TIFF 2011 EXCLUSIVE: An Interview with ‘Random’ Production Designer Lisa Marie Hall
As you all may know The Toronto International Film Festival is in full swing right now and I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Production Designer, Lisa Marie Hall, of Random which is having its North American premiere here in Toronto. Lisa delves deep and discusses her role in the mechanism of filmmaking as not just a designer, but as key partner in the storytelling process, giving great insight into her own modus operandi. Enjoy.
How did you get into production design?
My career began at school prop-making, sculpting & set designing for the stage at 17. I was in love with the idea of recreating worlds & applying my imagination onto spaces. This quickly turned to design for the screen with a degree in TV Production Design then straight onto a Masters degree in Film Production Design at the National Film & TV School. I am grateful that I’ve always known production design is what I want to do. It’s my life, not simply a job, and now at the age of 31, I look back & it’s all I’ve ever done. Upon leaving film school I went straight onto drafting the Great Glass Elevator (amongst other things) for Tim Burton’s Charlie & The Chocolate Factory – it was an amazing experience working in a big art department but ultimately not a route I wanted to pursue. So I took the rather brave/naive step of being a Production Designer in my own right from there on working on commercials, promos and lots of low-budget features. Almost 8 years later, here I am. I have learnt that being a designer is not simply a step up from the art director, it requires a whole new set of skills not seen anywhere else in the art department – being a visionary storyteller, a politician, a creative leader and another set of eyes for the director – so that is what I’ve worked hard to be good at and will continue to do….
What do you love most about the nature of your job as a production designer Adversely, what do you least like about the nature of production design?
I’ve always said being a Production Designer is being a storyteller, so what I love most about the job is finding the vision for a story right at the beginning of prep – the research for images, themes, making connections between objects, photographers, paintings & architecture, that translate into moods & feelings appropriate for the characters & plot. It’s a wonderful journey of discovery & learning, looking in hidden & unusual places for inspiration, finding things that move you in different ways. A love of art history is essential and I spend a lot of time at galleries & in spaces. The down side of the job is asking your team to endure the pressures. As the leader it’s your management of the job, your choices that demand time & effort from your team and when jobs are tight on budget & time (which most of mine are!), art departments often work long hours, doing physical labour – it’s hard to keep a team going & producing high quality work when they (and you) are exhausted. I’m still learning the best way to deal with this when extra budget isn’t simply the answer – I’ve been reading an amazing book about Ernest Shackleton’s leadership skills which is inspiring me to manage ‘endurance’ in lots of new ways.
Who or what inspires your design aesthetic most?
There are two men who have changed my design world & therefore how I work: John Ruskin, the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, also an art patron, draughtsman, watercolourist, prominent social thinker and philanthropist – reading his book “On Art & Life” changed everything for me; and writer/art historian John Berger & his book “Ways of Seeing” – they’ve both taught me to really open my eyes and look at the world which I have to design. Since I have become much more aware of an everyday world that isn’t ‘designed’, how rich & exciting it is in detail, and I’ve been prompted to look far beyond the Western world for ideas and culture. Japanese aesthetics & Eastern thought have influenced me greatly. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London remains my greatest place of inspiration – it allows me to find ideas in unlikely places, making connections between ancient, historic and modern things which lead to my own original designs. I’m a firm believer in finding inspiration in whatever life puts in front if you at any one moment – be it a book, a word, a play, an advert or personal story – you just need to know to look for it!
ROSE: How did you get involved on Random?
After a run of a few ‘challenging’ jobs my agent suggested working with the lovely company Hillbiilly Films & they’re latest low-budget project – a theatre-film hybrid. I had been looking into broadening my design work into other mediums so this was a perfect opportunity and it was the most exciting script I’d read for the last 5 years. I prepared, as I always do for an interview, a ‘Look Book’ (a collage of images that set together creates my interpreted vision for the story) & it seemed to inspire a great connection with Debbie Tucker Green when we first met….I started work a few days later.
Had you seen the play before you started working on the project?
No. In fact, I’m ashamed to say my theatre-going experience was pretty limited. It’s only in the last year that I’ve decided to pursue working in theatre alongside film & TV and in doing so I’ve made a real effort to go & see as much as I can both in the West End, at the National Theatre and the smaller fringe venues around London – it’s been a great education. I’m so excited about set design for the stage – I suppose it’s that chance to play with ALL the senses, to create immersive experiences for the audience, not rely on replicating reality, and find unusual creative solutions to financial restraints. Even though there’s less money, there’s a greater freedom. Theatre I see now is such an important form that designers need to explore – it teaches you a great deal about the importance of text & character. Coincidentally, since Random, Debbie Tucker Green asked me to design her new play, ‘Truth & Reconciliation’ at the Royal Court Theatre, London. It has been a huge learning curve, particularly doing costume for the first time, but it’s been a wonderful collaborative experience, has been well received, & I look forward to more work for the stage.
From your perspective what is Random about? How did you go about expressing this?
Debbie’s writing, for me, is about truth – how quirky, painful and mundane it can be in our lives. The story didn’t, for me, have a ‘theme’. It was a lyrical & poignant look at an intimate moment in life and therefore the design was not about an overall mood or plot. Our work on Random, as it is with everything I do, was principally about honesty & detail. I had to recreate an honest world, make you believe we were glimpsing into a real Jamaican family living in London. That was it. No frills. Two things came out of my approach to the script that were important in the design: 1, the film has 468 scenes! – due to a constant cutting between a ‘black box’ performance space and real ‘lit’ locations, which therefore demanded a look on location that didn’t jar with a black studio so shadows & dark tones became important, and 2, a line in the script that stuck out for both myself & the set decorator: “MUM: Like a hurricane gone thru were tings should be” – the idea of a storm at sea gave us the look for the house, full of life and movement – it’s only when the clock strikes 4:09 does everything stop, dead. Achieving a sense of movement is paramount for me, finding life in the middle of things – twisted duvets, clothes on the floor, dirty dishes in the sink, shoes in a messy pile by the door.
Can you speak a bit more about the practical side of your design process. Once you and Debbie discussed the design concepts for the film how did you go about executing that plan?
The first job was locating the principal house location – a completely empty property – no carpets, no curtains, no furniture. Then further to conversations about character with Debbie, I created the final ‘Look Book’ as my tool of communicating my vision. I am a bit of a renegade when it comes to the process – I don’t believe in just following the same old working patterns that exist in the industry because every job is different and demands a unique approach. I study a lot of business ideas/thinking and so it inspired me to shake things up. So, I employed a team of ‘Character Buyers’ – one for each member of the Random family (Mum, Dad, Sister, Brother). They each had a space within the house (a bedroom for example) and they had to go away for 1 week to prep & buy everything required specifically for their character – furniture, carpets, curtains, dressing, & any scripted action props. Then in the 2nd week all Buyers came together to dress the house set, working almost as a family. It was my & the Set Decorator’s job to tie it all together. I asked the buyers to buy Christmas & birthday presents for each other’s characters for the last 5 years, so that there would be a blend of character props in each other’s spaces. It was a great process that dispensed with traditional art department hierarchies, gave creative freedom & responsibility to a whole team, and led to the main set rich & detailed in feel, despite the budget being (very) low.
What was Debbie’s approach to the design of the film? Did she give you much freedom to explore your own visual concepts or was she very specific with her vision of the film?
This was Debbie’s first feature length film so she entrusted me & the DoP with its look a huge amount which was energising. Her approach was that it must be real but neither gritty nor depressing. The story has nothing to do with race or class so we had to avoid anything stereotypical, whilst retaining a character of a family with its own funny quirks. It’s a regular family living in an unknown part of London being affected by a random act of violence that can, and sadly does, happen anywhere. Debbie knows what she likes, what she doesn’t, enjoys being tested with new ideas and sometimes needs a little convincing, but was ultimately very collaborative. The script features a lot of object detail, refreshing for a designer, so this was important for her to get right. She gave me a lot of advice on the Jamaican detail we needed – the types of food in the kitchen, the type of cosmetic products in the bedroom – but also left me to trust my own instinct.
What was your favourite thing about designing Random?
Over-hearing the crew & cast (those who didn’t know) remark that it was amazing we had found a location, a house with a Jamaican family already living there! We had everyone fooled and it was a proud moment for the team to know that we had created a truly believable & honestly dressed location. And seeing that team of character buyers come together and bring 4 different identities anda whole host of ideas to a house that I would never have been able to achieve by myself – it was a great collaborative result.
Lastly, given your many experiences in both film and television, what advice would you give to anybody embarking on a career in the art department?
1. The technical skills we use in set design (drafting, modelmaking, CAD, concept drawing, construction or prop making) are important to learn but they WILL NEVER make you a designer. It is your ability to tell stories visually that is the thing you must strive to be good at if you want a career in production design and to do this you must immerse yourself in stories not only from literature, but from the real world out there. Stories are in objects and places and spaces everywhere, you must train yourself to see them. 2. The biggest thing I’ve learnt in the last 8 years is being a Production Designer is all about managing people & efficient communication – 2% of my time is being practically creative (drawing, making models), 98% of my time is spent making it all happen, problem-solving. You need to have a sharp business mind, be a good politician, and enjoy the creativity of management. 3. And be prepared to work long hours – most jobs are a real test of endurance and production design requires a high level of dedication and stamina!
Random has its North American premiere here in Toronto, September 16th at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 10pm and plays again September 17th at AGO Jackman Hall at 1pm.