The art and craft of production design – interview with Richard Hoover

November 13th, 2018

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Richard Hoover. In this interview he talks about the changes technology has brought to the world of art department in recent years, the meaning of success and the business side of the industry, and collaborating with directors and cinematographers on finding the right visuals for the story. Around these topics and more, Richard goes back to his work on “Twin Peaks” and “Girl Interrupted”, and dives deep into building the worlds of the upcoming family drama “Second Act” – out in theaters this December.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and what brought you to the world of storytelling.

Richard: I found the theater first and, of course, was an actor. In school I began designing stage sets and making plays. I think storytelling is a desire that grew and is being realized – as opposed to being in my mind at the beginning. Over recent years I’ve grown in the desire to learn the basics of storytelling, visually and verbally. I want now to know not only structure and construct, but also of what value story may have for others, for the audience, and how does it reflect a truth.

That interest had grown out of making scenery on stage. I still like building and making things. These days it is actually more critical that I use more of verbal muscle through writing.

Kirill: From your perspective, how has the world of storytelling evolved in the last 30-35 years since you started?

Richard: I think there have been advances but still story is still rooted in the basic human soul. We have an inherent need to tell stories, the desire to tell and to connect. In terms of story in film language there have been leaping advances in pacing and scope that are fascinating. “Twin Peaks”, for example, used a slowed down pace, wide angle shots, and a humorous witnessing that was very radical for TV at that time.

Sketch art for “Girl Interrupted”, courtesy of Richard Hoover.

Concerning the growth in digital infrastructure that has been happening in the last 20-25 years, there are now chances to do things in a virtual way not previously available. We used to build physical models, and now we do it digitally (as well as physically). We can look at it from all sides, explore it and figure out if we want to adjust things. That has become a major advance in what I have to do as a designer of a production. The digital world to me is both wonderful and painful in that it has also speeded us up and invaded quiet times.

We have less time now in film productions, and the economical pressure is more intense. So story is traded in often too speeded up a way. Communication has sped up, and sometimes in that speed-up things get lost. You sit in the same office with somebody, and you keep on emailing each other. I need to go stand in the room, and talk and show. That being said, if you’re working in a remote place, digital links are an advantage. You can send images, and that’s been amazing.

I remember my first cell phone which was this giant banana [laughs], and before that it was quarters in the pocket and payphones if you could find them.

Sketch art for “Girl Interrupted”, courtesy of Richard Hoover.

It is amazing, but it still takes time and economical investment to get the technical people in place to help the designer illustrate and render. The key thing is interactive presentation to the director and the producers, so that there’s a sense of a commitment to tone and approach. During those presentations it’s critical to have digital tools and physical tools to really look at how things are going to want to be – as a hope, as a desire. That’s what I always try to do. If I have an illustrator, that’s a wonderful thing. If I have time to do it, I’ll do it in pencil or in Photoshop. It doesn’t happen in a moment though. It takes hours.

Kirill: What about how much the modern cameras can capture as far as the resolution goes? Do you find that your sets need to be more detailed?

Richard: High definition digital cameras have pushed change in design a lot. So much more can be seen now, and details might become much more of an issue than in normal film camera work.

I do find it very interesting to see how little lighting is needed these days. Sometimes I watch a film on my computer, and it’s all dark, but that’s fine. But it’s amazing to see what can be done with just a candle in the room.

Concept art for “Falling Skies”, courtesy of Richard Hoover.

Kirill: There used to be this “dark magic” to the cinematography, where you have to wait for the dailies to see what has been captured the day before. Now that you can immediately see what the camera sees, has that changed anything for you?

Richard: Dailies are all digital now. It’s quite efficient, and saves money to not rent a room. But when you’re not looking at it with everybody, and not discussing it collectively, you’re missing the point. You can watch it on your own and mumble to yourself, but it’s not the same and basically destroys collaboration.

If you’re doing a psychological thriller, you’re going to want to have much deeper conversations about details. I’m working on a story now about this person who grows in paranoia, and we’re trying to figure things out. What happens to you when you’re in your room? What happens in your mind’s eye? That’s what interests me. As a designer, I want to understand that right away. I want to find the critical pieces and align them to our visual agenda. My job is to set out this agenda, to define arcs and shifts in theme and plot, and to share this with director and the director of photography – and in fact with the entire crew.

Sketch art for “Sisters”, courtesy of Richard Hoover.

Of course the digital immediacy is wonderful. You can see what they are doing, see the lighting, see the pacing implied and learn from it. And on shoot days, more and more I try to be there to watch set ups and assist my dressing group to adjust to composition. Of course, the designer cannot lead the framing. We work with a collaborator who frames the film, and you cannot get between the director and the DP about an actor’s performance. If it’s a big spectacle scene, you’ll be involved in orchestrating and storyboarding and suggesting, but then it is handed over to director, DP, and Assistant directors.

Kirill: How does it work to have so many people working together, perhaps pulling it in slightly different directions, and have having full ownership of it, so to speak?

Richard: The work is hard, physical and real. The concept is something that needs clarification early on in the process. You want the team to understand and move with the concept, and not pull away or apart. So I try to have walls and walls of images and drawings in the production office that will help define this concept tonally and then practically. I try to blend concept and the actual together: her is this look at this location with this illustration to define the junction.

In a practical sense: I just did a movie called “Emperor” set in 1859. We had walls with concept and tonal images concerning the lighting and general visual journey of the film. On this wall we combined the look books of the DP, myself and the director in an array on one section of the office. Here we also posted historical images of reference: a kind of who is who in the real history as well as where was where. In another section I put up locations to select and then final locations with notes and diagrams that related. So there is a conceptual brain and a logical informational brain at work here. All was done for the crew so that you can see it when you visited.

This communication continues throughout shooting on the daily basis as we move through the schedule.

Sketch art for “The Mothman Prophecies”, courtesy of Richard Hoover.

On the set of “The Mothman Prophecies”, courtesy of Richard Hoover.

Kirill: When people ask you what you do for a living, how do you convey the amount of work that goes into something that, if done well, is almost invisible?

Richard: I don’t think a lot of people outside the industry know what production design is. There are also a lot of people in the industry that don’t know what it is either.

I always start talking about analytics and collaboration with the director who has an opinion to form this agenda I talked about – a list of key images or frames. Then I explain that you have to go out, find it or make it. You’re budgeting it at the same time as they are rewriting it.

If people know what they are doing, it’s much easier. The lesson I’ve learned is that you better follow what the director says and spend time extracting from that brain what is wanted, even if it is vague. For example, if a director has a look book of images, I need to figure out what he or she means when they like a picture that they are showing me. Where does that fit? Is that a scene? Is that an idea that floats through all the scenes? I’ve learned that the hard way. Some directors are quite intense, and very visual. Some are not, but rather are more focused on character and actor. If they’ve been obsessing over the look for years, you better catch up quick.

Kirill: Do you find yourself wishing to go back and apply what you know now or use the tools that you have now to your earlier productions? Do you wish that you could have done things differently?

Richard: For sure. I made some vast mistakes which I will not go into here. We try not to, but it has happened. I’ve learned things through that great pain. If you don’t mess up and assume that you’re right all the time, you’re not going to learn anything. I wouldn’t want to redo a whole film, but I’d like to start over on a few things.

On the set of “Girl Interrupted”, courtesy of Richard Hoover.

Kirill: Looking back at your productions so far, does it feel that there’s an element of randomness about what becomes a critical or a commercial success?

Richard: I imagine the entire industry is always trying to figure this out. But I’m not doing big blockbusters like “Fast and Furious 32” that are massive commercial ventures that get huge distributions. I tend to work on dramatic films which interest me, and take work if I can have some feeling about it. While you’re making them, you may not even know how it will be seen, but try to keep on the path of its own visual truth. And besides, you’re busy at the 7-Eleven getting a coffee so that you don’t fall asleep [laughs].

“Girl Interrupted” had an interesting look, and it was very interesting to see the actors afterwards. James Mangold is an amazing director, and he made it all come alive on set. I did not know how it would resonate during the making.

On the set of “Twin Peaks”, courtesy of Richard Hoover.

As for what survives, people always want to talk about “Twin Peaks” which was such a long time ago. It was just a wonderful but none of us knew of its resonance and lasting power.

Of course, some of them don’t last. I’m not done yet. It’s about the characters, the actors and the empathy. Some stories allow the audience to follow a thread, and it resonates with people. We’re telling human stories with human beings in them.

Kirill: How would you compare the pace of work in film and TV worlds?

Richard: The scale of TV work is much more demanding. Generally, there’s a lot more financial pressure, because they have a set date of delivery. They are not necessarily dealing with distribution, but the quality of it has is the same. TV has become much more interesting than ever before in the sense of what we can talk about and what we should talk about. In terms of the level of production the TV has ramped to the feature level since HBO started out years ago.

Kirill: As you design and build your sets, do you want to create a full physical environment for the actors, even if some parts of it are never going to be on camera?

Richard: When we’re making a set, we’re doing a 360° to keep it real so that the actors can invest in it when they walk in. I did “Fail Safe” for TV back in 2000, and they couldn’t afford 30 feet of the set [laughs]. The very first shot they were rehearsing and lining up was looking at a hole with a studio wall right behind it. But I think, unless told otherwise by the director, the set ought be fully done. I also try to cover for discoveries on a shoot day. If an idea pops up and you want to look this or that way, that world needs be there.

During set construction for “Fail Safe”, courtesy of Richard Hoover.

Kirill: You mentioned budget constraints a number of time. Can you like realistically ever say “no” to the production, or is it always trying to find a way to to solve it?

Richard: I think saying “no” is critical when it is truly felt. I have been in situations where I was being lead down a path that was not aligned with reality, and I should have screamed. You need to be able to have the wisdom enough to say that we’re not going to make it. You have to be brave enough to say that you can’t produce this thing because of whatever reason. It could be money or skills or craft or not enough labor or whatever. You also have schedule constraints, and I’ve learned that the hard way too.

The director might come to you and say that they want to build this town in six weeks. But things take time. Depending on how big it is, it might take four weeks to just design it, and another twelve to build. You have to plan for unknowns. You might start digging underground and find a gas pipe or an old villa from the medieval times.

Production design of “Second Act”, courtesy of STX Films and H. Brothers.

Kirill: “Second Act” is set in today’s world. How do you approach designing and building spaces that are set in today, so to speak?

Richard: We wanted a view of a town called Queens that was warm, family and friend oriented – which meant finding some iconic interiors and exteriors that often did not exist in the “neighborhood”. We wanted a place that you could call home. We scouted a lot of houses, and found that most were way too small conceptually. We knew that we needed a bigger place to shoot in because there was a lot of activity in it, and had to push our Queens father out on the island. It is still Queens, but not the tight row house Queens. We wanted a language of housing that spoke to an expansive lively family. It’s a working class home, and we didn’t want it to be grand. In all the Queens locations the visual thread was family, co workers, friends and lovers.

Production design of “Second Act”, courtesy of STX Films and H. Brothers.

Kirill: What about the office spaces?

Richard: The city is a glass office tower. In one sense this was offsetting to the world seen before. The offices were in real locations with huge views in the clouds. We were in World Trade Center, up on the 50th floor, floating around in the New York version of heaven. You’re floating in that world, and the main character is floating on a lie that she told herself years ago and also repeated recently. She finds herself in a place where she isn’t truthful, even though she’s dealing with making a product that’s supposed to be the truth – what is an organic skin care product.

You have notions of what we wanted to find, and I think we found them. They went to 60 Rockefeller Plaza, all the way up to the top to have a party scene. It was perfect. We wanted something visually stunning to contrast with the local community and pubs in Queens.

Production design of “Second Act”, courtesy of STX Films and H. Brothers.

Kirill: Looking back at your initial pitch to the director, how much things have changed throughout the production for you?

Richard: I do a lot of look books (that I call visual love poems for the film), and I am often alone when I do them. I’m showing one of those to my director today, and I’m anxious to talk to her. I know what I’m thinking, but I want to know what she is thinking. It does change a lot as the reality knocks you over the head.

Like any story, you start with a concept and you set the visual agenda, but the interaction with the director and others will naturally shift things. And then discoveries do come as you realize and learn. I scouted many neighborhoods and learned and presented as I went to the director. It seems like a slow process but driving around is the key. You talk and find and present. And then locations and looks start converging and coming together. You are working with the DP and Director, and it is this collaboration that forms the look.

Production design of “Second Act”, courtesy of STX Films and H. Brothers.

Kirill: Would you consider “Second Act” a period production that happens to be set in the modern period?

Richard: It is a parable set in the present, but a kind of a story that is somewhat timeless. It has absolute timelessness but also absolute modern aspects. We did not overthink this. It’s a family drama, and it’s rare. We looked back at what’s valuable. We’re looking at where you really are as a person. The second act for me is when Jennifer’s character returns to Queens, her home.

Kirill: What goes through your head when you see the sets getting torn down at the end of the shooting phase?

Richard: I get out of there as fast as possible. An empty set stripped bare is sad, but there you go. It really is a social problem from the artistic perspective. We work in a transitory design world, and we do design work for hire. I’m hired as a designer, and I don’t own the design. I get out of the way when we’re done shooting. The problem really isn’t the set. It’s the family that we have built up. It’s the friendships and the time together. It’s when you wake up in the morning and need your cup of coffee, and somebody puts one on your desk. It’s the warm moments and the chance moments. That’s what makes it a family, and I miss that. I wonder about all the time, and so I’m thinking of starting a cult [laughs].

Production design of “Second Act”, courtesy of STX Films and H. Brothers.

Kirill: It looks like every production is mostly with a different set of people. Do you wish for a more ongoing collaboration?

Richard: I wish I could keep a team together but it’s not financially realistic. I don’t think it’s been realistic for many people in the industry because of the chaos of production timing. It’s hard to keep people lined up. It is an industry. It’s a roaming, moving factory of people working and getting gigs and deciding whether they work or not. You want to keep them together, but we can’t exactly. You can’t hire them to hang out.

Kirill: Do you wish that art had less dependency on being commercially successful?

Richard: Of course, but this is an industry in which a product is made. Love projects are often financially tortured and limited. I am amazed by people who do these. I think the pressure is on everyone, because films are expensive to do and the money at the outset is risk money usually.

In this work as in any other, it is about learning how to really accept the process. Unfortunately, there’s an hierarchy and you have to get hired. It’s exhausting, and it’s not a place where you can babble too much. But it has to be more about the process. Let’s sit and find this agenda. Let’s sit and talk through it. Some films demand more of that than others.

My point is that success may be a mistaken concept. It’s driven me nuts, and I think it drives a lot of people nuts as far as the expectations go.

Production design of “Second Act”, courtesy of STX Films and H. Brothers.

Kirill: Looking back at your earlier productions, what stays with you?

Richard: I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the past. I’ve never put my drawings or artwork into a gallery, and I’m now trying to figure out what to do with them. I do remember
lessons learned and discoveries experienced. These are small things and internal things which may not seem important to many people. But these are things given by the gift of experience.

Kirill: What keeps you going in the field?

Richard: Objectively, I’ve spent a long time working at it and that has value in the sense of finding work. But I’m fascinated when I find a story that speaks to or explores some version of truth. What keeps me going is the knowledge that I haven’t really opened all those doors visually in terms of story. There’s always a new challenge. Somebody might tell you to design an alien toothbrush, and then you have to go figure that out and have fun with that. I keep hoping to work with some people that would say that and challenge me.

Production design of “Second Act”, courtesy of STX Films and H. Brothers.

And here I’d like to thank Richard Hoover 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 “Second Act”, as well as for sharing the supporting imagery. The film is out this December in theaters near you. I’d also like to thank Andrea Resnick of Impact24 PR for making this interview happen.

Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series. Stay tuned for more interviews in the near future!