There are egos everywhere and everybody can move into the zone of just trying to have their own vision accomplished. But really what you see in most of the people that you’ve interviewed is that the production designer is trying to enhance, and get to the essence of the director’s vision. Maybe along with the producer and along with the writer. For me it’s always been director-centric. And I’ve got to work with such good directors and powerful visionaries. They always make my work look much better than I could on my own. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have opinions. It just means that I don’t put those opinions over theirs and then fight with them about it. Instead I try to really listen to what it is they want.
I hear what they want metaphorically and then go out ahead of them, and beyond. It’s my interpretation but then it becomes our interpretation. It becomes bigger than the sum of the parts of the conversation. And setting the stage is not just the literal, physical stage, or even the digital stage or the mo-cap stage, it’s the stage for good ideas and a process that leads to real collaboration. For me, that’s the only reason I’ve gotten invited to do the movies that I’ve done and to last as long as I have. It’s because I like that part of it.
You can look at the group of people you’ve interviewed and see how we are actually similar even if it’s somebody who says they draw everything or somebody else who says they don’t draw anything. Nobody in that group says, I just come in and do it all on my own and nobody helps me, and I don’t have to create a great team around me.
Especially now when we go somewhere and we’re just dropped in. We don’t necessarily have people there that we knew beforehand that we’re going to be working with. We have to size the local crew up. I thought Dante Ferretti said it really well in one of your interviews. About having good instincts in picking people. He said, I don’t think I’ve made a mistake yet, or maybe I have I just don’t know it!
Everybody finds a way to be a really good collaborator. I know Dennis Gassner and I talk about that, Jim Bissell [E.T. production designer] and I talk about it, Guy Dyas, Nathan Crowley, Sarah Greenwood. We all talk about this all the time. Because even the directors themselves, no matter who they are, no matter what their vision is, they have to work through other people. Otherwise even Jim Cameron would just have one movie and he’d probably still be working on it by himself. That is, if he didn’t know how to engage large groups of people and get them to understand his vision.
That’s not always simple because the director may be right on the edge of technology or on a concept that’s not easy to see at first. What is Eywa? That’s a spiritual force that’s at the center of Avatar. And it informs everything that you see. You need to understand how real that is to Jim. Or the Force which George [Lucas] brought into being. We had to interpret it for another generation and hand off the latest Star Wars movies.