Nathan Crowley brought Modernism and scale into Batman’s formerly Gothic world, creating masterpieces of cinema with his friend Christopher Nolan. While his fifth Academy Award nomination was for Damian Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, he’d already been Oscar-nominated for four films with Nolan, including for the historic war film Dunkirk…
AS: When you were in art school did you have any idea you’d be a production designer?
NC: Not at all. I was thinking about continuing on with the School of Art and Design at Brighton. But I ended up getting hired after I got my art degree by a bunch of architects to draft. I did that for two years and it made me realize I didn’t want to be an architect! No one was doing anything interesting. It was what I call business architecture and it was really uninspiring. I ended up thinking, Shit, I don’t want to do post-graduate architecture, even though I love architecture. That was in the late Eighties just as Thatcher destroyed England. It was time to leave.
I ended up coming to LA. I drove old sports cars across America for a while that were being shipped to Europe. I’d take the I-10 and drive them from LA to Jacksonville, Florida. My friend and I would buy old Porches and Spiders, I’d drive them across and ship them to him in England where he’d sell them. It was just enough money to live on in LA. And then that economic crash happened. We got left with a few sports cars and we couldn’t sell them. I realized I had to get a job in LA somewhere!
And then I walked into Small’s, a bar on Melrose, and bumped into a friend from art college who’d been working in Hollywood for a few years as a set designer. He said they needed set designers on Hook. There were none available because the Universal backlot had burned down, weirdly, and they’d hired everyone off the set designer’s roster to redraw Universal. My friend said, You can draw, can’t you? And Norman Garwood, the production designer on Hook, (and on Brazil) hired me as a junior set designer in the old MGM drafting room and he got me in the union. It was a couple of fortunate events.
AS: How did you make the jump from Set Designer to Art Director?
NC: Norman came in and said, You don’t know anyone in Hollywood, do you? How are you going to get a job? I hadn’t really thought that far. He said, I know the designer on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. So he went next door and got me a job on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I didn’t even know I wanted to do art direction. I was on it for eleven months as set designer and didn’t get credit. Then they needed someone with Roman Coppola on second unit. I ended up doing all that puppeteering, the mirror work, matte projection, and hours and hours of cutouts for the opening sequence. That’s where I really got into the magic of art direction. I’d always been interested in optical illusions. Even though I wasn’t an art director and shouldn’t have been on stage I basically got assigned second unit and there I realized I wanted to be an art director. Then I went to work on Star Trek as a set designer again because I needed a job but it made me realize I didn’t want to be a set designer anymore. I didn’t want to draw, I wanted to be on stage. I quit that show and got hired as an art director on an independent Abel Ferera film with Madonna, Dangerous Game.