While enjoying the Toronto International Film Festival I had the incredible luck to speak with the very talented Production Designer Matthew Davies, of Take This Waltz which had its red carpet World premiere here in Toronto this past week. Sarah Polley herself spoke on high about her Production Designer at the screenings and as you can see below she had good reason to champion her designer. Below Matthew speaks about his move from architecture to production design, the UK to Canada, and his production design process from conception to completion.
How did you get into production design?
I originally studied architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University of London (UK). My profs would always accuse me of being too derivative, of being obsessed with cosmetics; finally one day my tutor told me I might as well go and design film sets if I had no personal statement to make. He intended it as a criticism, but for me, it was like a light going on inside my head…
How is the art department and film industry in the UK much different than here in Canada?
A few too many subtle differences to name.
Notably, however, Set Dec supplies everything to Props in the UK, rather than having two very separate departments. There is always a standby art director on set to represent the designer’s interests, as well as a ‘swing crew’ to shift dressing. By comparison in North America, there’s usually just an ‘on-set dresser’ which is way too much responsibility for a single person. Additionally, shooting crews in the UK usually include a standby painter and carpenter. Essentially, the Brits put a lot more care and attention into what the camera sees. On the plus side for Canada, Graphics is a much bigger component and I love the potential of graphics…
When did you make the move to Canada? What made you decide the Canadian film industry would be a better fit for you?
I was born in Canada and have 4 or 5 generations of Canadians in my family tree so it really felt like I was returning to my ancestral roots. London – after a decade of living there – was also getting a little much to deal with and when I came to compare the quality of life in both cities, Toronto won hands-down…
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 love the fact that only production designers get to work in almost any period and every genre of design. We also get to design for character which is so more interesting than conceptualizing an empty-box space. As for my greatest dislike, well, I wish there was more understanding of a designer’s job description; assumptions about the ‘glory’ of building in studio, of always prioritizing the technical over the creative agenda, and the general belief that imagination ‘costs’ – all these issues make my skin crawl.
Who or what inspires your design aesthetic most?
I have amassed a couple of thousand reference books over the years, so these always come in handy. Websites like flickr and google maps get pretty addictive too.
You have had the great opportunity of working with many celebrated directors such as Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World), Fernando Meirelles (Blindness), and now of course, Sarah Polley. What do you look for in a director when deciding to take on a project?
I’ve been very fortunate in the past (and unluckier than you might imagine with regard to all the jobs I didn’t get…) Sadly, I don’t think there will ever come a time when the designer ‘chooses’ the director. Certainly, the collaboration of the DOP is fundamental to me, so this is usually the first question from my lips when I’m interviewing…
You’re absolutely right, you don’t get to choose but I think what I’m wondering is, as a production designer, what you look for in a director that makes the collaboration between filmmaker and designer enjoyable and fruitful?
I’d say a good director is one who champions his or her creative team, and remains open to the unexpected influences of a great location, a happy accident or a random co-incidence. In other words, shooting a movie feels to me as much about ‘documenting the moment’ as insisting on a singular outcome. Some of the most intriguing directors I’ve worked with spend more time watching and listening than actually directing…
How did you get involved on Take This Waltz?
I had originally been attached to “Away from Her” but in the end, scheduling made it impossible for me to come on board. The Canadian industry is (lamentably) rather ‘compact’, so Sarah was obviously on my radar pretty much from the day I arrived in Canada.
From your perspective what is Take This Waltz about and how did you go about expressing this?
The film is really about so many things, though at its centre is the indecision of Margot, torn between two different types of love. Toronto was itself also a major character and strangely, I felt more apprehensive about expressing my home town than anything else.
Can you speak a bit more about the practical side of your design process. Once you and Sarah discussed the design concepts for the film how did you go about expressing and executing that plan?
Sarah was adamant that it should be a location-based shoot (though we did build a couple of interior sets in studio for purely practical reasons like access and lighting). The art department was sharing space with Sarah during Prep so every day she would have to dig her way through all our detritus to get to her desk. We pretty much made it impossible for her to ignore us. That and the fact she’s a human sponge.
When the key locations were secured, we prepared boards of every paint colour, wallpaper, finish and texture and brought them to each space for the DOP to photograph. Dressing ‘boards’ were prepared of every idea and object in consideration and again divided out according to location. Later, we allowed plenty of time on-site to create all the prescribed layers of human history (which also required stills-shoots with our actors for all the incidental graphics). Sarah had a specific interest in the work of Canadian artist Balint Zsako, so we made an approach and asked him to generously donate a good part of his time to the art department cause. Finally, we introduced the actors to their respective spaces during the rehearsal window, allowing them to make their own tweaks and refinements.
What was Sarah’s approach in regards 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?
Sarah had prepared her own initial look-board for the film as well as a concise yet meaningful visual synopsis. Her own off-hand reference to a ‘bowl of fruit’ was perhaps most helpful in defining the project’s aesthetic parameters. Yes, she invited experimentation; and yet she always had a very strong sense as to what would either work or not work in context. Her contribution was ongoing, always respectful and ensured that all departments kept a close communication throughout.
What was your favourite thing about designing Take This Waltz?
I loved the chemistry of the crew, the unbelievable commitment of my art director, set decorator, in fact, the entire department! Right up the line to the producers, it felt like finally, this was as good as my working experience could ever be… Sounds corny, but it’s true.
Lastly, given your many experiences in both film and television, what advice would you give to young people embarking on a career in the art department?
In the wake of the ‘digital revolution’, the internet and our obsession with ‘docu-drama’, the film and television business is still very much alive and thriving. Budgets may be lower, but with the proliferation of new media, there are more and more films being made and more ways to apply our creative energies.
In short, now is as good a time as any to jump into it. You’re pretty much guaranteed to have some unique experiences to look back on.
Take This Waltz had its World Premiere here in Toronto this past week and will continue its festival run at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Friday, September 30th.
The Teaser Trailers for Take This Waltz
Are you familiar with Matthew Davies or Sarah Polley’s work? Did anything Matthew said resonate with you? As always, I’d love to know your thoughts?
Rose Lagace | @artdepartmental