In Richard Ayoade’s “The Double,” which hit select theaters on Friday (read Eric Kohn’s review here), Jesse Eisenberg plays an awkward young man who encounters his doppelgänger in the bleak office where he works. David Crank’s stark production design for the film is simultaneously bleak and stunning. Below Crank describes the process he went through to create the disturbing dystopian world where the film is set.
My first interview for the job of production designer on “The Double” was by cell phone from a remote farm in Virginia where I was working at the time. While scrambling for reception, I heard Richard Ayoade’s ideas for his second film, based on “The Double,” a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The script was an incredibly fascinating read, and the story became even more fascinating as Richard spoke. Throughout the initial phone calls, neither he nor the producers ever glossed over the size of the budget (small!), but I could tell from their enthusiasm for the piece, that if I got the job, they would always have my back.
When I first arrived in London after I got the job, there was no clear-cut 8-step plan in my head as to how to bring Ayoade’s vision to screen. Who has time for that? We hit the ground running. Now, two years later, with the benefit of hindsight, I can share a few ideas that filmmakers should consider when starting a low-budget independent film, a process that can only be described as a few months in a wind tunnel.
1. Understand the Limitations of Your Budget Before You Begin.
Don’t assume that once the work starts, money will miraculously pour forth. The opposite usually happens- the faucet turns off. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just reality. By taking the job, you are, in essence, making a contract with the producers stating that you can make it happen. It may not be in a form that everyone initially imagined, but that doesn’t mean it will be less than what they imagined. It is your job to lead them to a solution they can afford. And that looks good. And that fulfills the needs of the story. Most of the time, that’s no small feat.
2. Trust Your Director and Producers.
You are there because they had a vision and an enthusiasm for telling a certain story. For me, the process always starts with a lot of questions and a lot listening. You need to know their ideas and their tastes. And you need to support those. Richard Ayoade is a very smart man, with a million and one ideas, but he also readily invites the opinions of others. He has a wonderful way of leading you gently to where he thinks he wants to go. His answers are always funny, but never straightforward. If one listens carefully though, by the end, you have an understanding of the world he’s after.
3. Hire Your Crew Wisely.
Almost certainly you will have an abbreviated crew– cut to the bare bones. It is really important that you have key players that know what they are doing, but also that they be people that you like. You will be spending an inordinate amount of time with them over the following months, so the lunch experience needs to be as fun as the work experience. I arrived in London really knowing no one, and through the producers’ help, identified and hired an amazing art director, Denis Schnegg, who, in turn, brought along and helped find the rest of the crew. I have always felt like I won the lottery with the people we hired.
4. Pick Your Locations Carefully.
Richard, Erik Wilson (the DP), and I scouted for about 3 weeks before the crew started, looking all over London for what we thought would be a collection of real locations. The idea of the script’s world evolved during that time, and we realized as we went, that what we needed was more a created world than a real one.
The location scout, Helene Lenszner, came across a listing for a closed business estate to the west of London, which had formally been a car testing facility. She and I went to look, thinking mostly it would be a bust, and we could cross it off our list. Instead, it was one of those fortuitous moments where you walk through the side door of an unassuming building and discover the perfect backdrop for everything you need.
Maybe more importantly, it also had all the things we didn’t know that we’d need. Finding this place meant that we had a shell that was visually correct, and that we’d be able to establish ourselves in one place and not move every day. (Remember, it was the summer of the Queen’s Jubilee and the Olympics!) I think besides the obvious savings of transportation costs and of time not lost to traffic and travel, being in one place gave Richard the luxury of revisiting a set if he wanted, and meant the schedule, though tight, had a little more flexibility.
5. Talk It Through. And Ask Questions.
With any project it is very important to talk often with the director about upcoming sets — about what to you plan to do, and about what he or she can expect when they arrive. With a small budget, it is even more important to ask question. I don’t think one should ever be embarrassed to ask a director to clarify their ideas. Nothing more can send you down the drain faster than executing something with only half the understanding you need, the risk being that the result is nothing anyone wants. We had many moments on “The Double” where we realized that our budget wouldn’t cover what was first discussed. I think it is vital to tackle that issue quickly. And it shouldn’t be couched in a negative light. I had to go to Richard several times with ideas of what we could do that might convey the original intent, but be more affordable. He was never precious with an idea that he’d had, and would always rethink something in order to make it work.
6. Be Flexible.
Though we started with many ideas about what we wanted, due to monetary constraints, we had to stay nimble and react to what was around us and to what was available. Set locales morphed constantly from one idea into another because of interesting spaces we’d find in the business estate. It became an almost daily ritual for me to take a walk though all the buildings we had to see what I could find — new hardware, building fixtures, furniture, etc. These all influenced what we ultimately created. One day, halfway through filming, we discovered a subterranean concrete shooting alley located under the carpentry shop. Why it was there no one wanted to know, but it did become the perfect connecting passage for the main characters to take on their walk from the world of their office to their home — a location problem that we hadn’t, until that point, known how to solve. The set decorator, Barbara Herman-Skelding, once joked that the building was “the gift that just keeps giving…”
7. Keep On Top Of Your Budget.
I don’t think I need to say anything more about that.
8. Don’t Forget to Have Fun.
When you accept a small budget film job, the challenges you have ahead of you are enormous. It is a given that it will be tough at times and and the hours will be long. If you don’t set out to have fun, whether because the script excites you, or the design challenge excites you, or the co-workers are friends, I’m not sure I really see the point of doing the job. There is such an element of jumping off a cliff with your eyes closed with these things, that it had better give you a thrill, or it’s going to be a long frightening drop. I am amazed still about how much we accomplished on such limited means, but I truly think it’s because we all decided early on, it would be a great experience, and that often makes you fearless. And besides, they will still serve you a “free” lunch no matter how hard the work is. That is worth a lot.
After a 10 year career as a theatre and costume designer, David Crank began his work in film 1992 as the Art Director on “Ethan Frome,” a small American Playhouse production. Since then, he has worked on such films as “The New World,” There Will Be Blood,” “John Adams (HBO) and “The Tree of Life.” In 2011, he co-designed “The Master” with Jack Fisk, and in 2013, he designed “Inherent Vice” for Paul Thomas Anderson. “The Double” marks his first outing with RIchard Ayoade.