On April 1, 2017, the Directors Guild of Canada (DGC) put on a talk at TIFF Bell Lightbox devoted to the art and craft of production design. The DGC is the union that covers the art department for most of Canada with the exception of British Columbia which is covered by IATSE.
The Directors Guild brought in Claude Paré, Montreal-based production designer of Night at the Museum, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Underworld Awakening, and the upcoming September release- ‘It‘ to discuss his vast and varied career with an audience of DGC Ontario production designers, art department professionals, and directors. Claude was also the supervising art director on Seven Years in Tibet, The Day After Tomorrow, and The Aviator. Serving as moderator was DGC member and Calgary-based production designer of Mutant X, Copper, and Fargo (TV), John Blackie, who initiated an open and frank conversation with Claude Paré about his career and what he’s learned along the way, featuring clips and behind-the-scenes images.
Unfortunately this design talk was not recorded but I had the pleasure of attending in person that night and I took some notes. I tried to write down anything that spoke to me and my journey in production design but I think many of you may be able to relate.
5 Things I Learned From Claude Paré
You will never have enough money to build everything you want to build so you must learn to adapt.
Claude has had the great fortune to work on movies with budgets in surplus of $100m which seems like a dream come true but the thing is, no matter what the budget is, the ambition of the project will always exceed the budget allotted. What’s interesting to me based on what Claude said and what I’ve heard other production designers say over the years is that- yes, you can create anything, but the budget will always mandate how it is executed and the execution is everything. On a budget that big you may want to build almost everything practically but it is not always feasible, even at that level, so it becomes a matter of constantly adapting to decide how much CGI is too much CGI and what materials you can get away with and still have the quality one would expect of a film that size. This balancing act can be quite difficult. It was interesting to see Claude reflect on this. He mentioned that Night at the Museum had an art budget of $3m but they still had to be incredibly creative with how they fit all these sets into the studio and deciding what to build and what to do in post. He felt they adapted well and pushed their limits and largely succeeded with the CGI being seamless with the practical sets on Night at the Museum, but he also noted that on another film he designed, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, he felt they lost the battle in the final film as the CGI overtook what was there and the film has aged badly because of it. He mentioned that Percy did not have a script when they went to camera and the script was being written as they shot the film (wtf?!) so they were constantly adapting and doing what they could to make it all work but the CGI just didn’t work out in the end. I think it must be hard as a designer to have no control over the execution of that.
The interview process is a bitch. Draw the line at your dignity.
I really loved how open and honest Claude was with us about the film business. It was very refreshing. Production designers so rarely open up in this way. Claude noted that he often dislikes the interview process saying,”It’s tougher to get the job than to do the job these days.” He told two stories about two job interviews that stick out in his mind…
Interview From Hell #1: Claude finds himself up for a big show as production designer with a large budget studio tentpole project. It’s a long shot and he knows it but it would mean big things for him if he gets it so he goes after it with vigour. He prepares like he’s never prepared before to pitch his ideas for the film. Makes sure he looks his best. Goes in for the interview, they don’t say too much, but they ask him to leave his portfolio so he does. He takes a walk and he gets a call from his agent that they want him to meet more producers that week and that they would like him to create a more detailed pitch. So he goes back and prepares even more. Designing overall concepts before he gets the project. Laying out his concepts clearly but not too precisely so that they can’t find anything too specific to pinpoint that would derail a meeting like this like a piece of furniture or set dressing they might not like. He goes in for the second interview with his more detailed pitch and he gets the feeling they don’t like him and it’s becoming uncomfortable as they grill him over and over again. He starts to give up his facade a bit knowing he’s not going to get it and he’s getting increasingly annoyed. So after discussing one of the concepts the director is disagreeing with what Claude is laying out as to how to achieve it. The director then says to him in a condescending tone,”I want a production designer who is smarter than me.” Claude, without missing a beat, says, “Well there is smart and there is wise.” Immediately after it comes out of his mouth, he regrets it and curses his Quebecois temper. He knows he’s lost the job and that he shouldn’t have snapped back. He goes for a walk and calls his agent and tells her the bad news. He prepares to fly back to Montreal when his agent calls, “You got the job.” He realises then and there that they were just trying to make him sweat. Designing a film at that level is tremendously difficult with a lot of cooks in the kitchen making demands that can sometimes seem unreasonable and they just wanted to know he could handle the pressure. That job was Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Interview From Hell #2: Claude flies to NYC for a job interview with a notable director who’s mounting his first $100m+ feature during a sweltering summer heat wave. He gets to the interview spot carrying his large portfolio books and there is no elevator so by the time he gets in the door he’s drenched in sweat and visibly dripping. He walks in and it’s just the director. The director offers him some water but never gets it for him so he remains parched. Then asks if he needs something to dry off. So he wipes his forehead. Next, Claude and the director notice they’re both wearing the exact same eyeglasses and this unnerves the director and he makes a quip. Claude pulls out his portfolio and the director, snarks,”Why didn’t you bring an iPad?” Claude responds politely that there are usually several producers at these meetings so the books are easier to pass around. At this point the producers walk out of the kitchen proving his point. Claude feels incredibly uncomfortable by this point, remains professional, but has written off the interview as a fail. He leaves and lets his agent know it was the interview from hell. He goes back to Montreal and his agent calls and tells him they want to do a second interview. He’s surprised but unable to get back to NYC so he has to do the second interview on Skype. At this point Claude also mentions how much he loathes Skype interviews but he does it anyway because it’s a big job so he should suck it up even if the director was rude. He gets ready, art directs his space/background for the Skype call, cleans his computer, and prepares further for the call. He answers the Skype call and all he sees is weird angle of curtains and no one is saying anything for an extended time so he says,”Hello?” Somebody on the other side says,”Yes, we’re here but we’re eating our lunch so just keep presenting.” So at this point, Claude has spent all this time creating a VISUAL presentation for a VISUAL craft and has been shown nothing but disrespect by this director. It is at this time that he snaps. He’s done. Claude decided, “I draw the line at my dignity no matter who it is or how big the show is. At a certain point, it is not worth it.” He finished the call without presenting, stood up for himself, and said, no thanks, thank you for your time and walked away from the interview. That project was Noah and he doesn’t regret not getting that job for a second. Lesson learned: Nobody puts baby in a corner.
Step back and allow your highly skilled professionals to do their jobs.
Conversation eventually came around to tips on designing something on a large scale with an entire studio riding on the film’s success and Claude’s response was rather wise having this to say, “You have to step back and realise you aren’t responsible to do every little thing. Just do your job and let the others do theirs.”
He believes you need to remember that you’re there for the overall design of the film and to lead your art department. You are not responsible to solve every small little detail, draw every concept, create every graphic, design every set, decorate that set, etc, etc. He stresses that you must spend your time early on acquiring the best crew you can possibly find and then get out of their way. “I’m lucky I can say that at this point in my career I know the best crews in each city,” he said. If you do get in the way and start to micro-manage on a project of such a large scope it will be too overwhelming and you’ll get crushed under the weight.
Plan your career trajectory. Sometimes it’s better to step down so you can step up later.
In the middle of Claude’s career he found himself successful as a production designer in Quebec but not at the level he wanted so he planned out what he wanted for his career and decided it made the most sense for him to step down as production designer and start working on larger studio films as an art director or supervising art director. He kept his goals in plain sight and worked towards them. Show after show the budgets got bigger and he became a sought after supervising art director. After working with production designer, Dante Ferretti on The Aviator, which later won the Oscar for Best Production Design, Claude was finally able to make the big leap back to production design, designing Night at the Museum which was an increase in overall budget of $106m from the last feature he had done years before. The plan clearly worked. However Claude also says now, “I’m much more proud of the small movies like Elegy and Age of Adeline which are touching films. It’s much more satisfying than a big monster film.”
Meet with your director 15 minutes every morning and communication runs a lot smoother
The simplest but most practical tip that Claude gave was his trick to making sure communication is smooth with any given director. “I like to make sure I meet with the director at least 15 minutes every morning. Something is always coming up so I make sure to communicate daily.” When he begins on a show, he lets the director know that he likes to meet for at least 15 minutes every single morning. They figure out what time works best and never fail to meet even when it gets incredibly busy. It greatly reduces miscommunication and makes the director feel they always knows what’s going on which helps build trust along the way.
‘It’ Official Trailer
‘It’ will be widely released on September 8, 2017 in North America.
Did any of this ring true for you? Do you agree with Claude’s advice? I would love to know what you think in the comments below.
Rose Lagacé | @artdepartmental