John Muto designed one of the biggest live-action comedies of all time, Home Alone. His extensive list of features also includes one of my own personal favorites from the eighties, River’s Edge. He worked with director James Cameron on Terminator II/3D and visual artist H.R. Giger on Species. We grabbed lunch while he was co-teaching production design at AFI with the late Hitchcock art director luminary Bob Boyle.
AS: What brought you into production design in the first place?
JM: You know for me, my training is entirely in writing- I have no design training whatsoever. I got out of college and I always wanted to be a writer. I don’t know if I wanted to be a comic book writer, or a movie writer, just some kind of writer. Which I think, by the way, is a better preparation for production design than most art schools. Because movies are about story. And of course that’s the biggest problem we have, is getting good stories. Working with lousy scripts, believe me, in film school that’s a big problem. So that’s what I studied in college. I went to Berkeley. I got out of college and I actually applied to film school and I got in but I just couldn’t bear to go. I’d had it with school and I didn’t know what I should do. But I had a strange desire to get into show business and of all things I got mixed up with a theater company that was really a dance company.
And I had this sort of odd fantasy of being a dancer, because I loved dance films. I had no talent but I was young and I was very strong and very thin and so I could actually keep up with people who had talent. A little bit. Enough that I got into a dance company. Which just recently had a revival of one of their ancient pieces from the 60’s at the Redcat downtown. It’s actually a famous piece of avant-garde choreography that they rarely did. When I was with them they decided to do it because a film company was going to document it. And the guy who did our lights was sick. So I wound up doing the lights. I was the natural choice. I wasn’t in the dance really but I was doing the lights. Although I wound up moving with the lights as if it was a dance. But the upshot of the whole thing was that I got involved with the film company. These guys did commercials and one thing let to another and I got into animation.
I did some animation for them because even though I didn’t have any particular talent as a dancer I had learned so much about movement and I had kind of an intuitive way of dealing with drawing and animation so it was all very natural.
Among Joe Garrity’s extensive credits are classic Christopher Guest films including comedies Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, and A Mighty Wind. His ongoing career as a production designer feeds into his work at the film school AFI, where he heads up the Production Design department, inspiring the next generation of visionaries.
JG: Most people who are artists -they kind of figure it out or see it when they’re small. I drew as long as I could remember and then I got this little marionette puppet and I started to be curious about what kind of environment that I could put this little thing in. So there was an interest in creating spaces where they weren’t. And environments where they weren’t. And then stage crew in high school became a very interesting thing to me because I got into these group efforts. I like the idea of being with others to create something and so stage crew became another step for me. And the idea of putting a show on was very interesting to me too. It was a real social thing and at that point I wasn’t a designer of anything but I was part of constructing the sets and painting the scenery and running the lights and being there to run the show and pulling the fly system and all that. So much fun. And so I really enjoyed that and thought that would be what I would do.
And then a movie camera was introduced to me, a Super 8 camera, when I was in high school. I got really into the idea of seeing things, not where you sit in the chair and you look at a proscenium arch from one perspective and lighting focuses the eye, but instead I could choose how to see things with my little camera. So I got fascinated with the language of film and telling the story that way -through this little machine.
AS: So you made your own movies?
JG: I started to make little movies and then I went to college -I went to Temple University into the film department. They made documentary films so I was making documentary films but the theater department was connected so I was always over in the theater department helping with the sets and designing some smaller productions over there. I learned how to draft and I learned about getting serious about designing the sets. Yet I loved the movies, the language of film, so I said I want to combine these somehow and then someone told me about the American Film Institute. I applied to AFI and I wasn’t accepted the first time I went in and then I tried again and got in. It was a one year program at that point and I learned totally by just doing.
There was a production design department and I was one of two that were in that year and so the two of us were busily working on shows and learning. Just learning by doing -it’s a great way to learn- and I got through and did some programs and got noticed by a designer from one of the thesis films that I did and I started working for that person for a couple shows.