AS: Is there any one set that you worked on or decorated that you’re particularly proud of?
KS: Well, from a set decoration point of view a set that was deceptively simple was the commissary in Avatar. It was quite a big practical set with no real green-screen or digital work. We put a lot of work into that, which may not have been on the screen. We designed and fabricated vending machines. We designed the food packaging that was inside the vending machines. We pretty much designed the food. They eat a lot of refried beans in Pandora apparently! A lot of work went into that set. We designed the tables; we designed the chairs. Everything got made. It works really well in the movie and it’s not a big, “Look at me, I’m an amazing set” set. It’s a nice background for the action. We got a lot of pleasure from that.
The laboratory had literally millions of dollars of dressing. We had real electron microscopes and loads of medical and imaging equipment. That came out really well. The ships too came out really well because we only got the design for them ten weeks before they were due to be shot. They were the first thing that got shot and the last thing that got designed. They were satisfying in that we got the things finished and they looked pretty amazing.
The set that we had the most fun with was the aircraft. Apart from the engines and the rotors it was pretty much a real aircraft, inside and out. With all the working avionics. Lots of input from helicopter pilots and aviation specialists and electronic guys. You’d sit in it and it smells like an aircraft. And feels like an aircraft. Jim was really delighted with it. When we got that they were like, Hey these guys know what they’re doing. Quite surprising to us too!
AS: Would you say your life has changed after winning an Oscar?
KS: Not yet! I feel tireder!
AS: Do you feel like your roles will change?
KS: From my point of view I have to support my wife and daughter and I do anything. It’s a real New Zealand thing actually that we move around between roles. It makes me mad when people send me their resumes and they say they can do anything. How can I employ you? Just say what you want to do! I’ll give you a job. When I get CVs from New Zealanders they say, I can build, paint, I production designed this TV commercial, I did some props work. It’s like, I can’t employ you! Say what you want to do! Unfortunately I’m as guilty as they are. If someone offers me a job as a set dresser I’ll probably take it.
AS: Do you feel design needs to be invisible or visible?
KS: It depends on the film and it depends on the director. I find there are two sorts of directors. There’s the director with a very clear vision of the film, including the look of the film and the design. And there are other directors who will write a script set at a house and when you start talking to them you find they have no idea about the relationships between the rooms or even how the scene plays out. But there are other directors, like Jim, who are just completely visual. They’re building it in their minds. I’m not saying one form of direction is better than the other.