‘Wiener-Dog’ production designer – Akin McKenzie – In Conversation

Hi Film Folk,

Today we bring you another In Conversation.

This time with Wiener-Dog and Goat production designer Akin McKenzie!
Akin Mckenzie production designer Wiener-Dog Goat


Where did you grow up and did you come from a creative background?

All backgrounds can be seen as creative when viewed through the right lens. My mother was receiving her Master’s degree at UCSD when I was born. We lived off campus in single family housing full of post hippie, earthy and powerful single mothers. They forged a community together and brought us up with the awareness and passion one would expect from progressive grad students.

After she graduated we stayed in San Diego and although not the bastion of arts and culture that I would later crave, still a beautiful and safe world – laid back and independent.

When did you first realise that filmmaking was for you and specifically the role of production designer?

I still don’t necessarily realise that any one thing is for me. I’m motivated by exploration and that can take many shapes.  In college I found inspiration in both the creative and cerebral hemispheres and waffled between the two.

I had – and continue to have – a very idealistic view of filmmaking, imagining it as the ultimate combination of the two sides of the brain, an intersection between both social sciences, and art, at it’s best.

How did you go about pursuing it? What were you doing before you started landing art director and production designer gigs? How did you support yourself?

Post college I meandered and explored. Tried on many hats. I was wide eyed and new to New York and wanted to suck in as much art and culture as I could. I worked in a wood shop for a bit filling the dust-filled air with progressive chatter and NPR. Began designing store front windows and styling auctions for Christies auction house.

Supporting myself through freelance was a serious struggle when I was starting out but that was a part of New York’s allure and it was certainly a shared struggle. And being on the ground floor connected you with so many burgeoning young talents many of who have come into their own.

I was rich only in experiences and exposure. I was eventually tapped to design a photo shoot. A friend was producing and I found through that first taste that in my years of exploration I had accumulated a lot of knowledge that would eventually be a perfect education for Production Design.

Wiener-Dog – Greta Gerwig
Wiener Dog – photo by Linda Callerus
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You’re working on some very arty independent projects – what is it about these that draws you to them? What makes you want to do a project?

Choosing a project is a simple calculation for me. If I respond to the script, enjoy and trust the director, and feel that I can do them justice then I’m in. I love film and want to contribute to the creation of good films. I continue to be very thankful that I’ve been able to do that on a consistent basis.
Tell us a bit about your process on a project. How you work with the director, where you look to for inspiration? Are you instinctive, encyclopaedic or somewhere in the middle?

As film is truly a collaborative process establishing a creative language is always my first step. Engaging the director on a level that their vision has been fully imbued upon me, that I can truly see the energy of our characters and that I understand and believe our world.

As far as instincts are concerned they can often be a disservice. Often when we depend on our instincts we fall into the same habits with the same solutions. I look to the world for inspiration and insight.

I think of myself as being as much of a sociologist as an artist. I research and accumulate reference and precedence first. Even if we choose to abandon that precedence we can understand how and why.

Wiener Dog – Ellen Burstyn as Nana
Wiener Dog – photo by Linda Callerus
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Tell us a bit about Wiener-Dog. When did you first find out about it and how did you end up on the film?

I met with Todd only days before my prep was to start. We chatted for a good two and a half hours. Our first meeting was more about rapport and exploration of each other than the ins and outs of Wiener Dog. I had just finished Andrew Neel’s Goat which was also produced by Killer Films. David Hinojosa of Killer who is a truly magical force, linked me with Todd. 

It was the perfect aligning of paths and was very exciting for me as a fan and a follower of his previous work.
How much prep-time did you get and how long was the shoot?

There’s never enough time or just enough time depending on how you look at it.
What were the major challenges for you on Winener-Dog and why?

It’s rare to find yourself with the ideal amount of time in either prep or principal photography and balancing that lack of time and/or resources with staying true to what the film can and should be is often challenging.

Part of the success of indie films is how you grow and succeed in spite of those persistent challenges.

Wiener-Dog – Danny DeVito as Dave
Wiener Dog – photo by Linda Callerus
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How was it working with Todd Solondz? What is his style of filmmaking like?

Todd’s vision is precious and specific and I cherish it. It was a treat to see the world through his eyes. I’ve never enjoyed a creative scout more than when I was in the back of a minivan with Ed Lachman and Todd Solondz.  Both have wizard levels of film knowledge and both digest the world with a youthful curiosity that had us laughing ’til tears ran on many occasions.

Again, with Todd, it was really about allowing him to imbue his world on to me. The energy of each set is very clear to him long before our first chat. We dug deep, to the number of magnets on Dawn Wiener’s fridge, and what those magnets should be and what if anything would they be holding up, to the old bank calendar in Nana’s office and the dust covered past life of artistic mishaps she may have survived. 

We created a feeling of death in life for each of our characters, the Wiener Dog providing both the bridge and the escape. Todd is a partner in exploring the details of a character’s world. He is a master of his craft and the richness of thought in even the minutiae of Wiener Dog is fascinating.

Pairing that with the cinematic mastery of Ed Lachman and I think you get what we made, a truly original piece of filmmaking. I was kid-in-a-candy-store levels of stoked throughout the process.
What films do you recommend all filmmakers and production designers look out for – both for general filmmaking and production design?

Its easy for me to want to share the projects that I still have in the queue. Andrew Neel’s, Goat is in theatres later this year – a provocative look into fraternities and their unbridled teenage testosterone.  Not your typical college flick. 

Elliot Lester who directed the amazing Nightingale for HBO has a dark drama coming out tentatively titled 478 which is for Arnold Schwarzenegger what The Wrester was for Mickey Rourke. Charlie McDowell’s follow up to the uniquely voiced film The One I Love, The Discovery, a sci-fi jam which is a smart and incredibly crafted film with a powerful cast. Very excited about all of ’em and a lil piece of my heart in each.

As far as films in general I just consume a lot. Not so much megaplex vibes but I try and see as many of the art house films as possible. That’s where the most passion is to be found for me at least.

Classically, when I watch a cow suspended from a helicopter fly by in the background of a explosion filled airstrike in the front end of Apocalypse Now I still get giggly.
What kind of projects would you like to do in future?

I’m currently gearing up for a film set in 1960. I love exploring details and period is where you have to really go all in in that regard. Can’t wait to do a solid early 90’s piece. Just a fun way to explore my own memories. I’m open though. Attracted to anything new that speaks. It’s really that exploration in general that gets the juices flowing.


Thank you, Akin!

RELATED ARTICLE: Read our interview with Finding Dory production designer Steve Pilcher

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RELATED ARTICLE: Read our interview with High Rise cinematographer Laurie Rose
RELATED ARTICLE: Read our interview with  The Nice Guys production designer Richard Bridgland 

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