The art and craft of production design – interview with John Lavin

April 15th, 2015

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it gives me great pleasure to welcome John Lavin. In the last few years he worked as the production designer on “Your Sister’s Sister”, “Touchy Feely”, “Lucky Them” and the recently released “Laggies”. In this interview John talks about splitting his time between feature film world, interior design projects and illustration work, the smaller scale of independent movie productions, approaching the script and translating it into environments that live and breath around the cast, the changes we’re seeing in how and where people consume content and the effect it’s having on the world of indie films, and a deeper dive into the particulars of “Your Sister’s Sister” and “Laggies”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your busy professional life doing feature film work, interior design and illustration work.

John: A lot of that is driven by me living in Seattle rather than in, say, Los Angeles. There’s not a lot of feature production happening here, and I have always had the idea that it’s better to be a generalist than a specialist. It works better for me to have a lot of irons in the fire, to work in different directions.

I was in New York, going to graduate school for painting. I was living there, doing jobs as a retail display person. I worked doing the windows at Barneys, and from there moved to art department work, doing photography, video and other projects. It was a combination of retail display, art department and fine arts. I used them all in different ways, and that’s the background that I’m coming from.

When I moved back to Seattle, I did a lot of work as retail designer. My art work translated into illustration work when my second child was born. It was a better economic model for a working parent to get paid upfront for things instead of hoping to sell things later.

And as far as all these fields, it’s really all the same thing. It relates really closely. There’s not that many people that I work with, or that I know, who work in all of these fields, but they’re actually very similar. It’s all about making something look good from a certain point of view. It can be a camera, or a person standing on the street, or walking into a room and having the sense of the space.

Kirill: I’d imagine it also exercises different parts of your brain.

John: Absolutely. The current project that I’m working on involves a lot of set design and a lot of space design. I’m trying to make modular set pieces that can work for different shoots at different times and be reconfigured. It’s about spatial organization and design, more than many other jobs. And other jobs are about visual sensibility or painting sensibility.

Kirill: It sounds like you’re also enjoying the physicality aspect of it.

John: I sure do. I really like painting. I like sculpting. I like making and faking.

On the restaurant set of “Laggies”. Courtesy of John Lavin.

Kirill: If I jump a bit forward in the interview to your feature work, what do you think about productions driven by virtual sets created with digital tools?

John: I came to work on indie films, and I recently heard them being described as “people talking in a room”. I have an affinity for a movie of that scale.

I like to watch a big movie as much as the next guy, but there’s a certain thing that I don’t relate to well and don’t have a lot of interest in. It’s the CGI ‘Battle that Decides the Fate of the World’ that happens in so many large films. You have two massive armies engaged in a huge battle, and the whole thing feels so completely bogus. I don’t have any interest in that.

I like the idea of a smaller scale feel, and that’s the kind of film that I’m more interested in working on – compared to the effects-driven film.

Kirill: And on those productions you have an opportunity to surround the actors with real physical sets, to let them be immersed in those environments.

John: Many times the art department is way more invested in the back story of the play, in the physicality of the space. We give a lot of thought to the characters, and what they would have in their space, and how they would live, and what they surround themselves with. And to do so you have to immerse yourself in the history of that person. This person would have kept this from their parents, and have this from their grandfather. Whatever their aesthetic is, you have to read between the lines of the character.

What happens in reality is that the actor comes out of their trailer, shows up on the set that they’ve never seen before and then have to act the scene out in an environment that is supposed to feel like their home, or like some place where they absolutely feel at ease. You have an intimate or a private scene in somebody’s home where you see this other side of this character, and the character is portrayed by an actor who may never have seen this space for more than five minutes before the camera rolls.

I think it’s really critical to try and give them something to react to and respond to, to give them an environment to feel at ease in. Their character is the critical part of the show. I don’t want to put more importance on that (in terms of performance) than necessary, but I do feel that it’s a pretty critical part. If you can put something in that afterwards the actor will come up and say “I really liked that photo, and I could see that it was supposed to be my father” or “I liked the little touch, the jacket hanging in the corner. It felt like my character” – building that stuff does help in creating the world of these characters.

Kirill: And you’re not going to see these details in the script that you get. The script would be about the story, the characters and the dialog.

John: Occasionally a thing would be called out, but it’s really ever going to be in the script to be a featured prop or something. A character would go and pick up a book or look at a picture – but otherwise it would be suggesting a certain feeling. Generally it’s about a discussion that I would have with the director, and often the locations people.

I’d say, “Here’s what I think we’re looking for”. Or, “This guy lives in a place like this”, or, “This family lives in a place that should feel like that”. And then we go about the business of creating those spaces and backstories – independently of the actors, which is weird sometimes, but oftentimes it works out pretty great.

The colors of “Laggies”.

Kirill: In case of “Your Sister’s Sister” and “Touchy Feely”, it was the same person (Lynn Shelton) who was both the writer and the director. Does that make it easier for you to translate the script into specific sets?

John: We have a really good personal rapport, and I know that it does help. There are discussions that happen throughout any production. It has be discussed and it has to be addressed, and a lot of it is about coming to the director and telling her or him about what we have to build and the direction that we’re thinking. The director would sometimes say that he or she saw it totally different, but that’s interesting and we’ll go that way, or you find some middle ground. It’s at the level of details that we don’t usually agree upon at first. We have to come to that, talk it over and settle upon it.

Kirill: You also worked with her on “Laggies”, and on all the three movies you’ve worked with the same cinematographer – Benjamin Kasulke. How do you challenge yourself to find something new for a new production that involves the same people?

John: Finding something new happens because you’re in a new production, with a new script, with a new cast and crew. So that kind of takes care of itself.

The nice thing about working with people who you know and trust and have a history with is in the shorthand that you can use with one another. The more we work together the better it gets in terms of shorthand and trust. We know that I can build a room based on our discussion of what’s going to happen and more or less where he’s going to shoot from. We have got to a point where we don’t need to worry about being specific of what to avoid or what to frame out. He doesn’t have to worry about us leaving a good looking space, and we don’t need to worry about him making a nicely framed composition, lighting and shooting it beautifully with his gaffer.

That’s the kind of trust that we have. It’s the shorthand where he knows that I’m going to do my job and I know that he’s going to do his job, and we like what the other guy brings to it.

Kirill: Do you miss those shorthands when you work on a production with new people?

John: You get there. I’m usually in prep for as long as we’re in shooting or nearly so. If it’s four weeks of shooting, it’s usually four weeks of prep. And over the course of that time you gain that shorthand. You get to that point and as soon as you start shooting, everybody gets to familiarity really quick.

It’s nice to go into your first meeting with somebody who you really know. The crew that works on Lynn Shelton’s movies and Megan Griffiths’ movies is around 75% people who I’ve worked with before. There’s a certain amount of familiarity when we walk in and it’s like hanging out with a bunch of friends. That part makes it all easy because you’ve already got a relationship.

As far as new people? I shot a film last summer, and I really only knew one or two people on the entire crew. You get to that shorthand, because you spend so many weeks together, scouting locations and working and talking. On that film, “Brother in Laws”, I spent several days at the very beginning traveling with the producer, the cinematographer and the director. It was the four of us in the car for three days in a row, and we got to know each other really well. You spend all day every day for a few days looking at places and talking about ideas. You really get to that stuff quickly, and everybody develops trust in what we’re doing in every department.

Kirill: At the budget level of these productions, how many sets do you build and how much is on location?

John: On an indie film of the scale I usually work on, most sets are locations that we augment. A lot of times we’re dealing with small budgets, so you develop personalities for places that already exist – in the same way that you develop a personality to your home that you probably didn’t build from the ground up.

On “Laggies” I’ve spent a lot of time at the beginning with the director Lynn Shelton, the location scout Dave Drummond and the cinematographer Ben Kasulke. We found a lot of places that fit the story, and we had discussions with Lynn about certain types of neighborhoods and places that felt right for the characters to live in. The entire script was written very specifically with Orange County, California in mind. And then it moved to Seattle because of Lynn, and we really had to think about how to translate those very specific places from Orange County to a Northwest feel.

We decided that her family had to come from this kind of neighborhood with this sort of age, and move to this kind of place. Those were pretty conscious decisions from the beginning – to find places that suited us. And then you find the place and you rebuild the interior.

Cabin exteriors on “Your Sister’s Sister”.

Kirill: And the cabin on “Your Sister’s Sister” was already there on that island?

John: That film was done by seventeen people, if my memory serves me right. Seventeen people – cast and crew [laughs]. That was as small as a film can get. We did it for next to nothing, a classic independent film made from the producer’s credit card. It was a very low-to-the-ground kind of operation.

Everybody was doubling and tripling up and helping make everything. We made the film with seventeen people, three of whom were the cast. We lived there for a couple of weeks and shared all the duties. That was more of a camp experience than make a Hollywood movie experience.

Kirill: And everybody stayed on the same set.

John: We did. In that case it was a little family compound, several houses that were all owned by the same family. One house was used as a picture house where we shot, another one for the women of the crew, and another one for the men of the crew, and yet another one for the cast members. That was how we divided it up [laughs] over the couple of weeks. And we had all our meals together and hung out. It was really lovely.

Kirill: And it doesn’t feel like this kind of an indie movie is going to go away even as the studios invest more and more money into gigantic tentpole productions.

John: I agree. It’s hard to know where things are going, but the threshold of making a movie and the level of difficulty are getting lower all the time. The cameras are getting cheaper, everything is done in software that is very accessible, and things that used to require teams of people and specialized equipment are simpler now. It’s a little bit like the economy at large, where the rich are getting richer, more and more are becoming poor, and the middle is going away. I feel the same way about film.

They’re making gigantic blockbusters that cost gazillions of dollars, productions that are vast and impersonal. And then small stuff that’s getting more ubiquitous – thousands of them.

Kirill: And those are competing for the same span of attention, if you will, from the audience. There are only so many hours in the day for people watching those productions.

John: I think that’s the part where who knows how it’s going to shake out. It’s a lot like the music industry that is in transition. Whenever I feel like it may be going away, I look around and I realize it’s actually exploding. Everybody is making movies [laughs], everybody is putting videos on Youtube, everybody is producing stuff. It’s changing more than it’s going away. I’m sure there will be a place and an audience for everything. It just seems that it’s getting more dispersed all the time.

Kirill: And there’s a lot of very interesting things happening on cable TV and platforms such as Netflix or Amazon, places that are attracting major creative talent away from the feature film world.

John: Absolutely. I think that’s part of the process of shaking out. It’s actually one of the reasons I’m glad to feel like a generalist. I feel like I’m not particularly invested in any one system or one channel. The stuff will be produced and people will see it, and it’s going to move around.

Lynn Shelton is spending a lot of time doing television. She’s been shooting a lot of pilots, getting a lot of attention for her guest direction on TV. It’s pretty fluid out there in terms of where it’s going. It’s hard to know how it will shake out.

Cabin interiors on “Your Sister’s Sister”.

Kirill: What stays with you thinking back to a production that you did a few years ago. Is it the crazy hours, or this communal feeling that you shared with your crew?

John: It moves around. It tends to be both of those things. I feel that I’ve been remarkably lucky with the kind of productions that I’ve worked on. I can’t look at any of the films I made and say that it was a bad experience. They were all really good.

I do a lot of commercials, and I do a plenty of two-day shoots where by the end of it everybody’s sick of each other. And I worked on these eight- or nine-week long projects where you see each other every hour of every day, and at the end of it you still go out and hang with these people. I’ve been really fortunate with the kind of projects I’ve been involved with and the kind of crews I’ve worked with. The crews in Seattle in particular are really great. I really like these people a lot, and probably it’s more the community that we’ve built and the team that we’ve put together and how it feels – that’s the thing that lasts the most.

And then there’s this thing about features. You make these things, and there’s always the big gap that lasts longer than the experience of making them until you see it again. You work for a couple of months, and you wait a year until it comes out. Being in the art department, as opposed to editing or post-production, I never see it until it’s done. We make the thing, and then I’ll go a year before see anything about it. And then suddenly I get an email that it’s coming out and here’s the chance to see it. And there’s always as much surprise for me as it is for any first-time viewer.

To circle back to your question, most of what lingers with me is the feeling of crew and experience and the team that we’ve put together. And then we get to see the work after a solid year, and all the feelings of the hard work and the time that we’ve put in have kind of faded. You see it and you remember making those decisions, a thing that the set decorator put in, or a thing that the art director did, or something that you already forgot about. That part is always fun and I love the idea of the sense of time and the sense of payoff that a movie brings that other projects can’t. I like the ‘long game’ part of it.

Kirill: How different it is from your other work? On a feature production you have eight weeks of your life condensed into this artifact after having gone through so many hands. And then you do some interior job or a mural that stays fixed and untouched by anybody else after you.

John: I come from the world of fine art, of making objects, of producing stuff. One gets really used to rejection, and one gets really used to the idea [laughs] of separating one’s identity from the product.

I used to teach drawing, and just the exercise of taking somebody who’s not really used to that and saying “Here’s the drawing you made, go hang it on the wall and we’ll discuss it”, putting things up for criticism is something that I got pretty used to. And even though I’m sensitive to the criticism as a person, I’ve got a lot of practice with the idea that this painting, or movie, or thing that I work on isn’t me. It’s a thing I made, but it’s not me. It’s separating my identity from my product.

I can’t take credit, or necessarily, blame either, I suppose, for the end product. Especially for a film. They are so large and there’s so many people involved that it would feel ridiculous to take credit for a movie. I can’t say “Oh, you liked that movie? Well, you’re welcome”, you know what I mean? It’s not my movie [laughs]. I had a part of it. I was in on the process.

Kirill: But as the production designer you are part of the leading triumvirate together with the director and the cinematographer that defines most if not all of the visual aspects of it.

John: I am absolutely willing to take credit for that [laughs]. But at the same time, from my point of view, the film is made in the edit. The edit is what makes it a movie.

We’ve all had the experience of watching a film and thinking that it looked beautiful, but not knowing what the hell happened. The story didn’t make sense, or something felt really implausible but looked terrific, something where things don’t match up. We produce the stuff that they make the movie out of, but the movie feels to me like it’s made by other people, honestly. I feel like the movie is made in the edit, in the process of taking that stuff and turning it into a coherent story, turning it into a coherent experience.

That’s why you need so many names at the end of the movie. There’s so many moving parts. I feel like I’ve been really lucky in that I don’t think that I’ve been a part of any movie that was junk. Some were more successful than others, probably. And I’m always pleasantly surprised when it turns out to be a good movie too [laughs] because in a way that has to do with how people have put it together.

Kirill: Going back to separating yourself from the thing you create, it might be hard because art is not necessarily an objective field.

John: And that also builds a little resilience, doesn’t it? You look at “good or bad” and you say “good or bad to whom?” My experience makes me feel lucky that I get a chance to work with such good people, lucky that I’ve had a rock-solid team, lucky that I think the story was good. Some movies are better than others.

I’m a parent too and it’s a little bit like that. When somebody compliments you on your child, you can only take so much credit for them [laughs]. You had something to do with it, obviously, but there’s a lot of chance involved and how things arrange themselves. I can be happy and pleasantly surprised more than feeling that I can take credit.

Going back to the movies, I feel that whatever limits you get in terms of budget or schedule or availability of actors or a million others, that’s the limitations that you’re responding to.

Take “Lucky Them” that Megan Griffiths directed. Some of the best locations that we found were these crazy places that kind fell into our lap. And we made them work. When you’re making these things for your budget with the inherent limitations, sometimes that’s the recipe for success. You turn your limitations into the best advantage you had.

Kirill: Is there any particular set that was your favorite on any of your films?

John: Once in a while we find a location based on the limitations that we have. I have worked with Lynn Shelton [director] and Ben Kasulski [cinematographer] and Dave Drummond [location scout] many times. Dave and I have really got a nice shorthand for working that has really come in handy on some of these projects early on. I could be talking with him and the director, discussing the character and the feel of the place that he or she lives in, and then he’d find that exact place.

In “Lucky Them” there’s a set that turned out to be my favorite. Some way or another we’d landed on the location for Toni Collette’s apartment, and the place was a half-livable empty garage storage space. And by the time we were done with it, it looked fantastic [laughs]. We had this enormous limitation, but a really good team, and what turned out at the end through Ben Kutchins’ lens [the cinematographer] was fantastic.

Sometimes you get a lucky break, and sometimes you can put together a team where the lucky breaks make themselves.

Interior set on “Lucky Them”.

Kirill: I have to say that I certainly enjoy the variety of productions that are being made on the big screen as well as on the TV and in between. And even if there’s more of it than I can handle sometimes, I think it’s better to have the abundance of choice than the other way around.

John: I agree, and I think that it’s starting to become an equalizer, at least among the people that I talk to. People talk about small movies in the same breath as they talk about the latest big studio comic-book extravaganza. You’ll hear people say that they didn’t see a certain film, but they saw another, and the comparison in terms of budget would be hundreds of times smaller. But people aren’t making those distinctions so much. People don’t say that it’s pretty good for a tiny film. I think that once movies are in the mix, they’re in the mix.

Kirill: When the story is good, it’s good no matter how much money is behind it, and people working on indie films in particular are not necessarily there for the money.

John: Right, like the film “Ida” from last year. It was so beautiful and well-told and interesting. And it was not a big film in any way, but it had an enormous number of people seeing it because it’s just so good.

It’s really about creative people who are handy and smart and come to it from the love of storytelling.

In a market like Seattle, there are people who work in the art department, but they’re also a director, or a gaffer. Or an editor who became a director. There’s a lot of that stuff, people who have a broad knowledge of how to get things done, and that ends up helping out a lot on the production. “Utility infielders”, who aren’t specialists, but can do a lot of different things.

If you have, for example, a director who knows how to edit, they know what shots they need and they’re not squandering their time. That kind of breadth of knowledge always helps the production.

And here I’d like to thank John Lavin for graciously finding time in his busy schedule to answer a few questions I had about his art and craft, and for sharing the background materials for the interview.