In Conversation: Steve Saklad (Production Designer of 22 Jump Street, The Muppets, Labor Day)
Gallery Of In Conversation: Steve Saklad (Production Designer of 22 Jump Street, The Muppets, Labor Day)
International Online Film Magazine
are delighted to bring you another exclusive Interview (you can).
This time we’re joined by the mind behind the designs for some of the biggest hits of the last few years , ) – Production Designer, !
What is your family background? Where did you grow up?
I’m an Eastern Seaboard kid raised in Connecticut, Philly and Massachusetts in a happily middle-class Jewish-Liberal family. My folks hoped I’d be a rabbi, but I was obsessed with Musical Theater since I can remember. Hell, I missed a cousin’s Bar Mitzvah to finish painting my sets for our camp production of West Side Story when I was 12.
What did your parents do and how did you become introduced to film??
My dad worked as a research scientist . My mom rose to be head librarian of the Philadelphia school system. My undergraduate years at Brandeis University were spent backstage at the Spingold Theater working in the set or costume shops, taking whatever graduate design courses the renown designer and department head Howard Bay would let me into. A chance meeting with the wonderful Broadway designer urged me to consider Yale Drama School when I graduated. Three years under the tutelage of , and — all iconic names in the Broadway design world– and I was ready for the Big Apple.
When did you decide ‘this is it, I want to make films’?
Gosh, I don’t know if I’ve ever really decided that! What IMDB doesn’t mention, of course, is my career in New York theater during the ‘80s. I loved my 12 years in Manhattan, as first assistant set designer on Broadway shows under David Mitchell and Tony Walton, and grabbing a few chances to design in Regional or Off-Off Broadway along the way. In fact it was Tony Walton who gave me my first chance to draft on his movie . I was just a pencil pusher for 5 weeks but the giant scale of movie set design was immediately apparent after the homespun dimensions of a Broadway proscenium.
Your first recorded IMDB credit is as ‘Assistant Art Director’ – how did you get the work and how was that experience? Any strong memories?
What a gorgeous movie to be connected to, right? And of course it was designed by , who steered my path toward Yale 7 years earlier. I credit his Art Director with hiring me after the month together on I spent most of my time drafting on that stunning rooftop set overlooking Times Square with the bobbing tophat profile. Back in 1984 we youngins in the art department could still remember the actual Camel billboard puffing smoke that dominated the east side of Times Square in its heyday. Now we were building it in 5/8 scale to work correctly within the dimensions of the biggest stage at Kaufman Astoria Studio.
Oh, and introduced me to the idea of “Blue Sky Cover”. The great DP ) was obsessed with shooting exteriors only in cloudy weather to maintain that beautiful sepia tone for which he was famous. Most shows would go to cover when it rained outside. This one went to cover whenever it was sparkling blue and sunny out.
Back to an earlier question, little by little I found that movie drafting jobs kept coming while my theater work … less so. And I won’t lie to you—the pay scale on feature films was double the Broadway rates. Eventually New York led to LA and assistant art directing led to 14 years as an Art Director on bigger and bigger films. In 2004 I got my first chance to go back to the bottom of the budget scale as Production Designer on 2 indie films, the second one being ’s debut feature, .
Can you explain to us, generally speaking, what the following roles entail? Set designer. Art Director. Production Designer. What does each role involve, both physically and in preparation??
This question gets everyone tripped up. The confusion comes because Theater, Film and TV name the roles differently, and even east coast and west coast film crews differ on their titles. Ok, so in Theater, the Set Designer is the top job in our field—he creates the set out of his imagination and with the help of his associate set designer and assistant set designers, gets the thing drafted and up on stage.
In Film the Production Designer has that top job. It is his vision that dictates the entire look of the picture, from color palette to location choices to architectural vocabulary to light sources to the minute personal details that fill the walls of each set and bring the story and characters to life. Oh, and he has to accomplish all this while sticking to the approved budget arrived at by the producers.
The Production Designer has a right arm and left arm. His right arm, the Art Director, supervises both the Art Department as well as Construction, Paint and Greens departments. He is responsible for wrangling the Set Designers who actually create the draftings that go to the setshop, either on computer or the way I learned with Mongol #3 pencils and a parallel rule. He also wrangles the illustrators, modelmakers and previs designers who create the concept art that allow the director to understand and approve the designs.
That left arm I mentioned is split between the Set Decorator and the Propmaster. The Decorator and her team furnish the bare rooms that the construction/paint departments have readied. All wallpapers, floor coverings, furniture, fixtures, art, and the vast wealth of character details are supplied by the decorator. The Propmaster supplies everything an actor touches—and that can mean anything from watches and sunglasses to love letters and vacuums to food and drink to guns and ammo.
DRAG ME TO HELL – Great Room Sketch DRAG ME TO HELL – Great Room
Talk us through sketching and working with the director before physically implementing things..
Thanks to my theater background, I’m as old-school as they come regarding sketches—I find my way to most of my designs with a roll of onionskin tracing paper, Uniball pens, prismacolor markers and some whiteout. But the first step is art boards We create collages on black foam core of each world or character needed for the story, maybe 50 or 60 per movie. Color studies, photo ideas, historical research, reference paintings and textures and signage graphics and sunlight studies, some abstract, some very literal, a million details that nail each look. Touring the boards is the first way to share visuals with the director and get his feedback. Then come location choices, and then finally come the sketches. Hopefully by this point the Decorator has already found some key furniture pieces I can include in the final sketches. If we do it right, that sketch can become a perfect map for the director, DP, art department, decorator team and construction/paint to all move in sync to create the final set as it will appear onscreen.
What skillset/tools should a Production Designer have?
Start with a love of the written word and a way to read between the lines. Unlike theater, we only get a 125-page script that somehow has to express an entire world. We get to flesh out characters’ backstories, design rooms with histories that go back generations, spot themes and story lines that harken back to the epic tales from Shakespeare and The Greeks, Grand Opera and Marvel Comics. We have to interpret and connect these dots and use visuals to help an audience see these connections too.
We have to be visual artists, whether it’s through pencil and paint, Photoshop or cereal-box collage. It doesn’t matter how. I know a number of brilliant Production Designers who don’t really draw like , but they can create stunning movie images by having brilliant ideas and getting their teams excited to help make them flesh.
And yes, we have to be bean-counters too. Making a lovely set-sketch doesn’t count unless I can turn it into a matching finished set. Creating a budget that can run into many millions of dollars doesn’t count unless I can make the final construction and set dec costs match up too. No producer will hire you a second time if you create high art on the screen but leave their budget in tatters.
How were you getting work around that time (just post )? Agencies, recommendations? Luck? Pro-activity?
When I started drafting in the movies, New York was still a small town when it came to movie crews. One great Art Director ) hired me on film after film. Sure I’d take my giant portfolio around to meet new designers, but mostly the jobs came from recommendations from guys I’d worked for before.
Here’s an example of Luck playing a part: In 1994 a movie I art directed called opened. An up and coming commercial director named Baker Smith saw the kitchen we had created and hired me to design a commercial for him with that sort of kitchen. By the time the shoot happened that kitchen spot had been axed, but I got to design 100’s of commercials with Baker for the next 14 years as a result! The commercial career is what prompted me to eventually sign with an agency ) in 2002 and that decision eventually led to .
Was there a specific project or director or moment that revolutionised the way you worked/designed?
There isn’t a show I’ve done, either as Art Director or Designer, that doesn’t slightly change my approach to designing the next one. My years art directing for from to showed me how humanist and personal a vision a designer could have, and how genuine kindness can work as a modus operandi in the face of the brutal demands of this business. taught me on and how the spectacular, the grand operatic stroke can elevate cheap pulp material into high art. Both and ) and )are geniuses at generating enormous passion for a great visual idea on which no-one at first wants to spend the money; their excitement to create something thrilling brings everyone else on board.
UP IN THE AIR – Phoenix Firing Company
UP IN THE AIR – Final Scene Sketch
When did you first realise ‘I’m in’ and, perhaps, relax a little?
I wish I could be glib here. Sorry to say that moment never happens, or if it does it doesn’t last very long. The moment I felt secure in the Art Director’s pool around was the instant I knew I had to give up the security and throw myself in the scary Production Designer ocean if I was ever going to.
No matter how secure you feel with one successful director, your next job still depends on impressing the new guy in the director’s chair with what’s in your portfolio or in your mind’s eye.