We’ve all seen movies where the production design is so dynamic that the setting or the look is often seen as an extra character. It may be reminiscent of the exacerbated or oversized realities of the work of designer writers like Tim Burton and Wes Anderson. But a handful of likely Oscar nominees have built intriguing design worlds by delving into the realities of the working class, especially the blue-collar struggles to build and sustain a life in an ever-changing America.
These struggles can be seen on water-stained walls, among the brick piles of a bulldozed neighborhood, or on the tattered carnival tents of “The Humans”, “West Side Story” and “Nightmare Alley” . Below, we spoke to the designers behind the production of these films about how they created such solemn and vivid backdrops.
Stephen Karam’s drama, an adaptation of his play, spends an evening with the family whose Thanksgiving feast is more festering than festive. Dinner takes place in a Manhattan apartment that has recently housed a young couple, but that’s all there is to this place. The paint is peeling, the tiles are missing, the pipes are gurgling. Many New Yorkers looking for apartments have come across this type of rental.
Production designer David Gropman, whose credits include other on-screen stage adaptations like “Fences” and “August: Osage County,” said that to fully understand this apartment, he started by inviting Karam to drop by. time with a friend. place in town.
Gropman liked the scale of the rooms, the long hallway, and the labyrinthine layout. There they discussed the movie and how a real space would work. “We talked about the width of the hallway,” said Gropman, “how you get from room to room, where the kitchen is and how it’s forced into a space that wasn’t meant to be a kitchen. , what is the texture of the walls are like, painted white about a million times.
What you need to know about “West Side Story”
Steven Spielberg’s remake of one of Broadway’s most famous musicals hits theaters on December 10.
The apartment really drives the narrative, forcing the characters together in one room, separating them into others. It is a dark environment for the struggles of a financially struggling family that holds grudges and secrets. Gropman and his team built the duplex apartment located at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, with each floor on a different stage. But it was important that the place be as real as possible, said Gropman, so that the actors could forget they were on a soundstage and “feel that this is where they are supposed to be or where they are.” are not meant to be. “
‘West Side Story’
The 1961 big-screen version of “West Side Story” took to the streets of New York City in its dynamic opening, filming areas that were razed to make way for new buildings including Lincoln Center. This demolition becomes a plot point in the new adaptation of the musical by Steven Spielberg. What we are seeing, then, are the Jets and Sharks waging a turf war in a neighborhood that is crumbling in front of the locals.
Production designer Adam Stockhausen (who frequently works on Wes Anderson films) noted that he and Spielberg had agreed early on that much of the film would be shot on location in and around New York City. “Real street, real dirt, real grain, real danger,” he said. In his research, Stockhausen said, he was struck by an image in a “slum clearance report” for dezoning: an aerial shot with a giant red line outlining the neighborhood. Stockhausen was overwhelmed by the expanse that would be razed but used it as a tool to shape the geography of history.
They decided that Jets territory would have already encountered the Wrecking Ball. And they gave the Sharks a space where that same fate was imminent. The rumble would take place in a salt shed by the river, and the “Cool” act would be filmed on the rickety pillars where pieces of wood had fallen.
Stockhausen said they knew they would need a lot of urban space: “It’s not like we’re just doing a low-key little stage on a porch or something,” he said. . “It was hundreds of dancers running down the middle of the street at full speed.”
They skipped the Columbus Circle section, where the movie takes place, because it’s “overbuilt and modernized,” Stockhausen said. For the scenes of the Jets amid the rubble, they traveled to Paterson, NJ. “This is where we found this wonderful pair of parking lots adjacent to a really nice period street,” said Stockhausen. “And so it became the heart of where we built the Jets demolition area.”
“Alley of Nightmares”
In Guillermo del Toro’s noir tale of a carny making his way to the big moment, carnival scenes are projected in a color palette that has a somewhat muted dynamism. The grandeur and filth, the weight of life on the track, can be seen in every tattered tent, every cloudy banner. It was important for decorator Tamara Deverell (the TV series “Suits” and “Star Trek: Discovery”) to adapt her design to the moods of the characters and scenes.
She started by building small blocks of wood to represent the figures and the tents, “almost like a toy,” she said, and “we played with the carnival shape to move it, because it was very important for Guillermo “.
At the same time, she is researching the carnivals and circuses of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, and the work of artist Fred G. Johnson, “the Picasso of banner art,” as Deverell puts it. She drew on her work but made her interpretation less joyful for this melancholy film.
Then she and her team built numerous sets on an empty lot north of Toronto. “I approached the whole carnival as a kind of painting on canvas,” she said. For the tents, the fabric was dyed and aged by hand, then sent to a family business in the Midwest who built them. Once the tents returned, the film crew painted them and aged them further.
“We wanted that patina of something that feels timeless because it’s been out of place,” she said.
The production had to shut down, along with the rest of the film industry, during the first wave of the pandemic. “When we got back,” said Deverell, “some of the tents had torn apart and we had to mend the tears. And some of the stuff that we had already had aged even more, and that was awesome.”