'L.A. Confidential' to 'Pleasantville': Veteran Production Designer Reflects on Her 40-Year Career

Jeannine Oppewall, who worked on iconic films including 'Seabiscuit,' will receive the Lifetime Achievement honor at Saturday's Art Directors Guild Awards.
Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection; INB/Ivan Nikolov/WENN/Newscom
Russell Crowe (left) and Guy Pearce on location in 'L.A. Confidential.' (Inset: Jeannine Oppewall)

If Jeannine Oppewall were designing this year's Art Directors Guild's Excellence in Production Design Awards, she might have created a setting that looked like the Santa Anita racetrack during the Great Depression (as she did for 2003's Seabiscuit) or the Formosa Cafe circa 1950 (as she did for 1997's L.A. Confidential) or maybe even turn the whole thing into black and white (as she did for 1998's Pleasantville). But instead, on Feb. 2, the four-time Oscar nominee will be picking up her lifetime achievement award on a ballroom stage at the Intercontinental in downtown L.A.

Oppewall has been masterminding movie backdrops for 40 years, overseeing the look of films including Catch Me If You Can and The Bridges of Madison County as well as STXfilms' upcoming civil rights-era drama The Best of Enemies. Sometimes, Oppewall's job has been to erase years from existing landmarks (to bring the Formosa back in time for Curtis Hanson's adaptation of James Ellroy's noir novel, for instance, she had to hide the air conditioning units in the windows and swap the faces on the walls with more vintage movie stars). Sometimes her job involves creating entirely new sets, as was the case with the Victory Motel, the setting for the climactic roadside gun battle in L.A. Confidential.

"Originally, the line producer said there was no money to build a motel and we had to find one," she recalls. "The novel and the script described it as a place that had been abandoned because it was no longer on the main road after the freeways were built. So I drove the old Route 66 from Ventura to San Bernardino, but there were no filmable old hotels of that era left." Instead, Oppewall convinced the line producer to let her build the place from the ground up. And she chose to do it in the oil fields of Inglewood. "The oil field is a metaphor for the city of Los Angeles," she explains. "In the background, oil is being pumped out of the earth, while the city was being pumped dry of its good qualities."

And then there have been the jobs — like Gary Ross' Pleasantville, in which Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon play teens trapped in a 1950s TV show — where Oppewall spent hours just staring at bricks. "The movie had to be designed so it would look good both in color and in black and white," she explains. "So we spent a lot of time putting different color bricks next to one another to understand how they would look in black and white. How does a red brick look next to a yellow brick? How do equal values of green and red look in color versus how they look in black and white?"

Also receiving lifetime achievement honors from the ADG: senior illustrator and Jurassic World production designer Ed Verreaux; scenic artist Jim Fiorito, who has created backdrops for films including The Right Stuff and Patriot Games; and set designer and art director William F. Matthews, whose work ranges from Poltergeist to the Netflix Emmy winner Godless

This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.