Production designer Jess Gonchor describes his experience on the 2006 film Capote as the “hardest job I’ve ever done, but the most fun.” Luckily, it also led to his best film experience to date: working alongside Joel and Ethan Coen on No Country for Old Men.
“Ethan and Joel were on a hunt to find a production designer,” says Gonchor. “And they liked the look of Capote, so they called me in. I was already on another film at the time, but fortunately for me that went down.”
Gonchor, whose past credits include The Devil Wears Prada and art director on The Last Samurai, says that although he knew little about the project, what really mattered to the Coen brothers was seeing how his personality would fit in.
“Once you have a body of work that people respect, it’s just a matter of seeing if you are able to get along for four or five months,” Gonchor says. “They understood I wasn’t a flashy guy, and having an open line of communication was really important.”
Gonchor started preproduction soon after being hired and ended up having a great time.
“It was an amazing experience collaborating with Joel, Ethan and [cinematographer] Roger [Deakins, ASC],” says Gonchor. “Since it was my first movie with those guys, I was sort of the new guy, but they definitely made me feel as if I were there as long as anyone else.”
The film takes place on the scorched Texas plains in 1980 and features stunning shots of desolate hillsides and empty desert.
“Whenever I do a period movie, I want to make the scenery another character in the film,” Gonchor says. “Once I decided No Country was a landscape movie, I treated everything as a landscape. Everything was growing out of the ground for me — everything a piece of landscape.”
Because 95 percent of the film was shot in New Mexico (which Gonchor calls “just beautiful”), many of the small Texas towns featured in the movie had to be recreated. A further challenge was getting all the shots in before summer kicked in and dried up all the greenery.
But how did Gonchor achieve such wonderful colors?
“We just kept it real and stuck to a color palette,” says Gonchor. “I would wonder, ‘If you stick a shovel into the ground in Texas, what color would it be?’ We wanted all the colors of the earth.”
While the beautiful natural surroundings help inform the look of the film, Gonchor and his crew did the hard part.
“People think you just turn the cameras loose on the landscape, but there’s so much more to it than that,” Gonchor says. “Like trying to make the crime scene look right. Clearing out the greenery alone took forever.” Still, a bit of serendipity did a play a part. “The scene where [Josh Brolin’s character] Llewelyn jumps into the river, it started lightning at the perfect moment. We were very fortunate.”
The film is based on Cormac McCarthy’s best-selling novel of the same name, but Gonchor says that because the script was so faithful to the material, he didn’t need to go to the book very often to get ideas.
“Except in the case of the weaponry,” Gonchor says, referring to the giant silencer-equipped shotgun and cattle stun that he got from a rancher in New Mexico.
Gonchor, not working with his usual crew, praised his co-workers.
“I love to go and find local talent and seeing just exactly what they can do and having them teaching me things,” Gonchor says.
Written by Adam Albright-Hanna