Conversations With Production Designers & Art Directors
Author: Tom Lisowski
Tom Lisowski is a production designer who has designed swamp mazes shot in China, crumbling cliffs in Utah, future arenas in South Central, dilapidated tenements and twisted laboratories under luxurious mansions...
William Anthony is a Los Angeles-based commercial and editorial photographer specializing in portraiture, lifestyle and documentary imagery...
Guest photographer Nelson Cragg is an award-winning cinematographer who shoots and directs television, feature films, and commercial projects.
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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.
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 auteur filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, he created both the hostile reality and the surreal dream-world of the movie. He’s worked with Jim Jarmusch, Baz Luhrman, and designed the Oscar-winning masterpiece Roma for Alfonso Cuarón. 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 more recent Tree of Life. He received an Oscar nomination for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and Alejandro Iñáritu’s The Revenant. 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 also 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 like 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, 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.
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, Adaptation, and Her (for which he was nominated for an Oscar); Michel Gondry on Human Nature; Sophia Coppola on Lost in Translation and Marie Anoinette. He had just finished the Stephen Daldry-directed Tom Hanks movie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close when 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.