After Richard Sylbert I met the production designer Michael Riva as well as Michael Haller who both had less formal ways of doing their jobs. Once I was with Michael Riva we got to do Goonies together and that was like being two kids paid to be swashbucklers. And that’s where I met Steven Spielberg and Kathy Kennedy [producer]. We’d done a big pirate ship and all these cave sets and I took them through those and that’s when Steven offered me Amazing Stories.
Amazing Stories was two years of television with a very eclectic group of stories. That led to the relationship with Steven and then with Bob Zemeckis. The next twenty years was just the two of them so I never got beaten up by going out into the world to have multiple directors have different interpretations of what I could do or not do. Instead I could hone my point of view and they seemed to appreciate it.
I made lots of mistakes but I kept the thing going and that was the beginning. I was a very good assistant. I took lots of notes. I was very good at communicating. I’ve always needed the people around me, the set designers, set decorators, illustrators, and people who were so good at doing their specific jobs. It’s a little like learning how to conduct before you know how to actually play the instruments. I see that communication as an integral part of the job for me, that leads to results, so that then the directors like having me around because I’m delivering for them. But I’m also imbuing it with something that they might not have thought of.
With Robert Zemeckis often I would start off and say something I thought was important and he would kind of have his eyes bulge out and say, Well, what I thought you were going to say was… and then he’d go into something that was a full-blown idea that would go right into the movie. And then I would ask, Were you thinking about that before I started talking? And he said, No, just while you were talking this came to me. He was using the energy I was providing as a reconnoiterer of concepts and then picking that energy out and making it his own.
And sometimes with Steven we’ll be talking and I can just tell by the way the conversation’s going that he’s about to circle back and have a really good idea, so I’ll try to set the stage for that.
AS: Would you say that spirit of collaboration is the most important attribute a production designer should have?
RC: I certainly advocate it from my own experience and you’ve heard that through many of your interviews. Being good collaborators both with the directors and the people they hire, production designers should maintain a certain amount of authorship that’s not at the expense of someone else. I don’t feel diminished by what other people have done on a movie that I have worked on. Usually it enhances what I do.
If you’re going to be defensive about that then you’ve got a big problem. You’re going to constantly be in friction with everybody about the size of the budget, the other people who are taking things away from you, the people who are taking credit for things that you think you deserve credit for, the people usurping your job, and you know, you’ve only got ten toes! So once they step on those ten toes… Some directors will step on all ten toes at once the first time you meet them!