Hannah Beachler made a name for herself designing critically-praised independent films like Creed, Fruitvale Station, and the Best Picture-winning Moonlight. Now she oversees $30 million art department budgets for films
Dennis Gassner’s visionary work on Bladerunner 2049 earned him one of 7 Oscar nominations. Of those nominations, he took home an Oscar in ‘91 for his unique take on the 1940’s gangster film Bugsy. Before he designed Bladerunner 2049 or the innovative Sam Mendes war film 1917, he had been the exclusive James Bond production designer -he created the look for Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and Spectre. These big budget extravaganzas are far removed from his early work on Coen brothers’ movies like Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing…
AS: What drew you to the field of production design? DG: My journey began in Vancouver, British Columbia and took me to Portland Oregon, Eugene Oregon, then on to Berkeley and Los Angeles. I’ve pretty much covered the West Coast. I was studying architecture at The University of Oregon when I went to see this technicolor film by David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia. It was my first Cinemascope film. The scale of it was so enormous and the power of the film was so awe-inspiring I said, Who was the architect of that? I wanted to know more and investigate the field of production design so I took my van and my two-year-old daughter and my wife and we moved to LA. I went to the Art Center School of Design, the old school on Third and Highland, and I connected to that world of thinking. They’d just started the film program and I got to make short movies. There was also graphic design and fine arts, transportation design and advertising design. It was thinking beyond anything that I’d experienced before, in a multitude of facets.
When I saw photos of Guy Hendrix Dyas’ design work on Passengers my mind was blown. You may remember my interview with Guy back when he had his first Academy Award nomination for Inception but with Passengers he’d taken it to the next level. Here’s an update on his process…
AS: Is sketching as important to you now as it was the last time we spoke? GHD: Sketching is all I do when I start a project. I’ve got this routine now where I’ll read a script and get an 8.5” x 11” sketchbook and basically sketch the entire film. This sketchbook becomes my bible. It becomes my go-to place when I’m thinking of handing out projects to my staff to develop.
AS: After your initial meeting with director Morton Tyldum did you then go off and create a lot of sketches to bring back to him? GHD: I turned up to the initial interview with many of these sketches. I’d been given the script and was excited by it. This is a script that has no monsters, no guns, just raw science fiction in the greatest tradition of films like 2001 or even Silent Running. It’s a wonderful film because it makes you think about moral choices. It makes you think about love and life and your own existence. The script had been knocking around in Hollywood for many years and I never thought I’d get a chance at it. But when I was up for it I grabbed it, and ran with it.
Colin Gibson invented a fleet of road warrior vehicles while designing the movie Mad Max: Fury Road, essentially becoming a “War Boy” himself in the process. A far cry from his more traditional work on Babe and Babe: Pig in the City, the world he brought to life for Fury Road was brutal and unforgettable and won him his first Academy Award…
AS: Your collaboration with director George Miller on Mad Max:Fury Road was mind-blowing. CG: There’s nothing like collaborating with a towering imagination to give you a head start to mind-blowing. George showed me a room full of storyboards and no script and said, This looks like it’s right up your street. I didn’t know at the time that it was going to take quite so long! It was the year 2000, which was the same year as the Sydney Olympics and so it was either the Olympics or Fury Road and my back had been playing up so I took Fury Road. But it turned out to be slightly longer than a four year turnaround!
Adam Stockhausen brought his artistic style to the Wes Anderson masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel and southern plantation realism to Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. He was Oscar-nominated for both and won for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Since then he’s continued to design Wes Anderson movies and has also become Steven Spielberg’s production designer of choice. But before all this he was inventing ways to keep blood off hardwood floors for Wes Craven…
AS: I hear you just wrapped your job as production designer on Steven Spielberg’s St James Place…
AS: Yes, we just finished. It’s a true story. We shot half in New York City and half in Berlin with a brief side trip into Poland. It was a wonderful experience for me. I had a blast.
AS: How was Spielberg to work with?
AS: Fantastic! We did a lot of sketching. We’d work things up and then go to see him and show our materials and it was a wonderful collaboration.
Eve Stewart has been nominated for four Oscars to date including for the tremendous historic epic Les Misérables. She’s perfected a distinct British realism for Mike Leigh’s films and an enhanced historic realism of Tom Hooper’s. When I interviewed her she was extremely busy designing the worlds of the Muppets and Frankenstein’s monster. AS: Your movie Muppets Most Wanted is about to be released. How was the transition from the more serious Les Misérables? ES: After Les Mis I thought I would do the polar opposite and so I designed the Muppets Most Wanted film. A bit of light relief after the harrowing scenes of Fantine dying!
AS: Did you shoot that in America? ES: The majority was in the UK but we shot a little bit in America.
AS: How was working with James Bobin on the Muppets different from the Tom Hooper and Mike Leigh films? ES: Really interesting because I thought it would be very different but it was actually just as rigorous! James Bobin was really clever and really fast and really thorough. It was actually quite a similar experience!
AS: You’ve done many films with Tom Hooper -is he a really visual director? ES: He is a visual director but more than that he’s a very good conductor of visuals. I’ll always overdo it and just get loads of stuff together because I’m really enthusiastic. He’s very good at filtering and kind of conducting it like a piece of music.
Rick Heinrichs designed two of the greatest films ever made, the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and The Big Lebowski. He also designed two of the mega-budget Pirates of the Caribbean films, the Star Wars film The Last Jedi, and multiple Tim Burton films including the awesome Sleepy Hollow for which he won an Academy Award. We caught up with him at the next-generation entertainment studio Fourth Wall, where he was helping to envision the future of entertainment. AS: What are you working on right now? RH: When I finished Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie in London about a year ago I met up with the guys who run Fourth Wall Studios. The future of our industry has always been a big question in my mind. Are we going to continue to be able to be making the big feature films that we’ve been making in the kind of numbers that we’ve been making them in? And there’s the brave new world of distribution over the internet. What are the sort of economies we are going to look at now if indeed we’re going to be producing and designing films that are going to end up on a small computer screen?
As a production designer I love to build sets but when you’re in a structure that doesn’t allow you to build sets what are you doing? We’re using a lot more digital and virtual sets. But it’s life-sucking to work on a greenscreen set. The challenge is, How do we make it a usable tool that is actually cool to work with?
Nathan Crowley brought Modernism and scale into Batman’s formerly Gothic world, creating masterpieces of cinema with his friend Christopher Nolan. While his fifth Academy Award nomination was for Damian Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, he’d already been Oscar-nominated for four films with Nolan, including for the historic war film Dunkirk…
AS: When you were in art school did you have any idea you’d be a production designer? NC: Not at all. I was thinking about continuing on with the School of Art and Design at Brighton. But I ended up getting hired after I got my art degree by a bunch of architects to draft. I did that for two years and it made me realize I didn’t want to be an architect! No one was doing anything interesting. It was what I call business architecture and it was really uninspiring. I ended up thinking, Shit, I don’t want to do post-graduate architecture, even though I love architecture. That was in the late Eighties just as Thatcher destroyed England. It was time to leave.
I ended up coming to LA. I drove old sports cars across America for a while that were being shipped to Europe. I’d take the I-10 and drive them from LA to Jacksonville, Florida. My friend and I would buy old Porches and Spiders, I’d drive them across and ship them to him in England where he’d sell them. It was just enough money to live on in LA. And then that economic crash happened. We got left with a few sports cars and we couldn’t sell them. I realized I had to get a job in LA somewhere!
Production designer David Wasco and his set decorator wife Sandy Reynolds-Wasco could be the hippest team in Production Design- they have done almost all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, starting with the iconic Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and have worked with many other greats, including Wes Anderson on the beautifully designed The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore. More recently they collaborated on La La Land for which they won their first Oscar. I caught up with them right before their trip to England where they were headed to conduct a London Film Festival masterclass at BAFTA.
AS: Tell us about your latest project, Seven Psychopaths… DW: With Seven Psychopaths we were given an opportunity to showcase L.A. We had similar opportunities with Pulp Fiction, with Reservoir Dogs, and with Collateral and feel lucky because we love to explore the city. Every neighborhood feels different. We have a specific interest in L.A. architecturally. People think the city has been shot out and there’s nothing left to shoot but there are places that haven’t been seen and there are things that are untapped, and those are the places we took director Martin McDonagh.
When we spoke, Dante Ferretti had just won his third Oscar for director Martin Scorsese’s Hugo after winning two, one for Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd and one for another Scorsese film, The Aviator. To date he’s designed ten movies with Scorsese and almost as many with the legendary Federico Fellini. He created the look for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen with Terry Gilliam and numerous movies with genius Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. He even did two movies at the same time when he worked on Bringing Out the Dead and Titus! At the time of the interview he was in Vancouver designing The Seventh Son for Russian director Sergey Bodrov. I was honored to speak with this legend, learning how Fellini taught him to lie and the importance of believing a film…
AS: At one of the Hugo screenings, the actor Ben Kingsley said his performance was nourished by the set, that he was fed by the set. He said the train station set even smelled like Paris. The coffee, the flowers.
DF: He must have mentioned the smell because he was surrounded by real coffee, real flowers, and many, many other real things. We did everything from scratch. This is all the set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo -she did a fantastic job. Everything was shot on stage at Shepperton Studios in London.
AS: How much was in post and how much did you build?
DF: Actually we built everything. Everything is real scale but we had to do many extensions. Also, in the very beginning they added the first shot when we see Paris. But after we go inside the train station and pass through the big smoke cloud everything was real. It’s all real size. We built one floor at almost forty feet high and then we designed all the extensions with Rob Legato, the visual effects supervisor.
AS: Did you do a lot of pre-vis? Kim Sinclair, who worked on Avatar, described how they would have to build to the pre-vis specs that James Cameron had been working with and how that process made it harder. They would have to make a door 3 feet high if it was 3 feet high in the pre-vis.
DF: Yes, we did a lot of pre-vis but the pre-vis based their work on our drawings. I designed the entire movie first and we did all the models for every set and then the previsualization team based their work on our models. Previsualisation is a sequel to design, not a prequel.
AS: Do you ever stay after principal photography is finished to work with the VFX team?
DF: No, we do everything during the movie. Then later they send me some of the pictures of what it looks like to ask me if it’s okay. Marty always wants to ask me, Is everything correct? Because we did so many movies together. Also Rob Legato -I met Rob Legato when we did Interview with a Vampire many years ago. And then we did The Aviator and then Shutter Island and many other movies. We know each other very well and we know what we have to do.
Laurence Bennett designed The Artist, a black and white, silent film that won five Oscars, including Best Picture. His beautiful, meticulous design transports the audience to an artful portrayal of 1920-30’s Hollywood. I spoke with Bennett after he returned from Canada where he had just designed his next film, The Company You Keep, directed by and starring Robert Redford.
AS: Some production designers try to avoid using other movies as reference when designing their films but it seems The Artist is full of homages to other movies. What did you look at for inspiration?
LB: We watched a ton of movies. Trying to pay tribute to, and build, this world of Hollywood of the late twenties and early thirties we really needed to look at how filmmakers then portrayed it. I’d long been a silent film fan but my exposure since I’d been a kid had mostly been Chaplin and Keaton. Michel Hazanavicius, our director, opened up the world of that era to me. Murnau was probably the biggest single influence in the design of the picture and the mood of the piece. His films Sunrise and City Girl in particular. But we watched Lang, Von Sternberg, King Vidor. Three pictures by King Vidor really impressed me- Show People, which is about the studios at the time, The Crowd, and The Big Parade, which is just devastatingly good. Research about the period in general was key in trying to get into the heads of these people. They were inventing the language and business of filmmaking.