To write about J. Michael Riva being a contender for production design for Quentin Tarantino’s western, Django Unchained is to write a eulogy, since sadly, he passed away in New Orleans just as production was starting. But his longtime friend and collaborator, David Klassen, picked up the reins, and talks about the film in particular, his long working history, and his close friendship with the production designer.
Or maybe not merely friendship. “It was like a marriage,” Klassen says. “Michael and I had been working together since 1985, over 26 years.” Their first assignment, where Riva art directed and Klassen oversaw art direction, was Lethal Weapon II.
They kept partnering, and Klassen says that “after five or six movies, you get under each other’s skins.” Riva’s numerous credits include a couple of Spider-Man and Iron Man movies, a couple of Academy Award broadcasts, an Olympics broadcast, and much more. He aimed at production design that doesn’t distract from performance, but rather helped augment films that allowed for more effortless transitions in and out of scenes.
They also had to transition into a slightly different way of working, with Tarantino, who, Klassen notes, “doesn’t use drawings,” but rather talks about ideas, themes and film references (in this case, other Spaghetti Westerns, including, of course, the original Django films with Franco Nero).
“Trantino acts out everybody’s roles,” he recounts, performing scenes replete with sound effects “down to the spurs and footfalls. I got the picture immediately.” And so did his partner. “When Michael passed,” Klassen said, “we had everything pretty much drawn and designed.” That design process, taken from conversations and sessions with Tarantino, involved a wall in their production office filled with location pictures, all of them divided up with individual scene headings. And the locations were quite diverse, taking in not only New Orleans and the South, but the Eastern side of the Sierras, terrain in Wyoming, and the Melody and Big Sky movie ranches, on the outskirts of L.A.
“It was a difficult film to make, but a hell of a lot of fun,” Klassen said. The difficulty – and perhaps fun – didn’t just stem from the varied locales, but challenges with staples of the era, and the story, like horses and wagons. On some of the wagons, they had to raise the chassis for the camera, so the shots would work. And there was a lot of collaboration with the stunt coordinator and the wrangler. And there must be doubles for all horses, as well as doubles for some of the locations, or at least expendable versions. The production shot at real plantations, which are now historical sites, including slave quarters on the Evergreen Plantation, in Louisiana.
They had to take out upwards of 40 acres of sugar cane for the film, as well as build their own mansion, so that the building could complete its own particular story arc in the film. “There were a lot of 100 hour-plus weeks,” Klassen recalled. There were also the usual improvisations: Christoph Waltz’ bounty hunter character is first seen riding a dentist’s wagon as a kind of cover, but the actor had suffered a horse-riding injury, and couldn’t saddle up for awhile. He could, however, ride a wagon. So suddenly, the wagon – with its hanging overhead tooth – was built, and a new aspect of Waltz’ character discovered.
“I’ll miss Michael, he said. “That’ll never change. We knew each other longer than our ex-wives. He was the brother that, biologically, I never had.” But he’s glad for all the time the two could work together. They were even planning their traditional post-production vacation to Hawaii – when shooting wrapped. “There’ll be something a little bit missing,” Klassen allowed. And even though they did not arrive together, Klassen said “it was a great ride.”