Interview

 

Interview given to Sean Monkley, a Sheridan College student.

1. What inspired you to become a production designer?

I have been a Production Designer in film and television since 1985.  I started my career  in the middle 1970s first working as a painter and a carpenter in the theater in Montreal, a job for which I had no previous qualifications. I had wanted to be either a writer or an architect so stagecraft was certainly kind of a sideways move. A writing teacher had liked my writing but had asked me to work on a sense of place in my writing and I met a stage designer, Michael Eagan when he came to lecture at my school. In those days it was rare to meet someone who actually got money for what they did. You met writers who were taxi drivers or actors that were waitresses or artists that were teachers but he was really a rare bird. In 1976 I got a job first in the paint shop then the carpentry shop at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Vancouver, BC. I continued working at night painting stage productions and I applied to the design department of the National Theatre School of Canada and was accepted and I spent three years studying with the legendary designer François Barbeau  in Montreal. Even before graduation I got jobs designing for local theaters and then worked for my teacher, the Italian designer Sandro Laferla who was production designer of a movie called "The Incredible Mrs. Chadwick " to be directed by Anthony Mann and starring Shirley Maclaine. We worked on it for about three months and then the whole enterprise folded.  I subsequently got a job on David Cronnenberg's "Scanners" designed by Carol Speir where I worked as a second assistant art director. From 1980 to 1985 I designed plays, both sets and costumes and sometimes lighting at regional theaters across Canada and worked on the side as an assistant designer making television commercials mostly in Montreal. What really started my career designing films was the 1985 series of 1/2 hours for television Canadian Stories co-produced by the National Film Board and Atlantis Films and I designed seven of them, I was 30 years old.


When I went to theatre school I didn't even know how to draw but the school at the time was very traditional and we had seven hours of life drawing a week which was great. At the time that I became interested in film it was the 1970s, and those great films by Altman, Scorcese, Polanski and Coppola were hugely inspirational. It's hard to believe now but every western country had thriving film industries putting out great films especially the Italians, Fellini, Visconti, Bertolucci, Ettore Scola. Kurosawa in Japan, the English, the French all producing great gorgeous films. Here in Canada we had a very strong cinema in Quebec and a great documentary and docu-drama tradition. I was a passionate viewer of films in those pre-videotape days when you had to really track what films were playing and where and travel to colleges and universities to see "art house" movies.  I had gone briefly to a community college to a film program at the college but the classes were at 8:30 in the morning and I just couldn't get it together to get up and go to watch movies at 8:30 in the morning a 45 minute bus trip from my apartment, and spend the nights going to art openings, movies and drinking and carrying on.  How ever the film teacher when asked how to learn about movies replied, "Watch them" and that is what I did then and what I have done ever since. I worked as a projectionist in the college and then worked in a repertory movie theater, we screened the glories of the cinema, Bergman, Godard, Hal Ashby. I think I watched Citizen Kane 35 times!  My interest in the theatre was really due to my mother taking me to the symphony, the opera and to live theater and I had gone to see live plays as a high school student and I was really seduced by the theater by the whole idea of a live performance with real people standing on the stage. How present the whole thing was. How powerful and embarrassing to witness that much emotion so close. However I  never understood naturalism. All those box sets that are supposed to be "real" but ended with a black curtain on the edge of the stage. Movies just seemed to do a better job of that, the camera was greater authority on what to look at.


The answer to your question is that I was mentored, I knew I wanted to do something in the arts but I didn't know what until someone showed me the way. That is really the answer if I had met some one else at that age who did something else, say a camera person or  a writer, I could easily have ended up with that as a profession. If there is one film that I would name from that period it would be L'Innocente by Visconti or Last Tango in Paris by Bertolucci.




 

2. What are your positives and negatives of being a production designer?

There are lots of positives. The first being that you get to bring imaginary worlds to life. To make whole what only existed as words on a page and more often than not didn't even exist in the script.

The second is I always loved many different aspects of the arts. I love watching actors work, have always been a passionate reader and lover of books of all kinds. Painting and photography are practices I began as a teenager and though I rarely paint I have always taken pictures and in the last couple of years have taught myself large format photography. I was and continue to be madly interested in history, both social and political, and in architecture and I love research, in fact sometimes the research is hard to leave behind. I love graphic and type design, furniture design, fashion both historical and contemporary. Social anthropology, the history of food, sculpture, cars and technology are also of great interest to me. It's hard to imagine another profession that requires as diverse a skill set as production design as well as a justification for the pursuit of general knowledge.


There are also the aspects of alchemy, conjuring and just out and out fakery, that are very attractive. Starting from nothing really, wood, paint and plaster (now pixels), whole worlds that once existed are recreated and ones that never existed are brought into being. The production designer is in charge of space and time. Think of a historical drama the camera pans slightly to the right or left there is a sky scraper or a catering truck or a gaffer on a ladder in work gear smoking panning left the scene is filled with a magnificent 18th century carriage  a castle in the distance and costumed actors. Of course if the writing doesn't reflect the time or the actors don't speak in some sort of period way the illusion is broken (think Scorcese's Last Temptation of Christ, where Jerusalem was a borough of New York) but all that illusion is the work of the art department.


The negatives are that it is a very misunderstood profession with lots of conflicting qualities. There is no creative pay equity. There is a kind of tier system in place in which producers, directors, writers and DPs are remunerated at a greater rate than designer, editors and other so called "crafts". The writers, producers and to some extant directors can make some claim to ownership of the project and being paid for work that was unpaid in development but it's hard to justify DP's being remunerated at twice to three times the rate of Production Designers (or the reverse). Lots and lots of story is told by what the thing looks like and a photographer can only photograph what is in front of the lens, and if it isn't an actor or an animal, it was created or chosen by the Production Designer.

The second thing is that it all costs money. It's rare that one sees a beautifully designed low budget movie, unless the design is part of a kind of production sensibility, which arguably is design. A lot of tension and stress in productions, no matter what the budget range, is caused or exacerbated by the cost of design. Whether that comes comes from the production designers vision, the requirements of the script or the director's vision. When budgetary problems arise it is not long before the production designer and the art department budget come under close scrutiny. As it is seen as discretionary, as opposed to say the rental cost of the camera or the catering and the cost to get that to set, it is often perceived that it is expensive taste of the production designer that is driving the costs rather than the collective demand of the production and that those costs are beyond the control of the production designer. All though it takes vision to become a production designer, success comes from a lot of negotiation in getting that vision in front of the camera and a firm conviction of what is necessary and what, if push comes to shove, can be abandoned.


 

3. What are the steps you take when pre-visualizing a set design?

It's always good to have an idea. Failing that there is a certain thrashing about looking for one. I have a big personal library that I have assembled over my life that is I think the favorite thing I own. It is always changing as obsessions are added and subtracted. I also use my civic library and now the mothership, Google for images. Usually I assemble a set of tear-sheets that we used to put on a big piece of cardboard and put on the wall. Lately I have been using a website that I build and put all my references up with all the production sketches, location photos etc so everyone can have access to the same information. It saves a lot of duplication and the endless requests for copies of information.

I think the greatest realization I have had lately and one I have ignored for most of my life is that pre-visualization is a gift. Some people have it, most if not all people of an artistic bent but lots and lots of people don't get it at all. It's the old cartoon of two people standing in front of an abstract painting in a museum, one is swooning in the rush of emotions the image directs at them the other walks away saying "my kid could do that". The movie business is full of people who cannot and do not see what a thing described on a printed page should look like, yet can offer many reasons why it shouldn't look like what you propose. This makes it sound like a production designers job is to illustrate a text and it is not.

I use a couple of methods one is a piece of paper and a pencil. I keep a sketch book and I try and draw out as much as possible. Not just fancy illustrations, for that there is rarely time. If they need to be done they are done by illustrators. My drawings are usually scribbles or better that I use to remind myself of things that are easier to draw than describe in words. I use photographs in the same way. I usually sketch out site plans of how I think the sets should look and how the space should be organized as regards camera placement, furniture and actors movement. I don't come up with all of this on my own. Some of it is my own personal taste and style, lots of it is the technical requirements of what the actors have to do in the scene, part of it is how the scene will be photographed and part of it comes out of location surveys and discussions. Set design however is another matter. Since no one actually gets to wander around a set while it's being conceived, like people can wander around a practical location. I now use the 3D program Sketchup to make virtual set models that we can either animate or pull stills of the best camera angles.


 

4. How are you involved during production and post production?

The designer's playground is pre-production. Once production starts, one can swing the bottle on to the bow of the ship and wish it well, but other folks will sail her. Of course there is always lots and lots to do to make sure that what was so carefully conceived is also carefully executed, but the big work of deciding what a production should look like will all be done. The one aspect of my job no one ever told me about and the one thing I could do with out is the unbelievable amount of time spent in minivans surveying. Not only am I there for the initial scout there is a pretty good chance I will go back to that location a half a dozen times. Much is achieved in the minivan, it is there that all informal talk happens between director, producer, DP and production designer. More often than not something spotted out the window of the van can become either an important location or even a leitmotif for a whole film. Besides coming up with what the look of the film should be, production design is full of diverse obligations and chores that are for the most part not very glamorous. In pre pre production one is responsible for hiring a crew and reading and breaking down the script. Rare is the script that isn't in the process of development or rewriting when it arrives on my desk and I try and analyze it for veracity and also to flag any technical challenges. The magic of the cinema is that anything can be achieved but the reality is how much time, effort and money are you willing to commit to achieve that thing and how important is it? On period films the production designer tends also to be the "period cop", having done the most research on the period, you become the expert. On bigger budget productions the next step would be the development of production sketches, using tear sheets and books, photographs and thumbnail sketches. There is a general sorting out of what will be a practical locations and what will be constructed sets or even what will be locations with constructed enhancements or even extremely locations that for various technical reasons are perfect but are impractical for location shooting and must be reproduced in the studio.

I have never worked past the last day of principal photography in my life. I have however hung around post production with my director friends to show moral support and encouragement and criticism. I do think there is still work for a production designer after principal photography wraps and that is to supervise the execution of the digital designs that are created in pre-production but aren't completed until the end of post production. That view does not seem to be shared by the industry currently but that might change.



 

5. How has the evolution of technology affected production design over the past two decades?

Contemporary technology has transformed production design in certain genres and amplified the production of effects in certain mediums. In the past the production of 3-D sketches and models was an expensive and time consuming task, no more. Combinations of 3-D modeling software, hand drawing and Photoshop means there has been an explosion in art made for production design. A lot of credit must be given to the worlds of gaming and animation that has incubated and produced artists with the skills for what is now known as "entertainment design" as lots of those skills are transferable to film and television design.

In a word it's made it all a lot easier. Old school techniques like matte and glass paintings, foreground models, miniatures etcetera were very time consuming and expensive and the suggestion of their use was guaranteed to bring any production meeting to a grinding halt. Now however it is considered routine and anything imaginable can be created in digital effects at a very reasonable cost.

That being said these are all just tools. Are the films of today better designed than in the preceding eras, I actual think they are. I think that the appreciation and practice of good design has grown exponentially and it is rare to see a truly bad looking film. Even if it is trying to look bad it's usually artfully done.



 

6. Do you prefer working in television or feature film production and why?

I have spent the greater part of my career toiling in television on the long form dramatic side which is an increased rarity, in fact, I am almost alone. I have only twice worked as a series designer though I have done lots of pilots and last year I took over the ill-fated "Bionic Woman" just as it was crashing towards cancellation. As a designer I can say truly and honestly the core job of the designer is no different although there are some major cultural differences. Series television is the kingdom of the writer. The creator of the show is the boss and they sign off on everything which gives successful television series remarkable integrity and style, love it or hate. Movies and mini-series on television for the most part are handed over to the director to be made more in the tradition of cinema where there is a hands off approach, by the network and the executives. In the cinema tradition the director is expected to embrace the project and bring their personal stamp and style to the production and to make any changes to the script that helps tell the story or is necessitated by production requirements. In series television the director's job is very tightly controlled and it's purpose is to direct the camera and get a performance out of the actors.

The feature film business is tough love. I have never had any particular success in it for various reasons. First of all I think the success of a designer is usually tied to the success of a director. If you look at the history of cinema you will see a pattern of directors working with same designer or the same DP over and over again. All this to say if you are lucky enough to have met and maintained a relationship with either a director or a producer then you have a chance at sustaining a career.

There is an incredible amount of snobbery at work as well and anyone from the feature world would look at my CV and reject it out right as being "too TV".

That being said I am very proud of the moves I have designed. There is certainly more time and for the most part , more money, in feature films to prepare and execute design. In answer to your question I would say features definitely but that isn't where my career has landed me. I just bring my whole game to what ever I set out to do.

 

7. As a production designer, what was your most challenging project and why?

The three most challenging films I've ever worked on were the feature film "The Assignment ", the mini-series  " Joan of Arc" and the mini series "Tin Man". The Assignment was a film  based on the character of Carlos the international terrorist from the 1970's. It was challenging because first of all it was a period film, spanning the 1970's to the 1990's. It took place starting in the winter in Montreal. We started shooting in -50° degree weather and we ended up finishing the film in Israel shooting at the Dead Sea and it was +50°. The film was an international spy caper movie and we had to re-create in Israel downtown Libya, Tripoli airport in Montreal Paris in both Montreal and Budapest  and it was done in the early 90s before the WWW and it is almost impossible to get any kind of research on what Libya really look like. We built and blew up a French style bistro in Old Montreal so spectacularly (and dangerously) that people still talk about. The set looked so good people kept trying to make reservations to eat there.  It was my first time ever working with a professional researcher and I also traveled a great deal and was always either in  Israel, Hungary, or Montreal, with crews working in all three places. This meant working a full day in Europe then getting on the phone at night and working another eight hours with a fax machine at my elbow working with my team in Montreal.  We shot sets on a soundstage in Montreal then matched them to exteriors in Israel which doesn't sound difficult and isn't difficult anymore in the digital world but in those days we still did those effects live. For instance we crated up sections of the set interior windows and shipped them to Israel so we could shoot the live exterior through the window.  The mini-series  " Joan of Arc" , the circumstances were  a bit different . I was offered the job in September 3 days later I was on a plane to Prague to scout for locations but never returned home for six and a half months. Except for a very small core crew my crew was Czech with all the conflicts of culture and style. The SPFX was French, the stunt men were French and Slovak. I had only a vague idea  and no research for the medieval period and had no access to any kind of English-language (or French) books. I ended up flying to Paris for weekend patrolling through used and new bookstores, I went to every single museum in Paris bought every book I could find on the Middle Ages and basically crammed for a week to do all the research. When you make a period movie in Europe you realize that all the great resources for all the medieval movies ever made used the same resources so the movie furniture hire company in Britain rents you furniture that you then see in the medieval movies you are looking at for as research! You are constantly running into people who know who did what on what film, the armorer in France who provided all the arms for the other movie Joan of Arc, The Messenger or say the guy who constructed the weapons in Braveheart or the illustrator in Switzerland whose drawings are in the books you are using for research. It's really a small world the international feature film business.


The third most challenging film I ever worked on was the science fiction miniseries "Tin Man" and I think that was because of the difficulty of taking a literary property like the Wizard of Oz which is very, very well-known and making a new version of it. When I got the script it was set in a kind of dystopian future. The Wizard of Oz in space it didn't seem credible and also we couldn't create the world from scratch because we didn't have enough money. Shooting in BC you know you can count on three things, the trees, the ocean and the mountains, everything else is hard. The first instinct was to explore parallel universe and parallel history a well respected fantasy literary device but something not often seen in movies or television. We decided the world parted in the Edwardian era and the parallel universe was powered mechanically and with steam. Nick Willing the director told me that everything I design has existed some where else which I guess is a compliment. It sort of led to a magpie approach, treating each of the situations just a little bit differently. The story is simple really it's about a girl who gets lost in another world and uses her wits to find her way home and along the way meets some other damaged characters and helps them find their way too. You could also say it was a collage. It was steam punk meets Gaudi meets the Nazis and it's a lot of fun. It was the first time I ever designed a lot of virtual scenery, in fact there is a whole city in the film that is completely digital. I had done little bits in other films but this was the first time whole chunks of design went right to the VSFX department with almost no physical construction. A whole city of Gaudi buildings with a network of water tubes going through it with steam powered submarines like subway cars.



 

8. As a production designer, what was your favorite undertaking and why?

I really enjoy designing with phenomena like forest fires, floods, avalanches, fires, bombings and their aftermaths; snow, water, rain, fire. Maybe because it's really fun to make things happen that usually only happen in nature. I really like historic pieces and anything that involves foreign travel. Lately I have been doing Science Fiction films which is weird because it's not a genre I ever really got absorbed in as a young reader other than Heinlen, Bradbury and CS Lewis but it's a world I am currently immersed in. So if I were glib I would say what ever I am undertaking currently is my favorite undertaking because what I always loved about this thing I do is that it always changes and what ever the challenges are there is always, always, something new to come up with.

Winter 2009