Contender – Production Designer Sharon Seymour, Argo
Recreating revolutionary Iran, Hollywood, U.S.A. and the CIA in the late 1970s and early 1980s is a task as diverse as could be imagined. To help realize his vision, director Ben Affleck enlisted production designer Sharon Seymour, who also worked on his previous two films, Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010). The latter earned her an Art Directors Guild nomination.
Seymour took her job of re-imagining the historical events of exfiltration expert Tony Mendez’s rescue of six American diplomacy workers hiding out in the Canadian Ambassador’s residence during the Iranian revolution with the utmost earnestness.
“The whole process started with Ben sending me a box of books of research he’d been doing for the movie, Tony Mendez’s book, documentaries about that time, the revolution, the hostage-taking. We actually hired a full-time researcher who continued to provide more photographic research. I went on book searches and found some of my own books. By the time we were up and running almost everyone who had come into the show would find something else new. It was a continual compilation of images and video and written information about the time,” explained Seymour.
Research can only take you so far when you are designing and building a three dimensional environment that will come to life. The goal was to create viable sets with authenticity that would provide the setting for the drama to unfold. “You start with photographs, but they’re not like a moving image of something that shows you what it’s going to look like 360°. It’s documented at the end of the movie when you see footage from the time and it’s matched to frames of what we did as well, but the more challenging thing for us was that we didn’t just necessarily match that frame, we matched that frame and had the ability to turn around and look the other direction,” said Seymour.
Effectively recreating the time and truthfulness of the story with certain integral spaces was even more difficult when there was no photographic evidence to draw from. At times, Seymour had to dive into the story and envision the history out of sheer imagination. “The Canadian residence, there are no real pictures of that and we had a sense of how we wanted it to feel but we were basically creating it from scratch. The same thing with a lot of the interiors. We had a sense of the mood and what we wanted to create, but it was our task to create the whole environment.”
The execution of a story from such varied locales depended largely on a sense of mood. Seymour focused on color palettes to really define each environment and the result plays a paramount role in the way the film works. “We had very distinct moods we wanted to film in order to convey visually the government, Washington side of it [which we] wanted to have a real neutrality and coldness and very business feel to it. We wanted the California sequences to feel warmer and more sunlit and then we wanted the stuff in Tehran to feel really claustrophobic and cluttered and disorienting and I think we succeeded.”