Patrice Vermette is the the talented Oscar-nominated production designer behind Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi mystery Arrival starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.
He also designed Sicario and won the Directors Guild of Canada award for production design for his work on Enemy.
Today he joins us for another Film Doctor In Conversation.
Ladies and gentleman, meet Patrice!
Tell us a little bit about where you grew up? How did you end up in film and specifically doing production design?
PV: I grew up in a suburb of Montreal, Canada in a very artistically open-minded family. When I was 7 years old, my Dad took me to see “Star Wars: Episode IV” and immediately somehow I knew that this was what I wanted to do”.
After that cinematic experience, I started building all these “worlds” in my parents’ basement. I think that that’s where it all started. Later, much later, I went to the Concordia University in Montreal. I studied sound design at first [laughs]. At that time I had a band and I wanted to be a record producer. Fortunately or unfortunately, it didn’t work out for me in that field but in my last year that I was there, I was doing a lot of sound design, recording music for my friends, who were in the Film programme.
After university, some of my friends from university, hired me to do PA work on commercials. One day I ended up doing a music video – a freebie – and I ended up being the Art Director/Production Designer for that video. After that job – which I just did as a freebie, to replace someone who couldn’t do the job – the Director, a very good Canadian music video director, ended up giving me all of his music videos to design. From then on, I moved on to do commercials and, you know through those experiences, you meet a lot of amazing people – and one of them was Jean-Marc Vallée.
So, with him I worked on “C.R.A.Z.Y.”. That movie gave us wings and we ended up doing “Young Victoria” with him – I loved working in England – and now we’ve known each other for over 20 years. The Montreal film community is very, very small. We all know each other. We’re all friends and it’s like…kind of like a gang; “the Montreal filmmaking mafia” [laughs].
We all started around the same time, we’ve all helped each other on different projects – even ones you’re not involved with directly, just doing whatever we can to support each other. That’s the Montreal community.
A lot of our readers are aspiring filmmakers, so what could you advise on transitioning from one job to another?
PV: Well, I was very, very naïve. I was 21 years old and I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I felt like creating – whether sound or sets. It’s basically the same. My approach is creating moods that will support the story. My approach is very little to do with the actual design.
I speak with a lot of students, young people who want to become Production Designers and work in the film industry and I say you have to put aside your interior decoration approach.
It’s not about interior decoration – it’s about reading who the characters are. Reading between the lines and try to elevate the storytelling through, sets, locations, props,… This is the biggest support you can give the director.
My advice, I’d say it’s OK to work for free with your buddies and try to create your own film community within a strong group of friends who can support the creativity of each other. Just do it. Shoot shorts, spec commercials even for free during week ends.
You need to gain experience and the only experience you’re going to get at the beginning is probably by doing it yourself. That’s how you build your own film group with people who share the same aspirations as you.
Don’t be afraid to work for free and work, work, work. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes because this is how you learn the most.
Always question yourself. Say it’s a bedroom, ask “What type of bedroom would my character live in at this point in his/her life?” E.g. Say he was a rich person and now he’s on a downwards spiral.
So, read the character and try to give more than the actual script says. And that’s very helpful to directors and to actors, as well – they walk on a set and it helps them perform.
In terms of traveling for work, at what point did you start doing that? Were you prepared for that? Is that something that most Production Designers/filmmakers should get accustomed to the idea of?
PV: At a certain point, Montreal, being the amazing city it is, has its limits. If you want to grow, you have to be totally open to traveling. I dream of shooting more often in Montreal to be closer to my family but the reality is that I cannot control where the projects are being shot…
We did Arrival in Montreal – we were supposed to be shooting in Vancouver, but there were not big enough studios available; I was very happy to shoot in Montreal, for multiple reasons.
I started travelling very early on. I was about 26 years old. I had been working on commercials for like 4-5 years when I started to work abroad. It could be for any reason, like we need to shoot a summer scene for a commercial but it’s in the middle of winter in Montreal. We’d be like “Let’s go to Florida”.
It’s part of the deal. It’s great to meet people and the experience you gain from all over the world is priceless. What I’ve learned is that there isn’t only one way of doing something; there are a million ways. The experience you gain from traveling is amazing.
The tricks you pick up from a prop maker in Hungary or a prop maker in England – it’s worth so much. The downside is that you’re away from your family and you miss them a lot. The solitude is very sad, but you learn to deal with it.
Tell us a bit about your process… How how do you approach designing?
PV: I start by reading the script – I just read it. If I get an emotional connection afterwards I start collecting images. These images could be directly related to the script or not – it’s mostly an emotional response. I collect images from the net, from my personal photography. I do little drawings, little sketches, everything. I start clipping them on pages, making like mood boards.
Then I send those boards to the Director and say “This is my visual response to the script”. Sometimes I put notes, because I know s/he might not understand what I’m talking about with just that particular image [laughs] and we start from there. Then I use my tool of choice – sketch up.
Sometimes I don’t even send images – I send music [laughs]. I’m just like a receptor and I just throw back my emotional impressions of the script.
After that, the director and I start imagining the world in which the movie would evolve. The world of the characters. I go into more detail.
I work closely with my team. For me it’s a team effort because everybody on the movie is super important. I communicate a lot and try to get the same emotional involvement with my crew. Everybody in the team needs to feel that what they’re doing is important and know what purpose it serves for the movie. That’s my approach.
How often do you work with Cinematographer? The actors?
PV: Once the DP is there it’s sort of like a triangle; the creative volcano that the director, the designer and the DP are together. It’s super important for the creation of the aesthetics of the movie.
One thing that I appreciate now, with the new cameras, is the relationship between the cinematographer and the designer, and the set decorator – extremely important. We end up doing the lighting plans with the DP. We talk about framing. It creates a new synergy. A new way of approaching things. I like that very much.
When the actors arrive, I like to do a presentation of what vision we have. If you’re in the same mood as the director, the director’s already done the legwork for you with the preliminary discussions with the actors. If the job is well done, there aren’t many changes. Again, making a movie is a team effort – everybody going towards the same goal.
What qualities do great Directors such as Denis Villeneuve and Jean-Marc Vallée share? What are their differences?
PV: Passion. Both of them are extremely passionate. And extremely hard-working. And they’re the sweetest people. Like seriously, they’re super nice. There’s a lot of trust that goes into this kind of relationship. They’re so far away from dictators.
With them (Valles, Villeneuve) it’s really a collaborative effort and that’s why I like to work with these guys in particular. But I have to say that I have been extremely lucky in my relationship with other directors as well.
I’m working right now with Hany Abu-Assad and he’s also an amazing person. It’s their open-mindedness and they also realise it’s a team effort; it’s not because they’re the Director that they have the best idea – everybody is entitled to share their thoughts, as long as it’s for the same goal, the same direction and it doesn’t go against the mood.
The more generous directors are in sharing their thoughts, the more they help everybody create a better film – total open communication. Problems are shared, problems get solved.
What challenges do you often face on projects and tell us working on Arrival?
PV: Well, on a daily basis we exchange a lot of ideas – there’s a lot emails going on, a lot of texting; it’s always the same kind of process that goes on.
When I first heard about Arrival, we were just about to start pre-production on Sicario. Both of us happened to be in Los Angeles and Denis invited me to dinner, “Hey, I’m meeting with really interesting producers. It’s for a Sci Fi project, do you want to come?” So I joined them for dinner and there was Aaron Ryder from FilmNation and Karen Lunder, the producers of Arrival.
After we finished shooting Sicario, Denis asked if I wanted to do the new movie. I said, “Sure but I’ve never done a Sci Fi movie before,” and Denis replied: “I’ve never done a Sci Fi movie before either, so what’s the problem?” [laughs]
So, that was all fun but then you do realise “Oh my God, I’m going to do this science fiction movie; I’ve never done one in my life!” So I started watching a lot of Sci Fi movies – from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s… I realised the movies I liked the most were from the 60s/ very early 70s. I also realised they had a philosophical aspect to them that was more about humans than about blockbusters.
And “Story of Your Life” (the book Arrival was based on) was a different type of Sci Fi. I also realised, when I watched all those films that ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey the design in most Sci Fi movies is very similar except some random exception like Tron or Dune which are totally different or Jonathan Glazer’s movie“Under The Skin” (2014) – one of my favourite movies of that year.
You talk to people and they all have a very clear idea about how an alien ship should look like and…that’s a bit disappointing. [laughs] It’s not very alien if everybody has knows how it should look… It’s a human reality designing an alien ship. So that was my big concern. I needed to intellectualise it before I started working on it and so, I started looking at installation art.
Then Denis spoke to me about wanting the ship to be vertical – because in the script it had been described as a sphere. Unfortunately, the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still came out a couple of years before and we wanted to get as far from the sphere, as possible for that reason as their ship was also a sphere.
Denis found a picture of an exoplanet, which was oval, so we started playing with that shape. It had a lot of incarnations but we were always going back to the oval and something was always missing – like it was good, but it could be something more.
So I said let me push it inward a little and it became concave. So from one angle it could be oval, from another angle it could be something else…
At that point, the ship was vertical, concave and black; we also knew that we wanted a normal, real-life landscape. Then we thought, “Maybe if the ship doesn’t land…maybe it hovers over the Earth. OK, so then how would the humans end up on the ship? That’s exactly the question the military would ask themselves – how the hell do we get in?” They’d probably send drones first, to test; then they could go “OK, we need to send in a unit”; and they would probably use a scissor lift because that’s the easiest thing to bring [laughs]. For us it was to create the contrast between that very alien technology and very modest humans ways.
We also decided that the camp would probably not be surrounding the ship because humans would be afraid of what the aliens could do. So we decided to put the military camp a few miles away. We also brought in the idea that the science and military teams should be driving in the back of pick-up trucks, white ones – again, to put a contrast and show our technologies are humble.
Then we ran into a problem – the ship is vertical, they need to walk up a corridor. The decision came: let’s do a gravity shift. So they go inside, the ship is vertical, they take one step off the railing of the scissor lift and they drop on the side and start walking on the wall. It’s the human leap of faith.
Inside the ship I proposed the texture of sediment rocks – all these layers would be the accumulation of wisdom and history that this civilization would have; and it also relates to this weird ‘rock’ aspect of the exterior of the ship. The whole interior of the ship needed to have this strangeness to it; it needed to have an aesthetic beauty – because beauty can sometimes mean danger; and in that big room we wanted this sense of peacefulness that you don’t find on Earth in these military camps.
In that big room we also wanted to convey the idea that it’s a classroom. You have vertical lines, reflecting the vertical lines inside the ship – sediment rocks; school, wisdom, knowledge. We played with the circularity motif. We invented a logogram language – my wife, artist Martine Bertrand came up with the aesthetics for the language.
How long did you shoot for on Arrival?
PV: I think the shoot itself was 52 days if my memory serves me well. For me it is 3 films ago [laughs]… We had something like 11-12 weeks of pre-production and I had another 12 weeks of soft prep – which was just me, Denis, an illustrator that I hired, Meinert Hansen, Sam Hudecki, a storyboard artist… and then came along Bradford Young! [Cinematographer of Arrival] It was our first time working together; he was just spectacular!
For the ship interior, we wanted to do real practical sets and use VFX to connect those sets together. It was important to have practical sets.
What do you look for when joining a new project?
PV: I’m looking for a challenge and for directors with whom I can creatively fly with. I’m looking for people that resemble me [laughs]. The process should be easier that way. We work so hard, but with people who share the same aspirations, it shouldn’t be painful.
And of course, I’m also looking for good scripts. When I pick a movie, I need to feel that it’s a movie I would love to go see at the movie theatres.
Thank you, Patrice!
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