For a production designer the most important thing is, if there is something there, enhance it. If there is nothing there, come up with something so that everyone else on the crew from construction to art department to cinematographers to set decorators to producers to location managers and visual effects people all have to have something to do. They have what Zemeckis used to call their “marching orders”. Because if you don’t, it just spins around and around and the production’s just wasting money trying to get going.
With each one of these directors I’ve been involved with I learned that there was a language that they needed to have as a primary launching place to go from. Then you have to solve issues that come up. And sometimes they’re not rational issues. With Martin Scorsese on Amazing Stories, the whole show was about these mirrors and in particular the breaking of a mirror, and he said, I can’t break a mirror on set. That’s just bad luck. I had to come up with a way to help him break a mirror in the scene without ever breaking a mirror on a stage that he was a part of. So we had a plexiglass mirror with shelves of glass in front. They threw something at it, the glass broke, and then we cut away to the thrower, then when we came back and the mirror was broken. The mirror had been done off stage somewhere and brought in.
Thirty years later I was at the Art Director’s Guild getting an award for lifetime achievement and Marty Scorsese was there getting an award and I couldn’t help referencing that event even while I was getting my award. I noted that we were talking thirty years later while both getting lifetime achievement awards so obviously we didn’t have bad luck!
AS: What is your process when you first get a script?
RC: The first thing I do is to let it wash over me so I can just experience the first reading, which will be the freshest I’ll ever have. Just experience what the movie means to me and what comes out to me. In your interview with Guy Dyas he talked about sketching what he saw along the way, but however one does that, whether one makes notes or doesn’t make notes, sketches or doesn’t sketch, one gets a feeling from the script.
Now let’s just say, as it’s been numerous times for me, and as it was on the Star Wars movies, there’s no script when I’m starting. Concepts are just being developed. Polar Express was that way, there was just the children’s book. And Avatar was only partially developed. I’m looking for the feeling and what flickers and the little glimpses and associations I make. I try to note what they are without interrupting the flow because I’m not only looking at it moment to moment as though it’s a series of stills, I’m looking at it cinematically, in motion. Then I see what aspects of characters or scenes I associate with something else in a script. They are either connected literally or are not connected but should be.
For instance, on Avatar I could tell that I was on a journey that seemed like the Wizard of Oz as it would meet Apocalypse Now. Those are both journeys, and one goes one place and one goes another. And then for Avatar it’s even portrayed as mystical and there’s a connectedness that is invoked. There was this connection between the “Kansas” human world and the “Oz” world.