Hannah Beachler made a name for herself designing critically-praised independent films like Creed, Fruitvale Station, and the Best Picture-winning Moonlight. Now she oversees $30 million art department budgets for films like the blockbuster Black Panther, for which she won an Academy Award. She’s staying busy during the coronavirus epidemic and will soon be prepping Black Panther 2…
AS: Is all film work shut down for you because of coronavirus? HB: I was on location in Detroit with Steven Soderbergh and the production said, We’re on hiatus. We’re going to be back in a couple weeks. So we just walked away. We didn’t wrap anything. We left our offices as-is, warehouses, everything. But now we’re finally getting the call to wrap out. And to me that kind of indicates that we’re not coming back anytime soon.
AS: Do you have any thoughts about how the industry might start back up? HB: A few weeks ago Variety called me about a Tweet I’d sent out about some of the film companies and how they’re handling the pandemic. My basic sentiment is the bigger the film’s budget, the easier it will be to handle. The larger the studio, the easier it is. I see the bigger movies coming back. And movies are still currently in development. That hasn’t stopped because those people work remotely- all the illustrators, concept artists, animators, set designers.
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.
Dennis Gassner’s visionary work on Bladerunner 2049 earned him one of 7 Oscar nominations. Of those nominations, he took home an Oscar in ‘91 for his unique take on the 1940’s gangster film Bugsy. Before he designed Bladerunner 2049 or the innovative Sam Mendes war film 1917, he had been the exclusive James Bond production designer -he created the look for Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and Spectre. These big budget extravaganzas are far removed from his early work on Coen brothers’ movies like Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing…
AS: What drew you to the field of production design? DG: My journey began in Vancouver, British Columbia and took me to Portland Oregon, Eugene Oregon, then on to Berkeley and Los Angeles. I’ve pretty much covered the West Coast. I was studying architecture at The University of Oregon when I went to see this technicolor film by David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia. It was my first Cinemascope film. The scale of it was so enormous and the power of the film was so awe-inspiring I said, Who was the architect of that? I wanted to know more and investigate the field of production design so I took my van and my two-year-old daughter and my wife and we moved to LA. I went to the Art Center School of Design, the old school on Third and Highland, and I connected to that world of thinking. They’d just started the film program and I got to make short movies. There was also graphic design and fine arts, transportation design and advertising design. It was thinking beyond anything that I’d experienced before, in a multitude of facets.
Colin Gibson invented a fleet of road warrior vehicles while designing the movie Mad Max: Fury Road, essentially becoming a “War Boy” himself in the process. A far cry from his more traditional work on Babe and Babe: Pig in the City, the world he brought to life for Fury Road was brutal and unforgettable and won him his first Academy Award…
AS: Your collaboration with director George Miller on Mad Max:Fury Road was mind-blowing. CG: There’s nothing like collaborating with a towering imagination to give you a head start to mind-blowing. George showed me a room full of storyboards and no script and said, This looks like it’s right up your street. I didn’t know at the time that it was going to take quite so long! It was the year 2000, which was the same year as the Sydney Olympics and so it was either the Olympics or Fury Road and my back had been playing up so I took Fury Road. But it turned out to be slightly longer than a four year turnaround!
Adam Stockhausen brought his artistic style to the Wes Anderson masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel and southern plantation realism to Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. He was Oscar-nominated for both and won for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Since then he’s continued to design Wes Anderson movies and has also become Steven Spielberg’s production designer of choice. But before all this he was inventing ways to keep blood off hardwood floors for Wes Craven…
AS: I hear you just wrapped your job as production designer on Steven Spielberg’s St James Place…
AS: Yes, we just finished. It’s a true story. We shot half in New York City and half in Berlin with a brief side trip into Poland. It was a wonderful experience for me. I had a blast.
AS: How was Spielberg to work with?
AS: Fantastic! We did a lot of sketching. We’d work things up and then go to see him and show our materials and it was a wonderful collaboration.
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?
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.
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.
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.