Rebuild the Berlin Wall? Restage the iMac's Debut? Production Designers Do the Impossible

9:00 AM 11/25/2015

by Carolyn Giardina

Seven designers share how they found ingenious solutions and can make any movie feel like Cinderella.

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    Room

    Ethan Tobman (Production Designer), A24

    Courtesy of A24

    Room is a 10-by-10-foot shed where Ma (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jake Tremblay), are held by a kidnapper. Production designer Tobman started the project by researching captivity — everything from solitary confinement to concentration camps. "The first thing we were looking at was texture. In solitary confinement, you find scratches on the walls that convey time and anxiety. If there were children, we saw evidence of children doing art projects with found objects as methods of expression." But while Ma and Jack are prisoners, "Room is warm and full of love to Jack because that's all he's ever known, so he feels comfortable and safe. From Ma's perspective, you feel a sense of claustrophobia." For its spare furnishings, "We shopped at low-income stores and followed a budget." Then there were the practical elements of the set, which was built like a Rubik's Cube, according to the designer, with modular tiles that could be removed to make room for the crew while still creating intimacy for the actors.

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    Trumbo

    Mark Ricker (Production Designer), Bleecker Street

    Courtesy of Bleeker Street

    A scene in Trumbo, a biographical drama about Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), takes place on the set of a black-and-white Edward G. Robinson gangster movie, and the set was built in a New Orleans warehouse. After production designer Ricker researched gangster films of the period, he created a New York alley, circa the 1930s, "with cobblestones, brick, fire escapes, single lampposts. It was a wharf on the edge of New York, so we found an old photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge that we made for the backdrop. We gave it as much texture as we could get because we saw it in both black-and-white and color; we see the film as it's produced and then on a TV." Adds Ricker: "Because of budget restrictions, I designed it in a way so that all the scenery would be recycled into a prison wall. We also shot the scene of the filming of Spartacus using the back of the scenery. It was literally designed as a puzzle piece that would come apart, turn upside down and be reoriented into something else."

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    Brooklyn

    Francois Seguin (Production Designer), Fox Searchlight

    Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

    When Irish immigrant Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) comes to New York during the 1950s, her first job is in a department store, which was a set built on location at the Saint-Sulpice Library in Montreal. "It was a big set. We wanted it to look like a big movie without it being a big movie," says production designer Seguin, noting that the library was vacant and pillars and other such design elements were added, though there were some restrictions on how much they could change the room since it has to be preserved as a landmark. "One of the challenges was that, in the script, there are changes of season, Christmas or summer, so we had to change the dressing of the store. We have 46 to 50 mannequin dresses for the different seasons." The setting also was designed to show that Eilis was fulfilling the American dream. In contrast with the tiny shop where she was employed in Ireland, "now she's in the big world. I wanted to say that she arrived in the big city and is going to make it."

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    Cinderella

    Dante Ferretti (Production Designer), Disney

    Courtesy of Disney

    "The palace had to be magical, so I looked at a lot of French architecture, like the Louvre, the Palais Garnier and the Palace of Versailles, which all had these great long staircases. So we started with the stairs, and then created everything from there, like the main entrance with its big arch and the fountains inside," says production designer Ferretti. For the iconic ballroom scene, a 30-foot-high set was built on the 007 stage at Pinewood Studios in the U.K., with an additional 60- to 70-foot digital-set extension. "Then we added our own touches, like the frescoes, the sconces and all of the set dec­oration, which included 5,000 oil candles that had to be lit by hand and 17 enormous chandeliers," says Ferretti. "For the chandeliers, which adorn the corridor leading into the ballroom and the ballroom itself, set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo wanted to make sure they were over the top, so we had them custom-made in Venice, and they are works of art themselves."

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    Bridge of Spies

    Adam Stockhausen (Production Designer), DreamWorks/Disney

    Courtesy of DreamWorks/Disney

    Steven Spielberg wanted to shoot as much of the Cold War drama on location as possible, and for production designer Stockhausen, finding the right location for the Berlin Wall scenes was particularly tough. "We were scouting in Berlin, and we weren't finding it; we'd find bits and pieces but not enough for a big sequence — until we went to Wroclaw, Poland," says Stockhausen. Originally a German town, Wroclaw became part of Poland after World War II. "We use it for when Pryor (Will Rogers) goes across the wall and is unable to return, and we redressed it for the scene when Tom Hanks crosses the wall and also for Checkpoint Charlie." The wall itself was made from wood, foam and blocks that were a mortar mix with insulation product as well as razor wire. Adds Stockhausen, "There were some contemporary structures [in the vicinity], so we built some facades to cover what would have stood out."

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    Steve Jobs

    Guy Hendrix Dyas (Production Designer), Universal

    Courtesy of Universal

    The stage used for the movie's third and final act — the iMac launch in 1998 — is in the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, the location that Apple's founder actually used for his NeXT Computer launch, which comprises the film's second act. Explains production designer Hendrix Dyas: "The San Francisco Opera House was actually best for the NeXT launch because it was a more traditional and classic theater setting, and this felt like a revenge act." By contrast, "The Davies really screams modernity as it was in the '90s," he adds. "Parts of the design recalled the iMac and its transparent backs. In some way, the Davies reflected the feeling of the product and the time frame." To prepare the stage, a screen that would have been used in 1998 was put up. "We also needed to remove updated technology that wouldn't have been there in 1998 — digital features and control panels," says the designer.

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    Carol

    Judy Becker (Production Designer), The Weinstein Co.

    Courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

    Shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) works in the toy department of a Manhattan store in 1952, and that set was built in a now-closed Cincinnati department store. Explains production designer Becker: "I looked at a lot of toy departments from the '50s and earlier for reference. We didn't want it to be too fancy — FAO Schwarz — more middle-of-the-road, Lovers and Lollipops in 1956." She adds that the selected color palette was "appropriate to 1952 — a lot of dirty pinks, mauves, yellowed greens. I wanted to avoid the traditional pink and blue. I also wanted the feel of being a little worn on the edges. New York was coming out of the postwar and not yet into the sunny Eisenhower years of the '50s. Most of the dolls were vintage and refurbished to look new; we also used some contemporary toys that looked period. We repainted them and designed and manufactured the toy boxes."

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