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.