We’ve all seen films with such dynamic designs that the set or appearance was often treated as an extra character. It can be reminiscent of exaggerated or exorbitant realities in the work of stylists like Tim Burton and Wes Anderson. But a handful of likely Oscar contenders have built intriguing design worlds by immersing themselves in working-class realities, in particular the workers’ struggle to build and sustain life in an ever-changing America.
This struggle can be seen on water-stained walls, among the brick heaps of bulldozed neighborhoods, or in the battered carnival tents of The People, West Side Story, and Nightmare Alley. Below, we spoke to the production designers of these films about how they created such solemn, lively sets.
Stephen Karam’s drama, an adaptation of his play, spends an evening with a family whose Thanksgiving gathering is more festering than festive. Dinner takes place in a Manhattan apartment that recently became the home of a young couple, but that’s all that’s new in this place. The paint is peeling off, there are no tiles, the pipes are gurgling. Many New Yorkers looking for apartments have inevitably come across this type of rental.
Production designer David Gropman, who has credited other adaptations such as Fences and August: Osage County, said that in order to get the feel of the apartment, he started by inviting Karam to spend time at a friend’s house. . location in the city center.
Gropman liked the scale of the rooms, the long hallway, and the labyrinthine layout. There they discussed the film and how real space would work. “We talked about the width of the corridor,” Gropman said, “about how to get from one room to another, where the kitchen is and how it is squeezed into a space that was not intended for the kitchen, what kind of texture the walls are, as it were, painted white about a million once”.
What you need to know about West Side Story
Steven Spielberg’s remake of one of Steven Spielberg’s most famous Broadway musicals hits theaters on December 10th.
The apartment really drives the story, bringing characters together in one room and pulling them apart in others. It is a grim environment for the struggles of a financially constrained family that holds grudges and secrets. Gropman and his team built a duplex apartment at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, with each floor on a separate stage. But it was important to make the place feel as real as possible, Gropman said, so that the actors could forget that they were on a sound stage and “feel like this is where they should be or where they shouldn’t be.” ”
‘West Side Story’
The 1961 widescreen version of West Side Story took to the streets of New York in its bright start, filming around neighborhoods that were being demolished to make way for new buildings, including Lincoln Center. This demolition becomes the plot point of a new adaptation of the musical by Steven Spielberg. So we see the Jets and the Sharks waging a turf war in an area that is falling apart before the eyes of the residents.
Production designer Adam Stockhausen (who often works on Wes Anderson films) noted that he and Spielberg agreed early on that most of the film would be shot in and around New York City. “Real street, real dirt, real sand, real danger,” he said. In the course of his research, Stockhausen said he was struck by the image in the “slum clearance report” for the rezoning: an aerial shot with a giant red line outlining the neighborhood. Stockhausen was amazed by the space that was about to be destroyed, but used it as a tool to shape the geography of history.
They figured the Jets’ territory had already encountered the wrecking ball. And they gave the Sharks space where the same fate was inevitable. The rumble took place in the salt marsh near the river, and the number “Cool” was filmed on rickety supports, where the pieces of wood fell off.
Stockhausen said they knew they were going to need a lot of urban space: “It’s not like we were just shooting a little low key porch scene or anything,” he said. “There were hundreds of dancers running out into the middle of the street at full speed.”
They skipped the section of Columbus Circle where the film takes place because it is “too built up and modernized,” Stockhausen said. Instead, they traveled to Manhattan’s northern neighborhoods, such as Washington Heights, as well as locations in the Bronx, to find suitable sets. For the Jets scenes in the wreckage, they traveled to Paterson, New Jersey. “That’s where we found this wonderful pair of parking lots that adjoined a very beautiful old street,” Stockhausen said. “And so that became our base, where we built the demolition zone.”
“Alley of Nightmares”
In Guillermo del Toro’s film noir about a carnival that works its way to great success, the carnival scenes are painted in a color palette with somewhat subdued brightness. Both grandeur and dirt, pulling the weight of life on the track, are visible in every tattered tent, in every dark banner. For production designer Tamara Deverell (TV series Suits and Star Trek: Discovery), it was important that her designs fit the mood of the characters and scenes.
She started by making small wooden blocks representing the characters and the tents, “almost like a toy,” she said, and “we played with the shape of the carnival to move around because it was very important to Guillermo.”
At the same time, she explored the carnivals and circuses of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, as well as the work of artist Fred G. Johnson, “the Picasso of banner art,” as Deverell put it. She drew on his work, but made her interpretation less joyful for this melancholic film.
She and her team then built many sideshow sets in an empty field north of Toronto. “I approached the whole carnival like a painting on canvas,” she said. For the tents, the fabric was hand-dyed and aged, then shipped to the Midwestern family business that built them. Once the tents were returned, the crew would paint and age them a little more.
“We needed this patina of something that seems to last forever because it gets kicked,” she said.
Production had to close along with the rest of the film industry during the first wave of the pandemic. “When we got back,” Deverell said, “some of the tents were torn and we had to patch up the gaps. And some of what we already had aged even more, which was great.”