The shorthand between a production designer and director who have previously worked together is an advantage in filmmaking that will likely come into play this awards season, three leading designers agreed.
Rick Carter and Steven Spielberg, Dante Ferreti and Martin Scorcese, David Yates and Stuart Craig, Clint Eastwood and James Murakami, and Terrence Mallick and Jack Fisk, are just a few of the production designer/director teams whose work promises to be in contention this season.
But regardless of the pedigree of the filmmakers, or the strength of their relationships, excellent art direction has to be “seamless,” the noted designers said. Whoever the nominees are this season, you can be assured that their work will disappear into their films in service to the story and the characters.
“Technology changes but good design still brings the eye where it needs to be so you get the story and you don’t see all the other stuff,” says Jim Bissell, a production designer who is on the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Bissell’s unusually broad range of credits include E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jumanji and 300, as well as three films directed by George Clooney, including Good Night and Good Luck, for which Bissell received an Oscar nomination.
“The question of collaboration (with a director) comes down to two issues,” Bissell says. “How do you connect personally, and how do you connect through the material?”
The first film Bissell did with Clooney was Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and “the connection was instantaneous and really gratifying. We could see eye to eye right away. Everything came together very quickly. It was one of those things where I knew, this is a guy I’d like to work with over and over again.”
“The second time you work with someone you discover 40 percent of your work feels like it’s already done,” says four-time Oscar nominated designer, Jeannine Oppewall, whose work ranges from Pleasantville, to L.A. Confidential to Seabiscuit. “You know how to communicate, you’ve gone through that whole system of learning how to talk with someone. There is a comfort factor,” she says.
“We all envy the opportunity to work with a fine filmmaker on multiple occasions,” says Tom Walsh, president of the Art Directors Guild, and a Hollywood anomaly in that he is able to work across disciplines, from television to documentaries to IMAX films and even Broadway productions. “When a director and a designer have the same take on a story, they can feed off each other in the most creative ways. That kind of relationship sometimes comes out of working together repeatedly, or it can be the reason,” for creating a longstanding collaboration, he says.
“I absolutely envy people who do four and five films together,” says Bissell, noting that his “record” with any particular director so far is three. “If you are totally in synch, that can be a bi-product of a long working relationship… and when it works it works really well.
Oppewall appreciates the chance to work with a director repeatedly but also likes “a varied diet,” both in terms of the directors she works with and the looks of the movies she does. Her directing partners have included James Brooks, Costa-Gavras, Robert DeNiro, Curtis Hansen, Gary Ross and Steven Spielberg.
“When you work with someone the first time you are learning how they think and work and what they expect and the kinds of personality quirks they have,” she says. “That person is doing the same with you, trying to figure out your biases and interests. You are looking for a place where in spite of your differences, what you have in common will bring that project to a good place,” she says.
“Different people challenge you in different ways.” Working with new directors, just like taking on a look or a time period you’ve never worked in before, “is a way to keep yourself fresh,” she says. “You are forced to look at everything in a new kind of way, in spite of yourself. Sometimes what you find is it’s new, it’s interesting and it might be comfortable or it might be uncomfortable but it’s still interesting.”
On the issue of the majority of nominations going to other-worldly, effects-laden or period films, the designers agreed that the awards bar is set higher for films depicting contemporary life, but agreed that, in the end, work has to be among the best to be recognized.
Bissell might be best known for his work on the distinctive looking, 300. After that film debuted, he was repeatedly told he was revolutionizing filmmaking. “But I thought, ‘there is nothing new here. This is the old way of making films.’ 300 was no different than what they were doing in 1939 with How Green Was My Valley? or Black Beauty. Those designers were doing the same thing with foreground action, deep space background, miniatures and other techniques… to create stylistic consistency and make it all look seamless.”
Indeed, Bissell was not nominated for 300, but he did receive Oscar and Art Directors Guild nominations for Good Night and Good Luck, which, with a $7 million budget, he suspects is the smallest movie to receive such recognition. “It’s wonderful to be nominated because that vote is taken by our peers, but the entire Academy votes for the winners, and since actors are the largest branch, they’re more inclined to notice art direction in a $200 million film and not so much in a $15 million film,” he says, adding that he is still shocked that he was nominated for Good Night and Good Luck.
Nominations will likely go to Stuart Craig and the longstanding Harry Potter team, Tom Walsh says, but that doesn’t preclude recognition for an infinitely smaller-looking film like Carnage, which is designed by the legendary Dean Tavoularis and is based on a play that takes place in one room.
“Dean Tavoularis is a master. He could make the phone book look amazing,” Walsh says. He is also looking forward to the film, Hugo, directed by Martin Scorcese and designed by Dante Ferreti. “Dante is the gift that keeps on giving,” he says.
The panelists had seen only a couple of the most likely contenders at press time, but one movie that might be overlooked but stands out in his mind, Walsh says, is Woody Allen’s, Midnight in Paris, designed by Anne Seibel. “It’s a great example of a film that rises to a level of simple but effective design. We all want to serve the story and the characters and not draw so much attention to ourselves. The goal is not to have someone say, ‘That was a great Dante Ferreti film,’” he says.
“I look forward to awards season because now I am going to see some good films, more in terms of story and content than in terms of what they are going to look like,” Oppewall says. “It’s not just the production designer’s efforts, but, ‘Were they all able to get on the same page and achieve something is flawless and seamless?’”
“I don’t want my work to jump out at people on screen,” she adds. “I’d rather it disappear into the story and service the story as quietly as possible.”
“If you are looking for equanimity in awards you are looking in the wrong place,” says Bissell. “There is a lot of excellence that is not being recognized because there is a lot of great work being done. Different types of films display the work in different ways. You hope we end up celebrating the best because when we go before the general public that night in February and we are all wearing our tuxes, that’s what it really should be – a celebration of the best.”
Meanwhile, Walsh notes that the Art Directors Guild is holding a special awards program, Feb. 4, 2012, in honor of the guild’s 75th anniversary. In addition to recognizing films in three major categories (fantasy, period and contemporary), as they do annually, they have asked a group of leading designers to show clips and comment on films that inspired and influenced them as they were coming of age in the industry.
“The intent is that the clips, the reminiscences and comments will take us out of the frenzy and remind us why we like doing what we do so much,” says Walsh.