The craft of art direction – conversation with Tim Grimes

March 18th, 2013

In this installment of the “In Motion” series I talk with Tim Grimes about his work on the movie “Last Night”, on switching between working on feature films and TV series, on what changes digital productions bring into the world of crafting physical sets and his appreciation of film as a medium.

Kirill: Tell us about yourself and the path that lead you to become a production designer.

Tim: I started off as a production assistant in an office. I was in bands for a while, and then I moved out of New York, and four months later I moved back and my intent was to somehow get into the film business. I had no idea how that would happen, I was 27 at the time and I ended up getting a job as a waiter. I used to work at “Kim’s Video” in New York and I met this guy who came in and asked me if I wanted to be a production assistant on this film that ended up under the name “Return to Paradise”.

I was interested in the film business, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. After about a year and a half working as a production assistant on a bunch of TV shows, like “Spin City” and “The Corruptor” with Chow Yun-Fat, I became a property person. I did that for a long time, from 1999 to about 2004, and I was really fortunate to have worked on the second season of “The Sopranos”. I was on a bunch of films and met property master Peter Gelfman who ended up being my boss for a long time. This lead me to work with Kevin Thompson, who is a production designer and a friend of mine. He’s amazing and really talented; he just did “Bourne Legacy” with Tony Gilroy [director].

And through Kevin I met Harris Savides who just passed away. He was my mentor, and almost like my father. We worked together on “Birth” directed by Jonathan Glazer, with Harris shooting, Kevin designing and me doing props under Peter Gelfman. That’s how I met Harris Savides and we became close friends. He worked with David Fincher, Sophia Coppola and Woody Allen, he was very picky about the jobs that he would take. He knew that I had a desire to move on, to do something more challenging, to do the next thing. He was getting ready to do “Last Days” with Gus Van Sant and he asked me during the re-shoots of “Birth” if I was interested in joining the crew. I ended up getting the job as art director, which was basically production designer. I was the head of art department, and it was very stressful and exciting. So he basically gave me my first shot, and that’s how I got into production design.

I then went on to do smaller films, continuing to do props on the side. Then I got an agent and that opened a bunch of doors, and one thing led to another. I tried to use the Harris Savides model to not just take any job, but doing things that interested me, jobs that I thought would stand out or I’d learn a lot from, different things that wouldn’t pigeonhole me into a sort of category. That thing can happen pretty easily. And that’s how I took “Last Night”. I had never done a romantic drama; it’s not something that completely interests me and I wouldn’t do them all the time, but I definitely wanted to do one and I thought that Massy Tadjedin [director/writer] was an interesting writer. I liked her take on this simple European-style romantic drama. That’s what attracted me to the project.

Kirill: As you moved to assume larger responsibilities, do you find yourself going back to do the small things on your sets?

Tim: “Last Night” had the budget of $7M, which is not that big. I was heavily involved in it. We didn’t do a lot of building, it was almost all locations. We build this small set for Paris which ended up with flashback photographs that two of the characters look at at the end of the film. It was work on transforming locations. I’m very hands on, I’m there helping the decorator decide what we’re putting up. I’m very much involved on a project like that.

Kirill: How different is it when you work with a director who is also the script writer?

Tim: It’s definitely different when you’re working with someone who’s been with the material for so long and has had this film in their head, and has a very specific idea about what this film is, and what the beat should be visually. Massy was very open, but she also had a very specific vision on what she wanted it to be. I think it really comes across. Between her and the cinematographer Peter Deming, they really created New York that you haven’t seen that often. It was almost empty. She was amazing. It was a big undertaking, her first film as a director.

Kirill: You’ve said that you try to pick projects that interest you. Are you looking for new ways to present the story on the screen, or at a new type of script that you haven’t worked on until now?

Tim: It’s a combination of who’s involved and a good story. It’s probably this way for a lot of people, and I really need to be engaged and excited. Otherwise I’m not going to be the best that I want to be, and hopefully can be. I definitely want to have some sort of connection to the project.

Kirill: The specific story of “Last Night” is about emotional and physical infidelity, and it leaves the question about which is more hurtful open to the viewer to decide. When you look at such a script, does your own personal opinion affect the way you approach designing the look and the sets?

Tim: I don’t think so. I’m more of an instincts person. I don’t sit down and really think about what are we doing. I sort of let it seep into my subconscious. It sounds really pretentious, but I try to absorb it and then just go from there. There are, of course, other factors – what does the director want, how much money do we have, how are we going to accomplish this. And it’s more of a feeing that I have. I definitely have my own visual style, just like most designers do. You can see it in the things that I do and I’ve actually been trying to get away from that. Your sensibilities can bleed in too much, and you have to really think.

Kirill: Let’s go back to “Last Night” for a bit. I really liked the apartment set (with Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington) that is this very modern, but very cold place that kind of highlights and augments the lack of physical warmth in their marriage.

Tim: That was definitely what we were going for. We looked at a bunch of apartments in New York, big and small. Obviously you want to shoot in a bigger place so that you have room to work. We decided on that apartment and the ceiling was very low, and I thought that it would be very interesting – sort of oppressive setting. It was a nice clean place, almost felt European to me. The movie didn’t feel to really happen in New York, it could’ve been anywhere. I knew that we were shooting in New York, but when you’re watching, it doesn’t feel like it.

The reason that we chose that place was that it felt right for the characters, and it did have an oppressive vibe. The guy who owned that place owned a restaurant and that’s why you have such a nice kitchen there. We tore everything out of his house and replaced everything, sort of set it up in our own way.

Kirill: As the same set appears at different times in the story, do you prepare it to be slightly tweaked based on the emotion and mood at that particular place in the story line?

Tim: I don’t think there was anything intentional. If you felt this was happening in the film, it might have been more director-driven. Essentially when I hand over the set, I’ll be there, but once he / she has everything, I step away and let them have the set. They move things around, they use the tools that I provide. We were there for 4 or 5 days shooting in that apartment, and as time progressed, Massy probably thought of ways to have that come across. But it was nothing intentional on my part. I was barely on set, it was so tight in there that I stayed away for the most part. I don’t like to linger around sets, and if I can find something else to do, I generally move on and let them have it. It’s better, less pressure.

Kirill: Are you involved in post-production and editing, or are you on to the next one?

Tim: I’m on to the next one. I do my thing and if they’re happy, I’m happy.

Kirill: Does it feel a little weird to see the final film on the big screen, how all those pieces that you’ve worked on are transformed through the lens?

Tim: It does. Peter Deming [director of photography] was amazing. The film looks incredible. You do something, and it’s hard to take yourself away from it in an objective way. It takes a couple of viewings to not think about all the work that you did. The first restaurant in “Last Night” where we see Griffin Dunne – that was a closed restaurant and we had to pull it together in a couple of days.

Kirill: Stepping back from “Last Night”, you then went back to working on TV series, “Rubicon” and “Luck”. How different is it to have a more open-ended stretch of time to develop and enhance the look?

Tim: It’s very different. On “Rubicon” we had seven-day prep and seven-day shoot. I find myself scouting more than being creative. In a way it becomes a decorator’s show. It’s weird because you do a lot of scouting with new directors. It’s definitely a completely different experience than making a film. On a film you prep for however many weeks they allow you, and then you scout with everybody after you find the locations, and everyone figures out the logistics and talks about what they are going to do, and then you’re done and off to make it happen. And on “Rubicon” I was always out scouting, showing directors places.

I had a lot of fun on “Luck”. We had a lot more money than most TV shows because of Michael Mann and David Milch. I worked mainly with Michael Mann and we had a great relationship. I learned a lot from him. He had a lot of control over where we were shooting. Generally I would pick the locations with the locations manager based on the look of the show, but Michael is so involved. He really had the final say, and he would trust me to go in and create the sets that he drove.

Kirill: How different is the dynamics on the set? On a TV show you have the creators who drive the story, and then multiple directors, cinematographers and art directors come in and out for a few episodes each. How do you maintain the look while still letting in their own voices?

Tim: I don’t find that it’s more work. It’s interesting because every director wants to do their own thing within the framework of the show. The biggest job for me is to let them have their freedom, but also help guide them visually. And Michael Mann was also heavily involved. It was less of a case on “Rubicon” where Henry Bromell sort of let me do my thing on the show, and I got to experiment a lot with color. Some stuff worked, some stuff didn’t, and it was fun because they’ve let me experiment. It was a lot more rigid with “Luck” as the framework was already there.

Kirill: Do you also have more time to experiment with the look as the series progresses from episode to episode?

Tim: That’s the thing with Michael Mann, he would just turn a thing on its head. We did a conference room for Dustin Hoffman’s character who has this financial company, and I thought it would be this grand super-opulent office, but it was the complete opposite, sort of nondescript room. But that’s the thing I love about Michael Mann, that he would throw the convention out the window. It really made me change the way I think about the work that I’ll do in the future. The same sort of impact that Harris Savides had on me.

Kirill: Circling back again to wanting to be picky about productions that you work on. How much can you know before starting the actual work and working closely on the sets with the director, the cinematographer and the art director?

Tim: If you get an interview with Gus Van Sant or Darren Aronofsky, you know that you’re going to be working on something special. I just went scouting in New Mexico with Lynne Ramsay. She did “Ratcatcher”, “Morvern Callar” and most recently “We Need to Talk About Kevin”. And now we’re doing a western called “Jane Got a Gun” with Natalie Portman and Michael Fassbender. I was telling her as I told all my friends that when I first got an agent and they said “Who do you want to work with” back in 2005, and I said “Lynne Ramsay.” And it’s really interesting, with really good script, and I’m really excited. If I’m going back to feature films, this is sort of a dream job to re-enter this feature world. I haven’t done a feature since 2009.

Kirill: To step back from specific production into more general area, I’d like to talk about how advances in technology are affecting your job. Are you more precise or meticulous in the world of digital theater projectors and BluRay home players?

Tim: I don’t fell that it has any impact at all. I don’t really work on films that are heavy with digital effects. It’s interesting because it’s creating a whole new generation of production designers that have started off as art directors and it’s become much more technical. We’re going to shoot “Jane Got a Gun” on film which is nice, because I think period should be shot on film. It just feels better, feels like it has a soul. I’m not opposed to digital, but I feel there’s a boundary that it pulls, that the audience is getting too close. Harris Savides was really incredible. He was able to take digital and put the soul into it. And a lot of people are figuring it out and the technology is getting better. I don’t think that it affects the way I do my job. Maybe if I was working on something more technical, I’d definitely have to put more thought into it.

You always have conversations with directors and cinematographers about color choices and things to stay away from. I just worked with Janusz Kaminski on a pilot for AMC, and some of the sets were stark white and he had no problem with it at all.

Kirill: Does it mean that you don’t have to be as precise because so much can be changed in post-production?

Tim: I think so, but there’s also a level of confidence that you have as a cinematographer when it comes time to deal with things that are very harsh. White can be harsh on film and digital. There’s a lot of things that you can do to play with it in post. We had a DIT [digital intermediate technician] on set who was tweaking the way the visuals looked as he was shooting. Digital is very interesting, but I do miss working on films that are shot on film.

Kirill: Is film as a medium going away?

Tim: I don’t think it will ever go away. Humans in general are too nostalgic, and there’s nostalgia for film already. And some people just won’t do digital. Lynne Ramsay wants to shoot film, and it’s a good decision to do period on film. I don’t know what they shot, for example, “True Grit” that Coen brothers did. And it seems that western as a genre is making a resurgence. I think there’s three happening now and we are one of them. It’s one of those genres that is making a comeback.

Kirill: What do you think about fully virtual sets where everything is created by computer and actors operate in a green “empty” set?

Tim: There are a lot of films shot on green screens, with minimal set elements, but I think actors like to be in their environment. If was an actor, I’d want to shoot in a practical location. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away. It’s like reality TV vs. scripted TV that live in the same world. And props people are not going to be out of their jobs. The actors are not going to “hold” these digitally created three-dimensional objects on all productions. That’s just never going to happen. May be in 50 years, but I doubt it. We like tangible things. Look at vinyl. It made a comeback. It’s a niche, for sure, but it’s never going to go away, there will always be vinyl, just like there’ll always be film. At least I hope.

People want quality. There are always going to be cookie-cutter films that they pump out to make money. It’s definitely more difficult to get on a quality job, a quality film or television show. And I see more quality television than quality film out there. People are willing to take risks. When I first was going to go to “Rubicon”, my agent told me “Listen, don’t do television. You’re on such a roll with films right now.” But you want to try everything out, you don’t want to get pigeonholed into one thing, you want to spread your wings. But I definitely like films more, even though there’s better television out there. Nailing down a really amazing film is quite difficult, there’s a lot of competition out there.

Kirill: It’s good to have the choice as a viewer.

Tim: It’s always nice to see a small film that cleans up awards-wise at Cannes or Venice. It’s nice when those films get recognized. This business is run by people with money, not by creatives. I’m 42 right now. I have a great affinity for the films in the 70s and European stuff. It’s a director’s medium and it’s been taken away from them, which is a shame. It would be nice to pull it up to now and make it that way again. Instead of having one or two good films a year, you could have twenty that really get people back to the box office. Things always go in cycles, and I think it’s going to end up happening again. Hopefully. People have such easy access to cameras. You can have control on some small scale.

Kirill: Is there any particular production that you would recommend watching?

Tim: That’s a good question. I like all kinds of stuff. I’m a big fan of Scott Ridley. I loved “Prometheus”, I thought it was amazing.

Kirill: It was polarizing. I liked it, and a lot of critics and viewers didn’t.

Tim: Those are always the best. Not the middle road stuff. When I work on a film, if people hate it or love it, that’s great. Even if it’s a small number of people. I read reviews to see if we’ve made an impact. You want to work on the good stuff. The things that I work on, people don’t talk about production design. They did on “The Wrestler”. They mainly talk about the directing and cinematography. It’s not very often they’ll talk about the production designer, unless it’s a period film. Most people think – which I think is flattering, even though it kind of sucks because you want a kind of notoriety sometimes – we try to make the sets look as real as possible, and when you do that, people just don’t take notice. And that’s what I really try to achieve as a designer. You want people to not pay attention to the lamp in the corner, or the wallpaper that you’ve put on. And that’s a very fine line that you have to walk. Most people are like “You walked in and just shot that, right?” and I’d say “No, you don’t realize.”

I was on your site reading the interview with Beth Mickle and her work on “Drive”. I love the work that she did. You have to have these pictures of before and after, when you go to these meetings to show them “Look at the work we did.” Most of the time people are just oblivious.

And here I’d like to thank Tim Grimes for taking time out of his busy schedule to do the interview, and the fine people at The Skouras Agency for putting me in touch with Tim.