Sarah Greenwood

AS: Did you go to art school or to film school?
SG: I went to art school and did theater design. And I worked in theater for three years and then I went to the BBC which was a fantastic training ground. To come up through television is great because you get a real hands-on knowledge of everything. And I’ve been freelance maybe fifteen years. I actually got my first feature film through a director that I worked with at the BBC doing dramas. And the BBC drama department was and is amazing. You can’t want for better training area than that.

AS: Do you feel production design should be visible or invisible when you’re watching a movie?
SG: I think it depends on the film completely. You know I think something like Sherlock, that’s really in-your-face. Something like Atonement, you know the green is very strong but it’s atmospheric, it’s helping to tell the story. It shouldn’t be overriding. But I love films that are so laid-back like Mike Leigh’s where it’s all about performance. I don’t tend to do that kind of degree of naturalism. In my films it’s always pushed slightly.

AS: To have some style…
SG: Yes, I think it would be very difficult for me to do something that is just so untouched. A Lars von Trier film is probably not for me to work on. Not that I don’t enjoy them. I think as long as it’s appropriate to the piece it’s great. You know there are films that I won’t mention that it’s just in there to make a big statement and I think that’s gross.

AS: If it takes you out of the story…
SG: Yes, too extreme is too much. You have to be very careful. We often have to pull ourselves back and just say, Well, that’s just a bit much. Sometimes we fail but I think it’s very important to try and get the balance right.

AS: What are some good characteristics of a production designer? Knowing when to pull back in those stylistic choices? What other characteristics?
SG: You have to know everything about everything, you know what I mean? That’s what astounds me. You know, you’re standing on top of a mountain and you get asked, Well, what does a badger hole look like, where do badgers live? And you go, I don’t know. You have to know or have a very strong idea of something, kind of an instinctive feel for something. You can’t go wrong in whatever you do and wherever you go because it’s all going to feed in. Life is always going to kind of feed into what we do.

It’s interesting because you look at people coming through and wonder who are going to be the production designers of the next generation. You have ones that come through VFX, you have ones that have come through art directors, theater, set decorators. There’s room for all sorts of talent. I think the most important thing is understanding the script and understanding the characterization. Really understanding why you’re making this film. And then being sanguine enough that you can actually get on with people. And knowing when to shut up!

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