When Production Design Plays a Supporting Role

We’ve all seen films with production design that is so dynamic that the setting or look is often considered an additional character. That may bring to mind the heightened or outsize realities in the work of stylist auteurs like Tim Burton and Wes Anderson. But a handful of likely Oscar contenders have built intriguing design worlds by burrowing into working-class realities, particularly the blue-collar struggles of building and sustaining a life in an ever-changing America.

Those struggles can be seen in water-stained walls, amid the brick piles of a bulldozed neighborhood or on the tattered carnival tents of “The Humans,” “West Side Story” and “Nightmare Alley.” Below, we spoke to the production designers of those movies about how they created such solemn, living backdrops.

David Gropman

Stephen Karam’s drama, an adaptation of his play, spends an evening with a family whose Thanksgiving gathering is more festering than festive. The dinner takes place in a Manhattan apartment that is newly home to a young couple, yet that is all that is new about the place. Paint is peeling, tiles are missing, pipes are gurgling. Many apartment-hunting New Yorkers have inevitably encountered this kind of rental.

The production designer David Gropman, whose credits include other stage-to-screen adaptations like “Fences” and “August: Osage County,” said that to get the feel of this apartment right, he started by inviting Karam to spend time in a friend’s place uptown.

Gropman liked the scale of the rooms, the long hallway and the mazelike layout. There they discussed the film and how a real space would work. “We talked about the width of the hallway,” Gropman said, “how you get from one room to the next, where the kitchen sits and how it’s forced into a space that wasn’t meant to be a kitchen, what the texture of the walls are like, painted white about a million times.”

The apartment truly does drive the narrative, forcing characters together in one room, pulling them apart in others. It’s a grim environment for the struggles of a financially squeezed family that is holding grudges and secrets. Gropman and his team built the duplex apartment set at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, with each floor on a different stage. But it was important that the place felt as real as possible, Gropman said, so that the actors could forget they were on a soundstage and “feel that this is where they’re supposed to be or where they’re not supposed to be.”

Adam Stockhausen

The 1961 big-screen version of “West Side Story” took to the streets of New York City in its vibrant opening, filming around areas that were being razed to make way for new buildings that included Lincoln Center. That demolition becomes a plot point in Steven Spielberg’s new adaptation of the musical. So what we see are the Jets and the Sharks waging turf wars in a neighborhood that is disintegrating before residents’ eyes.

The production designer Adam Stockhausen (who frequently works on Wes Anderson’s films) noted that he and Spielberg agreed from the start that a lot of the movie would be filmed on location in and around New York. “Real street, real dirt, real grit, real jeopardy,” he said. In his research, Stockhausen said, he was struck by an image in a “slum clearance report” for the rezoning: an aerial shot with a giant red line outlining the neighborhood. Stockhausen was overwhelmed by the expanse that would be razed but used it as a tool to shape the geography of the story.

They decided that the Jets’ territory would have already met the wrecking ball. And they gave the Sharks a space where that same fate was imminent. The rumble would be held in a salt shed by the river, and the number “Cool” would be filmed on the rickety piers where pieces of wood had fallen away.

Stockhausen said they knew they would need a lot of urban space: “It’s not like we were just doing a little discreet scene on a stoop or something,” he said. “These were hundreds of dancers running out into the middle of the street at full speed.”

They skipped the Columbus Circle section, where the film takes place, because it’s “too built up and modernized,” Stockhausen said, Instead, they went to northern Manhattan neighborhoods like Washington Heights, as well as spots in the Bronx to find suitable settings. For the Jets’ scenes amid rubble, they traveled to Paterson, N.J. “That’s where we found this wonderful pair of parking lots that were adjacent to a really nice period street,” Stockhausen said. “And so that became our core of where we built the Jets’ demolition zone.”

Tamara Deverell

In Guillermo del Toro’s noir telling of a carny who hustles his way to the big time, the carnival scenes are cast in a color palette that has a somewhat muted vibrancy. Both the grandeur and the grime, the tugging weight of life on the circuit, is seen in each tattered tent, each murky banner. It was important to the production designer Tamara Deverell (the television series “Suits” and “Star Trek: Discovery”) to match her design to the moods of the characters and the scenes.

She started by building small wooden blocks to represent the characters and tents, “almost like a toy,” she said, and “we played around with the shape of the carnival for the movement through it, because that was very important to Guillermo.”

At the same time, she researched carnivals and circuses of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, and the work of the artist Fred G. Johnson, “the Picasso of banner art,” as Deverell put it. She drew from his work but made her interpretation less joyful for this melancholy film.

Then she and her team built many of the sideshow sets on an empty field north of Toronto. “I approached the whole carnival as a kind of canvas painting,” she said. For the tents, the fabric was hand-dyed and aged, then sent to a family business in the Midwest that built them. Once the tents came back, the film crew would paint and age them some more.

“We wanted that patina of something that feels timeless because it’s been kicked around,” she said.

The production had to shut down, along with the rest of the film industry, during the first wave of the pandemic. “When we came back,” Deverell said, “some of the tents had ripped and we had to fix the tears. And some of the stuff that we had up already had aged even more, and that was great.”

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