' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Production Design

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Some Drivel On...Production Design

Recently The Ringer published an Oral History of Mike Judge’s 1999 white collar cult classic “Office Space.” The entire piece is superb, with all sorts of revelatory information, big and small, the anecdote about a Michael Bolton softball video improv that failed to make the final cut actually making me laugh out loud. But what I really enjoyed was the deep dive into production design. You might not think about production design when it comes to a movie like “Office Space”, and Sanford Panitch – then 20th Century Fox VP – might say that Judge “didn’t really believe in production design.” But that sounds like something a VP would say. Indeed, the evidence indicates Judge cared a lot about production design, with leading man Ron Livingston explaining how initially the principal office set looked “kind of the way an office would look in ‘When Harry Met Sally’” and that Judge went about discarding extraneous décor to render a “soulless, impersonal environment.” My favorite detail in the piece, though, was learning the film’s two T.G.I. Friday’s inspired chain restaurants – Chotchkie’s and Flingers – were actually filmed in the same restaurant with minimal variation, eliciting that sensation of being stamped out from a cookie-cutter, identical to its overall presentation of suburbia.

That cookie-cutter (non) sensation often seems contrary to production design, or at least how the Academy sees production design. The year “Office Space” was released the Oscar winner for Best Production Design was “Sleepy Hollow.” True, the work of Rick Heinrichs was excellent on its own terms, creating an entire village on a soundstage and wringing maximum effect from gloomy architecture. But it, in the vein of all the other nominees that year, was a period piece, a chance to look through a cinematic kaleidoscope, or something, rather than holding up a mirror, which is how Daniel London deemed the production design of “Office Space.”

I like looking through a cinematic kaleidoscope, or something. Indeed, I have long cited my favorite house in a movie as the Victorian marvel of Vincente Minnelli’s “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), a triumph of production design and art decoration, its interior as carefully curated as Alfonso Cuarón’s ode to his childhood home in “Roma.” When I drifted off to “Meet Me in St. Louis” while still awake again recently on Turner Classic Movies to emotionally combat a wicked mid-December illness, my eyes frequently wandered away from the actors to revel over the carpets, the curtains, the drapes, the lampshades, the light fixtures, the knick-knacks, and everything in-between. The house wouldn’t be the house without everything that goes into it, and it wouldn’t be the house without the era’s Technicolor, providing a crucial fanciful kick, a Zillow ad seen through the prism of a cotton candy machine.

“The Aviator”, which won the Oscar for Best Production Design in 2004, was similar to “Meet Me in St. Louis”, not so cotton candied, perhaps, but still with an optic presentation, to quote Q-Tip, that sizzled your retina. I mean, getting to recreat the Cocoanut Grove is any production designer’s dream! It won the Oscar for Best Production Design in 2004 with Dante Ferretti beating out the aforementioned Rick Heinrichs for “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”, as well as “Finding Neverland”, “The Phantom of the Opera”, and “A Very Long Engagement”, all period pieces or fantasies. Not nominated that year was Henry Bumstead for “Million Dollar Baby.” He had won twice previously, for “The Sting” and “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Do I need to say they were both period pieces?

“Million Dollar Baby” was more akin to “Office Space”, not just in the sweaty, thrifty aesthetic of The Hit Pit, where so much of the action takes place, but everywhere, including the home of Frankie Dunn, which is the antithesis of the “Meet Me in St. Louis” house, holding up a mirror.

That front door, glimpsed over Frankie’s shoulder is like holding up a mirror. I swear half the homes in my hometown had front doors just like it.

That doormat? Man, that doormat looks like Bumstead picked it up from Lowe’s on the way to the set that morning.

This closet? The sparse set decor of a man who basically wears the same three outfits over and over and over.

And finally, Frankie’s bedroom. A door that looks worn away from years of use and a bedspread that is purely functional, its color, or lack thereof, mixing with the wall and closet door to evince something far south of vibrant and much more muddied, an interior design of griminess, like Frankie himself, as much an expression of the character’s soul as Eastwood’s weary grimace.

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