There is a tender moment more than halfway through The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper’s new historical drama about transgender pioneer Lili Erbe, where celebrated painter Gerda (Alicia Vikander) comforts her spouse Lili (Eddie Redmayne), who simply cannot keep up the façade of living life as a male.
The time is the late 1920s and the velvety reds and oranges and golds in the scene (above) indicate that we’re in the couple’s Paris apartment rather than in Copenhagen, where much of the film’s first hour takes place. “Gerda is reeling with shock at the reemergence of Lili,” Hooper (The King’s Speech) says. “But she’s reaching out with love, hands touching, and it’s the first time in the film that you’re really seeing two women sitting on the bed together.”
That bedroom has a real life backstory almost as fascinating as anything in The Danish Girl. Notice the baroque wood paneling and curvaceous molding on the headboard and nightstands. Such furniture and walls were difficult to find among the austere interiors of London, where this particular Paris-set scene was shot. And the movie’s relatively low $15 million budget prohibited the costly building of a set from scratch. And so the filmmakers turned to the world of auctions. But not of the Sotheby’s variety.
“The story I can’t resist telling you,” Hooper says with a big smile, “is that we bought the pieces of this French apartment off eBay.” Production designer Eve Stewart, an Oscar nominee for her two past collaborations with Hooper on The King’s Speech and Les Misérables, typed in “Parisian bedrooms” on the popular buy-and-sell website — and narrowly beat out a hotelier with her bid of $12,000. “Eve has this incredible magic touch,” Hooper says. “If I’d looked online, I’d never have found it.”
“Oh, I was sweating,” Stewart says, of the countdown clock on eBay during the final minutes of the auction. “It was intense. I wish you could have seen a close-up of my eyes flickering as the bidding was going higher and higher. It was a pretty price but it was a really good deal. We never could have built what you see onscreen for that amount.”
In order to retrieve her winnings, Stewart drove to a farm many miles outside London, where she found the bedroom items stained pinkish-white from certain, to put it kindly, fowl play. “We had to carry it out of this guy’s barn where a bunch of chickens had been living,” Stewart remembers. “It was scummy from the chickens having pooped all over it. And so we cleaned it all off and gave it a new life. But it was amazing. We looked and it already had a patina all its own. All those textures had a history. I’m sure that bedroom had lots of stories to tell of its own.”
And its life goes on. Once the film wrapped shooting on the Parisian scene, the filmmakers then relisted the set on eBay. “And we sold it for a profit,” Hooper says, “which we put back into the production budget.” As the eBay motto says, “Buy it, sell it, love it.”
Watch the trailer for The Danish Girl, which is expanding to more theaters over the next month, below.