Production design of “The Last Witch Hunter” – interview with Julie Berghoff

June 27th, 2016

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Julie Berghoff. In this interview Julie talks about her ongoing work on commercials, the beginning of her involvement with feature productions as the horror genre starting taking off in early 2000’s, creative collaborations across multiple departments, what makes people stay in the field and what makes people leave, and the evolving landscape of storytelling across various screens around is. The second half of the interview is about her work on “The Last Witch Hunter”, bringing together physical sets and digital extensions, working with live plants, sculpting the impressive sets for the movie, and extending the continuity of sets through post-production via collaboration with the visual effects department.

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

Julie: I’m Julie Berghoff and I’m a production designer for film, TV, commercials and music videos. I’m from Chicago IL and I went to the Art Institute of Chicago. I was always really interested in fine art, drawing and building. I completed a sculpting and a fashion degree at the Art Institute of Chicago. From 1994-2000, I worked for a graphics/model shop in Chicago called Kaleidoscope Imaging.

We worked mostly in table top which is directly connected with shooting food products. I specialized in sculpting oversized models. Some of my favorites were the oversized mini-wheats and Snickers bars and things of that nature. We’re talking about a 2-foot Snickers bar that you crack open with the real product inside. Around 1996, I did a stop-motion spot for Coca Cola, and I built all these models that moved and danced, and I fell in love with stop-motion and decided that I wanted to pursue more stop motion. Which brought me out to Portland Oregon, where I worked at Will Vinton Studios for 1.5 years. I did various positions on a Fox show called “The PJs”. It was a hilarious stop motion show about the project, starring Eddie Murphy’s voice.

Around 2002, I moved from Portland to Los Angeles and started working on commercials. The speed and accuracy of working on commercials was nerve racking. They were very demanding and definitely kept you on your toes. You have to work really fast, you have to be on the spot when you go on scouts with the director and they ask you about your vision, and you have sometimes to draw and build things in days.

Commercials really taught me how to be efficient, smart and fast with fabrication and concept ideas, but there was really no narrative aspect to it. You want to be inspired by your work and the film industry as a whole works incredibly hard. A 60-80 hour week is somewhat the norm. When you’re going to dedicate so much of your energy of you life to something. It’s important to be passionate about it and figure out how to keep the passion. I really take my time in choosing my projects, and I need to feel completely energized by it which is the tell-tale sign.

Kirill: How did the field of commercials evolve for you over the last 20 or so years? You’ve seen the advent of high-definition televisions, and explosion of video on web and mobile devices and micro-channels everywhere. Is anything different for you these days?

Julie: I just did a commercial last week, and I have to say that the client is really the king now. It was a mid-range commercial, and maybe on the higher end the directors have more of a voice, but the clients really care so much specifically about their product, and that’s what they want to focus on. And then, time permitting, you can do some fun narrative or something interesting, but it doesn’t mean that it’s going to make the cut.

I still find it to be a great learning platform for people starting off, much better than reality TV shows which I’ve never done. It teaches you discipline of fast film making. Working with a director, scout, producer on all the different platforms of how to make a commercial.

The more you work with people, the more shorthand you have. It’s the same as working with the same director. You know what they like, what they don’t like, how they tell a story, how they move the camera, and sometimes even what furniture style they like. Working continuously with the same people is extremely helpful.

Kirill: What about the structure of the art department when you work on a commercial? Is it only you there?

Julie: Commercials are a much smaller version of features or TV. The art department could only be me and an art coordinator, PA. I still have a decorator and her team, but we usually use a set shop to build out our sets. On a feature, you have your own construction team.

Kirill: What about your work on music videos? It felt like that entire field would collapse when MTV started doing reality programming, but they migrated to YouTube and it seems like there’s a lot of things happening there still.

Julie: I haven’t done a music video in years. They are far and few between. You have the big names like Beyonce that are still doing them. The last time I did a video was Blink 182, and I remember specifically that they had to pay for the video. I think the artist still has to pay first from their advances, and it depends on what kind of splash they want to make, on how they want to promote themselves. Beyonce and Taylor Swift are big promoters, and they want people to see their music and the story of their music through their eyes. That’s why they take the extra step to make a music video, to tell the story narratively.

I think that’s important to the world to tell the narrative of what your song means. I think it means a lot to people when they connect with it, when they sing and dance to it, when they know the story of what the artist thinks as well.

Kirill: What was your first movie production?

Julie: “Saw” was my first feature back that I did with the director James Wan. That was around 2003, released in 2004. It was the initial reviving of the horror genre. “Blair Witch Project” came out in 1999, and then “Saw” and the whole horror genre just exploded and has since been probably one of the biggest money making franchises.

I just finished “The Conjuring 2” last month, which is my fifth project with James Wan. We shot it in Los Angeles, and it takes place outside of London. We built the house and a small part of the neighborhood on Stage 4 at Warner Bros. It was an amazing experience. I never worked that continuous on a back lot, and I really enjoyed the feeling of driving to the Warner Bros. lot every day. It was euphoric, to really feel like you’re part of the movie industry and to see this part of Hollywood that has existed for over a hundred years. It was exciting.

That’s my last film, and James is still editing madly. I’m presently doing commercials and waiting for my next project.

Kirill: Going back to your first production, were there any surprises for you personally to see the movie making process from the inside?

Julie: Every aspect of it was exciting for me. For me it was to really see how each person’s role – from the costume to DP [director of photography] to ADs [assistant directors] to PAs [production assistants] – was so important and so influential in the final product. And if you’re not in harmony and you don’t have that connection, then it really can affect the outcome of the film. To have this many people working together is like the traveling circus. We come together, make the sets, shoot them, editing and sound, and the whole process is very collaborative.

So all those people’s names that you see on the screen, every single person matters. Every single person contributes in a collaborative way that most people are not aware of.

Kirill: There must be some clash of personalities and opinions as you can’t have everybody agree on everything.

Julie: Most definitely. I think that’s the beauty of it, especially when you work with someone continuously. James and I, for example, banter back and forth about certain things, and the more that I get inside of his head, the more I understand why he wants things a certain way. And when I know that he wants things a certain way, sometimes I can then change that aspect of my design to both fit what he wants but also stay true to, for example, the architecture of the house or the time period.

Sometimes what directors want does not correspond with the proper time period or the true architecture from a certain era. Many times, their own personal taste comes into play, and you have to slowly talk them out of it. You almost have to come up with a back story to convince them to choose something. For example, a certain couch for the character. That couch was inherited from the grandmother, and she came from Russia and so it goes. You always hope for great collaboration on so many aspects of the production design.

There has to be a lot of open dialogue.

I welcome my team to challenge me on things. It’s collaborative and everyone is going to contribute. You open to hearing other people’s ideas, and that only makes your ideas better.

Kirill: What do you think makes people stay in the industry, and what makes them leave? The hours are crazy, and the glamour might not have lasting power after a few productions.

Julie: It’s different every day. If you’re a person who likes the challenge of experiencing a new aspect in your everyday life, then film industry is for you. I’m constantly learning new things. Every day I’m learning new things, as if I’m almost at the university. It’s so rewarding to continue to grow in your profession, and to also have the experience after the years of doing that.

There’s so much to learn, because every story is different, and every director is different, and every DP is different. They are all going to bring different aspects to the project. I love that I’m always learning and challenging myself.

The hours are super brutal, and I’ve been on the road for long time ago. Right after “Saw” I did “Five Fingers” in New Orleans and then “Death Sentence” in South Carolina, and there were a couple of years in between, but then for five years I did movies back to back out of town. In the meanwhile I had a child, so he was on the road with me for five years. Now he’s in school and I’ve been trying to stay in Los Angeles and it’s been proving really difficult to stay here and work.

For a lot of us that work so hard in our lives to get to a certain place and prestige and have a great resume, to have almost to reinvent yourself to incorporate your family more in your life, or to have a partner, or see your friends – if you let the film industry, it will deny you of all of those things. And that’s not glamorous at all [laughs].

Kirill: Let’s transition to your work on “The Last Witch Hunter”. How did it start for you?

Julie: I got a call from my agent with the script. When she told me the synopsis of the story, I was beyond excited. It was to work with Vin Diesel and Breck Eisner the director, and it was a big-budget film, and it had action and fantasy.

It had a fairly big budget for world-building, and it was a fantastic opportunity as a production designer and a world-builder. The witch’s tree and his apartment and others didn’t exist in Pittsburgh. We built them on a massive stage which was more of a warehouse, and it had its own complications of not having any grid to hang things. It was a very challenging place to work crew-wise as well, but I had an amazing team, mostly from Los Angeles, that came and worked as hard as me to bring all these super-creative dark twisted sets to life for the film.

I’m still super-thrilled to have been a part of the project. It was an interesting story, and it was a very complicated story to tell.

Looking back at it, I learned so much about how to work with all those natural materials, and fire, and actors moving through them and trying to replicate textures that actors wouldn’t trip over. There’s so many aspects of what I do that are new almost every time I step onto the stage to create a new set.

Kirill: How was the decision made to make the sets physical instead of green-screen and CGI?

Julie: We did do some green-screen. Sometimes I would build three views, and then the fourth view would be green-screen. We also had set extensions. They didn’t have a ton of money to do full CGI shots, so a lot of times I would build anything that was behind the actors, and then Nicholas Brooks who was in charge of visual effects would do the set extensions. I would do the drawings and designs, and he would bring a team on and build the set extensions with my guidance.

There were only a couple of shots that were full-CGI, like when you saw the big tree. That was a couple of different plates. They shot plates in Iceland, and then they built that tree in CGI. Otherwise we built almost everything else behind all the actors.

Kirill: And the scenes inside the tree is all physical set. How much time does it take you to plan and build something like that?

Julie: It’s a long process. First we designed the action of how to move through the set, and what fights are going to take place, and how much space we needed. And then of course it was too big and it cost too much, so you have to keep figuring that out and downsizing everything. Then I built models of it and used the models to show the director how it’s going to look. That way we could figure out how you might see off of the set, and what we were going to do about that.

Then after we built the models, sometimes I dealt with a sketch-up of it or a 3D computer model. When you’re doing all the steps, you really figure out what you need before you start building. We had to budget it really carefully, and from there we built the sets. The big roots were built with steel and plaster, and then we poured the foundation because we had it raining on it the whole time and we wanted the water to pour down off the set. And then we used heavy greens. They had to go and scavenge all these massive vines, and dressing all the vines to make the trees to be sculptural.

I wanted all the trees in the nest to be almost surreal and bewitched in a way. When we built each unit and we brought them all together, they all had their own sculptural uniqueness.

Kirill: How important is it for you to surround your actors with physical environment on the set?

Julie: I think each actor is different. In this case, because the sets were so textured and there was so much going on, I was instructed to build everything. And you can really tell the difference. As much as CG has come so far, you can still see when you’re in a CG world.

For most part, production designers are still building the immediate environment around the actors. I think it’s important to feel how much space you have and to feel the energy of the sets. It has to suit the actors to make them feel that same energy. On the first “Conjuring” house Vera Farmiga was so kind and she wrote me a letter about how much the sets helped her connect with the world. Hearing that from actors really helps me go that extra mile to do all the textures and the layering to help them connect more with the worlds.

Kirill: And there was another big set, the witch council chamber, that was also built physically with a few digital extensions.

Julie: When you’re coming down the stairs and look at the walls, you see all these stories that I did on the walls. We sculpted all that by hand. And then I built the ground, and the doors to the prison, while the set extensions were the massive sculpture pieces in the background and the ceiling. We built a lot of the walls around it, and the table, and the weird set pieces that went around the actors, the ones that looked like a bug burnt tree coming out of the ground. That was all sculpted and fabricated, while CG was from 14 feet up.

Kirill: What can you tell us about the scenes in the witches’ parlor and the bakery? You had floating lights and fluorescent drinks and butterflies all over the place. Does that come together only in post-production?

Julie: The floating table lanterns were something that the director added later in post-production, but the glowing drinks were not visual effects. We had an awesome special effects father-and-son team, the Chesneys, and they made the drinks practically.

As for the bakery, we had some real butterflies that we let go inside there just to grab on to, and then the rest was all visual effects. It looked beautiful, I thought they did a really good job on it.

Kirill: What about the greenhouse where they find the girl’s body? Was that an existing place?

Julie: It was an old warehouse. Originally the director was looking for a rooftop, and as we were scouting for Chloe’s apartment, I found that place that I thought was really cool. If you’re in New York, there’s no way you can afford some massive rooftop, unless you live outside the city. So that made it more realistic, plus visually it was so cool to look down that shaft.

I turned that whole warehouse into an interior greenhouse, and then dressed the greens outside as well to tell the story. The challenging part of that was just to find plants that would fit the witches’ society. You can’t just go to Home Depot and buy house plants. There were a lot of exotic plants that my set decorator found, like Venus flytraps and different cactus. I went off on mushrooms because I was looking for things that were healing, and bugs, and thinking about what kind of plants would you have if you were a witch.

We did a lot of research and had them shipped in to Pittsburgh in winter time. There are always the challenges that the public doesn’t know about. A lot of times we are doing sets inside and especially outside in a wrong season, and getting the plants to stay alive during shooting and finding them at the scale that you need to show something that has been established and not just all little tiny plants – it’s really challenging.

I love that set. Chloe’s apartment was really fun to do because they were interior. Bringing the green world inside and making it have a different energy than the world of the witch which was dark and almost dead-like, contrasting those two worlds tells a story that is in itself.

Kirill: Why go with live plants and not fake ones?

Julie: First of all, fake ones don’t look very good. And you also don’t have the variety in fake plants. Most of them are made for office buildings, to do their lobby and such. You won’t find the exotic nature of all the plants that we wanted, and they are really expensive. The really good ones are silks, and they are actually more expensive than the real plants to ship in.

Kirill: What was you daily schedule like during the shooting phase? Where do you spend your time?

Julie: Although I’d love to hang out on set and almost be an on-set dresser, I am running from one to the next. I basically open the set, so the first time the director sees it, I’m there. They come along the way, hopefully when we’re building it, to make any changes if they want to. We do a tech scouting of each set to talk about lighting and how they’re going to shoot it and the angles. I open a set, and as soon as they have the camera set up and they look through the lens and everyone’s happy, I’m gone on to my next set.

Kirill: What happened in the post-production? Did you get to stay through it to make sure that the sets that you’ve designed were properly extended as you envisioned them?

Julie: I wish. They rarely keep the production designer for the full post-production. Our job is to take care of most of that in pre-production, to do concept sketches and designs to give to the VFX supervisor to take care of that in post. I got called a couple of times for that, and I was already onto my next project as soon as we wrapped and Christmas was over.

I still correspond a lot with the director and the VFX supervisor for any questions or mocks that they’d like me to do. I’ll do that, but for the most part I try to answer as many questions as I can in design aspects before I leave the project, because they rarely pay the designer to be on for the entire post-production. On something of that scale it’s usually 3-6 months of post, and I have to let go. I wish they paid me to stay, but they don’t.

Kirill: Do you think it’s going to continue like that, having the VFX supervisor playing such a big role in addition to the “usual” trio of director, cinematographer and production designer?

Julie: The production designer is always going to start a little bit sooner, depending on the scale of the project and what the budget is. On something like that I would be there two to three months before the VFX. I didn’t start that early, but I should have started that early. I had very little pre-production for such a big design film. I only had 16 weeks [perhaps I misheard you here, because 16 weeks is more than 2-3 months that you just mentioned], and usually you have six months.

Nick [VFX supervisor] and I got along fantastically, and we had a short hand, and I had tons of references. We looked at all the references and we divided the work and kind of conquered it together. When you’re working in a short timeframe, you have to share the workload of the visual effects and the design to some degree.

Kirill: You are involved with a production for a long stretch of time. You see every set. You know every line of the script. Can you watch a movie that you’ve worked on without paying attention to the specific parts of each set, and how they look after however many hands went through them after you were done?

Julie: After I’ve watched it two or three times, maybe [laughs]. The first time I watch it, I’m just scrutinizing my work the entire time, unfortunately. Each time I watch a movie anyways, I feel like I get something different out of it, especially my own projects.

I have a hard time watching my own films many times, though. I don’t know why. It might just be that it’s been in your head for so long, and you almost want to move on after you’ve seen it and appreciate it for what it was, and be inspired by the next one.

Kirill: Do you get to enjoy other movies, not the ones that you’ve worked on?

Julie: I think you’re naturally gravitating towards what you know. I can’t say that I don’t watch films and really pay attention to the production design, but a good movie pulls you in in all aspects of it. That’s just the long and the short of it. A good movie will take you emotionally and visually to other places if it’s done right.

Kirill: Do you see a shift in how the stories are told on screens these days? There’s so much interesting storytelling happening in episodic television in so many places. Does that take some of the stories away from the big screen?

Julie: I do, but I also feel like TV is pushing the limits and bringing a lot of things back that the feature world wouldn’t make any more. I think that the feature world has really pulled back on making amazing dramas, and the TV industry has picked that up, which is great to see.

Sometimes I get a little frustrated with the feature industry. We make comic book movies, we make graphic novels, horror genre and comedies, and maybe a drama or two.

Kirill: Mostly around November.

Julie: Totally. “Spotlight” and “Big Short” were great to see, because they were storytelling at its finest, and they did an amazing job telling the story. But if you go and find out what the budget was on those, and how probably all the actors worked at scale…

When I did “The Kids Are All Right”, we shut down for a week because we needed another $500K to finish the movie. We made it for $5M and it was an Oscar contender. I feel like sometimes we’re putting our money in the wrong places. Hollywood is a business, and it’s always been a business, but now I feel like people that are pulling the strings are more accountant type and not creative, and so they are not willing to take risks.

You’re seeing a lot of remakes, you’re seeing things that they think are more sure thing. That’s where TV or super-independents come in to fill that gap. I do think that the film industry is doing really well, and the TV industry has flooded the market, almost to a point where I think there’s almost too much content. It’s saturated the market so much in Los Angeles that there is not as many art directors as there used to be. I feel that sometimes that there should be some kind of apprenticeship program in Los Angeles to help train more film-makers in all aspects of filmmaking to help fill all these roles. It’s becoming really challenging to find a lot of people.

You see a lot of people that keep on going from one project to the next to keep their team together. Once you separate from your team, it’s really difficult to fill that role again.

Kirill: The reason I positioned it as a good problem to have is that I as a viewer have so much variety in story-telling these days, with great stories still being told in feature films, and an amazing explosion in the episodic television on HBO, Netflix, AMC, Showtime and so many others.

Julie: I understand what you’re saying. I think the percentage of the good shows compared to how much content is out there is small. And the people who are doing those shows are busting their ass to make it happen. The timeframe for TV is so much tighter than features – not independents, but normal feature work.

Kirill: If you look back at your productions that you did a few years ago, what stays with you? Do you remember the bad parts, the good parts, some mix of both?

Julie: I feel very fortunate to have found a career that I really love. I am so fortunate to meet all the new people on every project. I never grew up knowing that I would be a production designer; I kind of fell into it. And I still, after having been doing this since 1990 in some aspects, love my job. I still love going to work every day, and even with all the stresses and everything involved. Not many people can say that about their career. I feel very lucky.

And here I’d like to thank Julie Berghoff for graciously agreeing to share her time with me to talk about the art and craft of production design, and for taking me through building the worlds of “The Last Witch Hunter”. If you’re interested in stories on how films and TV shows are made, click here for more in-depth interviews.