I came to production design as someone who has always loved movies. I also loved art, design, architecture and photography, so discovering that I could have a career that combined all my loves was one of the greatest moments of my life.
I have a realist approach to filmmaking: most of the worlds I create are imaginary, but in the context of film my goal is to make them feel real, grounded, worn out, authentic. IIf the director wants a stylized or surreal approach, I’d need to find a way to mess it up and add imperfections to make it feel real. Credibility and realism in the context of the story are what I hold dear, and my goal is for the design to be part of a cohesive whole, not a stand-out element.
Teamwork and collaboration in filmmaking is one of my favorite aspects of my job, which is a bit counterintuitive given that for the rest of my life I’m a bit of a loner, a rather independent thinking and nonconformist person.
People sometimes compliment me that they loved my work, but the best compliment is when they say they loved the movie.
My first loves: Blade Runner, 1982, directed by Ridley Scott, production design by Lawrence G. Paul; And Se7en1995, directed by David Fincher, art direction by Arthur Max.
I wasn’t a production designer when these films first came out, but I think what attracted me (and many other designers) was the sheer believability of the mythic worlds they took place in, one futuristic and high-tech, the l ‘other is filthy opposite. Both have influenced countless other movies and TV shows, and I am absolutely convinced of them Blade Runner it even influenced the redesign of Times Square in the 1990s.
2. My true love: Taxi driver1976, directed by Martin Scorsese, sets by Charles Rosen.
The worlds represented by Scorsese Taxi drivermost of them shot on location in New York City, they feel real and genuine, yet fresh and enlightening at the same time. The use of color is virtuosic. Everything created for the film fits perfectly into the existing world of New York in the mid-1970s, but adds a lot to the narrative, for example the red, white and blue campaign office. I remember finding out that the final shootout scene was shot on location, with special scaffolding built for the overhead camera, and I was in awe – it shows how much the filmmakers appreciated what shooting on location gives to the story.
I have seen this movie countless times and every time I discover something new. If I could have planned any movie in history, it would have been Taxi driver.
3. Less is more: The ultimate photo show1971, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, sets by Polly Platt.
The ultimate photo show it is made with a minimalism that is realistic for the place and time of the story, appropriate for the characters and perfectly executed. Nothing in the film feels out of place, and there’s nothing I’d like to add.
The first time I drew a film (Sublet1992, directed by Chus Gutierrez) my two crew members and I made a huge effort to carry a refrigerator up six flights of stairs so that the kitchen in the block we were shooting in was complete. As soon as the DP entered he told us to lose him, permanently. I learned then that nobody misses what isn’t there: they only notice if something is wrong.
4. Dirty Realism: The last detail1973, directed by Hal Ashby, production design by Michael Haller.
i saw for the first time The ultimate photo show And The last detail well before we even really knew what production design was. But they must have inhabited me strongly because when I reviewed them after becoming a set designer I understood what the main influences were. From the first film I drew I’ve had a knack for making a realistic looking mess, and I’ve had a lot of fun too, maybe because I’m a bit OCD about order at home.
I think The last detail it is an underrated work of genius. Shot primarily on location, the attention to detail creates a strong sense of time and place crucial to the story’s trajectory. I remember watching it again and the amazement I felt at the litter on the ground in the Penn Station scenes – these details make such a difference, but we hardly have time to dress them up these days.
Shortly after I reviewed The last detail I designed State garden (2004, directed by Zach Braff). I’d never done something with so much comedy before, and I was nervous about making scripted sight gags work, but I figured the solution was to ground them enough in reality to feel organic. The bathroom wallpaper has a strong pattern but doesn’t call attention to itself, so when Zach stands in front of a mirror in a matching shirt, the gag is startling.
5. Hot and cold: Hard1979. Directed by Paul Schrader, production design by Paul Sylbert.
Hard it was one of the first films where I realized how much you could do with the color palette in terms of telling a story while still staying grounded in reality. George C. Scott moves from his freezing, blue-and-white home in Minnesota to the filthy hot world of Los Angeles in search of his missing daughter in the porn industry. The colors are so organic to the worlds that nothing feels contrived or “designed”.
I always focus on the design and the choice of color palette at the beginning of a project – it’s important because it’s something that the costume designer and cinematographer will take over as well as, of course, the director.
Sometimes the director comes to the project with an already inspired vision of the use of color, and this was the case when I designed the Ryan Murphy film American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. The miniseries goes backwards from the Versace slaying in South Beach at its peak: the hedonistic partying of the 1980s during the AIDS crisis reflected by crumbling Art Deco buildings in pastels and the color pink in particular. As the series goes back in time with each successive episode, the palette changes according to the nature of the characters and what was happening on the screen until at its most reductive we see Andrew Cunanan alone in a beige room which means the nothingness of his world and his non-existent sense of self.
6. Location, Location: In cold blood1967. Directed by Richard Brooks, production design by Robert F. Boyle.
One of the challenges inherent in production design is that after spending a lot of time and money trying to make a set look real, there is little left for the truly creative part of the design. I will use any way to help a set look real, such as as many real materials as possible, rather than fake. A construction coordinator once told me that using real materials “wasn’t really design,” and that couldn’t be further from what I believe.
Obviously shooting on location helps enormously. In cold blood was made in the new world of 1960s location shooting and is notable for the extremes to which the filmmakers went. Based on the real-life Clutter family murders, Brooks wanted to shoot in as many real-life locations as possible and even tried to get permission to shoot the execution scene at the real gallows where Perry and Dick were hanged (permission denied ). I found this film absolutely terrifying and I think a large part of that is due to its quasi-verité approach.
7. Unlikely sources: Walk1971. Directed by Nicholas Roeg, production design by Brian Eatwell.
When I started preparing Brokeback Mountain (2005, directed by Ang Lee) two references immediately came to mind: that of Richard Avedon In the American Westwhich was then out of print, e Walk. First time I’ve seen Walk I found the ending so sad and depressing that I could never get it out of my head. And that’s what I thought of when I first read the script Brokeback Mountain – the bliss Jack and Ennis found in nature versus the grim reality of civilization. It may have been the first time I thought about contrasting worlds and how to create them visually when I was designing a film.
8. Relax and think about: Boogie Nights1997, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, production design by Bob Ziembicki.
The first period film I drew was Brokeback Mountain. Ang’s goal was that no viewer of the film should be able to find anachronisms for either time or place. This kind of ultra-period fidelity was key to telling such a bold story set in the early 1960s.
But the accuracy of the exact period doesn’t always matter. One of my favorite movies is Boogie Nights (1997, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson) which begins in 1977. When I first saw the film in theaters, I was just attempting to start my career as a production designer, and was (and still am) blown away by the magnitude of the film. The opening shot continues, nearly three minutes long, starting wide on a busy night street in the San Fernando Valley and continuing into the club, introducing us to the main characters and ending with Mark Wahlberg. After much experience with period films and entertainment, and knowing how difficult and expensive it is to make a period cityscape, I watched the film again and realized that most of the signs and neon in the opening shot (probably my all-time favorite movie opening) was contemporary for 1997 – but that didn’t matter! You felt like you were there and that was all that mattered. A great lesson.
9. The real and the unreal: Salesperson1969, directed by Albert and David Maysles.
Right after Brokeback Mountain I designed Infamousdirected by the late Douglas McGrath. I was diligent in making sure everything was accurate to the period and the characters. As part of my research I looked Salespersonwhich had been made around the same time Infamous takes place. Every cliché of mid-century design Ang and I had carefully avoided Brokeback Mountain it was in nearly every actual house in the documentary: the Sputnik clock, the Googie-style Formica kitchen table, the cheap vinyl-upholstered chairs. That’s when I realized that sometimes reality doesn’t look real on screen, and that knowledge became part of my design arsenal.
10. Perfection: Rosemary’s baby1968, directed by Roman Polanski, set design by Richard Sylbert.
This film takes what could be seen as a crazy story and makes it absolutely believable. A large part of that is i perfect sets, locations, set dressing and color palette (and cast!). The Woodhouses the initial apartment feels young and contemporary to this day; the annoying, seemingly benign, old-world neighbors, the Castavets, might be living next door to me right now (hopefully not!). Hardly any aspect of the film is optimized for horror; in fact the opposite is done: everything seems boringly banal. And that’s what makes it so scary: you can imagine this actually happening in your world, the viewer’s.
The above is an expanded version of an article Becker wrote for the AMPAS website.
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