AS: Is your background an art school background? Or did you go to film school?
JM: I’m really sort of a mutt, I’ve got a little bit of film background, I’ve got a little bit of schooling, a little film and architecture. I grew up in Seattle, Washington and I was taking film programs there and studying a little bit of architecture but I was making my living working as an art director for theaters. And I got involved with the Seattle Film Festival. At the Seattle Film Festival they were lovely people and although they weren’t able to pay us much money to do the work, to do the programs and the posters, they were really wonderful about letting you meet people that you admired. They were one of the first film festivals that would bring in directors and writers. So if they knew that there was a director that you really wanted to meet they would make sure that you got hooked up. And in the course of two weeks for the first time in my life I’d met real filmmakers. And as I was able to talk to them and have dinner with them, they’d always be very nice and they’d hear that I was interested in film and interested in architecture and in the course of two weeks eight or ten of these real filmmakers said, Well, why aren’t you a production designer for movies?
And it’s embarrassing to say but I never really knew what a production designer did in the movies. I guess I’d seen a thousand movies that had the title production designer/art director listed on them but up in Seattle it just didn’t really click what it was. And the moment a real director said to me, Well, the production designer designs the visual look of the film. The production designer chooses the style of architecture, the color palette, the scale, and uses the visuals to help tell the story, I was like, Oh, my God, that’s me. That’s what I want to do. I mean, the moment I heard that, I knew that I had to be a production designer.
So like a week after the film festival ended I just packed everything up in Seattle and drove down to Los Angeles and just knocked on doors for three months until I got my first job as a PA in the art department, the lowest level entry position. And then, doing all non-union work I did literally every position in the art department. I was a PA, I drove the prop truck, I was assistant props, I was a prop master, I was an on-set dresser, I’ve been a painter, a plasterer, a sculptor, a graphic artist, lead man, set decorator, assistant art director, art director, and eventually production designer. And at one point I started art directing bigger films and production designing smaller films simultaneously. Finally one of those films, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? went union and I was able to get into the union and at that point I started to work on bigger films. So I worked for eight years on films that no one in my family had ever heard of. And then finally after What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? I started working on bigger films that became real movies.
AS: I interviewed production designer John Muto who did Night of the Comet…
JM: My first film. I started as his PA. On that film they needed to add on an assistant prop person so it was probably a week or two into shooting when the prop master Paul Ahrens went to John Muto and said, Is there any way I could please have John in my department? And it was a little bit of a promotion to go from PA to the assistant props. But it also involved driving the thirty foot prop truck to work each day!