate a set.
“The production designer has the vision, and as set decorator you have to bring this vision to life. Set decorating should never steal thunder from actors, nor should it ever be so showy that you’re looking at the furniture rather than the action.” – on the roles of set decorators.
“It’s the same job whether you are dressing a prison cell with an old mattress and a tin mug, or a palace with silk curtains and chandeliers. We put the same amount of thought into it.” – on the efforts of set decorators.
“The more it went on the less able we would have been to relinquish it and walk away.” – on why she and fellow designer Stuart Craig remained for all eight HP films.
“Commercials are very good training. You have to make decisions really quickly and learn about compromise.” – on her early experiences working in television and commercials.
“When I think about the last ten years on Harry Potter, I rarely had to compromise. I had enough time and money to get it right.” – on the freedoms of working with the Harry Potter franchise.
“We covered entirely the stone walls with silver lamé and made 17 sets of matching silver curtains with elaborate swags and tails, huge ice sculptures cast in resin and 250 silver cross-legged stools.” – on decorating the Great Hall for the Yule Ball in Goblet of Fire.
“The house in Grimmauld Place appears magically in the middle of a very tall terrace, so it needed to look squeezed. Stuart designed the rooms with particularly high ceilings so we worked with the construction and prop teams to add extra height to wardrobes, dressers and four-poster beds to continue the illusion.” – on designing Grimmauld Place in Order of the Phoenix.
“On Harry Potter, working with the very best on every level; graphics, visual effects, prop makers – Pierre Bohanna’s team – nothing was impossible. There is great satisfaction that real teamwork at that level gives you.” – on working with the crew for the Harry Potter films.
“You have to be prepared to go for jobs that are low paid. Make yourself indispensable, try to be a useful cog in the wheel… and make really good cups of tea!” – on giving advice for future hopeful set designers and decorators
“It’s a culmination of experience, being observant and being interested in people and their environments. But there’s something else: an instinct and a certain sensitivity. I’m not sure you can learn that.” – on what she thinks led to her success.
- One of her most favourite set designs was the transformation of the Great Hall for the Yule Ball in Goblet of Fire. She specifically loved the use of bolts of silver fabric and the ice sculptures.
- Her obituary in the UK newspaper, The Guardian, was written by long time fellow collaborator, Stuart Craig.
- Her first job after school saw her initially train as a secretary before joining the London based architecture firm.
- It took her the most of three months to completely design the Great Hall for the Yule Ball scene in Goblet of Fire.