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Filming Napoleon at Petworth House

Ridley Scott directs Joaquin Phoenix on the set of Napoleon (2023)
Ridley Scott directs Joaquin Phoenix on the set of Napoleon (2023) | © Apple TV+

With its grand state rooms, magnificent staircases and French-style interiors, Petworth House proved to be the ideal location for several scenes in Ridley Scott’s epic film Napoleon (2023). Transforming the house into an authentic setting for such a large and fast-moving production was an exciting challenge for the team at Petworth.

The locations of Napoleon

Napoleon (2023) is a spectacle-filled action epic that details the chequered rise and fall of the iconic Napoleon Bonaparte, played by Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix. The film is due to be released on 22 November 2023.

Rather than rely on constructed sets and CGI to set the scene, Ridley Scott and his team were determined to find real locations that could double for the palaces and stately homes that were the backdrop to Napoleon’s life. Production designer Arthur Max found many of these in the UK:

'There is enough Neo-classical architecture in England to make it possible, probably because a lot of the design that comes out of France and England is based on Italian classic Palladian architecture.'

Filming Napoleon at Petworth House

The production team fell in love with Petworth House because its features are more typically French in style than English. Its large state rooms and collection items reflect many generations of its inhabitants’ taste in the objects and architecture of continental Europe. Petworth House offered the authentic look and feel for several key moments in the film.

After two weeks of preparation, filming took place over two days at Petworth House in March 2022, with 13 of the principle cast members on set, including Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby, and 120 supporting artists and 200 crew. It was by far the biggest production ever to take place at Petworth.

Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby star in Napoleon
Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby star in Napoleon (2023) | © Apple TV+

The Victim's Ball

The pivotal ‘Victim’s Ball’ scene where Napoleon meets Josephine for the first time was filmed in the Beauty Room, Marble Hall, Carved Room, Little Dining Room and Grand Staircase. The Red Room and Square Dining Room were also filmed in the background of these scenes, filled with dozens of extras to add depth to the frame.

Visitor Operations and Experience Manager Sue Rhodes describes being on set for this scene:

It was astonishing to see the Victim’s Ball being filmed. Part of it was done in one shot, with the camera moving through many rooms, all dressed for the period and atmospherically lit. The house looked gorgeous, much as it would have when it hosted balls and events like this hundreds of years ago.

A quote by Sue Rhodes Visitor Operations and Experience Manager, Petworth House

Transforming Petworth House

The Marble Hall was used for a meeting between Napoleon and his generals, which you can see in the film’s trailer. The Square Dining Room doubled for artist Jacques-Louis David’s studio where he painted Napoleon’s coronation portrait, which involved a significant set transformation.

Covering the Macbeth Painting in the Square Dining Room of Petworth House, West Sussex
Transforming the Square Dining Room | © National Trust Images/Sue Rhodes

An important aspect of the shoot was the extensive amount of production design required. While all the scenes were pre-planned with storyboards, Ridley Scott and his cinematographer Dariusz Wolski would decide where to position the camera when they were on location, which meant every corner of each room had to be ready to be on camera. It took seven days to dress the house for the two days of filming. It was a fascinating experience for the team at Petworth, as Sue Rhodes describes:

Despite the challenges of such a huge production, it was fascinating to be involved, and the cast and crew were incredible – so professional and very respectful of the house. Ridley Scott was particularly impressed with our art collection.

A quote by Sue Rhodes Visitor Operations and Experience Manager, Petworth House

From 29 January to 3 March, visitors at Petworth House will be able to see the Carved Room which was used for filming, as well as the Red Room, Oak Hall, Chapel, North Gallery and Historic Kitchens.

Supporting special places

As well as showing off beautiful locations, filming directly benefits the places in our care that star in the production. The income from location fees goes straight back into conservation work to care for historic houses and landscapes, so that we’ll all be able to see them both on screen and in real life for years to come.