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Big Fish: production designer Dennis Gassner

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By Bill Desowitz
Dennis Gassner has become a master of quirky production design (he has collaborated on six films with the Coen brothers, including their upcoming Lady Killers remake). He is also known for period detail (he won an Oscar for Bugsy). Yet nothing could quite prepare him for the challenge of working with Tim Burton, Mr. Goth himself. The former Disney animator worked out a shorthand with Gassner by sketching quick line drawings on the back of envelopes. Yet Big Fish, a film about tall tales that is set and shot in Alabama, represents Burton at his most creatively restrained. That’s because, unlike his recent films, the director had a lot more to work with than eye-catching visuals. He had an inspired script by John August and a great cast headed by Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor. There was an emphasis on practical sets and in-camera effects over CG. In all, Gassner had more than 100 sets to work with – the most in his career. Every day seemed like a different movie.

Below the Line: What is the visual essence of Big Fish?
Dennis Gassner: Americana. A young boy came up to me on the street one day and asked what the movie was about. I asked him, “Have you ever caught a fish?” He said, “Sure.” “Well, how big was it?” “Oh, about that big?” “Are you sure?” “Well, maybe, it was more like that.” That’s what this story is about. It’s the simplest thing about how to tell a story and when to stop telling it. It is an American or human-spirited film. Tim is unusual. He comes from the art side. It makes shorthand easier. We were very much in sync.
BTL: Discuss the challenge of blending reality and fantasy.
Gassner: The storytelling is about the difference between the mundane world of the older Ed Bloom [Finney] and the fantastic world of the younger incarnation [McGregor]. It’s all in the transitions devised by Tim and [cinematographer] Philippe Rousselot. How the color and design of each scene matches so they can transition smoothly. It’s about finding the right tone so the audience understands this wonderful world. Illusionary in a subtle way.
BTL: So that there’s a little bit of reality in the fantasy and vice versa.
Gassner: Right, there’s no dividing line between fantasy and reality. It’s the perfect Alabama puzzle. It’s interesting to live here for a while. As in any culture, you figure out how it works. It’s smoke and mirrors, it’s very theatrical. It’s all illusion. When you do a fantasy project, it’s about your instincts. Tim and I spent a lot of time talking about finding that right balance of illusion.
BTL: Tell us about dealing with these different time periods.
Gassner: The accuracy of time periods has a softness to it; it has that beautiful veil of past memory. You can’t remember all of the details but you remember the sense of it. We all look back in time and say, okay, it was 1955; it felt like that. Road to Perdition was 1937 and that’s what you hold onto because that’s your bottom line. In a sense there is a timeless quality to Big Fish. The birth of a man to his death in increments: the ‘30s to the present, but concentrating on the ‘50s.
BTL: The mythical town of Spectre is like Burton’s Oz, especially the way you enter it through the creepy forest. Did the two of you reference The Wizard of Oz?
Gassner: Yes. I told him, “Tim, we’re doing Oz,” and he said, “Yeah, that’s the illusion.”
BTL: Naturally in a Burton film you have to have a circus. Tell me about this one.
Gassner: We’re dealing with every icon in the world of fantasy storytelling. The circus is a fusion of Burton/Gassner/Rousellot. We played a game and stylized the circus out of different periods and different circus/carnival atmospheres.
BTL: Jenny’s house in Spectre is full of atmosphere too.
Gassner: The arc of Jenny’s House is driven by the narrative. An old cabin that evolves into something that is an icon—a classic broken-backed, ramshackle house, leaning and listing in the wind. And then recreating it into a new refined, unique state and letting it go back to its natural environment again.
BTL: Talk about the Southern flavor of the town Wetumpka, which hasn’t changed much since the ‘50s.
Gassner: It was a pragmatic job of making it the icon of itself. Finding the truth to the community. The Bloom house at the end of the street is stylized just a bit, though we had to build a swimming pool, which the owner didn’t mind since they got to keep it.
BTL: And yet because it’s the South, you’ve got the water to deal with. I understand you had to contend with a lot of flooding that disrupted production, but after Waterworld, you must be an expert at it by now.
Gassner: It was very daunting, and the uncertainty was emotionally hard on everyone. But the crew fought through it. It’s a natural environment in Alabama. It’s all water-related. Anytime you work with water there’s trouble. But Big Fish is about water. Water gives you four seasons every day and you learn how to respect it.

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