In Conversation: Steve Saklad (Production Designer of 22 Jump Street, The Muppets, Labor Day)

Hi Film Folk!

The Film Doctor Team are delighted to bring you another exclusive Interview (you can check out others here).

This time we’re joined by the mind behind the designs for some of the biggest hits of the last few years (22 Jump Street, The Muppets) – Production Designer, Steve Saklad!

 

Film Doctor - Steve Saklad

 

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 (radioactive pharmaceuticals). 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 Santo Loquasto urged me to consider Yale Drama School when I graduated. Three years under the tutelage of Ming Cho Lee, Michael Yeargan and Jane Greenwood — all iconic names in the Broadway design world– and I was ready (I hoped) 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 ‘Heartburn’. 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 ‘Radio Days’ 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 Santo Loquasto, who steered my path toward Yale 7 years earlier. I credit his Art Director Steve Graham with hiring me after the month together on ‘Heartburn’. 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 ‘Radio Days’ introduced me to the idea of “Blue Sky Cover”. The great DP Gordon Willis (and by extension Woody Allen) 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 (shoot on the soundstage) 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 Jason Reitman’s debut feature, ‘Thank You For Smoking’.







 
 

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. (In TV the top job may still be called the Art Director at times.) It is his vision (combined with that of the Director and DP) 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 (Assistant Art Directors on the East Coast) 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. (Both are still in use today.) 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 Sketch
 
DRAG ME TO HELL - Great Room
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 (I hate the term moodboards—sounds so touchy feely.) 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 Leonardo, 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 Radio Days)? 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 (Steve Graham) 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 “When a Man Loves a Woman” 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 (ICM) in 2002 and that decision eventually led to Jason Reitman.

 
 

Was there a specific project or director or moment (or even book) 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 Stuart Wurtzel from ‘The Mambo Kings’ to ‘Charlotte’s Web’ 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. Patrizia Von Brandenstein taught me on ‘The Quick and the Dead’ and ‘Mercury Rising’ how the spectacular, the grand operatic stroke can elevate cheap pulp material into high art. Both Kristi Zea (‘The Family Man’ and ‘Red Dragon’) and Neil Spisak (‘Spider-Man 2) 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 – Phoenix Firing Company

 

UP IN THE AIR - Final Scene Sketch
UP IN THE AIR – Final Scene Sketch

 

 

When did you first realise ‘I’m in’ (the industry) 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 ‘Spider-Man 2’ 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.

 
 

What can you tell us about working on the mind-bending ‘The Game’?

I got to be a fly on the wall watching 2 great talents at work: Production Designer Jeffrey Beecroft and Director David Fincher. No-one worked harder than these two guys to bring whatever nightmares roamed around in their heads and make them live and breathe onscreen, despite all practical considerations to the contrary. That’s one example of a show that read like a small-scale twilight zone episode on the page and became Grand Opera in the hands of true visionaries on the screen.

 
 

‘Thank you for Smoking’ is a period film (90s) right? What challenges do you find straying from contemporary periods?

Yep, ‘Smoking’ was set in ’96 and shot in 2004 (so a very subtle form of period work). My last film with Jason Reitman, ‘Labor Day’, was set in 1987 and 1965. But nearly every movie I’ve loved working on has period aspects to it. ‘Juno’ had a 70’s feel to much of it. ‘Up In The Air’ had interior after interior locked in the ‘80s. For ‘The Muppets’ we used photo research from the 30’s and 40’s in designing the backstage and dressing room sets. Even ‘Drag Me To Hell’ had a grand finale set in a Turkish ballroom we claimed was built in 1908. Our lives today are always filled with visuals going back decades.

‘Labor Day’ was an especial joy to do, and especial torture, because everyone thinks they already know what 1987 looked like. It’s a period no-one values, making it much harder to locate goods on e-bay than the 60’s or 50’s might be. We had to be so scrupulous, filling that world with exactly the right soup cans and green stamps books and game boys and bank teller ads. We were creating grocery stores and Price-Mart discount malls that required aisle after aisle of correct merchandise. One false choice could easily have popped the whole balloon.

 

You worked on the massive Summer comedy 22 Jump Street – what challenges did you face on that one? It looks like there were quite a few locations…Any nightmares?

You realize of course that working on a massive hit or working on an abject flop feel exactly the same while you’re doing the work, right?

New Orleans as a whole was a joy to shoot in (and what a difference 7 years have made to that city since I last worked there in 2006)! But here’s a movie that lives and breathes ¾ of its script on a college campus and there we were shooting smack in the middle of the fall semester of 2013. Both Tulane and Loyola campuses were quite helpful, until constant rainfall in the first 2 weeks of the shoot required us to scramble our schedules on a daily basis thereafter.

We had first unit shooting dialogue scenes on campus, second unit shooting stunts and car chases, and CG units shooting elements to recreate in post, each unit all over the 2 campuses on their own unit’s schedule. We were damn lucky to get the final helmet car chase on film before the plug was pulled on all campus work.

The only true “nightmare” I’ll mention (aside from an errant helmet car on fire that melted the astroturf in the football field’s endzone) was the hell-and-heaven set for the boys’ drugtrip we built on a soundstage for the last day of shooting in New Orleans. After weeks of shooting our own Bad Boys 2 movie, we suddenly got to do an episode of HR Pufnstuf. So creating that nightmare was actually bliss.

 
22 JUMP STREET - Interior Headquarters
22 JUMP STREET – Interior Headquarters
 
22 JUMP STREET - Interior Headquarters
22 JUMP STREET – Interior Headquarters
 

What differences do you find there are working on comedies? Do you have to get involved in the visual gags side more? Are there go-to colours or shapes to stimulate laughs or create a lighter atmosphere?

Whether a movie is a comedy or drama, my job as a designer is to match the visuals precisely to the world described in the script. Sure, ‘22 Jump St’ is a comedy, but it also needed to be “stakes-y” in the words of directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Bad guys with guns had to feel real, the dorm sets we built onstage had to feel real, the frat house had to NOT feel like ‘Animal House’ but like the real ones Lord and Miller knew from Dartmouth, and the danger of a helicopter flying over the beach in Puerto Mexico (ok, San Juan) definitely had to feel real. Sure, the helmet car was funny to an audience, but we took this world damn seriously!

As a contrast, look at ‘Juno’. The crazy language in that script was heightened and un-realistic, so the visuals needed to match that world—stronger color stories for each character, wildly layered décor on the walls and ceiling of Juno’s bedroom, bold visual statements like the Dancing Elks banner in the school trophy case where the girls ate lunch.

‘Up In The Air’ was a bleak sort of comedy too, but it also had to be strictly documentarian in its visual language. Nothing “comedic” was injected into those bleak worlds if we could help it. Bottom line: the visuals always have to simply match the words.

 
 

The Muppets – Did having puppets in the space work its way into how you designed sets? Can you talk us through what you had to do? Anything else particularly unusual about that production?

God how I loved working on that show! Beyond anything else, that was a chance to pay heartfelt tribute to all those dusty backstage spaces I knew and loved from the Broadway years of my youth. My story was that once there was a real live Muppets Theater full of all the ghosts and graffiti and nooks and crannies of the great Amercian Vaudeville stages of the 30’s; some hack designer had seen it when he created the budget set for the 70’s era TV show. Now for the feature film we were finally going to show the audience the real theater, ghosts and all!

At the start of production we all got a crash course in what Muppets as a species could and couldn’t do — turns out eating and drinking are a no-no. Taking Muppets in a group through revolving doors is a nightmare when you realize you’re also trying to carry a dolly filled with all the puppeteers operating those Muppets, pretzeled together flat on their backs surrounded by TV monitors to show the operators what the camera is seeing.

Though our budget required that we shoot at real locations all over Los Angeles (to the great frustration of our veteran Muppeteers), Muppet movies are usually planned strictly as soundstage shoots, where every set can be built on a removable false deck 3 feet above the real stage floor where the puppeteers stand. Our big soundstage sets – Kermit’s Office, the Muppet Theater Audience, Stage, Backstage and Dressing Rooms – were all built that way.

If Jason Segel and Kermit walked together down a flight of stairs backstage, half of said staircase was removable to allow humans to move down the left half and puppeteers to descend on the right side on a stair unit 3’ lower to maintain Kermit’s height. We happily drove our construction team bonkers with the special needs of our Muppety world!

 
THE MUPPETS - Kermit's Office Sketch
THE MUPPETS – Kermit’s Office Sketch

 

THE MUPPETS - Kermit's Mansion circa 1982
THE MUPPETS – Kermit’s Mansion circa 1982
 

How closely do you work with location scouts – both you and Production Designers generally?

It seems I’ve made a career with directors who live for the thrill of working in real locations (I’m looking at you, Jason Reitman.) Great locations are everything to a modestly-budgeted feature! Long before the Art Department is crewed up, that Location Manager is out there beating the trees for plum sites to fall in our laps. Very often, it’s just the LM and me in a car for a good deal of the early prep. Perfect collaboration between the two of us is essential, and even more so, that we’re all on our director’s wave length from the get-go.

To find the old house where half of ‘Labor Day’ takes place required our brilliant LM John Lattenser to reject 80 or more also-ran houses spread out all over eastern Massachusetts before the ultimate winner was found. Lattenser was also responsible for finding the 97 shockingly great locations ‘Up In The Air’ needed to tell a very site-specific story spread all across the Midwest.

 
 

Who else do you work most closely with?

No discussion of great Production Design can happen without also talking about our comrade in arms, the Director of Photography. The most beautiful scenic art on the walls is useless if the camera can’t see those brushstrokes through the gloom.

Every image I generate when I’m designing a film is saturated with lighting ideas—the sunlight beams coming through lattice-work netting on the dirty window panes to light the dustmotes in the empty rooms of ‘Labor Day’; the amber glow of footlights and pink and turquoise gels on lekos in the wings of the Muppet theater to create that Rainbow Connection onstage in ‘The Muppets’; a nightmare vision of Hell on earth lit by a million pillar candles and those strangely Moorish stained glass window transoms in the climax of ‘Drag Me To Hell’.

None of this happens without a tight collaboration with my DP and his team.

 
 

What kind of typical last minute changes do you sometimes have to endure? I.e. is it sometimes a matter of changing the set instead of say costume or the actors position?

Crazy schedule changes happen all the time on every shoot—you lose a location, find a replacement at the 11th hour, radically rebuild what was made for location A, and redress in time for 1st Unit to show up and shoot without anyone blinking twice. Water off a duck’s back, believe me.

I’ve heard stories of budgets requiring designers to complete and dress only 2 or 3 walls of a set to save money. A designer friend of mine went through radical budget cuts after a huge set was partially built; he painted the now-verboten half of the set battleship gray to keep John Hughes from shooting any other walls beyond what the set’s new budget allowed!

Basically, directors will always end up shooting 360 degrees, no matter what they say in the tech scout. No-one wants to hear a designer whine “you said you wouldn’t look that way!” when the camera is suddenly pointing toward that undressed 4th wall.

 
 

Is there a specific type of location/set that is a real drag to build/find?

If I never have to do another Police Station, I’ll be happy. Since the glory-days of ‘NYPD Blue’ and ‘Law and Order’, there have been precious few opportunities to do anything fresh or newly conceived about a Precinct House.

And this doesn’t apply to our beloved ’22 Jump Street’ headquarters, of course! But that’s because our brief wasn’t to do a Police Station there—we were tasked with creating the ruins of a Vietnamese-Catholic Church, into which an exorbitant amount of money had been lavished on a cutting-edge architect-designed layout that reflected the egomania of Ice Cube’s character of Captain Dickson. Now that’s a brief anyone would jump at!

 
LABOR DAY - Adele's House Sketch
LABOR DAY – Adele’s House Sketch
 

You’ve been working on Empire. What differences have you noticed in the art department between Film and TV?

Well, time management for one. We had about 5 weeks to prep the 15-day shoot that resulted in the pilot for ‘Empire’. That’s just insanely fast to resolve a visual vocabulary, color palette, dozens of key locations and backstory-rich décor choices for characters who are barely penciled in and will grow and change as the later episodes are written.

In a film you know the whole story, you know which details are essential to a character’s arc and which are not. In TV you’re working in big bold strokes from the get-go, trusting the creators (in this case the thrilling Lee Daniels and Danny Strong) to corral everything into the vision they’re after. You come to rely on your first instinct for a character’s look and trust it will be the right one to guide future designers who will shepherd the show for season after season.

 
 

What’s one of the most under-known/appreciated aspects of Production Design, both inside or outside of the industry?

Let’s not mention the odd producer’s wife who expects the Production Designer to offer free decorator advice on her beach house in Malibu. Happily, I’ve been spared that curse of the Designer’s life so far.

One of the surprising gifts of being a Production Designer is getting to see the backstage view of so many walks of life as we’re researching and scouting our films.

I now know more about the process of packing eggs than I ever expected to after our shoot in an egg factory on ‘Swing Vote’. From the same movie I now know exactly what the inside of Air Force One looks like (circa 2007). I know what it took to build railroad tracks across British East Africa in 1905 because we built our own and ran working locomotives on them for the film ‘The Ghost and the Darkness’. I know how the Yomami tribes of the Amazon build their village structures after building our own versions with indigenous crews on a real Amazonian tributary for ‘Jungle 2 Jungle’.

 
 

You’ve worked with huge directors such as David Fincher, Jason Reitman, James Bobin, Sam Raimi? Is there one single (or several) characteristic/s that you’ve noticed among them that makes them so successful?

Temperamentally each of those guys is so different. The energy on a Fincher set is nothing like the vibe on a Reitman set. Raimi always comes to work in a sport jacket and dress shirt; Bobin will add a sweater vest to that uniform; Reitman is still a t-shirt and hoodie guy. Lee Daniels’ preferred garb on set these days is pajamas. And if any of these guys showed up in the other guy’s uniform, I’d be very concerned.

But every one of these guys is astonishingly articulate about what they’re after with a designer. Each of these guys is a writer as well as a director; they each value the power of words so much, and use them with precision. They make absolutely explicit what is important to them and what is not important. And true passion from the very top is the juice that makes any set run.

 
 

What is the hardest part of your job on each project?

The toughest challenge is just calming down when the chaos mounts up. “We lost an actor so the set planned for next week will shoot tomorrow.” “The director won’t be able to walk the set ahead of time so we’ll just make any fixes on the day we shoot it— that should be fine, right?”

It’s a miracle I get any sleep at all the night before the biggest sets open. You just have to keep repeating the mantra, ‘Somehow It’ll All Work Out.’

 
JUNO - Juno's Bedroom
JUNO – Juno’s Bedroom
 

How has the VFX industry changed what you’re doing? E.g. sometimes they’ll add in cars or other assets afterwards to a set, is this often a change of heart in post or is that set up from the start for finance reasons?

Interfacing well with our VFX friends has become a more and more significant consideration in the Art Department in the last decade. In every big-budget show I’ve done, vast hours are spent in storyboard meetings around a conference table where every shot in a sequence is analyzed to map out where set construction ends and CG building begins. A particularly elaborate 5-story beaux-artes façade we built onstage for Spider-Man 2’ was conceived partly to take advantage of CG files our VFX team already had, which would easily allow those 5-stories to be multiplied into 50 stories when the sequence was complete.

In principle all of the design falls under the responsibility of the Production Designer, regardless of how that design is achieved. But I’m off the clock when the last camera stops rolling, and realities of the post-production process mean that directors may have a brilliant idea as Lord and Miller did while editing ‘Jump St’ and want a building to be rechristened the Benjamin Hill Center for Cinematic Studies. Those guys come from the world of  Animation where everything is fluid until the final edit is locked. I just have to trust that they’ll work within the aesthetic we’ve carefully established during the principle shoot.

 
 

What piece of advice would you give to any aspiring Production Designer wanting to one day be in your shoes?

Get the most well-rounded education you can. Study literature, world history, psychology, anthropology, along with the obvious specialties we designers need like architectural history, art history and life drawing class. My theater training in breaking down a script was an enormous help when I was faced with designing for character in my first low-budget film.

Work in any capacity to get your foot in the door in an art department. I was good at drafting, so that was my route to a first feature film paycheck, but great designers also come out of the decorating departments and out of the concept illustrators’ ranks. Whatever your position, don’t be afraid to suggest a great design idea to your bosses. One day the right person will notice.

 
 

What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring writer, producer or director wanting to get noticed today?

See the above answer. You have to be a thinking questioning citizen of the world to be a good artist, whatever your discipline. Illiterate inarticulate folks don’t go far in our business.

  
THE MUPPETS - Backstage of the Muppet Theater sketch
THE MUPPETS – Backstage of the Muppet Theater sketch

 

THE MUPPETS - Unfinished backstage set mid-dress
THE MUPPETS – Unfinished backstage set mid-dress
 

Thank you so much, Steve – it’s been a pleasure!

Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for Steve’s recommended films on Friday.

 
 
 
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 The Film Doctor Team
 
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