AS: Would you say production design should be visible or invisible?
DN: It depends on the movie. I think a film like Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket -I don’t know how the production design on that film can be invisible. It really depends on the project. I mean take a film like Dog Day Afternoon. That production design was invisible, you couldn’t tell that those were sets. Or a show like American Beauty -it was well shot but I think the production design was kind of invisible. Then a show like Napoleon Dynamite I don’t think that that show was meant for the production design to be invisible- I think that it was intended for you to really notice that everything was wacky and quirky, right? So I think it really depends on what the concept is, going into the project. I mean you have some science fiction films like Star Wars where the production design was much more invisible than it was on some Star Trek films, you know what I mean? The original Star Wars was so realistic- you looked at it and you couldn’t even comprehend that those were sets, they looked real, they made sense. Godfather was invisible but Pan’s Labyrinth was obviously not…
AS: Would you say a set can be a character in a film?
DN: I think it can be a character in a film. If it’s telling a story. Maybe you can argue whether it’s a character or not, but if it’s telling a story it’s something important. If you don’t want to call it a character call it something. Some sets are more influential than others, you know?
AS: You mentioned working with your dad in the beginning -are there any specific things that you learned from your dad?
DN: That’s a good question. You know the production designer job in particular is a unique position. I believe that anybody can do this job. I don’t mean to say that literally, but theoretically. It’s really all about getting along. To me it’s more of a relationship. It is a relationship with the people that are going to hire you. I mean anybody can design a set, and the director and the producers know that they can hire anyone to design the set. But who do they want to hire? Who do they want to be with?
My dad gave me two words of advice. When I got this job he said, When you’re in the scout van always sit in the middle, so you’re always right in the middle of it all. And when you’re in the scout van do whatever you can do not to talk about work. Talk about anything but work. They know you’re going to get the product done. They wouldn’t hire you if you couldn’t do the job. They’re just going to want to work with you next time based on if they like you or not. The skill level is just elementary -designing good sets. The socializing part makes production designing different than art directing, and assistant art directing and set designing. It’s about being the person behind the curtain.