Hi Film Folk,
Here’s another In Conversation.
This time with War Dogs and The Hangover trilogy production designer Bill Brzeski!
Tell us a little bit about your background. Were you born into a creative family and what was your relationship to film growing up?
I was a typical baby boomer growing up in America. My family was great and put no restrictions in front of me when it came to the arts. They were very supportive. I was very interested in music when I was young – playing various wood winds.
I started out as a music major in undergrad school. My dad was an engineer and trained me well in the use of tools and mechanical drawing skills. I later became a theatre major in college because the theatre department was across from music and I was not so good in music at the level I wanted to be.
I started out mostly building the sets and working back stage moving on eventually to design. You see I had to use these great building skills. I kept at it and eventually got my MFA in set design at NYU in New York in the 70s. After that I thought I was going to go into theatre there but I realized quickly how hard it is to make a living designing on Broadway so I moved to Los Angeles in 1979 where a lot of my friends were and all the work was really happening then.
At that time there was still a lot of variety television going on in Los Angeles that was much like the stage work of that period. So I started out doing that as an assistant art director to the great TV designer Roy Christopher (check him out). Through Roy’s help about 4 years later I worked my way into being the fully fledged art director on half hour multi-camera comedy shows which were again like little plays.
Having Roy as a mentor was so important to my early career. I was very happy in that position and had great success financially as well as creatively building a foundation under my future movie career. I met my wife and started a family.
One day – out of the blue in the early 90s in the height of my television art direction career – I had this opportunity to do a movie called Matilda. Well that worked out great and that lead me into becoming a fully fledged feature production designer doing mostly feature films.
Now I’ve got about 22 very diverse features under my belt. Talking mice and super heroes to broad comedies.
When you went out to LA, how did you go about getting work?
When I first got out of undergrad school in 75 I worked in dinner theatre in the Boston area that pushed me to attend a great graduate MFA program at NYU taught by the late Set Designer Oliver Smith. So three years later I came to LA and actually had some good design and art department skills that could land me a job. This is something I think is very important to emphasise for young people who want to go out and make a living in the arts. You need the skills that will allow you to maintain your lifestyle as well as make you the most valuable for somebody wanting to hire you.
I could draft, build models, sketch and I could do all the ancillary jobs of an assistant art director. I got lucky and started right away on good projects. What I did to find work was kinda crazy, I watched television and I wrote the art directors names down in the credits and then I found their numbers to call them. I would contact them and said ‘I watched your show last night, I really liked it. Do you need any help?’ Most people said no [laughs] but eventually one person did say yes. Ray Klausen. I got an interview and he hired me working on a big theater show in Las Vegas but I later transitioned to his TV work.
I always say once you get into the business, it’s always harder to get out of it, than it was to get in. That’s how I started to get work. It’s a funny story but I didn’t know any other way.
I tell a lot of young people this story, which is how do you get your first job? It seems daunting. Maybe do something unorthodox? You have to have something to offer. Just being an attractive nice young person isn’t going to get you a job. You need to be able to offer something, even if it’s just learning how to make the best great cup of coffee. It’s so important!
I was good at using the tools you needed. In those days, the computer wasn’t so important yet. It was still an analogue world. You had to have a series of skills. Paper drafting, model building, quick simple sketching, getting a idea on paper quickly. Many great designs started in restaurants on a napkin. I had those from my early training. I was 26 years old when I came to Los Angeles. Not too immature and I worked my way into the freelance working life.
You’ve worked on a lot of shows like Ellen, how did that inform your current cinematic work?
I have done a lot of scenery – over 800 episodes of various television. It informed me on how to be super organized at work and how to make lots of decisions in a very short amount of time.
Television is the best training ground for our business, because there isn’t a bucketload of money in the production end. Everything comes at you so incredibly fast so you have to learn an efficient work process or sink under the pressure of the work.
The big movies have time and money, not in television. You have one week to turn it over. It is basically cranked out like a machine. That again gave me another really important skill set. I learned how to multitask, to do 20 different things at the same time while you’re riding a crew of 5 or 6 people on 3 or 4 different shows – you’ve got to be paying attention to everything.
Television is invaluable, I tell every young person if you want to learn the design business start in television. That’s where you really learn and perfect your craft. Learning to make design decisions quickly from the gut is not easy when you are young. Television gave me that opportunity.
Matilda was your transition into film. Was it simply being a case of being in the right place at the right time?
More or less. It’s like every lucky break – it had a set up. As I spoke earlier I had done a bunch of television shows with Rhea Perlman’s sister, Heidi, and Jim Brooks, working in television for Gracie Films. In the early 90s I was around those guys at the time and Danny [DeVito] the director was close with all of them.
I didn’t know Danny personally – his costume designer Jane Ruhm introduced us and they needed somebody right away and I was there under their noses doing good work at the right time.
That movie is kind of a classic now, it was so much fun, I just went for it not knowing any of the feature film rules at the time. They had fired the production designer or he left – I’m not sure – and were stuck. They were going to have to shut the movie down if they didn’t get going with the physical production. It was on hold.
I approached Danny and said I can take over and do this’ and they said ‘OK, we’ll give you a shot’. I was shocked!! They thought ‘What have we got to lose?’
I wasn’t some big time production designer, I was just this guy who did their TV shows. That’s where I got that big break you always read about.
Was there anything eye-opening on that for you?
Yes, there was something that was very eye-opening. It was that I had the time, for once, to concentrate on one thing at a time as opposed to doing 5 shows at once. I was able to paint the sets the way I wanted to –we had the money and the time to build the sets the way they needed to be done. No compromising my designs. In features there is no double dipping. One show at a time as the production designer.
It was a slow transition at first but I said ‘I’m going to do only features after doing “Matilda”. These feature people spend the time they need and they tell the story right, the scripts are better and so on’.
I know that’s not necessarily true about television now but it was then. Television has gotten to be so sophisticated and it’s like doing features now. Back in those days, TV and features were pretty much completely different worlds and they did not overlap much. I got a taste of it and I got very lucky. Matilda was some of my best work so it got me another job on the movie “As Good As It Gets” with Jim Brooks which got all kinds of nominations and awards. It just kind of took off from there and I never looked back.
Now I must say I still enjoy working in television, love the speed and excitement of the decision process. Sometimes people call me to do a pilot for a series. That’s how I met Todd Phillips, and now I’ve done 5 of Todd’s movies. I met him on a television pilot. We became friends, he liked my work and he’s always hired me ever since. I had become feature guy and he did features but he was doing a TV pilot he needed somebody that knew the ins and outs of television as well. Boy did that work out!
Working with Todd as well as Jim Brooks, Rob Reiner and Shane Black, is there a quality you’ve noticed amongst them that makes them all so good at what they do?
With those guys, story is the most important aspect of their work. That’s the overriding thing. We’re in the business of telling stories and all those directors you mentioned are very much into the written word and getting that story right before you start.
The look of the movie is important obviously but to Todd and Jim Brooks not as much as much as the script. The scripts didn’t change at all through their shoots. You got the script on the first day and that was the script you shot. Now that’s really kind of fun! Same thing with Rob, when I did Bucket List or Flipped, he gave me a script and said “this is the movie I want to make” as opposed to some other really big movies I have done where you start the project with just a treatment or a beat sheet of a few sentences that is not fleshed out yet. We’re always trying to budget and schedule a treatment as opposed to a real full script.
When I got The Hangover script from Todd Phillips and read it, I laughed my butt off. I thought “I want to do this movie, this is a really funny story”. If you saw the script and compared it to what the movie came out to be, it barely changed ten words. We just had to put what Todd wanted on the page and make his vision on the screen.
With a good director, you start with a real good script and you make that story. It doesn’t mean that you don’t change a thing here or there as you go through it but you basically have your story and it’s very strong. That’s how I would define those guys – they’re all good storytellers.
You’ve worked with some of the same actors before, for example, Jack Nicholson in the Bucket List and As Good As It Gets and obviously in The Hangover movies you’ve worked with those guys time and time again. Do you ever have interactions with those actors about how maybe the scene is affecting laughs in a comedy?
Yes and no. A good actor will bring his nuances to the set. The thing you do learn is their personal habits but all those people that you’ve mentioned are all really good actors. Jack Nicholson is great! Jack had very few rules about how he worked, he was just wonderful to work with. He was a real professional from the old school. His character in the script dictated what I did on set. He added his needs in set dressing to define his character more.
The guys on The Hangover crew were great too. Bradley takes acting very seriously. You know when you work with those kind of quality people that you have to bring your A game because they’re going to bring their A game all the time too. As I got to know those guys and see the way they worked together as an ensemble they inspired me to do my best, and needless to say it became a lot of fun. Many times the actors will be directly responsible for the business on the set so you have to give them many options to try out in the process of blocking. Especially in comedy. It becomes a lot of discovery.
I’ve worked with Robert Downey Jr. a few times too and he doesn’t mess around either. They’re going to be prepared so you also have to be prepared. There is not a lot of rehearsal because of all the busy schedules so have everything available on the set that might be needed. Theses actors make a lot of money and people gripe about that but the reality is they do so because they deliver a great performance every time.
You should too.
I’m really big on having a good time and enjoying the process but I’m really big on being very professional too. Delivering the scenery without much drama or fuss. We don’t fool around about that. There is no room for error. That’s the mark of a true professional. As the late great designer Boris Aronson once said after he was asked what his goal on a show was: “Every show has a victim and your goal in this project is not to be the victim”. Translated, “get your job done right under the radar”.
On to War Dogs, how long did you have to prep and how long was production time?
It wasn’t a terribly long production time, I think we had about 12 weeks of prep and the prep was tricky because there was a lot of travel involved. Todd’s goal was to make the movie in the places that the movie actually happened in or as close as possible. We didn’t want to just try to shoot the whole thing in Los Angeles or Atlanta on a lot and make it look like it was from Miami or Romania. We needed to have the contrast that you get from the real environment.
We shot all the stuff for Albania in Romania, which is next door. We shot it at the right season – the end of winter. Miami and those two places are like day and night in every conceivable way. We strived very hard to shoot in the proper zones for each scene so we could deliver the strong contrast we were going for.
We also went to Jordan and Morocco for the Middle-East. We were actually very close to the road that you would actually drive to go into Fallujah through Iraq in the triangle of death. We did a lot of the driving sequences there. The desert set sequences were actually shot out in a Californian desert in an area called El Centro. That’s south of Los Angeles and east of San Diego near the Mexico boarder. It’s a really hardcore desert and it looked just like a desert location you would find in Iraq.
We had proper production for the scale of this movie, we built the sets where possible and used real locations when possible. We didn’t do a whole lot of CG – we didn’t have that kind of money.
Visual effects were kept to a minimum. Robert Stadd supervised that and he did a great job. We tried to shoot in-camera as much as possible. We didn’t become that kind of a travelogue looking CGI movie where they run around the world with digital effects.
There were very, very few visual effects on “War Dogs”. There was one shot of Baghdad when we were at the green zone and that was really needed – who gets to go there?!
Everything else was the way it was. When they were in the pent house apartment, that was not on stage, that was a real Miami Beach location. What you saw from the window was what was there. It make every one do a better job. Dealing with reality puts everyone on the same page.
What changes for you when shooting multi-camera? Did you shoot much multi-camera on War Dogs?
Every so often you have a very complicated set-up or you don’t have time so what happens is you start using multi-cameras. Many times in features it is also because there is something that you can’t repeat multiple times so you record several cameras to get the scene in one or two takes.
It’s especially like that when I do one of the “Fast and Furious” movies. Many of the effects can only be done once or twice so we’d try to set up as many cameras as we can to cover them.
We used some multi-camera shooting for the party sequence in “War Dogs” when they were in that little apartment. Just because you can cover ensemble scenes well, the entire room is lit in a certain way and it lends itself to two cameras – saving time and getting better reactions from the actors that don’t have to be repeated over and over and become stale.
We also used a couple of cameras in the hanger scenes in Romania. Again we had a large group of extras and their business was highly choreographed.
Two cameras would be the most we would use in a feature like that and it’s not that often done.
When did visual effects start getting involved in your designing? How does that change what you do from movie to movie?
It actually came into my career when I started to do the Stuart Little movies. When you have a talking mouse in the room you’ve got only one real way to do that in a convincing way.
I don’t try to treat visual effects special in the design process – there are very few things you can’t do. If you’re going to be doing a scene with Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny like I have done you have to learn to treat them like they’re real actors on the set.
Designing for visual effects isn’t as complicated as most people would think. It’s just very time-consuming and can become very tedious. From a designer’s point of view, you still have to design everything and do your traditional job. You still design the environments, you still have to come up with the look as you would do in any other movie that has no visual effects. You don’t just walk away and say ‘I don’t know what’s out the window there put it in, in post’ – you have to know all that visual information that’s going be in the edited movie and guide the overall look through the production.
I call the viz effects people digital carpenters. Sometimes you don’t build anything physical but our viz effects carpenters build a beautiful environment in their computer and it’s the same exact process as a designer does if you’re going to build a real town out the window or something. You do measured drawings, you still have to build models, you still have to do all the things you would do for a real environment as opposed to a synthetic one. It doesn’t change as much as you might think in terms of what you have to do but it does give you the freedom to really let your imagination soar because anything is possible.
Because costs have come down so much a lot of simple effects are being done to save time and money as well as resources. It’s not just animated animals like talking mice, cartoon characters and stuff like that. So many elements of a movie are now handled in the computer. We are always finding new uses for visual effects.
And you did some stuff on the Lego movie. Tell us about that.
That was a lot of fun doing the Lego movie. Phil Lord and Chris Miller were the directors and I had known those them from interviewing for another project. The movie was done and in post but they hadn’t done the live action part where live action actors interacted with CG characters in a large Lego city. What I did was I came in at the very end of the movie and built that whole world of the Lego city and the parents’ basement physically on stage at Warner Bros.
The main animated movie part of Lego was done in software that they use for designing Lego toy sets.We used that same software to design and build the actual Lego city down to every brick. We then brought in master builders from Lego to put our designs together. As well as us doing a lot of the physical work building on the stage too.
It was really a lot of fun and I got to learn everything there was to know about Lego in the process of doing that project. We designed a whole Lego city just like we would do a real one. We had the most fun because we were all sitting around building Lego models for days. It kind of fulfilled that child Lego fix you get every so often. It was a blast.
Hands down, I have the best job in the world, I really do. Who gets to do work like that and get paid? I never came home all stressed out because I didn’t build enough Legos fast enough. It’s a great profession but believe me I don’t take it for granted, I love my work and I feel so lucky to be blessed to be able to do this for a living.
What advice would you give to an aspiring production designer wanting to work at your level one day?
The advice I give young people who want to become a production designer is firstly you need to become a good designer with all the bells and whistles “which I am taking for granted” then find out who all those production designers are whose level you want to work at. Their process could help you discover yours.
You need to become a student of what you want to be and where you might fit in. If you want to become a production designer at a top level, you should take the time to learn who those production designers are and how they got to their positions in their careers. What was their schooling? What’s their process of how they work? Then you have to court them, find out where they live and where they work. You have to get near them, you have to move to one of the towns where they make the movies these Production designers work on.
It’s kinda like being a detective and you reverse engineer the position and act accordingly to get into someone’s Art Dept with the skills we talked about and seek out a job.
London right now is a great place to be, there’s so much work there as well as Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta. There are many cities around the world that have movie and TV Production at a high level.
A young person can’t just stay at home and say they want to do these things – you have to go out and find it. You have to go to it and you have to be aware that you need to do the jobs. What skills do you need if you want to work in visual effects or art direction? What kind of computers do you need? It doesn’t mean you have to go out and buy all that stuff right away, you just have to know what it is and then chip away at it.
As you improve your skills, people will find you and you’ll eventually get into it. It’s not as hard as one might think. To want something, you have to learn everything there is about it. You have to be very passionate then go for it!
I think artists respond to other passionate people. They like being around people that are obsessively passionate about the same art that they are. You have to love this stuff.
That’s what I would tell young people. I have this conversation all the time, helping get students going. I tell them it’s not as hard as you think to become a designer. You can do this if you really want it. Don’t stress out about it, understand what you are going for and do the actions that are necessary.
Are there any production designers you would recommend our readers to check out? And/or films you think that people should look at for production design?
There’s so many I don’t know where to start. That’s a huge question.
Obviously, Gone With The Wind is where the name production designer came from. Start there! The movies just go on and on. From movies like Metropolis to Kubrick’s library. There’s so many movies that were game changers in terms of production design where people’s imaginations just exploded. The audience didn’t even realize what they saw at the time. These movies became part of a cultural visual landscape.
A lot of Ridley Scott’s work. People just have to be aware. Look at the top ten lists of movies and you’ll see the top ten lists of production designers. There’s not one person that I would say just blew me away. I have great respect for a lot of different designers. Many times it’s the smallest of productions. Little details, a beautiful observation of the world.
Production design doesn’t live on its own – it’s part of the whole film package. The brilliant production design for a movie like “The Godfather” is like that. It seems very subtle but yet it’s brilliant. We always say that if you notice the production design too much then there’s something wrong. It should be part of the whole. Everything should play like a symphony. Don’t be the guy that’s too squeaky at the back of the symphony, everybody plays together in unison.
That’s how production design should work –with great direction with editing, with great cinematography, with great visual effects. We’re all a team. That’s what I tell people when I get that question “who’s your favorite production designer?”
I say “What is your favorite movie?” – then you will know who that person is. There are so many great ones in the last 100 years.
Thank you, Bill!
RELATED ARTICLE: Read our interview with Finding Dory production designer Steve Pilcher