Production designer Jeannine Oppewall has received her fourth Academy Award nomination for best achievement in art direction for her work on The Good Shepherd, a continent-hopping, multidecade saga about the founding and formative years of the CIA, directed by Robert De Niro. She shares the nomination with set decorators Leslie Rollins and the late Gretchen Rau, who passed away in 2006 while working on the film. For Oppewall, such chewy subject matter is just her ticket. “I’ve learned that I do my best work when I am intellectually challenged and emotionally engaged with the materials,” she says. The three films that previously gained her art direction Oscar nominations—Seabiscuit, Pleasantville and L.A. Confidential—are far from fluffy.But The Good Shepherd was especially daunting. “The script was extremely complex, and was written for so many different countries and time periods and such a variety of settings,” she observes, “that it took me a week to break it down just so I could understand what was needed for basic research.”Much of The Good Shepherd, with its multiplicity of intricate settings, was shot on soundstages. “We kept buildings sets, shooting them, wiping them clean, building new ones, shooting them, wiping them clean,” says Oppewall. “It felt endless. The construction coordinator came to me one day and said, ‘We’ve done so much great work on this movie, but we’ve had no time to enjoy any of the sets. They come up and go down like mushrooms.’” As always, financial constraints were part of the equation. “I seem to be invited to work on very ambitious and under-budgeted period movies,” says Oppewall. “But I enjoy trying to figure out how to get the most out of the least when it’s possible.” She came up with some inexpensive design devices that advanced the plot metaphorically. “I spent time playing with mirrors on sets, because the CIA is a world of duplicity,” she notes. “Are you really seeing what you think you’re seeing? Is it the truth or a reflection?” Recurring nautical imagery symbolized maneuvering of the ship of state.One of the most riveting scenes in the film is the baroque initiation ceremony of the main character, played by Matt Damon, into the secretive Skull and Bones society at Yale, which served as a recruiting ground for government spies. With no available photos or pictures of the club’s inner sanctum to guide her, she had freedom to use her imagination.Oppewall expresses sorrow that co-nominee Rau is not around to share her joy for the Oscar nomination. “She was an excellent decorator and incredibly beloved by everyone with whom she worked and whose life she touched and shared,” says the production designer. When Rau died last March she had just won an Academy Award for set decor in tandem with art director John Myhre for Memoirs of a Geisha. Serendipity got Oppewall into the entertainment design field. Just out of college in the late 1960s, she went to work for legendary designer Charles Eames, who also did many small documentary films. Several colleagues at the firm were lured to Hollywood, and she followed.What’s up next? “I’m looking for something challenging and intelligent and engaging to do,” she says.2007: Nominated, Academy Award, best achievement in art direction, The Good Shepherd; Nominated, Art Directors Guild award for excellence in production design on a period feature, The Good Shepherd. 2004: Nominated, Academy Award, best achievement in art direction, Seabiscuit; Nominated, Art Directors Guild award for excellence in production design on a period feature, Seabiscuit. 2003: Won, Art Directors Guild award, excellence in production design on a contemporary feature, Catch Me If You Can. 2001: Nominated, Art Directors Guild award for excellence in production design on a contemporary feature, Wonder Boys. 1999: Nominated, Academy Award, best achievement in art direction, Pleasantville; Nominated, Art Directors Guild Award for excellence in feature film production design, Pleasantville. 1998: Nominated, Academy Award, best achievement in art direction, L.A. Confidential; Won, BAFTA film award for best production design, L.A. Confidential.
Written by Jack Egan