Tuesday, March 3, 2009

WATCHMEN WEEK - Interview With Production Designer Alex McDowell

The average audience member might not know Watchmen production designer Alex McDowell by name, but they certainly have never forgotten his work on such films as Fight Club, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, The Crow, Minority Report, The Terminal, Bee Movie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Corpse Bride. In 2002 he won the San Diego Film Critics Society award in the Best Production Design for Minority Report and, in 2004, the Art Director Guild Excellence in Production Design Award for The Terminal. In 2006, McDowell was named Royal Designer for Industry by the UK’s most prestigious design society, the RSA and was appointed Visiting Artist at the MIT Media Lab. Alex took time from his busy schedule to talk about his work on Watchmen.

GEEK: How did you get involved with Watchmen?

Alex McDowell: I got a call one day, as one does and then had two great meetings with Zack (Snyder) and understood immediately that he was making a film from the inside out, as both director, and fan. I was working with Scott Rudin on Mr. Fox and was on hold for The Reader, so it got complicated, but once I met Zack I really couldn't imagine not doing the film. It was really important to me that it was both correct in period and R rated, uncompromised, and Zack seemed to have nailed a way to sell both things as essential to the studio, so I was in.

The other key part of the conversation was that Taxi Driver was the reference we used to talk about the blend of reality and stylization, and that seemed like a perfect analogy.

What were the biggest obstacles in creating a world that has alread
y been visually defined and what locations were your favorite in the film?

I've been asked this many times. It's really a great benefit, and never an obstacle to have great material as your source. I felt the same way about Fight Club - the book just gave us a richer and deeper access to the story and the back stories. For Watchmen, you know the world is defined in comic book terms, but not in cinematic terms, and the first task is to unravel the clues that allow you to translate the graphics into dimensional space. It was key that we nailed the iconic moments of the film - Rorschach in the window or on the roof of Dr. Manhattan's Lab, The Comedian going out the window, The Owl Ship rising out of the East River, Dr. Manhattan on Mars, et cetera - but those were touchstones to build out from.

And the layers and layers of narrative for each character, the Easter eggs, the intricate geography and geometry of the storytelling were just stimulation to go deep.As a designer, it was great to have the opportunity to build so much of the world, to have the chance to get it exactly right, have a very strong interior logic to the way the world functions that works cinematically and respects the source.

We built over 200 sets for Watchmen, including 3 city blocks of New York, a prison, Karnak, the Owl Chamber, Manhattan's Lab - almost no locations and an intense amount of control, as Zack's attention to detail demanded. And by the way his attention to detail is a designer's dream - we are always being prevented from adding the final details, the stuff that 'no-one is going to see', but with Zack he was like "I need to see the Madison Gardens" poster, can we put smiley faces on the Comedian's gun, and a dedication from Richard Nixon, what did the Black Ops pre-release Mackintosh SE/30 look like in 1985...." and every tiny detail he collaborated in, approved and enjoyed.

For Dr. Manhattan's Apartment I recreated the feel of the crazy set that David Bowie is abandoned to at the end of the film (Manhattan is a "Man Who Fell to Earth"), and placed on a table a copy of Art and Poetry except the imprint was Veidt Industries instead of Newton Industries. Crazy stuff to keep us all amused.. Its really satisfying to work that way, and to know that there's an audience or the film who are going to appreciate the layers. Watchmen is a film designed for multiple repeat viewings, in fact, like the novel, there's no way to get the full story at one sitting.

But in the case of Watchmen you can be pretty sure that the audience is going to be searching for the copy of Under The Hood stuffed into the webbing in the Owl Ship, or the 4 legged turkey, or the the New Frontiersman poster ' You know it's Right... Wing"...
The Watchmen timeline, created by art director Francois Audouy to aid the design process, and which gave us a template for our layers of historical and Watchmen-historical accuracy

Among my favorite sets - The Saigon Bar, Dr. Manhattan's Apartment, The Owl Chamber, The Owl Ship, Kennedy Assassination, Veidt's Office, the newsstand, the Prison....

Not only is the Watchmen an alternate reality, but also it's a period piece. What were the challenges of interpreting a two dimensional world into a three dimensional one?

As I've mentioned, the design challenge was to find the balance of stylization and reality that both allows for the conceits of a graphic novel fantasy, and for the reality of vigilante superheroes living in our world. Which is, after all,the underlying premise of the book - what if superheroes were real, and actually had to live in the world, especially a dystopian and dysfunctional world like that of Watchmen New York in the 1980s.

And as we developed a gritty reality for the surfaces of our spaces, laying our own potholed and uneven blacktop and cracked sidewalks we also kept a strong connection to the graphic novel by keeping the very pushed (tertiary) palette that Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore developed in reaction to the super primary superhero comic book tradition. So while the walls crumbled they were painted in hues of acid pink and mustard and purple for greyscale and greens...

As much as a design problem, the multiple layers in space and time were a logistic challenge - how to plan for a film that is so intricate with so many sets when you have limited places to shoot. Thanks to my great art director Francois Audouy we were able to schedule build/strike turnarounds for 200 sets with multiple overlapping sequences in just 4 stages plus the backlot for the majority of the film.

Prior to getting into production design, you were an established music video director. How did you segue into design and can you explain how technology has changed your process?

Actually it was the other way round. I left art school as a painter but surrounded by musician friends who wanted record sleeves, but with whom the record companies couldn't communicate in 1977. So I had a graphics company called Rocking Russian, designing hundreds of record sleeves, printing T shirts for the Sex Pistols and others, and eventually we were asked by Iggy Pop to make a music video. And one thing lead to another until I found myself in LA designing hundreds of music videos... Eventually I did direct videos for a short while but I was bad at it, and the best thing about that period was I got directing out of my system and was able to completely embrace design.

As music video and commercials directors segued into feature films I went with them. Having worked with David Fincher for a solid year at Propaganda it was a huge education to design Fight Club for him and collide with CG technology which he'd embedded so as to control post from the start, but which I saw as a new but exciting tool to control pre-production and the design process.

By the time I started design for Steven Spielberg on Minority Report, change was in the air and the technology that had been formerly unaffordable was now in the hands or laptops of the designers. Minority Report started analogue and ended as the first fully digital art department, and the process we developed then formed the basis of my practice ever since.

Now we are collaborating with our fellow filmmakers in non-linear digital workspace that completely replaces the traditional and now redundant divisions of 'pre-production', 'production' and 'post-production'. We design in 3D space using visualization tools that accurately and seamlessly thread together the direction, cinematography, design, visual effects and production. And we are just beginning to scratch the surface of the films and narratives we could be making.

You're producing your first film, Bunraku. What can you tell me about it?

I met with Guy Moshe, the director of Bunraku, and his producer Nava Levin a couple of years ago, originally to consult with them. His project was such an interesting and provocative blend of genres and technique that I got hooked and helped them to set up an innovative approach to pre-production that integrated pre-visualization, storytelling and design into a new fluid and low budget workspace for the creative team.

The story is set on a theatre stage in a folded paper world where Russian gangsters, cowboys and samurai warriors come together in inevitable and never-ending battle. It's an elegantly choreographed dance of revenge, honor and friendship. It stars Josh Hartnett, Gackt, Ron Perlman and Woody Harrelson. It's cool!

You've worked with a number of extremely renowned directors including Terry Gilliam, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, David Fincher, Alex Proyas and now, Zack Snyder. When working with a strong visual stylist, are there certain visual trademarks or design flourishes that you think help define your work?

Great directors are really telling their own highly personal story, and their skill lies in seamlessly laying that story over the one they've been hired to tell, or the one they can get financed. I have been very lucky to work with this list of names, and I've learned my craft from them all. For a production designer, I believe it is counter to the job to impose a style on a film. We are not artists, but designers who have to frame and embed each story in a unique world that allows the vision and the narrative to create a completely immersive experience for the audience. If the director has an individual visual style so be it, but it is more important to me that they have a strong vision, and almost all the directors I've worked with have that.

I've always found it more stimulating and demanding to work with a director who has a strong visual sense - you push at each other and one's work is elevated.

Filmmaking is both a collaborative and a intensely political craft - every step you take is a negotiation between personal intent and sublimation to a vision. The individual has to survive within the shared responsibility to produce, but neither can get the upper hand. When I work with a director who walks that tightrope himself, it induces a fear of falling that creates the adrenalin levels that I need to keep going!

You also were the founder of Matter, a collaborative think tank meshing art and science. What have been the most interesting results in this integration of right and left brain thinking?

I got hooked on the art-science interchange during Minority Report, and Matter came about really because I wanted to keep the discussion going. Its been a variety of things - a highly thought provoking series of supper clubs, a couple of experience design projects, and mostly a fabulous resource network. And I'd say it has now mutated into our 5D Conference.

5D: The Future of Immersive Design conference launched in the fall of last year on the campus of Cal State University Long Beach with 1000 participants over 2 days. At its core is a group of advisors and founders that include almost every member of the Matter group, and has expanded to double. 5D is now a growing community across narrative media with a deep reach into film, animation, game, theater, architecture and interactive media.

The neural sparking between left brain and right brain is at the core of 5D - we are moving into a landscape where art and science, design and engineering are inseparable. At their intersection is where the new creative laboratory for the future of our narrative crafts lie.

What are you currently geeking over?

I loved Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and WALL•E, and I think this was great year for mainstream film. I watch Miyazaki repeatedly and have been rewatching Tarkovsky films (Stalker and My Name is Ivan - my wife Kirsten Everberg based her new painting show on Ivan), The Conformist, The Conversation. I saw some great shorts too - Rojo Red, Sebastian's Voodoo. I loved the documentary Art and Copy which I saw at Sundance.

I don't watch television, but I read constantly - lately I've read Richard Price's Lush Life, Spook Country by William Gibson, I've been getting back into Borges, also, Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends and Gentlemen of the Road, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins and anything by Iain Banks,

I'm listening to Calexico, Oasis, A.A. Bondy, the new Animal Collective, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, The Walkmen, Wild Sweet Orange, Kate Havnevik and M.I.A. and the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack.

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