Celebrated production designer Jeannine Oppewall, whose work in motion pictures dates back to the late 1970s, developed an addiction to fiction at a young age. “I always went to bed with a novel and flashlight under the covers,” she recalls. “Creating environments for characters happens to be my way of telling stories.”Oppewall intended to become an intellectual, journalist or writer rather than follow her father and two brothers into industrial design, or mother into doll-costume design. “I wasn’t going to come home at night and read The Boston Gear Catalogue,” she quips. “I was going to get a liberal arts education, because I wanted, more than anything else, a grounding in cultural history and ideas. Somehow I just fell into the family business as a sensible way to make a living.” Apparently, she made the right career choice.Her influence, leadership and recognition cast a wide net. She recently landed on a Daily Variety list of 50 women whose impact has been felt across Hollywood and is a governor in the art-direction category at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and vice chair for the committee that hopes to build a movie museum within 10 years. A minimalist approach also earned her Oscar noms for L.A. Confidential and Pleasantville.And that’s not all. Oppewall’s work caught the eye of an iconic actor-director who hired her to work on his latest film. Robert De Niro, who’s directing and co-starring in The Good Shepherd, appreciates her buoyant spirit. “So many things are impressive about her,” De Niro told Below the Line. “She has an incredible energy and that came through even when we met for the first time. Her job requires that she not only have great vision, but deal with people from many diverse backgrounds. She does it well. I always had good feelings about her, and I couldn’t imagine making this movie without her.”Oppewall learned from two masters: Paul Sylbert, whom she describes as “one of the best production designers at the time,” and the legendary Charles Eames, whose work helped her bone up on general design knowledge.She jokingly considers her American period-piece expertise “the ghetto of the film business.” Not surprisingly, she enjoys the research process as well as thematic strands that tie together these films. “It’s a niche that in some ways, I happen to live comfortably in,” she says. “I’m always looking for something extra in the script, and I’m more interested in the ideas in the story than the design process itself. If you have some feeling for the story, you bring a lot more to the table. If it’s just a job, then I should go sell real estate or be out trolling the Bar Harbor Yacht Club for a rich husband. My life has never been about that.” Oppewall tries hard not to get derailed and realizes that willingness to compromise means not destroying the merit of a project. “You need the strength of your own convictions,” she explains. “It’s always good to be full of ideas whether they’re good, bad or different, and it’s better to have an idea than no ideas. I always tell people they need a really broad education to be a good designer. It’s not just going to design school. It’s also learning about cultural history.” Her style is to ply a thoughtful color palette from start to finish. In Catch Me If You Can, for example, monochromes anchored colorless periods of the lead character’s chaotic early days and orderly move into the mainstream—sandwiching what she calls “a wild, colorful period in the middle of his life.” For De Niro’s CIA epic, which is slated for release in 2006, she spent preproduction laying the groundwork for more than 125 sets to frame a story that’s told all over the world between 1925 and 1961. “We’re trying to do most of it in New York City, which is a real challenge,” she says. For instance, she’ll need to erase the years that have unfolded between this period and contemporary times.She explains further: “You have to look for places that are appropriate for telling the story, and if you find those places, there’s always 60 years of accumulated stuff that needs to be discarded in order to return to an environment that’s appropriate for the time you’re telling the story. If you walk down the street and look at any given building, you can imagine what it was like when it was originally built and see what it looks like today. We have to turn back the clock and get back to something that’s right for the story. Finding locations is like searching for the right metaphorical feeling to the story. You’re looking for an environment that brings something more to the story than just four walls for the camera to fit and the actors to move in.”Oppewall is on a mission to articulate and champion the role of her peers, which is why she decided to become active in the Motion Picture Academy and its museum project.“One of the things I’m always trying to do is make sure the rest of the world, including filmmaking, understands that a production designer is not just someone who’s called in to figure out a piece of furniture and maybe paint the wall yellow, if that’s what everyone seems to think they want,” she observes. “It’s a far-faster set of responsibilities. I’m always trying to speak as articulately as I can for people who do what I do for a living, because every once in a while, I get the feeling that the art department is the unwanted stepchild of the production department.”But with Oppewall helping kick this door wide open, production designers soon may become favorite sons and daughters.
Written by Bruce Shutan