'We Gave Leonardo DiCaprio His Best "Gatsby" Line,' Say Production Designers

"The Great Gatsby"

The Oscar nominees for production design trade stories about DiCaprio, Spike Jonze, Baz Luhrmann, David O. Russell and others at the Art Directors Guild panel.

Leonardo DiCaprio got one of his best lines in The Great Gatsby thanks to production designer Catherine Martin and set decorator Beverley Dunn, the two revealed at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre March 1, where a near-capacity crowd braved torrential rain to hear the 2013 Oscar nominees for production design explicate their craft, presented by the Art Directors Guild in association with the American Cinematheque and THR, moderated by production designer Thomas A. Walsh and set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg.

"Baz Luhrmann is never happier than when he's rearranging the flowers," said Martin. "He said, 'We love the flowers, but we need more -- 10 times more.' Leo said, "Oh, this is ridiculous! Where will we get all these orchids?' But he got to ad lib that line, 'Do you think it's too much?' and he always gets a laugh on that, so he's happy."

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With Lurhmann, said Martin, "The budget keeps getting smaller and the ideas just get bigger. And when the DP says, 'We'll only shoot this part of the set,' it's a total lie."

Her production designer K.K. Barrett and set decorator Gene Serdena said director Spike Jonze objected to the rug in Joaquin Phoenix's recently divorced, commitment-phobic character Theodore's apartment. "Spike said, 'We don't know if Theodore would be able to commit to a rug,'" said Serdena. "And K.K. had a master stroke -- 'What if we rolled it up and kept it propped up against the wall?' "

"I know what David [O. Russell] likes," said American Hustle production designer Judy Becker, his frequent collaborator, who with set decorator Heather Loeffler crafted 140 sets for the film, "but he always wants to shoot 360 [degrees], and in a period movie that can be a challenge." Becker and Loeffler transcended the challenge, having worked on 11 films together.

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For Gravity production designer Andy Nicholson and set decorators Rosie Goodwin and Joanne Woollard, the tough part was, as Nicholson put it, "so many problems had to be solved that had never been done before … a total pain in the ass." To convey the characters of the six astronauts who die early in the film, so the audience never meets them, Goodwin exhaustively researched NASA photo troves and studied what kind of people want to spend their lives in space. Goodwin said the character-revealing items in the film include "crazy things -- an Australian speed limit sign, car registration, postcards from all over the world, chess sets."

"The cost on every prop had a point value attached to it," added Goodwin. "The VFX budget was not huge," said Nicholson.

The budget on 12 Years a Slave was not huge either, and production designer Adam Stockhausen said, "There was huge pressure to get it right." That was particularly tricky, said set decorator Alice Baker, because the movie had to look different than the big recent films about the same period, which used up much of the limited supply of plantation-era locations. "Django was filming and filming and filming, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter had been there, so I really had to beat the bushes," said Baker.

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The nominees shared stories of how they broke into the business. Martin noted that she started out at Australia's NIDA drama school, as did two other current nominees, Cate Blanchett and Michael Wilkinson. Barrett said he got his start building sets on the 1986 film Population: 1 along with musician Beck's famous artist grandpa, Al Hansen, and Carel Struycken, who played Lurch on The Addams Family.

For those who aspire to follow in the nominees' footsteps to the red carpet, moderator Walsh imagined the skills a help-wanted ad for the job might specify.

"In 2013, the position of production designer or set decorator might include some of the following," said Walsh. "WANTED: an individual with a type-A personality possessing the centered calm of a devout Buddhist. Must be capable of channeling the life experiences, talents and knowledge of an artist, painter, color consultant, writer, forensic researcher, historian, military strategist, rocket scientist, astrophysicist, software developer, digital artist, photographer, sculptor, dramaturg, thespian, humorist, architect, urban planner, engineer, general contractor, method designer, interior designer, draper, furniture mover/fabricator/restorer, blacksmith, armorer, quartermaster, master of bondage and the correct application of whips and chains, Master's of Business Administration (which is much like bondage), accountant, producer, director, cinematographer, logistics manager, naval architect, Teamster, navigator, anthropologist, archaeologist, biologist, herpetologist, neurologist, psychologist, sociologist, theologist, zoologist, alchemist, botanist, costume propagator, shaman, wizard, black and white magic, mind reader, master of the Ouija board, raconteur, snake oil salesman, fisherman, gourmet, bartender, disc jockey, party planner, camp counselor, long-distance runner, sprinter, diplomat, train conductor, air traffic controller, luge rider, choreographer, soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, soldier, spy, world builder and most importantly, survivor.

"So if you've got all those things, you might want to try this as a profession."