Thursday, February 12, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Production Design

In The Grand Budapest Hotel, the hotel itself is as much a character as any of its guests.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Production Design

The nominees are:

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

The great advantage film actors have over their stage brethren is that they get to ply their craft in a fully realized world. When a character walks offstage, we instinctively know the actor is still there, waiting in the wings or backstage in the green room, but when a character leaves the room in a film, he is entering a whole other world of possibilities. It is the job of the production designers, art directors, and set decorators to create these worlds, and the best have the ability to transport audiences into the universes they create.

As someone who grew up around carpenters, handymen, and generally skilled builders but never had an aptitude for the work myself, I have a great deal of respect for the people who put together film sets. It is no easy feat, as on any given day, they may be called upon to conceive of a train station, construct a boudoir, or dress an entire warzone. The next day, the task list could be completely different, but these chameleons of craft are always ready for the next challenge.

Similar to costume design, the Academy favors flashy period work and grand scale when voting in this category. In fact, the last non-period, non-fantasy film to win this award was All the President’s Men in 1976, though that depends on whether you consider Warren Beatty’s 1978 winner Heaven Can Wait a fantasy film, but the point remains the same. It has been more than three decades since a film set in the present day has won this award. That streak is certain to continue this year as all five nominees are either period, fantasy, or both.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Okay, I have spent the last few days calling most of The Grand Budapest Hotel overrated, and I will admit to being a bit crabby about it. The film just does not work for me. However, the production design is another matter. The titular hotel is a character in the film, and as the title would suggest, it sure is grand.

While the film intentionally trades on classic storybook tropes, production designer Adam Stockhausen and set decorator Anna Pinnock mesh that style with elements of classical melodramas such as Gone with the Wind or All That Heaven Allows, creating an intimate series of interiors that exist within a clearly epic outer environment. In this constantly snowing country, the reds, pinks, and purples of the Grand Budapest Hotel provide a warming embrace, a place to shield yourself from the cold, not to mention the velvety textures of every inch of every surface in the inn.

Beyond that, there is some gorgeous miniature work the blends seamlessly with the heightened reality of the universe director Wes Anderson creates. You have never seen and will never see a chase on skis like the one in this film. It all works because the artifice is made plain by Stockhausen and Pinnock. They do not try to convince us that any of this exists in our world. Instead, they try to bring us into theirs. Stockhausen was nominated last year for 12 Years a Slave, while Pinnock is a five-time nominee, including a dual nomination this year that includes her work on Into the Woods.

Mr. Turner – Mike Leigh’s excellent JMW Turner biopic is a bit of an odd duck this awards season. It made my top 10, and in fact, it made a lot of critics’ top 10s. It is a great film, but it is a really hard film to love. I understand that, so I was not holding out much hope for Academy Awards recognition. Four nominations in key crafts categories were more than I could have asked for, but you know – if you give a mouse a cookie. I wish Timothy Spall could have found traction in Best Actor, Leigh in Original Screenplay or Director, and obviously the film in Best Picture. Oh, well.

Production designer Suzie Davis and set decorator Charlotte Watts are both first-time nominees, and they will probably have to be content with the nomination, but make no mistake – their work is fabulous. It is not easy to work within the dingy atmosphere Leigh sets Mr. Turner in, but Davis and Watts bring out the natural beauty of the world and splash color sparingly but effectively where they can.

The bevy of paintings covering the walls of almost all the interiors would be enough to impress, but the organized chaos of Turner’s workspace and the plush serenity of his seaside escape are a study in contrast, bringing out both sides of the enigmatic painter at the center of the story. Add to that the brilliant period details in all corners of the film, and you have a deserving winner in any other year.

Into the Woods – Much of what makes Into the Woods the movie it is boils down to the woods. Production designer Dennis Gassner, a five-time nominee and the only previous winner in the group, and set decorator Pinnock do an excellent job of creating a dark, foreboding place in which to set this off-kilter story. Branches twist and turn and grab and pull, creating an immersive, tactile sensation for the viewer. One can imagine walking through and collecting the little cuts and scratches that accompany a walk through the forest.

The whole design has a “fairytales after dark” feel to it, which perfectly matches the tone of the film. When Prince Charming travels into the village to find Cinderella, it feels as though we are stepping into the storybooks of our collective childhood but long after their prime. Years of neglect have left the streets and homes in disrepair. For an audience that was maybe craving a sweet shot of nostalgia, the world Pinnock and Gassner create is a harsh dose of reality but still cloaked in the memories of a fairytale world.

The Imitation Game – For a movie that underwhelmed in so many regards, one thing in The Imitation Game stood out clearly from its first appearance on screen: the Turing Machine. Like the hotel in The Grand Budapest Hotel, the Turing Machine becomes a character in the film, such that it even has a name, Christopher. For inventor Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), it is the closest relationship he has, much closer than with any of his flesh and blood coworkers. 

It falls to production designer Maria Djurkovic and set decorator Tatiana Macdonald, both first-time nominees, to make that relationship believable. They succeed brilliantly, fudging the history a bit to create an impressive machine that moves, thinks, and even seems to feel – a fine metaphor for the film’s depiction of Turing. In addition, Macdonald does a great job filling the workspaces of the characters with meaningful clutter. This is definitely the look of an office in which we imagine math geniuses might work.

Interstellar – Prestige space films tend to be nominated in this category because the art directors’ branch just cannot seem to help itself when it comes to the big flashing displays and important-looking knobs that make up the consuls of movie space shuttles. It seems to me an odd tendency. I think we are at a point of cultural awareness where we all know what the insides of spaceships look like. When Stanley Kubrick’s crew rebuilt the cockpit of an Air Force bomber from a magazine picture for Dr. Strangelove, it was innovative, exciting, and cool. This is a bit old hat by now.

More generally, the whole color palette of the film seems to range from sleepy to blah, as it often does in Christopher Nolan’s films. Production designer Nathan Crowley has done six Nolan films now and has earned nominations for half of them, including this one, while set decorator Gary Fettis has had a strong run of collaborations with Clint Eastwood recently, including this year’s American Sniper. As anyone working at this level, Crowley and Fettis are clearly talented craftsmen, but Nolan does them no favors in Interstellar, and their work simply is not allowed to shine through.

The final analysis

Despite solid work in most respects from the rest of the nominees, when it comes to the win, there is The Grand Budapest Hotel, and there is everything else. Even Anderson’s detractors – among whom I count myself – can agree the production design of his films is always lush, vibrant, and full of life. That has never been truer than it is here. If any another pair walks up on stage on Oscar night, it will be downright shocking. Probably only Into the Woods could mount any sort of challenge, but really, there is no challenger.

Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wish it had been here: Birdman

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