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‘American Pastoral’: Designing Ewan McGregor and Philip Roth’s ’60s American Dream

Pittsburgh filled in for '60s New Jersey in rookie director Ewan McGregor's adaptation of the Philip Roth Pulitzer Prize-winner.

Ewan McGregor in American Pastoral

“American Pastoral”

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In adapting Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Pastoral” for his directorial debut, Ewan McGregor focused on the combustible father-daughter story. It’s a metaphor for the social and political upheaval of the ’60s, but crafted with intimacy and tragedy. He shatters The American Dream and turns Jewish assimilation into a nightmare.

And the production design by Daniel B. Clancy (inspired by painter Edward Hopper) reflects that with reds, greens and muted golds that turn darker when the futility of good intentions overtakes the story.

High school football star turned glove maker “The Swede” (McGregor) has it all — a prosperous Newark factory, devoted shiksa wife (Jennifer Connelly) who runs a bucolic farm — until his teenage daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) rebels and becomes an anarchist, bent on violent revolution. And his obsession to find her when she goes into hiding leads to self-destruction.

Crucially, Pittsburgh doubles for New Jersey. “The first time I worked there was on [Gus Van Sant’s] ‘Promised Land,’ and it was a cinematic dream,” he told IndieWire. “The textures and the structures…you can feel the iron and the brick. Even their cobblestone alleys are great.”

"American Pastoral"

“American Pastoral”

And for the rural, idyllic home life, Clancy found the right spot 45 miles outside of Pittsburgh. Shrouded in fog, and surrounded by wide vistas, it resembles a hamlet. This helped to sell the American Dream for Swede.

Swede’s glove factory, though, serves as the centerpiece. Clancy located a great exterior building and his team built an interior set. He not only did the requisite research about how glove factories were set up, but also consulted with two veteran of that industry in Pennsylvania.

“It was crammed into a small space but it had the authentic look with period correct machinery,” Clancy said. “What I liked is that he was in a fish bowl where he could see everyone and everyone could see him because he had a love for the workers and the factory itself. And it plays into the Swede’s character of goodness. So the way we designed the shell of the office, it shows his humanity. His door’s always open.”

"American Pastoral"

“American Pastoral”

It was also important to get the flow of how the machines were lined up, because they were the driving force of keeping America strong, according to the production designer. “Even the colors of the threads start changing from bright red and green to more muted colors as the movie grows darker,” Clancy said.

Speaking of which, Clancy told McGregor that, psychologically, the journey demanded more tunnels in the second half: larger spaces going smaller and narrower down an abyss.

“I showed him this little strip on the Eastern tip of East Liberty and explained it and he understood it for the first time,” Clancy said. “And it was great to recreate the period and make it even more [grungy].”

McGregor liked the metaphor and ran with it.

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