AS: I once had a basement set on a movie I was designing and my initial sketch was windowless and bare and pretty unshootable. The DP said, Look what Rick Carter did here for the basement set in War of the Worlds with the textures and midground elements and the light coming in the high cellar windows. Your basement set became a great inspiration to me and actually changed my whole paradigm about production design! Was there was a set like that, that inspired you in the beginning of your career?
RC: First of all, regarding that basement- and there were actually two basements in War of the Worlds, there’s one near the plane crash and there’s one at the end of the movie with Ogilvy, the Tim Robbins character. I tried to make those two basements seemingly of the same design, with a stairway right in the middle. That allowed you to be able to shoot it in a variety of ways whenever someone went up or down the stairs. That central point of reference is something that Steven always likes, as with the central visitor’s center in Jurassic Park. When you have something in the center you can move around it and you can use it as a foreground. That was one of the ideas.
Of course with the lighting, you’re always trying to have some place the DP can light from. In Back to the Future III, Bob Zemekis asked, You know the cave entrance is over here, but we’ve got a cave down here so where’s the light coming from? And the DP Dean Cundey said, Well I think it’s coming from the same place as the music!
AS: That story is legendary! I heard it from someone a long time ago but I never knew the original source!
RC: Well maybe Dean had heard it from somewhere before that but I was there when he said it and I just cracked up.
But in terms of sets that I saw, in Gone with the Wind that image with the Tara house in the background framed by the oak tree became the iconic image that I wanted to have for Forrest Gump. So we put the house right where it would be framed by the oak tree at the end of the oak alley. When we dug the foundation for the front steps of that house we actually ended up finding the foundation of steps in exactly the same place where a house had been built 100 years before.
Forrest Gump was also a southern story about a war that comes and damages so much around Forrest’s life, even thought the house itself never gets taken. It felt to me like I was going to a place that I was resurrecting from an old set. An old story that was about grieving about the loss of a way of life but in an entirely different context. That resonated for me in a specific way. There are many environments that I’m in that I find myself associating to previous movies but that’s the one that comes to mind as a specific set that had a place in the movie I was working on.
AS: Speaking of Forrest Gump, I remember you built a simple structure to show Robert Zemeckis the scale of the Gump house before it was built. John Myhre also told me how he mocks up sets sets either out of plywood for the dancers to practice on, or out of refrigerator boxes to give the director a sense of the space. Do you often mock up a set, to scale?