Rick Carter is a legend in the field of production design. With Avatar and Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, he designed two films that have each made over two billion in the box office. He’s spent a career teaming up with three of the greatest filmmaking visionaries who ever lived- Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Robert Zemekis, to create such classic films as Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, Back to the Future II and III. To date he’s won two Academy awards, one for Avatar and one for Lincoln. Most recently he designed Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker. I connected to Rick in the middle of the worldwide Corona virus pandemic, with our industry on hold…
AS: Is all production and prep shut down for you because of the Covid 19 virus? RC: It really is. There’s some prep going on but for the most part it’s shut down. People are trying to figure out when they can actually start up a production and how to do it because getting people together is not an easy task. Keeping people safe is the first and foremost thing. Secondarily, what kind of art can we create in this environment? It will have a profound impact on what movies are and how they’re made.
The job of production design is not going to be dependent on what we’ve had in this last epoch. Production design is not a static thing. Just the advent of computer imagery into the process caused a development that we’ve all had to adjust to, those of us who’ve been around for a while. And here comes another change and this one’s going to be very, very trying but I think it will lead to great solutions. Designers will have to really help designthe production, not just what it looks like.
Lee Ha Jun designed arguably the greatest film of the 2020 Oscar season, the Korean movie Parasite. He was nominated for the best Art Direction Oscar and won the Art Director’s Guild award for Best Contemporary Production Design. The film itself won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. His team built and dressed almost every set in the movie from scratch, including an entire city street that was flooded. I was elated to discuss production design with the artistic visionary behind this masterpiece.
A huge thank you to Juhee Yi of Neon for translating!
AS: Director Bong Joon Ho told me that you built a section of the city for the amazing flood scene in Parasite. Can you tell me a little about designing that exterior set? LHJ: There is an actual location in Seoul that has a similar look but since we had to flood the street in the scene we built the whole neighborhood in a water tank. We went location scouting where there are still apartments that have history. I designed the set by looking at the photos from the location scout and also referred back to the semi-basement where I used to live as a university student. When I was living in the semi-basement I hated having a toilet full or mold but later I realized I could draw from that experience!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
Production design doesn’t get any better than Sarah Greenwood’s interpretation of London for Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films. 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 director Joe Wright on period movies such as Atonement and Pride and Prejudice is stunning. When we talked, she had been scouting in Russia for Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, for which she has since received one of her six Oscar nominations to date.
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.
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 the Coen brothers’ movies such as No Country for Old Men, True Grit, and Hail Caesar, the last two earning him a pair of Academy Award nominations. Demonstrating he was not locked into the world of poetic violence, he also designed Greta Gerwig’s classic historic romance, Little Women.
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 to LA 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.