Interview mit Alex McDowell – Teil 2

     |    Thursday July 11th, 2013

by Andrew Horn

Q: So far we’ve been talking about a lot of stylized work – how much does one need a Production Designer for realistic looking films?

I increasingly feel that locations are just an extension of the Production Designer’s palette. I might not have said that 5 years ago as much. You can’t just go out and stumble across some place and just start shooting. The skill of working with locations is that you’re taking a little piece from here and a little piece from here and trying to put it together seamlessly as if it were a set. For example, the house in “The Secret Garden” is put together from four different locations. And there is a great skill involved in making a location film work seamlessly, and making it appear to be a coherent world and consistent space, so the story flows seamlessly through it and it works.

"The Crow: City of Angels", directed by Tim Pope

Q: Are you as concerned with camera and lighting in a location film?

Sure. To the point of going to a location with a compass to make sure the windows face the right way. You do it differently, but in the “The Crow: City of Angels” -which was very much a location based film, though it was very stylized – we made all sorts of decisions, we color coded the lighting according to which part of the world you were in, we removed all the cars from all the streets that weren’t between 1979 and 1983 and we added a ton of broken glass to the streets, we sort of took over the location and made it into a set basically.

Q: How much would a location film be manipulated, being naturalistic?

Again you manipulate all of it all the time. And I think a lot of the look of what you do is controlled by what you eliminate as opposed to what you add. A lot of the time it’s cleaning the frame up and locations are naturally chaotic and even though we are not making a stylized film, films are iconic every environment you used and every setting you use is there to tell a story and so it has a very iconic role. In any film whether it’s Godard or the French New Wave style which is essentially just go out there and grab it, it’s still all working on a metaphorical level at some point, so I’m imagining that we’re going to go into these locations and first of all you’re framing very specifically, just out of frame to the left or right may be something that would completely mess up the frame if you allowed it to creep in so you’re finding very specific views. You may have to build a wall to block a view, or paint a wall, or knock a wall down to control the look, but ultimately what we’ll be trying to do is make a series of icons that represent different characters in the film.

Q: What made Production Design come more forward in recent years?

I’m not sure if it ever wasn’t there. There was a period, even after William Cameron Menzies, where the Production Designer still wasn’t recognized – (even with only an Art Director credit) I think that’s just a matter of semantics, at some point there is always a person who takes that role. I think there’s a clearly defined role now, in that the Production Designer can’t work without an Art Director and the Art Director can’t work without a Production Designer, it goes back to a sort of gaffer-DP relationship and they sort of support each other and are necessary to each other.

In a movie like “Charlie And The Chocolate Factory” it’s a very complicated logistic film and rather large, the pyramid within the design department would have a Production Designer and two Supervising Art Directors and then six Art Directors and those Art Directors would have two set designers working for them probably. Things would be split up into sets because there are half a dozen key sets and essentially each key set was assigned an art director. And so my job would be to look to what each of the Art Directors were doing within those sets in a broad sense to make sure things stay consistent and then answering questions all the way down the line, not only the set design but also the colors and textures of the surfaces and how they’re dressed. It filters [down] in an almost military way through the art directors [who are then] supervised by the two Supervising Art Directors who split the job in two and who are more responsible for budgeting.

Ultimately the Production Designer is responsible for making sure that the design can be built for the money, but the maintenance of the money day-to-day, on a set by set basis, is the Art Director’s job. It’s almost corporate in a way on a large film, there are very specific roles assigned to each position.

"The Lady From Shanghai", directed by Orson Welles


Q: Someone like Kubrick was almost already working as a Production Designer or even Welles on something like “Lady from Shanghai” – how different are directors in approaching the Production Designer?


There are two or three directors I’ve worked with who come from a visual background, like Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton or David Fincher – and specifically in the case of Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton, they come from creating their own sets and animation and the way their mind works involves a great deal of control over the sets and the look of the film. Steven Spielberg – working on “The Terminal” – is different, he doesn’t particularly mind what the set is going to look like, as long as the set works for the script or the story. And you get the feeling that you could give him a number of different sets and as long as the story could exist within the set, he’d accept it. In many ways I’ve had a lot of freedom working with him because once you get the ground rules worked out, he’s not that interested in the details. He wants you to do your job and provide a set that’s going to work.

Model of the´set of "The Terminal", directed by Steven Spielberg

With Terry Gilliam I would put a foam core model of what we built in front of him and he would take out a knife and start cutting it up and have a very clear idea of how he wants it to be changed. With Tim Burton, there were some sets he was very clear about and some where he was perfectly happy for me to develop it, and he would get more specific once he was standing on the set. Tim, I think is like David Fincher, his degree of control comes through the lens when he’s standing there, so he’ll move the branch or shift the vase one or two inches or take the bed out and put in a chair and it’s more of a dressing of the set.

"Fight Club", directed by David Fincher

So the Production Designer’s job is to adapt to the director you have on every film and I never expect it to be the same twice. I think my job is to be as adaptable as possible. I like directors who push me and have a very strong idea of what they want, and I can push back and maybe enlarge their ideas or give them more choices that extend the idea.

This is part 2 of 3. Check out part 1 here. Part 3 is here.