Andrew McAlpine and Eugenio Caballero – two representatives of production design, a generally underexposed side of the filmmaking process – sat down for “Stylish By Design,” a panel put on by both the London Film Festival and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Monday night. At BAFTA’s headquarters in London’s West End, McAlpine and Caballero opened up about their craft to moderator and former editor of Empire Magazine Mark Salisbury. Both designers have films screening at the festival (and design-wise, they’re very different) – McAlpine with Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” and Caballero with Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits of Control.”
“Some of you won’t know this,” McApine said to the audience. “But we’re the first people employed on the film. Well, not quite the first – the location person comes first. But as such, very often financing isn’t in place. So there’s always this sort of nervousness in the production. Because they don’t know if they’re going to get the money together to make this film. The director sometimes is around, but most often, and in the case of ‘An Education,’ I headed out with my location person and we put together a portfolio of images to show Lone [Sherfig, the film’s director] what it would look like. That’s the way I like to do it. And then quite quickly, I take the director out and say ‘this is option a, b, c… How are we doing? Do you like this?'”
For McAlpine – who is from New Zealand (his previous work includes Jane Campion’s “The Piano”) – one his main concerns with British-set and produced “An Education” was overcoming his “outsider” status in Britain.
“If you’re an outsider you need to look at thing a little more acutely than you do if you live in that environment,” McAlpine said, with Caballero nodding in agreement beside him. “And Lone and I talked about that and, in fact, she was nervous about not having a British designer. She said, ‘how am I going to know if you know that the light switches are correct?’ And I said, ‘well, that’s the sort of stuff I know.'”
“An Education” is set in 1961, a period McAlpine calls “a strange time in London.”
“Everyone thinks of ’60s London,” he said, “but ’61 was more like the 1950s. So it was an interesting challenge to try to get just a little bit of the ’60s in there… I’m not terribly interested in films that stand for a period too heavily, so this was a chance to do something that showed off London. [The film’s screenwriter] Nick Hornby is a most delicate writer about what I call the English condition. He is not vicious and he’s never vindictive about his writing. There’s always a great levelness to his work, so it was a very attractive script for me.”
Caballero – who won an Academy Award for his work on his on Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” – took on contemporary Spain with “The Limits of Control.”
“What I really look for is something that really challenges me,” he said of his work. “That provides me with something that I haven’t done before. It can be a small film, or it can be film that is going to be shot on locations or one with huge construction. But when I read the script, when I see the director that is involved, I normally get a sense that it will provide me with the chance to make something I haven’t done before… And sometimes when I read a script, certain things just connect with me and provoke an image. It provokes something that makes me go ‘this is it.'”
With “Control,” it was a bit more complicated. Director Jarmusch handed Caballero a slim twenty-six page script when he approached him for the project.
“I normally love good scripts,” he laughed. “That’s something that normally attracts me to the project. But when I received this proposal from Jim, it was so strange and so audacious. That obviously challenged me, making this film with just twenty six pages of script. And the rest we would have to create along the way. So normally, we as production designers, we need to know what we’re going to do in order to do it. With this, it sounded almost impossible at the beginning.”
“The Limits of Control” was shot mainly on location in Spain, which Caballero also found to be a challenge.
“Choosing a location is so hard,” he said. “Because there are so many places that are beautiful in terms of aesthetic and you say ‘this would look really good in a film or whatever.’ But I think you have a big chance of making a mistake if you don’t make the decision for the right reasons. And for me, it is what is happening with the story and the character in that moment. If he’s, for example, sad or confused, I have twenty locations to choose from and to pick the one that will really make the point I take those references.”
Both “An Education” and “The Limits of Control” will continue to screen at the London Film Festival, which runs through October 29th.