In Conversation: Allan Starski (Production Designer of Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Oliver Twist)

Hi Film Folk,

Today The Film Doctor Team bring you another exclusive interview-shaped treat for your film-hungry minds.

Production Designer Allan Starski (Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Oliver Twist) joins us for a chat about his life, career and work process.


Film Doctor - Allan Staski


Interview by Ksenia Safrey


Allan, you grew up in war-time/post-war Poland – how did that affect your life and what was Poland like, artistically-speaking, growing up?

The most important thing about the beginning of my film career is not that I’m from a post-war generation, but that I’m from a film family. My father was a scriptwriter, so I grew up in a family which always talks about movies and I had a chance to see sets in the back lot of the studio in a city close to Warsaw when I was a child and where my father used to work.

I don’t remember the War as a child. Perhaps, it was some trauma, but basically I was just interested in movies and the way they are done by grown-ups. My father’s first film “Forbidden Songs” dealt with War times, so obviously I was aware of what happened in Poland during  wartime .

Honestly speaking, when I was very young I was not mad about movies. My really big passion for film developed when I was a high-school student. Then I started seeing a lot of movies and discussed them with my father and my buddies. Still, when I went to Art School (Academy of Art), I wasn’t studying set design. I was doing an interiors course and paintings. Even when I finished the Academy of Arts I was just doing some graphic projects. Then I finally realised that it was my destiny to be a part of the crazy movie business world.


You started as a Production Designer in early 70’s, so you were about 28…

Yes (*smiling*), but remember, I’d been studying at the Academy of Arts for five years plus had a one year Diploma, it’s quite a long period of time. Then I was working for one year in different fields of design for magazines, and I did some graphics. And then in the early 70’s I was already working in movies as an assistant art director and then as an art director. I was lucky enough to make my first movie as PD in 3 years. It takes some time to be a production designer.


What is your current approach to designing a project?  What do you need to know? What departments do you communicate with most and why?

Before I start the project I usually should meet the director. Technically I always get a script first, that’s the normal procedure. My agent or producer calls me, sends the script and tells me what kind of movie it is; how big the budget is, how long the preparation for the movie will be etc. But to make a decision, the most important for me is having a director who can impress me with his vision of the project or with the movies he’d already done before. Or tell the story of future movies dramatically. I should be strongly influenced by him, by his temperament, by his professional approach. It’s very important if I can understand the guy, then the work with this director is promising.


You’ve worked with big directors such as Wajda, Polanski, Spielberg, but you’ve also worked with some independent directors.

Yes, for example Peter Webber. I did “Young Hannibal” (2006) (AKA Hannibal Rising) with him. He was pretty young director, but he’d already done “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (2003), a beautiful movie. I was impressed by the beauty of that film. Also, I was impressed that “Hannibal Rising” was run by Dino De Laurentiis, a very famous producer in the history of movie-making.

So, I met Peter and we discussed the script. I realised Peter was a great guy and I can go along with him. The same was with my last movie “The Cut” (2014) by Fatih Akin, a German, Turkish director. I was impressed by his indie movies he did in Germany and I decided to work with him.


Film Doctor - The Pianist

What differences have you found between a ‘Hollywood’/studio production and smaller productions??

You cannot expect much difference but there is more artistic freedom working in smaller or European productions. It creates a difference, because in America movie-making is a big business and the producer always keeps a strong eye on everything that’s going on. In Europe the director has more artistic freedom, thus I am also freer with my ideas. However, it also depends on the director’s character. I was doing a movie about Franz Schubert (1986) (Mit meinen heißen Tränen) in Austria, quite big movie for European standards, but the director was so powerful and controlling that it was difficult for me to have some freedom. So, first, it depends on a director, but European movies usually give you more room for your ideas.


Do you feel that all the big directors share some specific quality a person should have to be a successful filmmaker?

Yes, they do. I’ve started my career with a polish director, who was pretty known in Europe, especially in 70’s, Andrzej Wajda. Everything he taught me, I’ve checked with other directors. Big directors have something similar – a power, an ability to tell you the story in a really fantastic way. After Andrzej Wajda I met Alan J. Pakula. I scouted “Sophie’s Choice” (1982) with him. I realised his approach to the movie is very similar to Andrzej Wajda. Later, I’ve been working with Steven Spielberg and with Roman Polanski. All of them have a very strong vision and knowledge of what they want to do. This is what I like in a director – he should know what he wants in the movie. If directors are obsessed with what they do, it’s good.

Is there an ongoing challenge that a Production Designer often faces, regardless of the project?? Any constant issues that always surface?

It’s not really simple to tell you what the problems of Production Designer are. It is very complex work. But the constant problem is to have sets ready on time. You always have limited time to build the set, and the time is shorter than it supposed to be. I’m always fighting to have a set ready for the shooting day, especially if the movie is big and big money is involved.

If we talk about the artistic side of my job, I’m listening to directors’ dreams. For me it’s very important to build the set which fits his imagination and this is a real challenge.

For example, Andrzej Wajda does great sketches – very simple and clear; which make it easier to understand his ideas. But some directors just tell you the story and you have to spend a lot of money to fulfill those dreams.


Film Doctor - Schindler's List

If you could give one piece of advice to somebody wanting to be a Production Designer, what would it be?

There are 2 types of film-obsessed people. First, someone who loves movies and wants to work in movies. But if someone is a real fan of movie-making, they can go for an apprentice position and see how movies are shot, and then after some experience become an assistant director or producer. But without studies you can’t be a Production Designer. So everyone who would like to become a production designer should have a very solid base of designing skills. Young guys should know how to design and make hand sketches.  You need to be sensitive to colour, to proportions, composing the frames. A good movie set is like a painting.

Plus you should have knowledge of shooting a movie, know how the camera is moving, is coming close to the actor, moving back, showing different angles. But first of all, you should know how to design not only a movie, but design some space.


Could you give one piece of advice to a producer/director wishing to have a film-making career?

You should be a personality and you should be very brave. You should have the skill to lead a group of people. People should believe in a director. If people do not believe in a director’s decisions, they start to discuss whether it’s good or bad. You should have the power to be a leader.


Did you have any project where you weren’t satisfied with your work?

(Making a film) is such a long time to be in such a stressful situation. Even if I’m starting a project with some doubt, I try to believe in them. Yes I have one or two projects I’m not happy with.

Starting “Eurotrip” (2004) I was thinking ‘it’s not my kind of movie’, a comedy for very young people. I said ‘I don’t want to do this’. And then my art director said “Allan, but you will have a chance to build really great sets in this comedy”. So, in the end it was a big satisfaction, because I built the Vatican, part of Paris, London and Prague. Finally, I liked this movie and the job. Making any project without feeling that you’re doing it right makes no sense.


What has been your favourite project?

Well, my work with Andrzej Wajda was my first step. Then I did “Danton”, a French production with Depardieu, a really strong and good movie. All this opened me to Europe. Then I worked on “Schindler’s list” (1993) and it opened me to the whole world. After, I did “The Pianist” (2002), which was also important. Not so long ago, I finished “The Cut” and I’m still waiting for this movie to be released. I hope it will also be something important, but you never know. It is a very difficult project, very ambitious, but you never know whether something will become a big movie or not. It depends on the audience, on how they react.


Do you have any career plans in the next few years?

People keep sending me projects, but now I’m older and I’m not taking everything that comes on my desk. For example, if it’s a big historical movie now, I skip it because I hope for something different. It’s very difficult. But yes, I do have some plans.


Thank you, Allan. It’s been a pleasure!

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 The Film Doctor Team
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