Hi Film Folk,
Today we bring you another In Conversation.
This time we had the pleasure of chatting with the amazing The Nice Guys production designer – Richard Bridgland!
When did you first realise you wanted to work in film? Did you have a creative upbringing?
Yeah, I guess I did. Film didn’t figure in it but art and design did highly. My mother used to work as an art director in advertising. I remember going on film shoots with her when I was a kid for things like the Jolly Green Giant. I ended up studying English Literature at University but it had been a real toss up of whether I did that or went to art school and did painting.
I started working in the theatre when I was at University and that led to my studying theatre design and then working for a number of years as a theatre designer. I loved going to the cinema but it never occurred to me to work in film. I used to go to arthouse cinemas all the time. It was a great source of education but it never occurred to me to work in film until I was studying theatre design. I was at Central Saint Martins, and the National Film School put an advert up for a designer for graduation films. I thought it would be good experience so I went off and did it. Everything was done on tuppence ha’penny, but it was very interesting, and a lot of fun.
After I left college and working in the theatre, every now and again a graduate from the film school would ask me to design their film. Funnily enough, David Yates was the first one. It was an interesting break from doing theatre stuff but theatre was the main passion at the time. I got a bit frustrated with working in the theatre because, after a few years of doing it, it still was quite a limited canvas and the budgets, even with national companies, weren’t great. I started to feel like I wanted to work on a broader canvas. I got to a point, having done some more film work, where I crossed that rubicon and jumped to the other side.
I became an art director for a few years and was then offered my first feature film as a designer, The Acid House. It was Paul McGuigan’s first feature film too, so we were kind of first-timers in it together, feeling our way. As a result, we had no idea of what we weren’t supposed to do, so we did all sorts of really bold things – I discovered a love for wallpapers on that project! It was a great first experience and I was really keen to carry on.
I did another couple of films with Paul – Gangster No. 1 was the next one we did together. It’s a movie I’m still really proud of. We were still young and dumb enough to be breaking lots of rules, and luckily the material had a mythic quality supported the bold images we came up with. For instance, Paul wanted to do lots of split screen. I suggested doing it in-camera and I put lots of mirrors in the sets, so you could see somebody who’s in the frame talking to somebody who’s reflected behind the camera and then somebody else walking past in the background.
Peter Sova, our DP, was just wonderful and absolutely embraced the idea. We rolled with it and it became a visual motif of the whole film. I look back on it and I think it still stands up today, although it was a fairly long time ago. It’s quite funny, it’s achieved this cult status and lots of studio execs in Hollywood tell me it’s a must-see, not knowing that I designed it!
You then went on to do Resident Evil and you also did costume design on that?
That happened by degrees. I’d never had ambitions to design costumes once I moved into film. I was quite happy doing the art department. Partly because, in film, the work of a costume designer is so different. In theatre, I used to design costumes, do a sketch, it would be made, and put it on the actor and fit it. In film, there’s much more of a journey attached to it – between the costume designer and the actor quite frequently. Also, lots of different opinions come in to play – you’ve got producers and all sorts of people who somehow seem to get involved in the costume world more than the art department.
For Resident Evil, I was busy designing the sets and Paul Anderson couldn’t find a costume designer he liked, when I, rather rashly, offered to do some costume concepts. So I did and he was happy with the concepts and that led to me becoming the costume designer. I was really reluctant because I’d heard about other production designers, like James Acheson, designing both, and how hard it had been. It’s just too much to do. I gave in fairly quickly but I insisted on having a really strong costume supervisor and a strong department. It would be 6am until 9am with costume then the art department and running back and forth, then spending the evening with the costume department and sleeping 4 hours a night. It was really punishing.
There was a long journey with Milla to find her costume. The producers came to me and said, don’t tell Milla but they wanted her in a short skirt and skimpy top. So I made a whole bunch of very designed versions of that. The first day that Milla turned up, she arrived in the fitting room, ran her fingers through all the short skirts and skimpy tops that had been made with things like Issey Miyake fabrics and just said ‘I hate all the costumes’. I didn’t blame her! So we had this lovely month-long journey where we just experimented with things, and I fitted her, and pinned fabric, and we went shopping together. Finally I came up with the bias cut dress that she ended up wearing.
There’s a moment where she’s climbing on the pipes, it gets caught on the pipes and rips and then she ends up in – voila! – a short skirt and skimpy top. Everyone ended up happy. It was a really interesting insight into the world of the costume designer in film because so much of it was to do with psychology and just being very close to the actors, in a way which you weren’t so much as a film designer.
Despite the lack of sleep, what was brilliant was having complete control over the whole look of the thing. I did enjoy that. It was very fertile actually, we came up with lots of interesting ideas.
You did a lot of films with both Paul Anderson and Paul McGuigan in the early 2000s.
These relationships just kind of happen and you go with them. I started with Paul Anderson because I did a pilot for a TV series he’d written, that crossed time and continents. I had a lot of fun. I’d really admired and enjoyed Event Horizon – I thought it was terrific film. I loved the gothic horror of it and the design of the whole piece as well. I thought, on the whole, it was quite a success. Then Paul called me up and asked if I would do Resident Evil.
The science fiction genre had never been a huge ambition for me. For me, it was an interesting challenge to go and do that. I think the reason why it worked for Paul and I is because I didn’t keep coming to him with the kind of images that he necessarily expected to see. I didn’t read all the comics, I hadn’t read all the graphic novels, I hadn’t got all those references that many of the concept artists I worked with had. I’d come at it with a different set of references and images. For instance, I designed the Predator spaceship interior, that didn’t make it to the screen. The cryo chamber on the ship was inspired from a sculpture in the Saatchi gallery.
Then we did AVP: Alien vs. Predator. It was quite early in my career and I was suddenly designing a quite big movie. We shot AVP in Prague and we filled eight large stages in Prague with scenery, and kept re-working the sets to create new ones. On Resident Evil I’d learned the value of designing sets that can be re-vamped into new ones. It makes budgets and ideas go so much further, so I followed the same principle on AVP. Every single thing that appeared on screen had been designed and made, there was very little rented. It was a chance to expand the scale and scope of what I was designing so it was a huge challenge.
When did you start to feel secure in your position as production designer?
There are peaks and troughs in any career, and to a certain extent, as you go further down the line of a career you realize that things are cyclical.
Resident Evil got a lot of attention, partly because it was a relatively inexpensive film that made a lot of money. Producers and execs were very impressed at what we achieved with a relatively small budget. Having done AVP, which again made money, I got lots of offers over the next few years to do science fiction based movies.
I knew in my heart that I didn’t want to become a science fiction film designer. One of the things that happens, that I constantly fight against, is getting pigeon-holed into a genre. I did Resident Evil and from that moment on, I started getting science fiction scripts. I didn’t want to have a career doing just that. To me, it felt like a cul de sac. I wanted to keep doing different things. The next few years after that were spent trying to steer the ship away from the shores of only science fiction and exploring other genres.
When you read other people’s CVs, everything looks somehow deliberate, like you made that choice. More often than not, it’s simply opportunities that came your way that you accepted and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I’ve felt ‘I have this’, and the phone will always ring. Maybe in the last five years, I’ve felt like I know I’ll keep on working but the important thing is what I’m going to work on, and avoiding dead ends.
For me, that’s always been really important. Trying to avoid things that are going to take me down paths that are only going lead to more of the same or that ultimately might peter out. So that you keep your eye and your work and your attitude fresh to what you’re doing as well. So that you go to work excited about what you’re doing as opposed to ‘I’ve done this one before’ and you’re kind of running on rails. I would hate that feeling.
How did you end up working on League Of Gentlemen and RocknRolla?
A friend of mine who was doing the costumes for League of Gentlemen asked me if I wanted to come along and help as I wasn’t doing anything else at the time. It was a small job that wouldn’t take a lot of time but just seemed like a lot of fun. They wanted to do Ray Harryhausen animation and things like that for example. As it turned out, they had more ambition than they had a budget by a large degree. It ended up being a disappointing experience. I didn’t take that job as a “career move”, I just got to work with some friends on it.
With RocknRolla, I really wanted to work with Guy Ritchie whom I had met previously on Snatch. I remember Matthew Vaughn wanting me to do it [Snatch] but Guy, at the last minute, went with someone else. I liked his films up to then and he always somehow came up with something very original in them and people really responded to them. Although somewhere along the way, after Snatch, I felt he lost direction. I met him for RocknRolla and I had read the script and it felt like a return to form.
I was really excited to work with him on that and create this heightened world. If there is a running theme in the work I do, I’ve always enjoyed creating a heightened reality; not necessarily stylised worlds in films. Very often they are the films I enjoy the most. Powell and Pressburger are probably my favourite filmmakers. This seemed like a great opportunity to do a bit of that and it was a lot of fun, it really lived up to it. Guy was a really interesting person to work with as he has this very hands-off approach. I saw it as a great opportunity for some creative freedom and ended up being a wonderful experience.
You worked with him again doing the additional photography for Game of Shadows too?
Yeah, that ended up being about 25% of the final film actually. All new scenes and new sets some built in London but mostly in Shepperton. A huge challenge as we had so little prep, and only a few weeks of shooting. Guy would tell me about a huge set he was writing into the draft, and say breezily, “We’ll shoot it next Wednesday, alright?”
And was it the same hands-off approach from Guy for Game of Shadows too?
Absolutely. You get a sort of broad strokes guidance from Guy but I found him very open to ideas. So I would go away and read the scenes, design a concept for it and then present it to him. Most of the time, he’d approve it, but if he wasn’t quite sure about it then he’d sit on it, and either approve it later, or give me detailed story notes on where he was taking the script, and the tone he was looking for in the settings. It was a great experience because there was a certain amount of interpretive freedom which Guy tacitly encourages.
How does the process work for you in terms of working with a storyboard artist or director?
At the earliest stage, generally pre-storyboard artist, I do a huge amount of picture research which I’ll boil down. A lot of it is for me and my department to use as reference. I’ll do a huge amount of interpretive images that might be quite abstract. There’ll be specific images but also if you see a portrait of somebody who might look like the way you imagined the character just as you read it. Paintings certainly come into it, lots of photography. It all comes down to the relationship that you have with the director. A lot of the research I use to start to understand what directors like and don’t like and what they respond to as well, to get a closer understanding of their vision of the script. Of course, you’re already designing the film because your vision must coincide in some way, but this is to start digging down and exploring things.
Also, I like to start exploring script ideas and not taking everything as read on the page. Quite often, we’ll have conversations and I’ll ask if it has to be set there or does this scene necessarily have to play out like this. Just posing lots of questions and throwing any ideas that you might have had about story stuff that would be relevant. Sometimes those ideas stick and quite often they don’t. Out of that process you hope some strong images will come.
I always look for at least half a dozen really strong images that you hope an audience will take away with them. Sometimes you know what they’re going to be and sometimes you’re surprised. Then it leads to doing drawings, my own little scratchy storyboards, and then that will feed into what the storyboard artist will be doing and we’ll send them lots of those references and drawings. Quite quickly from there I like to go on to be doing concept work.
There’s only so much talk that should be done about design because ultimately what we work with is images. I think everything that we talk about should be backed up by images; my own drawings, sketches and then concept illustrations and references. You’ve just got to be looking at those because they’re either going to be right or wrong. They’re only going to serve the material or they’re not and then you can move on. You can talk about something for hours with no conclusion but one picture can either sum it up or not. I think that’s really the way to go with design. Just constantly have images. Images are constantly inspirational, that’s why we all work in cinema, isn’t it?
That process, for me, ideally continues even into shooting – constantly coming up with new images. Once shooting starts, in some ways it’s even more important to keep that up. Not so that you’re trying to change and develop things that you’ve already designed but so there’s just this constant sense of developing the story as it’s being shot. I hope that it gives inspiration to directors and DPs as well. That it gives inspiration for them as they’re shooting and that it keeps the creative juices flowing so that they don’t feel boxed in to shooting something that you’ve planned for months. If there’s that constant creative feeling going on with images still being exchanged, then you can overcome that.
You worked with David Fincher on Suit & Tie. Have you been doing many music videos and commercials?
Not many music videos. In fact, I could count them on the fingers of one thumb. I did one once and said never again and then foolishly did a second one and went “no really never again”.
I design a lot of commercials in between movies. I deliberately fostered the commercials because I wanted to have a way of earning a living so that I didn’t have to take the next movie that came along whatever it was. In doing so, I found I loved doing commercials as well. In a very different way to doing movies but it’s a brilliant discipline because you’ve got to work so fast, you’ve got to think fast and the standards are very high. You’ve always got limited budgets and you’ve got to think of clever ways to get out of tight corners. There’s a couple of directors who I worked with who really raised the game on that.
I got a call asking if I would do a music video with David Fincher – of course I jumped at the chance. It was brilliant, it was such an interesting experience because working with him – he’s the most disciplined director I’ve ever worked with. And he just knew everything about everything department. He knew about my job almost as well as I did – right down to when we were looking at furniture, quite often he could name the designer of the chair. He’s often called the hardest working man in Hollywood and it’s true, he really is. He’ll have so many things going on in every hour of his day and he literally will focus exactly on what he’s doing, finish doing that and move onto the next thing.
My meetings with him would last about five minutes at a time and he was always very pleasant, very business-like and we would get what we needed done and then we’d move on. I’ve never worked with anybody so efficient like that. When we went on scouts together, he would tell me exactly how he was going to shoot it. He already had it figured out and on the day, that’s how we shot it. It was quite amazing how he had every idea worked out. Only Richard Loncraine on Richard III had the same total vision, in my experience.
It was a great learning experience. Into the cracks he would allow me to put a little bit of my own thing, but most of it was David. That’s the way he works, but what he does is so interesting. From Gangster No. 1 I love working with mirrors so I brought some of that with me. It was a very enlightening experience and he’s a total perfectionist in the Kubrick sense. For instance, everything had to be perfect on set. The curtains had to be perfectly combed and absolutely even, so I had a drapesman with me for the whole shoot who would pin the drapes before he arrived on set. If everything didn’t look perfect he found it very upsetting.
Working around that kind of perfectionism is brilliant because it completely raises your game. If he can’t get exactly what he wants, you have to have explored every single other avenue or he will call you out. As it turned out, we had a terrific time on it. It was a great thing to have done, and I’ve carried that sense of perfectionism into everything I’ve done since.
When did you move to LA and why? And how did you wind up on The Nice Guys?
One thing leads to another. Most of my work was coming out of LA one way or another. For quite a few years, I had talked with my wife about going over there and she was very open to doing it. We’d been waiting for the stars to align because we have kids so it wasn’t simple.
I got offered a movie at Sony, Priest. That was in 2009 and it happened to start in May so it was the perfect time to move the kids from school through the summer holidays and so we jumped at the chance.
For a long time, I had wanted to go and be at the heart of the film industry and experience that. It was made easier for me because I do already have an American passport – I was actually born in the States. Working over in the UK, there’s only a few producers – my wife is a TV producer and there’s only two places to get commissions now, there used to be four and that was it. In LA, in the TV world there’s around 44 places to take scripts. For me, there was all the studios and endless producers. I’d already worked with quite a few people from out there.
I didn’t quite know what to expect – it’s a very alienating place to visit. Living there is a completely different experience because as you start making friends, you get plugged into networks and networks is what the whole city is about. It’s not the kind of city where you can pitch up to the public art museum – there’s very little of that. It’s all about what’s going on privately and once you’re connected into even a little of that, it all starts opening up.
We loved living there. More to the point, I wasn’t disappointed at being at the centre of it all. It was a wonderful experience and I would probably still be out there now if I didn’t have the kids to think about which is mostly what brought us back. But we’re still going back and forth.
It is Detroit for the film industry – every other person you meet works in the industry. You’re constantly running into screenwriters and other production designers and directors and there’s a normality to it as well. You go to a bar and you run into people who you know through the industry and it’s not in these selected spots like going to BAFTA. It’s a broad and deep community and I loved all of that and I loved the constant screenings when I was in town. I found it a fantastic place to live, and who can argue with 300 days of sun a year?
I had done a number of movies with Joel Silver and it was him who got me involved in The Nice Guys project. I met with Shane and we kicked off from there. To start with, Shane had one eyebrow raised at the idea of working with an Englishman to recreate LA in the late ‘70s, which is Film Noir LA, a genre he knew really well. My pitch on it was that I know LA quite well but I don’t have history with it so I still have that outsider’s eye on everything which I think is really important to have wherever you’re filming. Even if I’m filming in my home town of London, it’s important to remove yourself from seeing the London you are familiar with so that you keep that outsider’s eye. It keeps everything fresh and prevents falling into clichés.
It involved a lot of research and a lot of driving around and discovering hidden parts of LA. Then, of course, going off to Atlanta to recreate it all which was the really hard bit. Atlanta doesn’t look at all like LA, and it really was incredibly hard to do that. I had to do lots of concept art for everywhere we visited. You’d find only a block of a street, which had to be extended in every direction with VFX. That was hard but ultimately successful because, judging by the reviews, everyone seems to think we shot it in LA sometime in 1978.
How long did you have to prep?
I probably had about four weeks of pre-prep where we were putting it together. 12 weeks in Atlanta and then we shot for 12 weeks.
For pre-prep we were doing lots of research, we had to really dig deep. There were fun moments as well. Joel Silver would take me out in his car and we’d drive around and stop somewhere, and he’d get out and start reminiscing about back in the late 70s. Those were his salad days when he was starting as a producer. I think he produced his first movie in 1978 actually and so for him, this was a very nostalgic experience. He had so many stories, it was fascinating. For instance, I found out where they built the parking lot in the Jonie Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi!
One of the things about LA is there’s lots of really interesting residential architecture there but what the city is really built on is stories. Once you’ve begun to know the stories about places in LA, then the whole city comes alive. That was a brilliant aspect of it.
Then we shot for 12 weeks – 10 weeks in Atlanta and then two and a half weeks back in LA just doing exteriors. We got lucky in Atlanta. The party house was a real one-off in this upper middle class residential neighbourhood, where a hip hop producer had happened to see the John Lautner Silver Lake house, funnily enough, in LA. He’d seen pictures of it, and he’d made a bit of money, so he got a local architect and he said “I want one of those.” He built a version of the Silver Lake House in this terribly matronly suburb of Atlanta. It was like a spaceship had landed! We adapted it, I built out the entrance walkway across the pond so that was the viewpoint of the entrance. It was a much stronger entrance than the real one.
Also, the Hilton in Atlanta. I don’t think it had actually been renovated since 1976 when it was built and they let us have the run of the place. We built our car show there and all sorts of other sets. It was a perfect 70s playground for us so we got lucky with those things.
What was the trickiest part of filming the shoot-out scenes for you?
We were restricted by budget. Things are designed so that you can replace them and go again but on the whole, we got it mostly in those first take. We’d generally have about three takes of each of the big set pieces. The palm tree that gets shot down was a stunt and we could reset that. We did that in the first take.
That’s the very technical aspect of the job – figuring out how you’re going to be able to repeat something after you’ve destroyed it. Sometimes you just can’t and you just have to hope it’s going to go fine and if it doesn’t then we’ll come back in a few days and try again. There were also a lot of bullet hits and most that were done in post because we just didn’t have the time or resources to set all that up physically.
What advice would you give to an aspiring production designer?
Two aspects: one is to learn the craft. It’s just so crucial. When I was working in the theatre, it was really much more of an art. I did lovely arty paintings and drawings and it was all interpretive. There was always a back room of people in the theatres who figured out all the nuts and bolts for you. You can get away with a lot as a theatre designer that you wouldn’t be able to as a film production designer. To be truly creative, you need quite a lot of craft and learning to draw.
The other thing that is crucial, and I love about the job, is educating oneself about all kinds of disciplines. The main ones being architecture, obviously, and interior design so that you can work effectively with the set decorator. Photography is crucial because everything we do ends up being photographed. So the more you know about photography and the more you understand about it, the more you can bring to the table in terms of what an image can look like.
And all this really helps when you want to work hand in hand with a DP. In my experience, most DPs are delighted if you can speak their language and offer up ideas and understand the problems that they’re going to have to solve that you can then help to incorporate into a set. It only goes to make a movie better.
Those two things, I think, are absolutely crucial. The other thing that I think gets lost these days is movie history. I think you should go and watch as many movies as you can get your hands on. Take them in and start to discern what you like about the movies that you like, what you don’t like about the movies you don’t like, what’s interesting about the movies that you like or dislike and start to have a palate of things to really draw on. When you finally get to design something, you actually have a well of imagery to be able to draw up from. The deeper you make that well, the more effective you can be as a production designer.
Which filmmakers would you filmmakers/production designers look at the work of?
My favourite filmmakers are Powell and Pressburger because, to me, they capture something that I just love about cinema as a medium over any other medium. That sense of being inside a dream. The boldness of everything they did just absolutely speaks to me. I love that in all their productions. There’s lots of very subtle production design which is marvelous and serves its purpose but the movies I always find myself drawn to are the very bold. They set the rules at the beginning, and you just go with it.
In terms of production designers, the contemporary that we all look up to is Stuart Craig. What I love about his work is his powerful sense of architecture over everything. I think that’s really admirable. In the past designers like Anton Grot, Vincent Korda, Alfred Junge, John Box, Dick Sylbert, and of course, Ken Adam, are all touchstones.
In terms of filmmakers, a lot of my favourites are old movies. It’s partly because having seen those, I then see contemporary movies and think ‘I know where you’ve got that idea from’ It’s like going back to the source.
After Powell and Pressburger, one of my favourites is Orson Welles. I can watch his movies over and over. Again, because of the sheer audacity of some of the ideas in it. If I was going to pick one movie for production design The Magnificent Ambersons would definitely be a major contender because in that movie, the house is a key character in the drama. The atmosphere that it creates almost overwhelms the whole film in a way. It’s just a magnificent piece of production design.
Thank you, Richard!
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