Grant Major

They have different ways of working up there. Just the way that they divide up labor, the way they cost things out, those sorts of practical things are a little difficult to get your head around. Just takes some working out, you could say. We found in the end that we were pulling things back to New Zealand because it was more of a known quantity. New Zealand is actually quite good geographically for a lot of other places in the world. We’re quite lucky, it’s quite a diverse landscape. In China there are iconic landscapes like Guinlin but a lot of the regular “in between” locations we shot back here in New Zealand. Obviously for production and political reasons we had to have a reasonable footprint there. We’re expecting a large Chinese audience and they have to be able to buy into the story and feel national pride seeing their country looking great on screen.

AS: Of the different directors you’ve worked with, would you say Bryan Singer is one of the more visual directors?
GM: Bryan is quite an interesting guy. Through the prep of X-Men: Apocalypse he didn’t come up to Montreal. So we were communicating long distance and that worked out okay but it did have its problems. Just the technicality of explaining creative ideas via Zoom was a little tricky. But you know it all worked out pretty well. He’s an incredibly talented man and knows what he wants. He is a visual person. In Apocalypse we were picking up on what John Myhre had done before me on X-men: Days of Future Past and trying to keep in the same realm of the world he’d created.

AS: Did you bring a lot of people to Montreal from New Zealand?
GM: No. That would be nice. But there was a terrific bunch of people in the art department there. The art department there had all gone through architecture school and they were quite a tight bunch of people who had gone from one X-Men film to another. So a lot of them had done Days of Future Past as well. They’re a very, very talented bunch of people. I made a lot of good friends up there shooting that film.

AS: What do you think of the world of episodics vs film? Production value seems so high these days in the episodic world.
GM: I just did the first couple of episodes of Cowboy Beebop which is still in the throes of being made. It was my first television series in years, decades probably. It’s been really interesting looking at that as a medium. There’s a different sort of framing and a different pace of production and that’s a new experience for me.

AS: Do you prefer one over the other?
GM: I like them both. I must say I like the sort of pulpy nature of TV, and it’s a lot faster turnaround. The immediacy of TV is quite interesting. I’m looking forward to working in that format again but at the same time cinema to me is like the classical music of the whole medium. It’s the high art form. The audience is in a totally black room with a massive screen, seeing all this detail. But both are really exciting to me as a production designer. Both mediums are essentially using the same tools just in a different sort of way.

AS: How do you see the future of production design changing?
GM: Good production design is all to do with the narrative. The narrative overrides all these other technical inventions that come along. The story’s the most important thing but the story itself is a vessel and inside the vessel are characters. In the best stories these characters have perspective, they have backgrounds and have psychological requirements. Recognizing all these subtleties is tremendously important because human beings are a social species. We go to the movies to interact with other human beings, notwithstanding that they’re projected on a cinema screen. Technologically production design’s gonna move on, but the fundamentals of storytelling won’t change. We still are creating environments and worlds within which we tell stories. It’s the best job in the world I reckon.

7 comments

  • Tom, this is a wonderful blog, thanks for the info.

    Do you have any advice for aspiring production designers? I live in Philadelphia and recently finished architecture school but I very much want to design films.

  • Glad to hear you like the blog! The best advice I’ve found is to just get out there and start doing it. Work on low budget videos, short films, commercials, anything you can get your hands on for low money. A lot of these directors will call you when they start doing features. And then call you again when the features get bigger budget. K.K. Barrett started with commercials and music videos for Spike Jonze, Grant Major started on smaller movies with Peter Jackson, and Jack Fisk rented a van and brought his own tools out to Colorado to go do Terence Malick’s Badlands. He not only found an auteur to work with throughout his career, he also met his future wife, Sissy Spacek.

    Also, you may want to move to LA or New York or anywhere there are schools like USC, AFI, NYU where talented directors are just starting out and looking for designers….

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  • Thanks so much for the response.

    I’m actually working on a short film with an old friend of mine who just graduated from USC and is trying to become a director so I guess I am on the right track! He lives in and will be shooting the film in San Diego but we’ve been able to work together so far by way of email and it’s been a lot of fun. I guess I will see what comes of it! If nothing else I’ll have some material to add to my portfolio.

    Thanks again!

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