The five Oscar nominees for production design (“American Hustle,” “Gravity,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Her,” and “12 Years a Slave”) certainly capture the zeitgeist of the season in a variety of creative ways. They’re about survival, self-invention, reinvention, and rebirth, and we reflect on this with all the nominees.
For “American Hustle’s” Judy Becker, it was very personal to get to play with the diversity of this social strata of New York and New Jersey in the late ’70s — a time of cultural and political upheaval. And you see it reflected in the homes and the clubs and in the layering of detail that help make Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence and company such complex con artists on the cusp of change.
Likewise, Becker believes her fellow nominees used design quite well in expressing the world of the characters and their habits. “I was impressed with how restrained the design was in ‘Her,’ and how it captured a different Los Angeles in a very subtle way,” she offers. “I particularly like the office that they work in; I liked the graphic work that was done by Geoff McFetridge and I liked the use of colored plexiglass. I liked the train scenes a lot. That’s a kind of conceptual design that is not often recognized but that is an important part of production design.
“I thought the exteriors were quite stunning in ’12 Years.’ What stood out to me were the wide, exterior field shots. There’s definitely production design that goes into that: the scenes of picking cotton, the scenes of the trees and the flowers — the greens were really beautiful and the cinematography captured it well.
“I liked how gritty and used the space stations looked in ‘Gravity.’ I really believed that they were real space stations and that somebody was really in them. I liked the little personal touches. They didn’t go over the top with dressing them up. That brought me back again to the original ‘Alien,’ where they have these little drinking bird that goes into the cups and that’s a touch of humanity in the space ship. That’s always good to bring into these space movies something the audience can relate to from their daily lives but in this other context.”
That’s exactly what “Gravity’s” Andy Nicholson was after at the behest of director Alfonso Cuaron. Nothing progressed until it was believable, and only then were Cuaron and his crafts people able to immerse us in Sandra Bullock’s extraordinary space adventure without breaking the spell.
As far as Nicholson is concerned, his fellow nominees never broke their storytelling spell either. “It’s good that they stretched the nominations to ‘Gravity’ and ‘Her’ because traditionally production design goes to the more flamboyant and obvious examples of the craft,” he suggests. “People seem to be appreciating what it is that we do and it’s not just fancy sets and period pieces. It’s sometimes much more subtle than that and there’s a good spread of stuff. ‘American Hustle’ is a great ensemble in terms of the cast, in terms of the costume, in terms of the set design design, in terms of the whole setting of the period and the mood. It’s a very interesting type of film. It’s a performance piece with these different parts. It’s sort of a comedy; it’s a great fun experience.”
For two-time Oscar winner Catherine Martin (“Moulin Rouge!”), the biggest privilege in making “Gatsby” was studying the source material and immersing herself in Fitzgerald’s glam world. “I have a lot more understanding of that history and how it relates to us now. You had this whole technological revolution that happened during the Great War where you have men going into battle with bayonets and they’re mowed down with machine guns that are strapped to airplanes. And within the space of four years you have women basically shedding the voluminous skirts of the 19th century and walking down the streets in their underwear. They have jobs, they have disposable income. The movies are an enormous business, popular culture is being shared internationally in a way that it never had been before. The silent movie is ubiquitous…it was life changing.”
Indeed, Martin concurs that the production design nominees are all about life changing stories: “‘Gravity’ is such an extraordinary acting tour de force but people were obviously stuck in a netherworld that none of us can really even hope to imagine or experience. And how beautiful and what a revolutionary use of 3-D. And what a revolutionary mixture of production design and CGI. I think that’s very interesting how no longer are these separate fields but they’re fields that feed each other continuously. You need to be able to create the world not only in a physical way so that the filmmaker and the actor can interact with it, but you also need to be able to imagine beyond.
“And ‘American Hustle’ was a really interesting way of getting a contemporary audience to reconnect with I think what we all believe — a bit like the ’20s in a way — was a golden period. Now we look back at the ’70s as the age of Afros and free love and suburban hate parties. Another interesting thing about the this period is that even though there was a psychedelic revolution and an obsession with the future, there was also a nostalgia for the past. The whole Diva look was re-imagined. And there was a love of vintage. And in ‘Her’ how interesting it is to imagine just that little bit into the future.”
“Her’s” K.K. Barrett, who designed an inviting, playful, and timeless LA for people to reconnect with emotionally, likes the clash of social strata in “American Hustle,” “Gatsby,” and “12 Years,” as well as steering clear of technological advancement in “Gravity,” which would’ve been a distraction. On the other hand, “‘Gatsby’ is more of what you expect from a nominee: extremely playful, riots of color, and layers of detail and textures.”
Finally, what “12 Years'” Adam Stockhausen found most fascinating was building the lives of these people from an architectural point of view. In fact, Martin believes that he utilizes design that’s so beautifully observed that you’re never taken out of Solomon Northup’s extraordinary story.
Meanwhile, Stockhausen echoes that it’s been a wonderful mix for production design: “The incredible technical, beautiful achievement in ‘Gravity’ to the little fine grain historical stuff that we did in ’12 Years’ to the glamour in ‘Gatsby.’ The spread of it is really wide.”
Or, as Barrett says, “It’s definitely mini to maxi this year.”