AS: A lot of coffee?
DW: I think a designer needs a wide life experience. An appreciation of a lot of different things. You can bring very eclectic references to the table. You need imagination. There are certain personality traits that some designers use that get them through films easier than others. The ability to judge people really well -who’s working for you and also who you’re working with. Obviously situations arise when you’ve gotta fight your corner or you’ve gotta let it go. You know I just think that’s a matter of personal judgment.
The biggest one is always taste. Just good taste. And by that I mean, whether you’re doing dragons flying through the air or just a salt and pepper pot on a table top, you still need to know that looks better than that! That’s really what it boils down to.
Production designers are all human beings -they’re all different. Some of them draw some of them don’t. Some of them have got tireless energy and excitement. Some of them are much more quiet. I don’t think you can write this on a piece of paper and say, Well, that guy can draw so he’ll be a great designer. I know that John Myhre for instance doesn’t draw a lot but he still has two Academy Awards. He’s obviously got a fantastic eye for references and he knows exactly what looks good when it’s built. He knows how to dress a set.
AS: You worked with Tim Burton and Dante Ferretti on Sweeney Todd and Dante on Interview with a Vampire. What was it like working with those guys?
DW: Working with Dante is great because he’s a very kind, generous fellow and he’s a really nice guy. When I was coming up in the film industry he was the first guy I worked with. And before I started I didn’t really know what a production designer did. Do a first film with Dante and then you walk away from that film thinking, Well that’s what a designer does. And then after that you have fifteen years of disappointment!
He was fantastic, he really was. He does draw and he does it in the Italian way. Doing these big, charcoal sketches of the sets. Lots of color, lots of lighting. He does them very quick. He just gets out his colored paper and draws these beautiful visuals from his imagination. He uses reference obviously but then he commits it to paper himself. He will say very early on, I want everything to be linear, I want it as real as possible. He likes stuff to be quite rigid and there’s often symmetry. It’s just very, very interesting to work with him.
AS: On Sweeney Todd did Tim Burton do a lot of sketches himself or was it all Dante?
DW: The triangular room with the huge window was something Tim sketched with Dante, they sat at a table together. Tim had seen this huge, skylight window somewhere before so he was absolutely convinced that was what he wanted. But most of it was completely Dante. Tim was in on certain icons. But Dante did the big street, the cellar, the great big room in the bad judge’s house -all of those were his ideas and his solutions.