Setting the Scene

Inside the World Of the Production Designer

From the screenplay to the screen, a motion picture is a world imagined and then created. A writer conceives of it, a producer oversees its evolution, and a director envisions its narrative for the camera. Locating, mapping, altering, rebuilding and painting what up until now has only been illusory-that is the work of the production designer.

"What a production designer does is take responsibility for all design in any given environment in the film," Jeannine Oppewall explains, in a telephone conversation from Los Angeles. Oppewall, who won an Art Directors Guild Award for L.A. Confidential, has been a production designer for over 20 years. "We're responsible for finding locations with the locations department; for altering those locations to suit the demands of the story; and for constructing the environment if it doesn't exist. We're responsible for the building and construction department, the paint department, the decorating department, the graphics design and signage department, and the research department. We also work closely with special effects, special mechanical effects and special visual effects."

For the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it's all "art direction." The Academy grants its awards to both the production designer and the art director. Scott Roth, executive director of the Art Directors Guild, the professional association for production designers, art directors and others involved in the design process, explains: "All production designers are art directors, but the production designer is a person who confers with other department heads." The first person to receive recognition as a production designer was William Cameron Menzies. Menzies' storyboards for Gone with the Wind, which garnered him an Oscar, demonstrated the significant role of art direction in the overall outcome of a film project.

Production designers are among the first professionals to join the filmmaking team. Usually, they're hired by the producer. Months ahead of principal photography, the producer and the director discuss their vision of the film with the production designer. These are conceptual conversations, but practical production matters, such as the production schedule and the budget, are discussed as well. Production designers then begin their research, a process that is determined both by their artistic preoccupations and the demands of the project. At the same time, they take to the road with the location manager to find places that fit the scenes described in the screenplay, and that articulate the vision the director has of the main character.

Speaking from London, Dennis Gassner, Academy Award winner for Bugsy, explains the centrality of the character to design: "Once you define the project and the material, then you have to discover who the actors and the performers are. You have to know their backstory in order to create their world. It's all character-based initially." Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski, London-based production designer on Dirty Pretty Things and Mrs. Henderson Presents, as well as dozens of other films since 1984, emphasizes the unity of screenplay, performance and design: "It may sound like a weird thing for a designer to say, but the strength and the power of film is in the characters and the performers who provide popular and iconographic images. The design must feel organic to that, as well as to the story."

In his first conversation with a director, Mark Friedberg appreciates open-mindedness. "Not being definitive is an important part of the process for me." Friedberg, nominated for an Art Directors Guild Award for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, just finished a film with Julie Taymor, Sony Pictures' upcoming Across the Universe. He's a painter, but his designs are just as often informed by architecture. Speaking over lunch in a Tribeca restaurant, Friedberg described a pre-production conversation with Ang Lee. "The Ice Storm was written as a quintessential American story and the people were supposed to live in a colonial house. Ang Lee asked me: 'What do you think about that?' I thought it didn't register. To me, this place was defined by Philip Johnson and Marcel Breuer. The people who were successful at that time, in 1973, who were moving to suburban Connecticut, would probably want a more modern house. Ang thought about it and in the end he agreed."

Friedberg's preoccupation with architecture is echoed in Luczyc-Wyhowski's ideas about the primacy of space in defining the characters. "Even more than any form of decoration, the space the character inhabits is the most important thing. It's what gives you the immediate kind of impression." As an example, the designer cites Judi Dench's Mrs. Henderson in Mrs. Henderson Presents. "Let's say you need to see her in a room. The room could be incredibly decorative and you could have all the right wallpaper and objects that surround her. All of these would be the correct things, but if you put her in a big room as opposed to a little room, that gives immediately the meaning, not the decoration."

Once the production designer and the location manager have identified potential locations, they revisit them with the director. Decisions are made then about alterations to the location, either to accommodate actors or the camera or, in a period film, to restore the location to fit the era. All of these alterations will be carried out by departments that report to the production designer. Research is ongoing at this point, but production designers will also begin outlining their ideas by sketching, drawing, painting or collage-making, on paper or on a computer. For sets that must be constructed, they will either render or oversee the rendering of technical drawings, and often build three-dimensional models for the sets.

The sketches, paintings, collages, technical drawings and models are guideposts for the various professionals in the art department. They also provide a practical way for the production designer and the director and, later, the director of photography to discuss different aspects of production. Three-dimensional models are used to direct the construction process, but also for formal presentations, when for instance a production designer meets with a studio executive. Oppewall observes that art direction can inspire the progress of an entire production: "It's our job as designers to set a high bar so that everybody else that comes into the set to use it after we're finished is obligated by the design to work up to their best level."

When Oppewall was scouting locations on L.A. Confidential, she had handwritten notes. "There were five or six sets that were really difficult to find and I wrote down the name of the set and a tiny description which I found in the novel or in the script, and an outline of the actions required by the scene so that I could keep it in my head and in front of me at all times as I was driving around to find these places." The film required 93 separate sets, although some sets were on the same locations. Oppewall notes that the size of the art department budget, which the production designer administers, is naturally a consideration in both pre-production and during principal photography. Twenty years ago, ten percent of the film's overall budget was standard, but that, Oppewall says, has changed.
Friedberg uses the word "lobbying" to describe budget negotiations. "The nice part about being a designer," he says, "is that you're the first one, so you can put in your request early." Oppewall agrees, but explains that this doesn't always guarantee that the art department gets what it asks for. On Seabiscuit, which had a budget of about $86 million, Oppewall had to alter or build 186 separate sets. "I was bludgeoned and beaten nearly to death for asking for $3.5 to $4 million. Everyone thinks I spent $7 or $8 million, but actually we did it for $3 million." Budget crunches late in production can require a production designer to invent less expensive alternatives, but these changes do not necessarily alter the design. "Oftentimes the production designer isn't there just to design the scenes," Friedberg says. "Lots of times you design the production. You come up with the way it's going to be made."

Friedberg uses the example of the buildings in New York which doubled for buildings in Detroit in Across the Universe. "Initially we were going to shoot the Detroit riots in Detroit, but like every other movie I've ever worked on, there was an economic reality. I was asked if we could do something else." Friedberg explains that figuring out an alternative did not demand that he redesign the scene, but it required him to make logistical decisions. "The story is not about Detroit per se but about the Detroit riots. It was about a place that was in flames. We did a lot of research and we figured out that there were places in New York that could be worked on. Once you bring in the National Guard, get the right-sized buildings and cover them with smoke, it becomes more about the anguish than the architecture."

Oppewall, Gassner, Luczyc-Wyhowski and Friedberg all have pet theories and idiosyncratic ways of work that spring as much from their distinctive talents as their training. Luczyc-Wyhowski and Friedberg both studied fine art and still paint in their spare time. Gassner apprenticed with Dean Tavoularis at Zoetrope Studios, and Oppewall was introduced to production design when she worked as a "gofer" on Hardcore. Paul Sylbert, the production designer on that film, convinced Oppewall that she had a knack for the job.
Gassner calls himself a "method production designer" who must "live" what he designs. "Architecture, color and light," he says. "You have to have a place. Then you have to have a feeling, an emotional feeling, which is color. Then you have to light it so that emotionally it balances out the architecture and the subject matter. It's all in concert. It has to balance out as one piece." Gassner has done six films with the Coen Brothers and, among others, he's worked with Sam Mendes and Stephen Frears. He says of his films with the Coens: "Probably the most beautiful thing that I've ever done is work with the Coen Brothers, both of whom write, direct and produce. It can't get better than that as far as I'm concerned."

Friedberg, in his characteristic self-deprecating way, remarks that he became a production designer because he couldn't make it as a painter "in the center of the art universe," in New York City. His aesthetic sensibilities are nevertheless apparent in the attention he pays to small details. "The painter on the construction crew-that's my closest creative relationship," he declares. "It matters how things are built, and that the details are right, but essentially what's being seen on film is the surfaces. That's what the light is bouncing off and the difference between good painting and great painting is the difference between good scenery and great scenery." Friedberg has designed for Mira Nair, Jim Jarmusch and James Mangold. On Far from Heaven, he worked with art school buddy Todd Haynes. "Light is the whole thing," he says. "Light is the currency of the film. Space is just a way to break up light."

For Luczyc-Wyhowski, all surfaces are revealing. He often designs wallpaper, and for period films orders paint from a factory in Scotland that still manufactures "wonderfully old-fashioned colors." In the lexicon of production design, Luczyc-Wyhowski explains, color is undeniably expressive. "I often use extraordinary colors to create disquiet. In the morgue in Dirty Pretty Things, the doors are all dark pink and the whole thing is light green. That's using color to be slightly unsettling." The designer also uses texture, the nature of a substance and our associations to it, to articulate emotion. He points to the molestation scene involving Audrey Tautou and her boss as a case in point: "It's about entrapment. When making images of people who are trapped, it's often interesting to use an ephemeral material. You can put someone in a steel box, but it's more interesting to put them in a paper box. That's why we used a clear plastic in that scene."

For Oppewall, art direction is only half the job of being a production designer. "Filmmaking is always a long series of Gordian knots that are so hopelessly entangled, if you were going to sit there and try to weave them apart, you'd be there forever, long after the movie is meant to be done. Somebody has to get out the sword once in a while and whack the knot." Oppewall likes to discover in her work parallels to her own life, so when she isn't brandishing a sword, she prefers "deeply engaging" solutions. About her design for Pleasantville, she says: "I was thinking about a quintessential, classic view of American small-town experience that everyone who had had any encounters with that could relate to. I drew on my own personal experiences growing up in a small town in New England and on my experiences driving around the Midwest, looking at all those small towns left behind by time, all those places that people like me leave."

All four production designers talk about their reliance on their staff and on the construction crew, as well as their collaborations with other department heads. Luczyc-Wyhowski muses: "You watch the credits on a movie and you see that there are so many people involved. Filmmaking is the last great handmade industry." Gassner, who believes that "many eyes make a movie good," says about his way of work: "Managing people and the creative end is all the same thing." Friedberg, contemplating past collaborations with the costume department, explains: "The better costume designers want their work to integrate with the set. I could build a $500,000 room, but half of what you're going to see is the shirt Richard Gere is wearing."

As one of the few women of long standing in production design, Oppewall, who just completed Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd (Universal), isn't sure her management style is very different from that of her male colleagues, but she's got a story that illustrates her characteristic sense of humor on the job. On The Bridges of Madison County, the designer, who works frequently "with powerful male egos," says she got a biology lesson. "There was this group of men who worked with Clint. I guess you could describe Clint as a wonderful silver-backed gorilla who would come out in the morning in a grumpy humor about something, who knows what, and take it out on all the subordinate gorillas around him, all of whom would go rolling and biting and scratching and fighting amongst each other into the woods. As one of the few women, observing this and getting a huge laugh out of it, I'd be exempt. When you figure out that you as a woman can say certain kinds of things to men in power and get away with it, and know very well that a man could never say the same things and get away with them, you tend to do it."

Oppewall names Waking Up in Reno, a droll bedroom comedy, as one of her enjoyable experiences. "I've always been interested in working-class and middle-class women. I don't know much about the upper levels of society and probably wouldn't have a whole lot of sympathy with them, which is why I choose to work on characters who are horses, for example." About another favorite, Wonder Boys, in which Michael Douglas plays a writer-professor, she muses: "When I read the script, I called Curtis [Hanson] and said: 'You know I think I dated these guys.' I laughed doing some of the sets, and I still laugh if I see the movie."

Like the director and the producer, the production designer is involved in every phase of production, sometimes even staying on for part of post-production to oversee designs they may have rendered for CGI or special effects. They're often jack-of-all-trades and master of most. What they enjoy determines their style of work and their choice of films. Gassner likes working with the same crew; he's done ten films with his supervising art director Richard Johnson. "Luckily, I get to work with people who know how to make movies. That's what I care about." Friedberg, who quips that Julie Taymor kept him "skinny," says he relishes it all: "Every film is fun in retrospect, but you're miserable while you're doing it. Fifteen hours a day every day for six or eight months, you get worn down."

Ask Luczyc-Wyhowski what he enjoys most and he has difficulty replying. Problems encountered in the past are simply lessons learned, and a job done well is just that. In an e-mailed response to a question about keeping track of sources, he inadvertently provides a delightful snapshot of a production designer's world: "Dear Maria: Yes, I have a database that I limit to about 2,000 numbers from all over the world of artisans, contacts, nice producers, not-so-nice producers, eccentric collectors, materials manufacturers, etc. There is a lot of relatively useless information like where you can rent a tiger that will growl to order, or who can transport a 1940s anti-aircraft gun up a mountain-all problems that one has been confronted with and solved at one time or another."

Mark Friedberg's credits include Kama Sutra, The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil, Pollock, Kate & Leopold, Far from Heaven, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Broken Flowers, The Producers and Across the Universe.
Dennis Gassner's films include Field of Dreams, Miller's Crossing, The Grifters, Barton Fink, Bugsy, The Truman Show, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Road to Perdition, Big Fish, Jarhead and Ask the Dust.
Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski's credits include My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Waterland, Cousin Bette, Snatch, Dirty Pretty Things, The Truth About Charlie and Mrs. Henderson Presents.
Jeannine Oppewall's films include Ironweed, The Bridges of Madison County, L.A. Confidential, Pleasantville, Wonder Boys, The Sum of All Fears, Catch Me If You Can, Seabiscuit and The Good Shepherd.