Friday, February 3, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Production Design

The film within the film in Hail, Caesar!, nominated for Best Production Design. 

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Production Design

The nominees are:

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hail, Caesar!
La La Land

I do not believe the semantics of genre are that important to the Academy. Others will argue and have argued a bias against horror and science fiction or a bias for costume drama and inspiring true stories – if such a thing can be considered a genre. I find these arguments reductive and unconvincing. However, in this one area, I am sympathetic. No non-period, non-fantasy film has won Best Production Design, or whatever other names by which the award has gone over time, in 40 years. If it is not a bias, it is certainly a blind spot.

In fact, it has been 15 years since a contemporary non-fantasy film was even nominated – just nominated! – for this award. That was Amelie in 2001, which of course lost to Moulin Rouge!, a period musical with elements of fantasy. Fifteen years! What can you do but throw up your hands at that point? The truth is with many of the design categories, “best” means “most,” and the perceived degree of difficulty for contemporary film is not as high.

That brings us to this year and the question of whether Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood musical La La Land ends the nomination drought. It is of course contemporary. Does it contain a fantastical element or two? Undoubtedly. Specifically, the opening musical number and the planetarium sequence, but both are set within the world we inhabit. It is not committed to gritty realism, nor should it be, but it does not drift into the genre of fantasy. That would be a stretch.

These questions, of course, matter little. It would be nice to see a contemporary film nominated and win, if only to re-establish the art of contemporary design work as being as formidable as period or fantasy work. If La La Land is the film that can do that, I say, embrace it.

La La Land – On top of that, how cool that the honor would be for the first couple of production design, David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco. Neither production designer Wasco nor set decorator Reynolds-Wasco has been nominated before, but the husband-and-wife duo is responsible for some of the most memorable and iconic films of the ’90s. Their collaborations with Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir DogsPulp FictionJackie BrownKill Bill Vols. 1 and 2Inglourious Basterds) and Wes Anderson (Bottle RocketRushmoreThe Royal Tenenbaums) are legend.

What all of those films have in common, apart from World War II-set Inglourious Basterds, is that they are contemporary films set in our worlds. Wasco and Reynolds-Wasco make the world we inhabit wondrous, and they have done so again in La La Land. From the seedy jazz clubs to the bright, bustling to studio lots to the Griffith Observatory itself, they find the magic in the everyday lives of Chazelle’s characters and they bring it to the forefront. If they cannot break the fantasy/period spell cast over the Academy, no one can.

Arrival – The plot centers around two key locations. There are brief interludes and short sequences elsewhere, but most of the action in Arrival takes place inside the alien ship and in the army tent that serves as human basecamp in the film. They are a study in contrasts – the spare, cavernous ship, which resembles a seed outside and in, against the busy, cluttered command center, which is full of papers and screens. These differences are not solely cosmetic or practical but thematic. Humanity is blind and hiding behind what it thinks it knows. The aliens tellingly have nothing to hide.

Production designer Patrice Vermette, who has worked on director Denis Villenueve’s past four films – PrisonersEnemySicario, and Arrival – is a previous nominee for The Young Victoria in 2009. Meanwhile, this is set decorator Paul Hotte’s first nomination, though he was the head set dresser on Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, which won this category in 2004. On a mostly unrelated note – though, those of you who know my love of horror film will understand – one of Hotte’s earliest credits was for assistant props on David Cronenberg’s body-horror masterpiece The Fly.

Hail, Caesar! – Joel and Ethan Coen are marvels, and even their misfires are more interesting than the best efforts of lesser directors. Despite being a fan of the Coens and of old Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! and its willfully abstruse plotting left me cold and underwhelmed. It is a fun, zany ride all the way through, of course, but at the end, it does not feel like it amounts to much, particularly set against even the Coens’ other comedies such as Fargo or A Serious Man. This is the Brothers in The Big Lebowski mode, which I know is some people’s bag, but it isn’t mine.

However, no one working on a Coen Brothers film ever gives less than 100 percent, and longtime Coen collaborators production designer Jess Gonchor and set decorator Nancy Haigh are no exception. Their reproduction of a 1950s Hollywood studio backlot is lovely, a world unto itself in which the audience is happy to be lost. It is kind of remarkable this is only Gonchor’s second nomination after his notice for the Coens’ True Grit, despite his work on CapoteA Serious Man, and Inside Llewyn Davis, all of which would have been worthy of the honor. Haigh, on the other hand, is a seven-time nominee who previously won for Bugsy.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Is it me, or could only a film in the Harry Potter franchise – or maybe The Lord of the Rings – be burdened with such a cumbersome title and still make a profit? Anyway, the Harry Potter films never really caught on in a big way with the Academy, but four of the series’ eight films found room in Production Design. The team of art director Stuart Craig and set decorator Stephanie McMillan were nominated for the first, fourth, and final two installments. Craig returns here for Fantastic Beasts, while Anna Pinnock steps in for McMillan, who died in 2013, as nominated set decorator.

Craig has a total of 11 nominations and three Oscar wins for GandhiDangerous Liaisons, and The English Patient. Pinnock won her first Oscar two years ago for The Grand Budapest Hotel, and this is her sixth nomination overall. The pair is likely nominated here for recreating 1920s New York City with great care and in painstaking detail, as well as for the great halls and cluttered offices of the wizarding world’s bureaucratic headquarters. This is the kind of big work in a fantasy blockbuster that has the power to win over voters.

Passengers – Is Passengers pretty to look at? You could say that. You could also say it lacks logic, characters, and motivation. Count me among those who were not impressed by director Morten Tyldum’s previous feature, Best Picture-nominated The Imitation Game, finding it simplistic and cliché-ridden. Here, Tyldum somehow manages to sneak under the low bar of expectations with a movie that is not just dumb but outright offensive and wastes solid performances from its charismatic leads.

But we’re here to talk about the Oscar-nominated production design, aren’t we? Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas and set decorator Gene Serdena are two time nominees, Dyas previously for Inception and Serdena for Her. Like those two features, Passengers depicts a sterile near-future in which the messy edges of life are smoothed over for sleek, clean presentation, except this movie takes place on a big spaceship. I doubt if much of the Academy even saw this movie, let alone will be voting for it.

The final analysis

The only thing standing in the way of La La Land here is four decades of anti-contemporary bias. Arrival would be a handsome and deserving winner, but the work may be too subdued for this group. Interestingly, while a Best Picture nomination is a good indicator of strength in most of the other crafts categories, that has not been the case historically in Production Design.

The Academy has had no qualms about rewarding a big, heavily festooned picture that wears its design bona fides on its sleeve. Recent wins for films such as The Great GatsbyAlice in Wonderland, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street mean something like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them cannot be counted out as a spoiler. In the end, though, I expect the Academy’s love for La La Land to win out and end the drought for contemporary film.

Will win: La La Land
Should win: La La Land
Should have been here: The Handmaiden

Tomorrow: Best Costume Design

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