Production Designers on '1917,' 'The Irishman' and More Share Inspirations Behind Their Films' Settings

12:00 PM 1/31/2020

by Tyler Coates

The Oscar-nominated pros reveal the muses behind their visions, from personal family relics to Bauhaus furniture.

Courtesy of Films

  • '1917'

    Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures

    When Dennis Gassner received the script for 1917, he was on vacation with his wife in Alaska. "I had gone on this long, long wander to become very primal again," he says. "In a complicated world, I wanted to find a sense of reality with nature."

    One morning, "at the end of the road," Gassner got a message from Sam Mendes about his ambitious war film — and soon the script. "I read it in an hour and 58 minutes, and I immediately rang Sam back and told him I had to do it."

    Waiting for Gassner when he arrived in London for preproduction was a collection of 50,000 images from World War I. "I immersed myself daily into this horrific thing," he says. That may have been a very different primal experience than the one he had sought out in Alaska, but the savagery of war and rawness of nature seemed to work together creatively. "One set of rules I set for myself in Alaska was that I had to approach this [film] as [laid out in the book] The Art of War. It's the methodology of how you approach a project, through refinement of the massive history of conflict."

  • ' Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'

    Storefronts on Hollywood Boulevard, re-created for 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.'
    Storefronts on Hollywood Boulevard, re-created for 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.'
    Shutterstock

    In Quentin Tarantino's 1969-set film, fading TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) drive down Hollywood Boulevard, with the bustling street serving as a backdrop that represents the city at a moment of cultural change. Production designer Barbara Ling was tasked with evoking its glamour by re-creating the marquees and storefronts that lined the street.

    "Hollywood Boulevard in the '60s was a transitional place," Ling explains. "You'd still go there to see big movie openings at the Egyptian or the Pantages. But you also had the opening of the [adult movie house] Pussycat Theatre, tattoo parlors and lingerie stores — all glamorous in their own way." But beyond the "fabulous" movie marquees and signage, Ling also captured everyday life in the neighborhood. "There was a TV repair shop right there, and an Orange Julius tucked in between two theaters."

    Most vital was retaining the historical context of Hollywood design. "The most important thing to me was the architecture of these buildings from the '20s and '30s," Ling says. "We wanted it to be the history of Hollywood Boulevard, even though it takes place in 1969."

  • 'The Irishman'

    Bobby Cannavale as Felix "Skinny Razor" Ditullio in 'The Irishman,' standing on his front stoop in South Philadelphia.
    Bobby Cannavale as Felix "Skinny Razor" Ditullio in 'The Irishman,' standing on his front stoop in South Philadelphia.
    Niko Tavernise/Netflix

    When production designer Bob Shaw received Steven Zaillian's script for The Irishman, the first act of which is largely set in South Philadelphia in the 1950s, the film "came into focus for me on the first reading," he says. The Philadelphia native could easily recapture images from his youth as he pictured the film in his mind, and Shaw quickly pulled out his own personal archives.

    "The first place I turned to for research was the family photo album," Shaw tells THR. "I found many wonderful details in the picture of my mother in front of the family home on her wedding day. The house number was painted in black and gold on a diagonal, right on the brick, as was the style in South Philly. … As a child I had marveled at the variety of doors on my grandmother's block. The striped awnings were looser in structure and hung lower than they would be today."

    Although Martin Scorsese's crime epic spans six decades and scenes also take place in Chicago and Washington, D.C., Shaw's '50s-era family photo sparked the setting for Frank Sheeran's (Robert De Niro) origins as a mob hitman. "Even in black and white, the photo brought back the memory of the color and texture of the bricks," he says. "All of these things immediately started to put me into the world of The Irishman."

  • 'Jojo Rabbit'

    Taika Waititi (right) directs Scarlett Johansson and Roman Griffin Davis in a scene from 'Jojo Rabbit.'
    Taika Waititi (right) directs Scarlett Johansson and Roman Griffin Davis in a scene from 'Jojo Rabbit.'
    Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

    The home of Rosie Betzler (Scarlett Johansson) provides much of the setting for Jojo Rabbit, as the young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (writer-director Taika Waititi) are caught off guard by the young Jewish girl that Rosie is hiding in her attic. The Betzler home not only serves as a safe haven for Thomasin McKenzie's Elsa — the interiors are also domestic symbols for Frau Betzler's own resistance against the Nazi party.

    "I was initially inspired by a staircase I saw on a location scout in Prague," production designer Ra Vincent tells THR. "It was an art deco staircase that leant itself to another story: the aesthetic of the film I wanted to explore." Vincent's research led him to the design movement that grew out of the Bauhaus school before it was shut down by the Nazis in the early 1930s.

    "A lot of the furniture was derivative of the Bauhaus movement," Vincent says. "There's a simplicity and elegance, which ties into the Germanic design experience of the time, just before Nazi rule. It explained more about Rosie's character, in that she is bucking current trends by appreciating the aesthetic."

    This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.