Laurence Bennett designed The Artist, a black and white, silent film that won five Oscars, including Best Picture. His beautiful, meticulous design transports the audience to an artful portrayal of 1920-30’s Hollywood. I spoke with Bennett after he returned from Canada where he had just designed his next film, The Company You Keep, directed by and starring Robert Redford.
AS: Some production designers try to avoid using other movies as reference when designing their films but it seems The Artist is full of homages to other movies. What did you look at for inspiration?
LB: We watched a ton of movies. Trying to pay tribute to, and build, this world of Hollywood of the late twenties and early thirties we really needed to look at how filmmakers then portrayed it. I’d long been a silent film fan but my exposure since I’d been a kid had mostly been Chaplin and Keaton. Michel Hazanavicius, our director, opened up the world of that era to me. Murnau was probably the biggest single influence in the design of the picture and the mood of the piece. His films Sunrise and City Girl in particular. But we watched Lang, Von Sternberg, King Vidor. Three pictures by King Vidor really impressed me- Show People, which is about the studios at the time, The Crowd, and The Big Parade, which is just devastatingly good. Research about the period in general was key in trying to get into the heads of these people. They were inventing the language and business of filmmaking.
People think of the technique and technical aspects of film at the time as being fairly crude. That’s not at all true. There were beautiful, artful, and very sophisticated techniques being used. There are tracking shots and crane shots in Sunrise that are absolutely beautiful. There is a crane shot on a boat coming into dock that just blows me away. There’s a tracking shot through a village that’s incredibly artful in its reveal and its contribution to the mood of the scene.
AS: The movie is about the transition from silents to talkies, and some have compared that change to our transition today into visual effects-heavy movies. How do you feel about that as a production designer? Did you use a lot of visual effects in The Artist?
LB: One of the themes of The Artist is the fear-inducing capability of change in peoples’ lives. George closed himself off, shut down, and became less than he might have been when he so firmly rejected the new technology. I think there are obviously parallels in what we’re seeing today in our industry. When we were making the picture Michel used to joke that everybody else was hot on 3D and we were making a 1D picture! While it’s not strictly true it’s indicative of how against-the-grain we were in doing this.
All the same, we knew that we would need to use whatever technologies were available to us. Pencils and computers work side-by-side in the art department. I work in pencil, the set designers worked in pencil and in computer modeling. All these things are tools. Aside from the one-sheets and the newspapers that