Patrick Tatopoulos production designed the blockbusters Independence Day, I, Robot, and Live Free or Die Hard. He is also famous for creating incredible creature effects for films such as Silent Hill, the Ruins, and the Underworld series, the last installment of which he directed. I ran into Patrick on the slopes at Big Bear and he agreed to share some of his wisdom.
NOTE: Following our original interview stick around for a 2020 addendum with Patrick’s updated take on the current state of our industry…
AS: You went from effects to production designer and now to director- how did you first start out? PT: I left Europe and came to the States to be a sculptor or designer for creature effects. The thing that actually appealed to me the most about moviemaking was special makeup effects. That was my first big target. After seeing the movie the Thing I said, This is what I want to do. So in a few weeks I sculpted a bunch of creatures- I was in Greece at the time- then I took pictures and came to the States. I had a few meetings but the one that became really, really important was with a company called Makeup Effects Laboratories. Those guys ended up hiring me and getting me my Green Card so I could work as a creature sculptor. I spent a year or so sculpting, making molds, and designing creatures for them on a few small movies that came to the shop. I built a couple of creature effects for Star Trek: Next Generation and then a company came and we had to do Beastmaster 2. They saw my drawing and said, Hey Patrick we have a great production designer on board but he doesn’t draw. We would like someone like you to be the art director.
Michael Novotny worked with James Cameron on True Lies and Terminator 2 and production designed K-19: The Widowmaker for Kathryn Bigelow. With these $100 million features under his belt, he moved on to designing a series of episodics including Better Call Saul, The Affair, and seven seasons of the hit CBS crime drama The Mentalist…
AS: What first got you into the field? MN: Probably painting. I always painted, starting around 14. And then in our small town of 3,000 I was able to get a free pass to the movies for 6 months at a time by doing very bizarre, outrageous cartoons. The cartoons depicted what happened on the balconies and in the main seating area when a bunch of animal-like teenagers came in. The manager liked them so much he would put them up in his office and I could get in for nothing. So that was my first commercial art deal. I was a kid -you’re just trying to be cool. That’s when I found out that art was cool!
And then I was fortunate enough to move to a town near Pittsburg that had a high school where they could offer advanced art. We did subjects like intaglio etching. We had very high-pressure presses, kilns; we did stained glass. From there I went to Goddard College in Vermont, which was a very experimental college with a very small campus of maybe 200 people. David Mamet was my dorm mate. There were no grades, you designed your own courses. I studied the bushmen and Kalahari by producing large sand paintings, 8 by 16 feet. When I left Goddard I went to the University of Pittsburgh and I went into premedical studies. I did a lot of physics and chemistry and that sort of thing. But soon I’d had enough and I left and went to England. I started a communal theater company, Footsbarn Theater, with a group of friends from Goddard College. It’s still going in France.
AS: Were you involved in set-building there? MN: Totally. I was painting, we did a lot of sculpting. We wrote all our own pieces. They were folk tales of rural England -tales and legends of the giants, the formations of St. Michael’s mount, King Arthur’s castle, Camelot. Everybody had to do everything and I was really much better at painting than at performing. But everyone had to have their time on stage. I did that for about 4 years in England and then we did 6 years based out of Amsterdam. We did almost every Western European city. From North Africa all the way through to Scandinavia.