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.
People think of the technique and technical aspects of film at the time as being fairly crude. That’s not at all true. There were beautiful, artful, and very sophisticated techniques being used. There are tracking shots and crane shots in Sunrise that are absolutely beautiful. There is a crane shot on a boat coming into dock that just blows me away. There’s a tracking shot through a village that’s incredibly artful in its reveal and its contribution to the mood of the scene.
AS: The movie is about the transition from silents to talkies, and some have compared that change to our transition today into visual effects-heavy movies. How do you feel about that as a production designer? Did you use a lot of visual effects in The Artist?
LB: One of the themes of The Artist is the fear-inducing capability of change in peoples’ lives. George closed himself off, shut down, and became less than he might have been when he so firmly rejected the new technology. I think there are obviously parallels in what we’re seeing today in our industry. When we were making the picture Michel used to joke that everybody else was hot on 3D and we were making a 1D picture! While it’s not strictly true it’s indicative of how against-the-grain we were in doing this.
All the same, we knew that we would need to use whatever technologies were available to us. Pencils and computers work side-by-side in the art department. I work in pencil, the set designers worked in pencil and in computer modeling. All these things are tools. Aside from the one-sheets and the newspapers that
Eugenio Caballero won an Academy Award for Pan’s Labyrinth, the film many production designers cite as a benchmark of creative film design. Working with Guillermo Del Toro, he designed both the hostile reality and the surreal dream-world of the movie. In addition to Del Toro, he’s worked with Jim Jarmusch, Baz Luhrman, and many prominent Latin directors. When I caught up with Eugenio he was back home in Mexico after just finishing a movie in New York City with Sebastían Cordero…
AS: How was your experience filming in NY?
EC: My friend, Sebastián Cordero, the Ecuadorian director of Chronicles and Rage, was doing his first film in the United States and it was a small piece. Small projects are often more difficult to do than huge projects! You’re there to make the best out of the resources that you have.
AS: Did you bring a crew into New York or did you work with local New York people?
EC: I worked with local New York people. Whether you hire a local crew depends on the project. On Pan’s Labyrinth, I went to Spain alone and hired a local crew. I didn’t know a single person in the art department before going. It was a fantastic crew and I’ve worked with several of them on other projects since then. For example, they worked with me on my previous film, The Impossible, which took a year and a half. We shot in Thailand and I took some of my old Spanish crew with me and also I brought a lead scenic painter from England. I took my two art directors, my propmaster, and my set decorator -the same one that worked on Pan’s Labyrinth and The Limits of Control.
Jack Fisk has an amazing career designing the films of auteurs including Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson, and David Lynch. He designed every Terrence Malick film including The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, The New World, Badlands and the recent Tree of Life. He received an Oscar nomination for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and also designed his upcoming 50’s era release, The Master. For David Lynch he designed the dreamlike Mullhulland Dr.
AS: Did you go to art school?
JF: I went to Cooper Union here in New York for a year then I went to Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. In 1970 David Lynch and I went out to California to seek our fortunes – or at least find a job.
AS: Did you know David Lynch from before?
JF: David and I have been best friends since high school and we went to art school together. He’d been accepted into the American Film Institute and I decided to go to California too. After a few months I got my first job as an art director. I had only worked on a couple of films, but Jonathan Demme hired me to be art director on a Roger Corman film Angels Hard as They Come. Steven Katz, the cinematographer, was a friend, I called Steven and said, What does an art director do? and he says, I don’t know!
Grant Major does big movies. He was nominated for Oscars for all three Lord of the Rings films and won for Return of the King. He received an Oscar nomination for Peter Jackson’s King Kong. When he’s not doing huge blockbusters he likes doing smaller New Zealand films close to home such as Niki Caro’s Oscar nominated Whale Rider. When I caught up with him he was in the middle of production on an Auckland-based independent feature The Emperor.
AS: How did you end up working on big, epic movies?
GM: A lot of my career was influenced by Peter Jackson’s trajectory. I started off doing some moderate-sized films with him back in the mid-nineties and then he segued into the Lord of the Rings and of course I was there for that. And then after that, King Kong. But I’ve got a family in Auckland and I’m very keen to spend time here so I take on small jobs to be able to stay in Auckland if I can. Which is what I’m doing at the moment. Working on The Emperor, a story about the possible war crimes against Emperor Hirohito in Japan in 1945. But I do need to keep my foot in the Hollywood scene as well so that’s why I did Green Lantern a short while ago.
AS: What skills help you handle those big projects?
GM: With any project you put in the same amount of effort and the same creative impetus. The big ones are obviously a longer haul with a lot more financial commitment. It’s a bigger decision-making process. There are more people looking over your shoulder and more people with an opinion about what you should be doing. You need to be able to fend off that sort of overview. It can work for you but it can also stifle the creative decision-making. It’s just being ready and having the strength for the long haul. You need to have a lot of stamina.
There’s a certain thrill in making big sets and doing these big production-design set-ups. It’s great because we have huge teams of people working with us and under us. It’s a thrilling way to make a living. On the big films you have a lot of more technical toys to play with. The vis effects work and special effects work are amped up so it’s a greater roller-coaster ride.
AS: How closely do you work with the visual effects team on a film?
GM: On Peter’s work we all know each other because WETA’s workshop is literally just down the road from the film that’s being made. It makes it very comfortable. I’ve known a lot of them for years and years so I can’t help but work closely with them. On these more modern projects like Green Lantern it’s a separate contract to the film. They were more divided because SONY Pictures Imageworks was across town. But we had one of their supervisors doing standby visual effects work on set every day.
K.K. Barrett has created unforgettable art working with some of the world’s most original filmmakers: Spike Jonze on Where the Wild Things Are, Being John Malkovich, and Adaptation; Michel Gondry on Human Nature; Sophia Coppola on Lost in Translation and Marie Anoinette. He just finished the Stephen Daldry-directed Tom Hanks movie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close here in New York. I met him in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn where he was prepping Karen O.’s psycho-opera Stop the Virgens.
KK: I always wish somebody would win an Oscar for production design and talk for just a minute about the simplicity of the most purely correct, but minimalist, piece of production design of the year. A film where people edit out visually what doesn’t belong until everything is pure and correct for the film, rather than the bells and whistles and the over-the-top and in-your-face design where you forget who the characters are. You can art direct a film without painting anything, without building anything, and still control a palette, still control a mood and make it a very strong statement.
AS: Reducing until you get to the essence…
KK: There’s only so much space in a film. A good example is when a book gets edited down to a script. Subplots are lost, characters are lost. You can only make so much of a statement in the hour and a half, two hours you have for the film. Production design is often the same way. You can only do so much. You don’t need to show the world that isn’t discussed or isn’t affecting the characters. Even though it may exist down the street. Sometimes the biggest process is saying, No, that has nothing to do with them, it distracts from them, let’s take that away. It would distract or confuse the character’s existence, or their dilemma, or their happiness. You just have to take things away until you’re concentrating on the character and the affected environments.
AS: The sets shouldn’t overshadow the characters…
KK: That’s a given unless you’re making a summer thrill-ride. There’s design for entertainment and then there’s design for drama. Sometimes it works hand-in-hand. Sometimes it’s dramatic and it’s entertaining. It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be entertaining but it should always be engaging. Sometimes entertaining is not engaging. I like to think that you can help the audience have an experience on their own by absorbing things rather than telling them what to think all the time. A summer film usually tells the audience what to think and is very nervous about not telling them what to think. They don’t want them ever to get bored. Don’t get me wrong, I buy a lot of popcorn and enjoy those movies, I am just trying to give thought to the more unsung statements of design.
Production design doesn’t get any better than Sarah Greenwood’s interpretation of London for Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. She gave us a lived-in, layered London full of texture and grit with a perfect marriage of style and realism. And her work with Joe Wright on period movies such as Atonement and Pride and Prejudice is visually amazing. Recently she’s taken Sherlock Holmes to the next level with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and has been scouting in Russia for Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina…
AS: You just got back from Switzerland for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Russia for Anna Karenina. Do you ever find locations yourself or does the location department always provide you a selection to pick from?
SG: It depends on the show. I work very closely with a location manager called Adam Richards. I’ve worked with him on Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Sherlock, and we work really well together. When you’re looking for something that’s off the beaten track that you can’t find in books I very much like to go out early days and just get a sense of it. Then Adam will carry on with his scouts and look further.
On Atonement the big house that we shot in for six weeks we found by going through the archives of Country Life with my set decorator. We were looking at old photos of 1930’s houses -the things that you won’t find in books. We found this article about this house, and then we went to have a look at it. We ended up using it and it was fantastic.
AS: There was a stark contrast in Atonement between the country house and wartime Dunkirk. You went from a colorful to a desaturated palette and then there was red associated with Cecilia and green in the house. Is color-design a big part of your work on a film?
SG: It is, actually. And you use it many different ways. Interestingly, green is a color I tend to stay clear of, and to use the amount of green we used in the house in Atonement was not what I would normally do. But it’s a decision that we made. Like the green of the corridor and that kind of arsenic green of the servants’ area. We referenced a fantastic house called Tyntesfield where the walls were painted that arsenic green. It’s like you wouldn’t have dared to use it had you not seen it with your own eyes. So yes, that green was a very specific color in the house and in that whole first part, the garden and the lake and Keira’s dress. Joe wanted a dress that was what he called “paddy green”. It was a very vibrant kind of Irish green. The dress was incredible. Very bold and very much a statement on Joe’s and Jacqueline Durran’s part as well.
Jess Gonchor knocked it out of the park with his first movie as production designer: Capote. Since then he’s had his hands full delivering realism with style on such movies as No Country for Old Men and True Grit, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Like True Grit his next project will also have a Western feel: he just signed on to do the upcoming Bruckheimer/Verbinski Lone Ranger…
AS: You live in New York City but do you do all of your work out of New York?
JG: No, I’ve probably designed three movies here but no, I just like it better here. I think every director that I’ve worked with lives in New York. Maybe it’s just coincidence but it’s worked out that way. I like LA too but this is where I call home.
AS: You get hired out there and then come out here to do movies or travel to various places?
JG: Various places. Most of the movies begin in Los Angeles. They evolve from a studio or independent. I can only think of one movie that didn’t get packaged up and born in Los Angeles. Sometimes I have to go out there. The majority of the time it’s somewhere else. Nowadays they seem to be making movies somewhere else besides Los Angeles. They make a lot of them in New York. But you tend to have to travel to some of the other places for some of the cooler scripts.
AS: It seems that’s happening more and more these days with all the tax incentives in other states.
JG: Yeah, that makes it very attractive to shoot a movie in Louisiana or New Mexico or any of those places. I’ve been fortunate enough to go to those places and have a good shot at using them for what they are. I haven’t been asked to go to New Mexico and shoot a movie about Ireland yet -which, believe me, they do! Really I think the most talented people are in Los Angeles. And it’s hard to get something off the ground there these days but hopefully soon.
John Myhre has been nominated for five Academy Awards and has won two- one for his amazing work creating an entire Japanese village in Memoirs of a Geisha and another for the Best Picture winner Chicago. His enthusiasm for design has taken him across genres: he’s designed everything from musical blockbusters to period pieces to stylish action films and he’s not slowing down any time soon…
AS: What project are you currently working on?
JM: I’m working on a really exciting project called Snow and the Seven which is a live-action version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs being made by Disney. That alone is really fun –I’m a huge Disney fan and just finished Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides for Disney and they were really wonderful to work with. But the really exciting thing about it is that it’s set in 19th century China. Snow is a colonial English girl. She has a step-mom who’s actually not bad at all but who gets possessed early on in the story by the spirit of an evil Chinese queen through an ancient Chinese mirror that they find. And Snow needs to flee away from her mother who’s out to get her. She flees through the wilds of China and runs into the Seven. But they’re not seven dwarfs, they’re seven warriors. Warriors from all around the world who are part of this organization and have been around for thousands of years. They keep the world safe from evil. Evil like evil queens. So Snow actually becomes one of the Seven and really becomes a warrior princess. It’s almost a superhero movie in a fun way and much more Pirates of the Caribbean than a kid’s traditional fairy tale story of Snow White.
AS: What are you looking at visually as references?
JM: We’re doing a really heightened version of the very, very best of China. We’re doing beautiful temples and beautiful shrines and the amazing mountains that you only see in China. And we’re heightening everything. When we go into a bamboo forest, instead of the bamboo being three inches, the bamboo will be a foot across to make it even more magical and myth-like. And when we go into a temple it won’t just be the recreation of a temple we love, it will instead be the best details of every temple we could possibly find in China all put together.
Guy Hendrix Dyas is a rock star in the world of film design: he designed Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Terry Gilliam’s The Brother’s Grimm, Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and is now hard at work on Spielberg’s latest, Robopocalypse. After studies at the Royal College of Art in London and Chelsea College of Art and Design he went from industrial designer to visual effects art director to concept artist and finally to production designer where he quickly rose to the top of the field…
AS: I was amazed to hear how much of Inception was practical versus CG. Is it true that the foundations of the fortress in the snow were made out of ice?
GHD: To our surprise many people have commented on how they thought the hospital was a real location but this bunker-like fortress doesn’t exist. Very early on Chris and I made a crude clay model of this set, Chris wanted to create something akin to what he’d seen in some of his favorite Bond films, that’s how we came up with a mix between military, governmental architecture and Panopticon prison design. Very quickly it became apparent to us that this set would have to be divided into two separate builds. The interiors were built on stage in Los Angeles while the multi-level exterior was built at approximately 7,000 feet in altitude.
Chris chose an amazing part of the high mountains of Calgary which was quite remote but the final result was worth the effort, seeing our large set built against such a beautiful natural backdrop really made our construction crew proud. The beauty of this natural site also meant that concrete foundations weren’t an option so instead, to anchor the set, we dropped large wood posts into holes filled with water and let them freeze into place. Using ice to stabilize the foundations was something that I’d never used before but it worked amazingly well. We started building the exterior portion of the set in Calgary with a Canadian construction crew in late summer so as to be able to have it completed before the heavy snow set in for the winter. Despite a few blizzards we were really fortunate to have perfect weather conditions and during the shoot we benefited from real snow blowing across the set.
AS: And the train that runs down the middle of the street- that was real?
GHD: Chris Nolan uses CGI very cleverly and for Inception shooting in real locations and using practical sets was important whenever possible. We knew from the start that the freight train sequence was going to be shot 90% in camera and require us to have a real train driving through the streets of downtown Los Angeles smashing cars. The art department worked in tandem with the special effects and stunt departments to make it happen. We molded parts from a real freight train and assembled them onto an extended truck chassis, the front was reinforced and weighed down so as to enable it to stay on its course despite obstacles.
Kim Sinclair won an Academy Award as Set Decorator/Supervising Art Director on the record-breaking blockbuster Avatar this year and has also designed numerous films, all from his home base in New Zealand. Currently working on Tintin with Steven Spielberg, Kim lives on the cutting edge where virtual and practical sets come together.
AS: On Avatar your primary involvement was the physical sets?
KS: We shot all the live-action in Avatar here in New Zealand. If at any time, in any frame, there were humans either in the foreground or the background, any humans at all, they were shot in Wellington. We provided a lot of large sets. The vehicles, the weapons, the props, the dressing. It was all pretty straightforward but the trick was the integration into the digital world. There were shots that were purely digital and there were shots that were purely live action. However, a large percentage of the movie featured digital characters in real environments or real people in digital environments. And that was really the challenge.
AS: What was your process collaborating with Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg?
KS: Rob Stromberg headed up what we used to call the virtual art department. In LA and he had a team of designers and they designed the look of the planet, the look of the vegetation, and they headed up the creature designs. They did some 3D modeling but basically that went to Weta Digital in New Zealand. That became the virtual world, the digital world. Meanwhile Rick Carter headed up a design art department in LA and designed the sets and the vehicles. There was overlap and integration between these departments but basically they designed the traditional, built environments. That information then all came down to me in New Zealand. I had one meeting with Jim [Cameron] in LA during preproduction but for the most part Rick dealt with him in preproduction because they were both in LA. Rick used to come down to New Zealand about once every three weeks for about two or three days at a time.