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Production Designer Rick Heinrichs Captures San Francisco Through ‘Big Eyes’

Production Designer Rick Heinrichs Captures San Francisco Through 'Big Eyes'

Rick Heinrichs’ fifth collaboration with Tim Burton might be more grounded in “Big Eyes,” considering that it’s based on the real-life story of Pop Art icon Margaret Keane (played by awards buzzy Amy Adams). But it stills falls within Burton’s kitschy canon, and the Oscar-winning Heinrichs (“Sleepy Hollow”), who received a BAFTA nom for “Big Eyes,” crucially conveys an emotional connection between Keane and her environment.

Indeed, when Keane painted in San Francisco, the Northern California cultural mecca was right on the cusp between the beats of the ’50s and the hippies of the ’60s, which fascinated the production designer.

“The period was visually and graphically forward-thinking… futuristic-modern, although things got a little psychedelic there in the ’60s, but they were all dealing with simple, strong shapes and colors,” notes Heinrichs, who attended CalArts, like Burton, before working together at Disney. “And when you’re working in film, there’s nothing like having that kind of palette to work with.”

While North Beach and San Francisco in general were ahead of the country culturally back then, reality is more complex than merely packing a street with every trope from the period. “There are cars going back 20 years and there are styles of clothing that are a melange. What was cool about this was we were in a cutting edge environment, stylistically.” 

Heinrichs was especially pleased that he nailed the exterior of the popular Hungry Eye club. However, since the movie was primarily shot in Vancouver (thanks to the tax breaks), the main challenge was believably blending British Columbia locales with the streets of San Francisco. But Heinrichs’ crowning achievement was locating a West Coast modernist house from the ’50s and turning it into the famed Woodside home of the Keanes in the Bay Area Peninsula, where they moved after becoming rich and famous.

“We brought in some of our own dressing, painted the place, and put up some walls for the purpose of compression that we wanted to do in certain areas with the camera,” Heinrichs explains. “In Margaret’s studio we put in electric green shag carpet and floor to ceiling yellow drapes. I can’t think of another period where the elements of color and dressing and furniture and drapery and architecture went together in such a beautiful way.”

As for Keane’s paintings, Heinrichs’ team had to recreate those as well, taking nearly 200 prints and going over them with oils and acrylics on canvas. “I think her work was Pop Art, art for the masses and anything goes.” 

Heinrichs believes that “Big Eyes” added up to optimism about the future. “It was all going to be modern and the mustiness of the past was washed away and tastes were simple and colors were strong. And it’s a style of living that goes with the 20th century sensibility. We’ve never had a period like that since and it’s almost a shame.”

After “Big Eyes,” it’s back to hyper-real fantasy for Heinrichs, who will design “Star Wars: Episode VIII” for Rian Johnson (“Looper”). It’s still about using colors and shapes to convey emotional states and conjure flights of fancy.

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