Production design of “Side Effects” – interview with Howard Cummings

June 17th, 2013  |  Film · Interviews

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Howard Cummings. In this interview he talks about his work on “Side Effects”, a mystery thriller directed by Steven Soderbergh featuring Rooney Mara, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones. In addition, we discuss his other two productions, “Behind the Candelabra” and “Contagion”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you started in the field.

Howard: I went to the graduate school at NYU to study scenic design for the theater. Right after graduation I was asked for help to find somebody to work on this movie, and I said that I’ll do it myself. I had a theater job at the time, but when I did it, I knew right away that film was what I wanted to do.

I was the assistant designer on Nine the musical which was turned into a movie a couple of years ago. I’m not that skilled a draftsman, and I wasn’t a very good as an assistant art director. But I was good at organizing everything else, so I kept getting jobs from this one guy, because I would do everything.

When I did my first film project, I didn’t realize that there were prop people and decorators; in the theater you have to do everything, so I did it all. The producers were so shocked, and they decided to hire me for their next project. It was a very hands-on experience.

Kirill: You have so many people with so many different responsibilities in all these departments. What were your first impressions getting into that world?

Howard: It just seemed to fit. I was better as the designer as I found out. It seemed very lucky in the beginning to be working on the “American Playhouse” TV series. It was a literary-based historical drama, and my first experience as a kid fresh out of school was designing these historical pieces. The first was set in 1583 and we had to make everything. Then I did three movies in the 1900s, the Eudora Welty story in 1930s, Lanford Wilson’s play in 1950s – I got a real broad spectrum of design challenges. I didn’t really do the New York Lower East Side street movie until later. I did have that experience, but not until after I did a good amount of research.

My next project is turn of the century for Steven Soderbergh. He was supposed to have retired, but he suddenly decided not to. He’s more interested now in doing long format TV. We’re about to start a pilot and 10 episodes, and it’s about a drug-addled progressive surgeon in New York at the turn of the century. I’m kind of going back to where I’ve started. I have a reputation for gritty reality, but lately I’ve been able to do other projects and I’m really excited about this particular thing. It’s where my roots were.

Kirill: Your career started before the pervasive availability of digital tools that allow augmenting and enhancing physical sets in post production. Looking at the list of your movies, I see “Percy Jackson” as the only production that used these techniques on a large scale. Are you staying away from such productions on purpose?

Howard: No, I didn’t. I sort of didn’t get a reputation for that. I’ve been doing art films, and I got this interview to take over a job. At the time it was the biggest movie ever made in Canada, “The Long Kiss Goodnight” that was budgeted at around $140M back in 1996. We had a fair amount of digital effects in that movie. So that was my first experience coming across the birth of digital enhancing and set extension. There was this guy working out of Venice who taught me a lot about those tools. Back then you did have to build bigger pieces, and rotoscoping was so time-consuming and expensive.

I never got to do sci-fi movies. People tend to want to hire you for the type of jobs you’ve done in the past. You can get pigeonholed. I’ve done a lot of thrillers, but I’m not sure how that happened.

Kirill: Looking at the last decade, are you moving more towards digital – for, perhaps, budgetary reasons?

Howard: Absolutely. You can really create a lot more. It’s ridiculous to spend money to build something that can be much more easily done digitally. It should be part of everybody’s tools right now. I used to negotiate what the post would cost, and now each job has now less of that.

People don’t consider Soderbergh to use digital effects, but he actually does. They do a lot of it in house. It’s done by the assistant editor. Take “Contagion”, for example. There was a fair amount of digital enhancing going on for some of the sets. We had a few practical sets, and the rest was all locations. We had 199 locations in 6 countries on that movie, it was intense. It was a 78-day shoot with 199 sets – it tells you how fast this guy goes. And there were giant events, like mass inoculations and rioting. We had to figure a lot of that out.

There was this one scene that was supposed to be in Chicago where they were setting up the infirmary as everybody was getting sick. We had a lot of important scientists involved in the project. Since 1918 (the Influenza outbreak) nobody has done clinics of that size. I tried to get people theorizing about how to set this up. You have to worry about containing the virus. We were shooting in an armory, and it had a huge floor. We wanted to show this giant scene with 400-500 people in the mass clinic, but ended up using only 60 beds. I built the perimeter with framed plastic-sealed structures for operating and service rooms, and we would move the beds based on the angles Steven would pick. They would go to shoot something else, and we would look at the locked angle and move the beds to each spot to tile them together.

What’s interesting about working with Steven is that he’s the director, the cinematographer and the editor. He uses the Red camera, and we mostly use available light or practical lighting. He shoots really fast, and the day is 8-10 hours – which is kind of unheard of in the film business. It takes about 2 hours for them to process and download all the footage. They give it to him on a little portable hard drive. He goes to the bar, plugs it in his computer, and does a quick edit of the day’s work. And so we’re there, with having finished moving the beds around literally an hour before, and he cuts the thing together so that we see the actual composite on the computer screen. It had to be finessed afterwards, but we get to see that it actually worked, that we gave the impression of having 500 people with only 60 beds. It’s very immediate, and having that as a tool is so great.

Kirill: It sounds like you’re a big fan of the digital pipeline that gives you the immediacy of the feedback.

Howard: Exactly. Steven and I have got used to it, as we are on our sixth project. It’s very reactive, and I like it. Everybody goes down to the bar – the actors, the writer, the producers. He has his hour working away, and we all chat while he’s finishing it up, and then we get to see it. And you find right away whether it worked. And if it didn’t work, whether we need another piece to add into it. It’s not uncommon for him to say that we’ll be picking a section again, going back to the same location. I often can’t strike sets right away. I have to hold them, and once I see the footage I can generally know that we’re not going immediately back to it.

He shoots really quick days, and the other thing that’s cool about it is that we’re always under budget when we finish a movie. Everybody else is crippled by 14-hour days, and they’ve gone way over the budget. He still spends the money, but we almost always get to see the film cut together a week after we’ve finished shooting. You can tell if there are sections where he needs more pieces, and we’ll go back a couple of months later and drop those in. But they’re really efficient. I worked on other movies where you do the shoots, and you shoot the ending again and again. Because Steven does all those jobs, it’s very efficient.

He’s a very good writer as well, and he can really structure it. It’s like targeting a bullet where suddenly you see the whole movie taking a different shape. He responds in a more immediate fashion.

The same thing applies to actors. We’re using digital film and a lot of available light, there are no giant camera setups. The actors never get to go to their trailers. They hang on the set because we roll right away. It’s very fresh for them. He knows what he wants to do, but he doesn’t clam (?) it. He’ll watch them and will react to what they bring to it. He does that with my work too. He won’t dictate to me exactly what it is. Sometimes it’s like a shell game. Sometimes he doesn’t know, but I don’t know that he doesn’t know [laughs]. He wants to see what you bring to it, and he’ll react. It’s very spontaneous, much more present than a lot of other movies where you plan and set up and there’s so much to get the machine rolling.

We have very small crews that move really fast with really small footprint. We don’t have chairs. No one sits. You don’t have time to sit. The prop men love it because they don’t need to drag chairs around. There are no monitors. Because he’s the cinematographer, there is no video village. That’s how I’ve started in the business, because I’ve been doing it for a while. We didn’t have video village. You’d have to on-set dress without knowing what the lens was, or you’d have to know what the lens size was to know what you see. I got to learn that early on. If I know what lens they’re on, I know how the scene is going to play out generally, so I know what to be prepared to do.

I end up staying on set. I have to be there for him, as it’s so reactive. They’ll invent some stuff based on something that happened on the set, and I have to be there. Sometimes it also means designing on the spot.

Kirill: Aren’t you supposed to be moving on to the next set, especially with such a wide variety of sets?

Howard: So on a movie like “Contagion” with 199 sets in 6 countries I take my 17″ Mac Book Pro laptop, and I’m on it the entire time. I’m on Skype, receiving drawings, asking the set dressers to use their phones to take pictures of the rooms and text them to me. I’d look at the picture and say “Lower the picture on the left, move that to a different place” or text the directions back. And since the days are short, I can run after the shooting and make sure everything is ready for the next day, or go to the office to go through drawings. I have to do everything remotely.

Kirill: And all of these were not possible even 10 years ago – with smart phones having good cameras, internet connectivity or good video conferencing tools.

Howard: The most exciting thing for me was a portable modem. I can go to any country with it and use it. I never had to rely on having a hot spot. I wish they were faster, but they definitely get the job done. I was probably the first person to see that and think to myself that I had to have it. I had them on the sets really early. I’ve never done anything like that before, but it’s all about being reactive and you have to be on your feet and moving, and it becomes part of my job.

Kirill: Do you miss the earlier rhythm of working with film cameras, longer pauses between the takes and waiting until the next morning to know if the shoot went well?

Howard: When Steven announced that he was going to retire, I said to myself “Oh God, I have to go back to the way it was before”. Here’s a story.

I took a filler job because I had a project that fell through. There’s a thing in Hollywood where if you don’t work, you don’t get work. Even if you’re holding out for another project, you should do anything, because it’s a very odd situation, but that’s the way it is. So I joined this crazy action which was really fun – “Red 2” with John Malkovich, Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Mary-Louise Parker and Anthony Hopkins. We had to do eight sets in five days, and I had to match them based on the existing footage. And then I found that set pictures and location pictures were nothing like the color temperature of the film.

I was about to paint one room charcoal grey when it was in fact brick red. The timing was so off, and I asked the guys if they had any particular problem. They shot in three countries, and they were switching film labs, and they said “Yes”. I was sitting with the VFX guy, and we were looking at something, and he said that this wasn’t the right color, and I told him that I actually matched it, and that the film temperature was so off. So we had a big discussion about that. And that was a brief remembering of what it was like working with film. I don’t miss it entirely for those reasons.

I think that the latest project that I did with Steven – “Behind the Candelabra” – has a looser style compared to, say, “Traffic”. He knew it wasn’t right for that kind of project. We kind of stepped back into a more traditional film approach. We had James Plannette, a great gaffer whom I known from the Francis Ford Coppola movie I did. He’s a real master of lighting, a scholar, and a gentleman, and a really great guy. He had worked with Steven early on when Steven was still using film, and Steven loved him because he was such an artist. So he came back to do “Behind the Candelabra”. He had still a very small lighting crew because we were using mostly available light. I learned a lot about it, and it was great to come back to work with him again.

A lot of the responsibility to provide correct lighting falls in the art department, which is not the standard practice. Usually it’s something that you have to negotiate with the cinematographer, and I get to do that with the gaffer – which is great. So I got to design the whole environment. What time of day are we going to shoot this scene in this office because it’s a north-facing building, and scheduling the best times to pull off the available light with assistant director. Or picking locations where you can move within the location. Steven is not Terrence Malick. I know people who work with Terrence. They’ll do an entire neighborhood, and they’ll pick the house to shoot on that day based on how light is coming through the window. So it’s not quite as extreme. It’s a little more moderated.

Kirill: How different it is doing the pre-production research, scouting and initial design explorations when the usual trio of director, cinematographer and production designer doesn’t have a separate cinematographer?

Howard: It’s different and it’s interesting. Each project depends on the group you get. For example, on “Percy Jackson” which was an action adventure thing there were a lot of storyboards. We had something like 21 concept artists going on at the same time. So Chris Columbus [director] wanted scenes from the movie. I quickly found out that if I didn’t put actors doing what they were supposed to be doing in the scene, he wouldn’t like the sketch. So I finally figured out that he wanted to feel what it actually going to be like in the movie. The original concept art that was done without me was drawn-looking, and as we started working on it, I realized that Chris wants it to have more of a Photoshop look. So I had all the artists putting on their Photoshop hats at that point, because he wanted to feel that he could take that still and plop it into the movie. So you get people like that.

And then Steven, I think, does his own storyboards but he never shows them to anyone. I know that he can actually draw better than I can. He paints. You can go to his office and there are paintings everywhere. There’s conceptual art based on an algorithm of numbers. And there’s portraiture, impressionistic and highly photorealistic. I always suspected that he could draw better than I could. So I suspect that maybe he does work out some storyboards, but I’ve never seen them if he did do them. And because of that I don’t do the same planning. In pre-production you have to sit down with the cinematographer to work out all those kinds of details.

For instance, on “Contagion” I had to insist that we do illustrations. It was showing how the staging was going to be for these giant events. How many helicopters, what the crowd was doing, what things they were using, how they were controlling the crowd, what type of hazard suits they were wearing. Steven wasn’t really interested in that, and I said that everybody else who has to provide that stuff needs to know what that is. And the best way to convey it is through an image.

Then the assistant director would ask me how many people in the crowd would we need to pull this off, so that they can do it for budgeting, wardrobe etc. What’s interesting is that we were using illustrations not so much for making the sets, but to plot out how to deliver all the elements for everybody. It ended up being a very good budgeting tool because people saw the scope of the movie, whereas on the page it can be somewhat vague.

Often Steven is not particularly interested in set illustrations. He likes models. I started out my career making hard models, and now the tools for digital model making are terrific and very fast. That’s the quickest way for us. Because he’s a cinematographer as well, he understands spatial relationships really well. The ground plan doesn’t work the same, as he’s also interested in where the lights are going to be. We can discuss it in a 3D model form, so I often have somebody hammering away on something rough. Even a rough one is better than nothing.

When I worked in Hong Kong, I looked up to see which other American production designers worked there recently, and oddly there weren’t very many. I couldn’t find any. François Séguin was the only one I kind of knew. He’s French, and my French isn’t that great, and I couldn’t call him to ask him. I had to hire people, and all I had was Chinese movies [laughs]. It was really interesting and surprising about that crew – they were all very young, just out of art school. Almost all of them could do sketchup models. They hired a translator for me, but her English was not very good. But she was really cool art girl, and I put her to work in the art department. So if I had to have the driver do something specific, I would call her in the office and give the phone to the driver, and she’d tell him where to go.

And they were amazing. The decorator didn’t really speak English very well, and one of the assistant art directors would come in and do sketchup models of the location really quickly, and I would pick out Flickr images, and they would render them in 3D. So I would sit there and place the furniture with the decorator, moving the pieces around. We had these cool little cartoons of everything, and I would hand them out to people. That always worked and it was super efficient. They were using their phones in the way that we hadn’t done yet when I was there. They were downloading stuff, grabbing my phone to download something, asking me “Do you want something like this” and showing me a graphic that somebody in the office has just done. Like I said, I’m always in the field, and they would show it to me, and I thought to myself that I didn’t even know that my phone could do this.

Even though we couldn’t speak the same language, it didn’t matter. It was all done by pictures, and they were so facile. It was a real eye-opener to me, this way of working.

Kirill: Was that during the pre-production stage as you were hopping between the six countries?

Howard: It was also happening during shooting. I’m not sure why we did it this way, but we shot Hong Kong before the main work in Chicago. I was in Hong Kong dealing with Chicago people, which is always fun. Two o’clock in the morning seemed to be the best time to have Skype meetings. I had to go to bed, wake up, do the Skype meeting, go back to bed, get up and be back on set at five. It’s hairy but totally doable.

They were great, and even though they don’t speak English, they can do stuff really quickly. I would tell the Chicago crew how I wanted things to look like based on something that the Hong Kong crew was illustrating for me.

We had a pretty big office with lots of space. But then we get to Hong Kong, and we’re in one room with 35 people at one gigantic table, and nobody has a landline. It’s all cellphones, and they all put crazy ringtones. It is like working in a stock exchange. They gave me a room around the corner down the hall, and I declined. I remember at one point just grabbing my laptop when Chicago people were complaining about mice or something, and I said “OK guys, this is where I am” and I took my computer and I showed them and said “It could be like this, so you seem to be doing quite well given these work circumstances”. I found out that it’s fairly common in Spain to do things as well. And after that I have a tendency not to have my own office. I decided that it’s not a good thing for me. I’m not in the office that much, and if I’m there, I’m going to be dead in the middle of it all to hear what everybody is doing.

Kirill: Do you also stay for the post-production stage?

Howard: Typically you get axed on the last day. They don’t even get production designers a day of wrap. But it goes on, especially if there are digital effects. If you’re working on something with a lot of computer rendering, it’s going to continue later on, and sometimes you’ll get a fee for dealing with that. But I’ll do it without the fee, because it’s only to my best interests that it looks good. So it’s not uncommon for me to be getting things from VFX department two months later to figure out something. Usually we’ll make a packet before, especially for building extensions. Most of the time it’s confusion about what they’re looking at.

Kirill: So as the person in charge of maintaining a consistent visual look and correct architectural specifications don’t want them to mess it up.

Howard: It’s interesting. On some movies where the whole environment is digitally realized there’s still a production designer. He still has to create what it looks like, even if only on paper. But it’s very important for me when I’m doing all this period research to not have them throw in a completely wrong architecture. A lot of people doing that work aren’t necessarily educated as art department people – they’ve learned it in some other ways. The more information you give, and the more design direction, the better the result.

For instance, the project that I’m about to start working on is going to have a lot of it. We’re doing turn of the century New York, and it doesn’t exist anymore. We will be doing a lot of digital enhancing for locations. If you search for “Making of Boardwalk Empire” online, there’s a VFX company Brainstorm Digital that did Season 1  and Season 2. They show the digital model, the research, the blue screen if they used it etc. It’s pretty interesting when you see how much you can enhance a location like that.

I was telling the producers on this particular project, because we were talking about not shooting in New York, or maybe going upstate where they shot “The Age of Innocence” which was made early in the game with digital enhancements. It was expensive and they couldn’t do a lot, so they had to go to Troy NY to shoot the exteriors of what was supposed to be New York at the turn of the century. We talked about that, and I kept saying that there’s no need to do that. I pointed them to these video clips to explain what can be done, and they suddenly got it. You still have to pay for that in post-production, but that’s generally cheaper than going to a remote location.

Kirill: But still you wouldn’t want to have the control shifting to people who are good with computers, but are not necessarily trained to pay attention to the architectural and period correctness.

Howard: Exactly. They might not be able to understand why it’s important, but it’s definitely is important. There’s a lot of things that are connected to it that would make it the wrong choice. Working before it existed, and seeing it evolve is an interesting thing. They sort of came up on their own. In the old days they would make the production designer be responsible for the visual look of the film. But it’s not set up that way anymore. It started out as companies, and now it’s all done à la carte generally. You’ll have the VFX coordinator, and they’re trying to have it done fast enough, so they’re sending it out to all these different houses.

So suddenly you have all these different houses that may have different styles because they are good at certain things. And you have not just one VFX person to deal with, but a whole host of smaller ones. So trying to hold on to what the thing looks like is challenging. I don’t actually have the authority to dictate what they’re doing. I generally have the respect so that they listen to me, and each production designer sort of finds out on their own. It would never behoove me to alienate the VFX department in any way, because I want them to cooperate as much as possible and try to inform choices.

There was a lot of digital production on a movie such as “I Am Legend” where I came in and helped with it. A friend of mine designed it, but she had to leave for various reasons. They would have illustrators in the art department taking location pictures and illustrating different elements of what that was in the post-apocalyptic New York. So anything on the ground and up to 10-12 feet would be dealt with practically, and then above that was completely made up. They did tons of illustrations and really informed the VFX department. But then I worked on other shows when it wasn’t the case.

It’s best when you can be near them, that’s for sure. On “Percy Jackson” the VFX department was part of our production offices. We went back and forth quite a lot defining the look. I would illustrate something and send it, and they would take it and illustrate it back. And then, on a movie like that you have a lot of digital creatures. There are guys who specialize in that, and they really don’t like being dictated to about what makes a cool creature. But still that’s not going to keep me from asking whether things can be done in a certain way.

It’s always interesting because it’s all down to money in the end. It starts to eat away at my illustrator days and I can’t get my sets illustrated, but if the creature in the set is not good, that doesn’t do me any good. So if I want the creature to be good, I have to make sure to have enough of those illustrator days to do the five proposals, because the producer would yell at me for doing something that they don’t consider to be my end of business. But it is, ultimately.

Kirill: Are you interested in designing purely digital worlds such as in Avatar, or are you leaning more towards more physical sets?

Howard: I am interested. I like being challenged having very different projects. Like I said, in Hollywood they tend to hire you for the last job you did. So one of the things I like about working with Steven Soderbergh is that each one of his project scan be wildly different than the one before it. I’m doing a six-country global pandemic movie, and the very next one is a $6M movie with a crew of 12 shooting male strippers in Tampa and LA.

Kirill: Wasn’t “Haywire” in between?

Howard: It was the first, actually. And it was the same thing. He had an idea, and it wasn’t an idea that anyone would give you a ton of money to do. We had to be really smart about pulling it off. We shot in a lot of countries for that as well. It was action, and Steven has a very definite point of view about how to shoot that action based on these crazy movies that this guy did in the 1970s. He was this actor who did his own fighting, and you could do these long takes with really brutal fights, and never cut out of them.

That was the idea of using Gina Carano. She’s a great fighter, she’s awesome, but she’s also the leading actress. So they are sitting there throwing her into the scenery, but that’s the leading actress. I can’t have her getting cut, or anything that won’t match later. So I had to work pretty closely with the stunt guys on that movie because she was interacting so much with real stuff. I learned a lot about using neoprene‎ foam, and the certain density that we tested. We made it look like marble or wood, we learned how to make it laser-cut to be turned into moldings – just because I knew that Gina was going to be thrown against it.

The first time she was with Michael Fassbender in the hotel room where he’s trying to kill her. He walks through the door and the first thing he did is throw her into a wall. I designed the walls with panel molding and fabric to give some cushion. The hotel room was perfectly believable, and I could pad the walls. But when he threw her into the wall, she said “Oh no, Michael, you have to really throw me into the wall”.

I already reinforced the walls with diagonal framing. There’s this tubing in England that you can recycle – unlike us wasteful Americans that use so much lumber that it’s insane. So we set it, and the wall moved. He threw her so hard that the wall moved. So I had to reinforce it again, and I talked to the assistant editor to have the wall digitally sucked back. I just couldn’t believe that force, and it was the first shot. So I realized that the whole movie was going to be her fighting for real. I trained with her because we were in the same hotel, and she was great.

And then there was this sequence in “Magic Mike” where Matthew McConaughey’s character is breathing fire during some strip routine, and he’s practicing it. We were thinking about how we were going to do that, as we had only $6M. I talked to Matthew, and he was very gung-ho, and I said to just hire a guy to teach him how to do it. And because of that I had to go with him, get the guy with him and rehearse and make sure that Matthew didn’t burn his face. And none of that was added digitally. Sometimes it’s better to do the real thing, and it was important for that character.

Kirill: And then “Side Effects” was almost an exercise in design minimalism. Was the intention to focus completely on the characters?

Howard: You know, Steven never completely tells you ahead of time exactly what it’s going to be. For that movie he said Adrian Lyne who did “Fatal Attraction” and other movies with a real look. I was excited because they’ve spent a lot in production design. But he was doing a minimal version of it, and I didn’t know about it until later. He told me that it was going to be low color, very contrasty, super clean, and I sort of understood that.

Sometimes in the beginning when we’re shooting and you’re standing on set, you think about what lens is he going to use. And I saw that it was all close-ups. I realized quickly that if there was an actor in the room, he was against a window and it would be out of focus. So that’s how it became abstract. And I said “Oh, he wants an abstract world”, but he didn’t tell me that. I just realized what he was doing, so I drove the set decorator Rena DeAngelo crazy. We would have to arrange the furniture so that it looked like it made sense. But there’s a scene where Rooney Mara has her back to the window and Jude Law also had to be against the window.

The psychiatrist office had a funny reference to Monet’s “Water Lilies” – the guy had a poster of it. Rooney Mara’s character would comment that she used to paint like that, and I told Steven that there was no way I would put “Water Lilies” in that setting. It’s funny on paper, but it’s not a good thing for the movie. So he said to come up with something else. My set decorator had pretty good art connections, and she found a painter who’s doing urban landscapes wrapped in fog. I showed it to him and he said that it was perfect, and I realized that that’s what he thought the movie was. And it became this process.

But if you watch that movie, he did the opposite of what you usually do for thrillers. I’ve done so many of them that I can almost tell you how they’re going to shoot. He did the reverse, he started with close-ups and then he went wide. As it progressed, generally it’s almost always the exact opposite. Most people would start on something where you want to build tension, start wide and then go tight. And he did the exact opposite. I could see that we started to open up toward the end. You start to notice that Jude Law is alone and going crazy in that condo apartment, sitting in the corner with windows. And he started to get looser and looser as he unravels, but he never tells you that. And that tells you what the scenes are going to be after that.

You have to be very reactive, to watch how he’s shooting. For instance, “Magic Mike” was interesting. In a $6M movie you don’t have a lot of tools available to you. The girlfriend’s apartment was the location manager’s apartment. It looked like a Florida apartment to me, with louvered windows and pink. We shot there because we literally had no money. But I was telling Steven that we just finished “Contagion” that had a sort of a monochromatic look, and I said that Florida has color. We’re doing a strip club movie, and there’s color in this, I’m going to throw color at you, I hope you’re prepared for that. And he goes “Do what’s right”.

I always had a bet with assistant camera Steven Meizler on what lens we were going to use and what’s the filter. There’s always a little debate on the first week and we made bets. I just walked up to him and I said “Straw”. He goes “What?” and I said “Straw. Watch”. We were shooting this outside location, not a very good-looking place with lots of color, and sure enough Steven says that we’re going to put a straw filter on it. What the straw filter did was to give the whole thing a very warm feel, but it all suppresses the color. It’s still there, but suppressed. And I made another bet that we were not going to use it in the club, and he goes “What?” and I said that he’ll be taking it off in the club, because that’s where it comes alive. You want it to be full-on color there, and I was right that time too. Not always right, but you can sort of intuit what’s going to happen.

I’m dealing so directly with the same person who’s the director and the cinematographer and the editor, I can tune the design directly to that one person. It’s easier than trying to negotiate three different people. But there’s also a blessing when you’re not negotiating with one person. When you have three, you can get some latitude that I can’t always get. I don’t always win all the arguments.

Kirill: When you have this filter on, and most of the color is gone, you are left with shapes and textures. Is it more difficult to create design arrangements that work well within a single color choice?

Howard: Let me talk about “Usual Suspects”. It’s a movie about a guy telling a story, and he’s sitting in this detective’s office and he’s telling a story. It’s a lot of flashbacks, so design-wise how do I tell you where you are as we’re cutting in and out? And same with “Contagion” as we’re moving between Hong Kong, Chicago, Minneapolis and San Francisco – how do we define those but still keep within that palette?

So “Usual Suspects” – which I called “Usual Locations” – was almost impossible to make. We lost our money two weeks before shooting, and I only had one location out of 38, and it was the place where everybody shot every single TV movie ever made, and it was the same detective’s office. And I said that I’m making everything black and white in there. I also needed to do it because it was part of the story. He’s telling the story in this sort of monochromatic thing, and we cut back to the story and there’s a lot of color, and it gets progressively more colorful.

There I completely controlled almost every single thing, down to the pens in the office. And on “Contagion” when we were shooting in so many different places, there was no way I would be able to control the colors, say, of Hong Kong. But you can do other things. For example, we delineated Minneapolis by snow. It was always snowing there, and there was always a sense of coldness. I worked very closely with the snow effects guy mapping out the shots. We didn’t have a ton of money, and we had to figure out how to do that, setting up the shots with the snow. That helped to define it from, say, Chicago look. Steven’s pretty famous for using different color and different filters to delineate different locales. We did that a bit on “Contagion”, but I tried to do it with the locations that we selected. Some of that you can’t like I said, and you figure out other ways.

Kirill: And then your latest project, “Behind the Candelabra”, is about Liberace, with the explosion of color, light and glitz. How did it feel to go to such an extravagant place?

Howard: Actually in “Side Effects”, when she gets put into the psychiatric hospital, it’s the actual one. We’re in the building with all the criminally insane in New York. Somehow there were couple of floors that were abandoned, and they let us shoot there. I couldn’t believe that they let us. I didn’t make it up. I had to redo it since it was abandoned, but it was the real thing.

We shot the trial in the real courtroom where people go when they kill somebody in New York, and they don’t let people shoot in there. We had to shoot it within a certain 8-hour window when they let us. That sort of the way it became to shoot that movie.

And on Liberace it was all about extravagance. Early on location people needed research. I didn’t think that people knew what his houses looked like. So I put together a package of research. He was such a self-promoter that it was part of his selling of Liberace – the life style and the houses, so there was lots of research. I put it all together and sent it to location people and the line producer nearly had a heart attack. He had no idea how crazy it would be. I got an email from a friend the other day and he said “Why, you kind of went over the top, didn’t you?” and I said that some of those rooms are exact copies. I did not exaggerate what we had.

What was really special about Liberace is that I got to work really closely with the costume designer. We really sunk on the palette and the texture. As soon as I would find a location, I would show her, and she would pull out wardrobe ideas. That’s how it should be all the time, but it’s not always that way. But in that case I really got to tell the story with her, which was great.

I was doing “Side Effects” at the same time, I only had five weeks to pull off Liberace. I had one day to scout before we had the scout with Steven and the producers. One day. I flew in from New York to LA, and I don’t how we managed to do this, but one of the houses in Bel Air was similar in the look. It was sort of French provincial Hollywood regency ranch house which was somewhat like the crazy house that he had made in Las Vegas, and there was a gentleman standing in the front door, and he was wearing a read and black track suit outfit with jewelry and crazy running shoes, with light hair and sparkly blue eyes, and I go “Is that Prince Frédéric?” And the location guy goes “Yes” and I say “Is this Zsa Zsa Gabor’s house?” and he goes “Yes”. I picked it without knowing, just by the pictures.

He was trying to sell the house, and it really hadn’t been touched much since 1980 which was really close to where the movie was taking place, and she’s old Hollywood. And I thought to myself that I would never be able to beat this. We built other sections that were supposed to be part of that house on stage, because there were rooms that Liberace built that were so over the top. He had portraits of himself, a Sistine Chapel painting on the ceiling, a self portrait above his hot tub with cupids and piano keys, all in blue. I said that we had to recreate that with Michael Douglas. And the scale of the room was huge, 26’x45′. I got to see the real house which is abandoned.

My location manager had to convince the bank to let me in to look at it. Parts of the house that still survived were converted to a banquet hall, so they kind of ruined the pool area. We couldn’t use the house, but the pieces were there. I got to see the real ceiling, and I started measuring as they were yelling at me. I wanted to make it as close as I could. I told the set decorator Barbara Munch that I wanted to start with this crazy giant Greek bath tub that was sitting in the middle of the room. We had to make it custom made to look like marble even though it was resin when they did it in the 1970s. They were calling around, and they called this tub-maker guy in North Hollywood, and he asked whether it was about the Liberace tub, and then he told us that it was his dad who did that. He had the drawings and the mold, and he said that he could do the exact tub with the Greek columns that went around it. That kind of stuff went on Liberace over and over.

Kirill: Sounds like you’re making a documentary.

Howard: It really was. The costume designer asked me what would I call the style of this movie, and I go “Well, the man’s life is a black comedy. We just have to do what he did”. People think that we were being crazy and extravagant, but it’s just the way it was, a part of what he was. Unfortunately we had to figure all this out with a lot less money and only five weeks. The costume designer had eight weeks that would take a year to make with all the handwork. It was a complete blast.

I knew that Steven wanted a certain look, and that’s why he brought back the gaffer James Plannette. One of the things that I got into a discussion with the line producer was about my extravagance. We just had done a movie that was spare, and then this. Zsa Zsa Gabor’s house was designed by the same guy who did Judie Garland’s house, which I also saw. He had big rooms with a big picture window at the end of them, with lots of molding and details. But the ceilings were completely blank. That was his thing.

So you’re shooting in a room that is overly long and has one big bright source of light at the end of it. Trying to figure out how to balance the light was a real challenge. So I mirrored the end of the room to get reflected light back, but the other thing about Liberace was that he was a chandelier fanatic. He had them everywhere, so I had to have them. This meant that I had to drill through the ceiling, tear up the flooring on the second floor, and put in steel I-beams because these things weigh so much. And I told line producer that that’s what he had, and that was how we were lighting the scene. Especially in the beginning we wanted glowy pastel light, and chandeliers give beautiful pastel soft light. I told him that we were lighting with chandeliers as well, and they were also critical for the look of the movie. It was interesting how it all integrated. Just doing what he had was exactly what was needed for the film.

Kirill: You keep on going back to always having very little time and not enough money. Are you satisfied with the final product that people see on the screen? Is it possible that having more time and money would mean less focus on making decisions and finishing sets?

Howard: Yes, and that can happen a lot. Especially if the director or the producers don’t understand what the movie is. A lot of times you can be working, developing concept illustrations or scouting locations, and there’s something that they aren’t completely understanding about the movie, and it’ll end up changing. So you’ve done all this work only to have it go nowhere. That can happen.

It tends not to happen on Soderbergh’s film. On “Contagion” actually I had a lot of prep. There was so much research to do, and thank God I was a biology major in college. I could sort of understand some of it when I was translating some of the very descriptive and accurate stuff in the script. But even the writer who had been researching didn’t connect all the dots. It was so complicated that you have to sort through it when you’re actually physically making it happen. I used every minute of that prep, and it was a very extended one. And they were smart enough to say that I needed a lot of prep for that movie.

Would I like more prep on Liberace? Yes. But in a way, this snowballing energy has you going with your gut, making decisions in a more straight line. You don’t second-guess as much. It’s not always a bad thing to have a lot of prep.

The thing I’m about to start is New York in the 1900’s. It’s about a groundbreaking surgeon, and we have a lot of detailed surgery scenes. We have to research medical practices, and they’re giving me more time to do that. I’m not going to be doing that in five weeks.

Kirill: You said that you did a few TV episodes in the early 1990’s, so that would be your first TV production since then.

Howard: It’ll be my first series. I do know something about series from the friends that work on them. I’m friends with guys who did “Boardwalk Empire” and “Mad Men”, and I hear a lot about it. You do TV in a certain way, and generally It’s set up as a revolving thing. You have the same production designer but different teams working. For us, Steven’s directing, shooting and editing all the episodes. It’s kind of an uncharted land. It’s going to be an interesting process. We haven’t quite figured it out yet, because nobody had done it that way. We have to figure out how many episodes to do at a time, when to do the scouting and prep for the next ones etc.

Kirill: But it sounds like you guys have a great rhythm suited for the faster pace of TV productions.

Howard: Exactly. It should be doable. Right now they’re trying to convince the producers that in fact we can do it based on how we shoot it.

Kirill: What goes through your mind the first time you see one of your productions on the big screen? Are you following the story, or looking at particular sets and the way they are presented in the final cut?

Howard: I almost have the other problem. I watch the movie and I forget what I did. If the movie’s edited well, I’ll have to force myself to look at certain things. I like to see dailies, so I’ve seen the footage. That’s an important part. If you’re not looking at what you’re doing while you’re doing it, you don’t want to be surprised at the end. I often know what the movie looks like, and I’m more interested in the cut. Is the story working? Am I drawn in by the characters? Unless it’s something that I really hated [laughs] that got by, that’s usually the only thing that I’d notice. I can separate myself from what it looks like, and I often have to go back and look at it for pure design issues. I get more caught up in the story and the characters when I’m watching it. And that’s what you want everybody to do.

“Side Effects” is so neutral. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where you are in that movie location-wise. And on Liberace the sets were like a character. Steven did shots with no actors, and he didn’t tell me either. We were waiting for Michael Douglas to do something, and I see him in the corner shooting. And I realize that he’s just doing shots of the room, but he won’t tell me. Those ended up in the movie, and they were part of the character. In that case I was actually look at the sets because they were part of the story. But when the sets aren’t part of the story, I just want to be involved in the story.

The sets are always involved in the story per se, but sometimes when you create a world that people aren’t even aware of when they’re watching it, sometimes that’s what your job is.

For instance, I knew what my job was on “Side Effects”. It was to be abstract and minimal. And the good thing was that I knew what I was going to do next, the other job where you’re making the sets with really flashy design. I come from the school of wanting to be a storyteller and a filmmaker. I’ll tweak what my design job is based on how do I best do that.

You don’t want it to be boring, but sometimes being spare is what makes it interesting. It was very hard on “Side Effects” because some of my team wanted to do something and I pulled them back [laughs]. It had to be pulled back, it had to be simpler. We had a certain payoff to go for. And the payoff in that was being simpler. So we had to hold back, because it wouldn’t have made the movie what it was. There was one piece in the design, that extravagant luncheon that looked like a commercial. I told them that we could do it there as crazy as they wanted.

Kirill: And there were also so many scenes with shallow focus that you don’t want to put too much stuff in the background because it’ll come out very noisy and distracting.

Howard: Exactly. That was the whole thing, and trying to explain to my crew was not so easy. But I already knew that it was going to have a payoff, and it was going to do Liberace after.

Liberace opens with the credits going over this little piano that the decorator found. Steven never does little closeups of set dressings or pictures. But he would just start shooting them. We were doing something, and I would turn around and he was shooting a bunch of little pianos. I asked him what he was doing, and he said that he was thinking about the credit sequences, and can he get more of them [laughs]. Wherever we went he would shoot these little pianos. It was fun for a change to have that happen. We never did something like that before.

Kirill: And you never know what projects you’ll be working on in the next ten years.

Howard: I have to be flexible about how much money I make. They’d say that I’m not going to make much money on a project, and all designers do that. You pick a project that might not be paying very well, but if you think that it’s important design or is something that you really want to do, you’ll do it for less money. It can backfire on you, when suddenly nobody would pay you what you actually should be making.

Balancing out travels is always an issue. How can you have any kind of a relationship with anybody if you’re always on the road? But then you have to always balance it out financially. If I take this job, this means that I have to take a big money-making job directly afterward in order to balance out why I didn’t make any money for this. You always have to weigh stuff, and you don’t always have control over who decides whether to hire you or not.

And here I’d like to thank Howard Cummings for finding time in his schedule to answer a few questions I had on the art and craft of production design, and on what went into creating the worlds of of his productions. If you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.