This is the forty-eighth interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.
Interview with Carl Sprague, film art director, film director
Edited from our phone conversation on 24 March 2011
IA: Would you like to start out by taking about the Edith Wharton project, Summer?
CS: I would love to talk about that. It’s very much in my mind right now because I’m getting ready for a reading in New York City next Thursday, which is designed to be a bit of a big deal, and hopefully it will turn out to be. We’ve got a very cool cast of some incredibly gifted theater and film and TV actors coming together to read through the script.
Summer is a kind of neglected, almost overlooked, classic. It’s got some very difficult subject-matter, which at the time that Wharton was writing was almost scandalous. It remains kind of hot. She actually herself called it “the hot Ethan Frome.” It was only one of two books that she wrote that weren’t set in the international NY high society milieu that she knew. She is writing about the country people out in hilltown New England—a world that she got to know, but more as an observer than as a participant. And at the same time, she’s such a keen observer that I think she saw more in that world than many people who are part of it. It’s a great project, and I’ve been working on it for three years now, boiling down the novel into a screen adaptation, and it’s been really fascinating.
IA: Are you directing the film as well?
CS: That’s the plan. This is the kind of project, a period drama, that Hollywood and film financing and distribution in general are kind of leery of. We import these projects, such as The King’s Speech – the British crank this stuff out all the time and they have some incredible skills in terms of turning amazing literature into screen entertainment.
But I’ve one of the reasons I latched on to Summer was that it seems so feasible. Where I live in Western Massachusetts, so much of this work hasn’t changed. It’s still there; you just have to point a camera at it.
I am deeply enamored of the historical part of what I do; the research and the our attempts to reconstruct the past or recreate an atmosphere or make sense of what people’s lives were like at other times in history. That kind of feeling is just like it’s all over the architecture of the place.
IA: I was thrilled to look at the production stills of locations, because I grew up in western Massachusetts and actually lived in Tyringham for one year. I was thrilled to see your pictures.
CS: One of the best things that happened lately in our research was when this incredibly gifted, smart, wonderful girl named Nannina Gilder—
IA: her sister Louisa Gilder is one of my best friends—
CS: Oh, all right; you know everybody. So obviously the Gilders are in Tyringham, and I think that Wharton was thinking hard about Tyringham; it was one of the places that she knew. Nannina was, marvelously, doing some research, poking around, because she’s been a big supporter of this project, and she has an amazing amount to bring to it. One of the crucial big moments in the story of Summer is a homecoming celebration, Old Home Week. New England was in such a huge depression in Wharton’s time that these little towns were becoming depopulated. So the idea was to have some kind of gathering in the summer and get people to come up from the City and remember their old home. And so there was one of these events in Tyringham and the Gilders invited Mrs. Wharton to come to it, and there are photographs of the Union Church decorated for the 1902 or 1903 Old Home Week Celebration!
I met with Janet McKinstry who’s the pastor there now, and talked to her about using the church as a location—we know just where to put the bunting!
IA: That’s wonderful.
CS: That kind of thing is really sort of exciting.
IA: I have a couple other questions relating to the topic of historical films that you touched on a little bit. I want to make sure I understand about period film. It looks from the trailers and the stills that you’re really doing your research, you’re really setting it period, but are you saying that Americans don’t make period films as much as the British do?
CS: Look at the things at the multiplex. It’s raunchy comedies and action films. Those are the things that make money. Hundreds of millions of dollars are expended on making these things.
To make a movie like this, which is period, scares producers, because they’re more expensive. And it scares the art department and production design and so forth. Then, too, it’s a drama but these characters lived a hundred years ago, and who does that speak to? Of necessity, even if something like that completely hits all its marks and is a terrific box office success, it’s not going to make millions and millions of dollars. This project is going to be modest.
Part of the reason that I’m thinking that I would direct this—beyond my own chutzpah and feeling brilliant!—is that it’s a way to afford to do it. I’m just another hired gun. Since I’m writing the screen play, I didn’t feel like there was much point in hiring someone to argue with.
So that’s where I’m coming from, and I feel like I’ve been working in production for a couple of decades now by the standards of an old gray-haired dinosaur and I feel like I have a lot of experience in terms of how to put the project together. There are certainly things I haven’t done before that I’m going to be trying on, so, why not?
IA: That sounds brave and fantastic.
CS: Well, we’ll see. I still do need someone to come along and feel that way too! But there’s some definite encouragement from that side. It’s a little premature to talk about, no promises yet, but there’s some definite possibilities!
IA: Well, I do want to go back and talk about some of your other achievements, but I have one more question on Summer first. In spite of the fact that these period dramas don’t make the big money, they do seem to be still extremely appealing and extremely popular.
CS: Well, there’s an audience for that.
IA: We never get tired of them.
CS: It’s totally overlooked, well, not totally, but it’s underserved. It goes back even to a very old argument, which is like 100 years old, about American literature vs. English literature. Wharton was still of a generation when to be a serious writer in the English language, she and James and others all ended up being expatriates. Even Fitzgerald and Hemingway went off to Europe to be in the more “real world.” That is of course completely exploded now. But the fact of the matter is that in England you still have a population that is literate, reads books, and cares about literature in a way that only a fraction of American society does.
But I don’t want to say its just a literary project. It’s about love and lust and romance and beauty and nature and life and death and cute young people! And a lot of things that are valid even without a literary pedigree.
IA: That’s right. And there seems to be something about these films made from novels by Austen and the Bröntes and Wharton that has a timeless appeal. Something about well-dressed, beautiful people in a world of etiquette and about these powerful, in-control women in a beautiful world; something about those kinds of films that continue to appeal to us.
CS: Well, there’s a really interesting discussion, this goes back to stuff that I was doing in college: I was really fortunate to have as my thesis adviser Stanley Cavell, who is a great film critic and philosopher, and he’s written about films of the 1930s as political documents. About women’s rights, about social contracts, about political realities, about revolutions…. He has incredible things to say about It Happened One Night or The Philadelphia Story that go way beyond what people generally get out of watching them. Cavell points this stuff out and digs deep into literature and it makes you alive to the possibility of what these stories mean.
Summer is a story about young Americans and about America coming into the first World War and stepping onto the international stage. Of course, it’s also a story about a very disadvantaged, traumatized young girl who ends up getting jilted in a sad, hideous way and ending up compromising in an almost abusive, older sort of father-figure. It’s like Woody Allen and Soon-Yi. That’s a toxic, difficult kind of compromise to be in, and yet, it’s not a tragedy. I get a lot of different reactions from people who have read the book and the most surprising one to me was from some readers who came away from it feeling that it had a happy ending, which it doesn’t: the ending is ambiguous, but it’s not a tragedy. It’s a compromise. Wharton writes these novels again and again—typically a classical tragedy ends in death. Wharton’s tragedies end in marriage. They are tragedies that end with weddings. It’s a double-edged sword and it has a lot to say about how the world has changed but is still a part of our social roles and constructs.
IA: Do you have a timeline for when this film might be released?
CS: It’s seasonal, it’s really seasonal, this thing. It’s complicated because a lot of the season is actually not summer, there’s a good chunk of winter in it and spring and fall. It’s all about cycles, it’s all about circularity. But obviously summer is the most important part. If I’m lucky, if my stars align correctly and my producers are forthcoming, we could definitely be shooting by August. If that doesn't happen this year, then it’s going to be something that gets pushed until at least this time next year. I guess three years is pretty speedy for moving one of these projects along. I’ve worked on many things that came together incredibly fast. You just need someone with a million dollars to say “Go!” And that’s—I think everything will happen rather quickly. Meanwhile, I’m sticking with my day job.
IA: Why don’t we shift gears a little bit and talk about some of your past projects, some of your work as art director. You have a pretty impressive résumé. But before we talk about specific movies, can you just tell us exactly what the art director does?
CS: It’s a funny title. In the old days, the art director was responsible for everything about the “look” of a movie that wasn’t the actors. William Cameron Menzies did such an amazing job on Gone with the Wind that he invented himself a grander title: Production Designer. So now there’s a hierarchy of Production Designer and Art Director. The Art Director has become the dogsbody who deals with the budget and all the technicalities and the hiring and the firing and scheduling, while the Designer gets to talk to the director and choose what color it is. I’ve done a lot of art directing with some wonderful designers and those have been really tremendous experiences.
Right now, I’m working on a Wes Anderson project called “Moonrise Kingdom,” and my title is Assistant Art Director, which means that I’m constantly drawing, sketching, drafting up scenery, and the fact of the matter is that while I have no responsibility in terms of the overall artistic aspect of the film—if you’re holding the pencil, you have more input than a lot of people who might have higher titles!
So I’ve had kind of two careers. I’ve had one in movies: art directing and set designing, and the other is really being the designer. It’s all the same thing. I’ve designed a bunch of relatively low budget movies, some more interesting than others: some completely silly and some totally desperate! I’ve worked as an art director and set designer on some immense, big again overplayed or silly Hollywood movies! It’s been a nice way to find out about the whole spectrum.
Note: Here is a list of films on which Carl has worked as Art Director or Assistant Art Director:
Another Harvest Moon
Satie and Suzanne
State and Main
The Age of Innocence
The Love Letter
The Pleasure of Your Company
The Royal Tenenbaums
IA: For some of those big-name blockbuster movies: which of them did you enjoy the most? Which of your projects are you really proud of, or were really fun experiences?
CS: Just by association, I was really proud to be the Art Director on The Royal Tenenbaums. And although it was a hellacious job, I think we did fairly well with it.
production shot from "The Royal Tenenbaums"
With Wes Anderson’s movies, he’s really the designer. Anyone who’s designing for Wes is doing whatever they can to give Wes exactly what he wants; and he knows what he wants and he has a very specific and particular eye and a really incredible graphic ability, idiosyncratic sense of humor, original style that is his. It’s a treat to be of service to that. Different designers, different people interpreting that, helping that.
My first job in the big movie business was as Art Director on Age of Innocence. That was a crazy, wonderful project! There was a big New York roll out with Martin Scorsese, who is a total visionary and has amazing ideas, and Dante Ferretti, who I don’t know how many times he’s won the Oscar!
I worked on Amistad with Steven Spielberg. Sometimes it’s just amazing to be in the same room with these icons and see what works and what doesn’t and what happens because of careful planning and what happens on the fly. You’d be surprised, sometimes!
I’ve been really lucky to have gotten some of the breaks that I’ve gotten and not being in L.A., working in the east Coast, not even really living in New York—I’ve been really lucky to get some wonderful projects over the years.
One thing is that while I did go to grad school briefly and took some wonderful classes that were in set design independently in the City after I graduated from college, there isn’t a school that you can attend to become a film designer. There’s theater design in college and grad school tends to be focused more towards theater and opera and maybe ballet. But the reality of making a movie and what the requirements for that are is such a peculiar self-invented animal that you really end up learning by doing. I’m sure there are programs now where you can go and study this stuff, but I learned by doing in some tricky situations. Learning on the job can be a very stressful experience for all involved! But now I have done it, and I feel like what’s good about this kind of work is that you’re always learning. There are things I have learned in the last couple of years. There are things I’m learning on this job right now. That’s great. How many kinds of paying jobs can you say that about?
IA: Now, you have also done the design for theater productions and operas and ballet as well?
CS: A little bit. A little bit. Not as much as I’d like. It’s all about networks and who you know. I’ve been very lucky in terms of plugging in with the film world—that was intentional; I really chased after it like crazy, and like I said, I was lucky enough to have people give me breaks whether I deserved them or not. But now I’m sort of in, and I’m on people’s lists, and the lists tend to be short, so if your name is on the list, people call you up!
Note: here is a list of the stage productions for which Carl has done design work:
A Christmas Carol
Antony and Cleopatra
Hansel and Gretel
Mrs. Warrens Profession
Night of the Iguana
Retreat from Moscow
The Grass is Greener
The Ladies Man
IA: Well, your work is beautiful. I haven’t seen every film you’ve worked on, but I’ve also been looking at some of the stills online, and I know you said you’re not really responsible for the “look,” but each of these has a very distinctive look, whether it’s historical or a distinctive color palette. I really appreciated that.
CS: Well, thank you. What’s great about this sort of work, designing in theater and film, is that you’re in the service of something bigger than yourself: the script, the community of people who are putting on the show, the director, the audience—you’re trying to find a way to do your piece of that job as well as you can.
My wife is a painter, and I have such respect for her ability to go into her studio, all by herself, take a blank piece of canvas, and with all the infinite possibilities, to come out with something that is hers. I’m not saying I can’t do that, but I don’t do that. To take an interesting project and figure out what it’s about and why it’s worth doing and what would make it great is why I’ve been working.
IA: That’s a great lead-in to what I wanted to ask next. When you work on a play or a show that’s really popular and has been produced many times, such as A Christmas Carol, Glass Menagerie, The Nutcracker, and so forth, when you design for that, do you go for a classic look, or do you try to find some new twist?
CS: Well, I think I am probably a little bit more of a classicist, if you will, because I feel that there’s a lot of truth in what people have done before. However, I think that’s more because I try really hard to think about these projects. I come at this whole world from a much more intellectual point of view than maybe a lot of my colleagues? A lot of them have natural gifts of visual perspectives that I can be envious of. I really feel strongly that there’s always an idea. Something like The Nutcracker, which I did as a complete labor of love for our little scrappy, marvelous local ballet company: The Nutcracker is a variety show that Tchaikovsky whipped up for some imperial entertainment and probably didn’t think about much, wrote this incredible score for, and it’s become this war horse. But The Nutcracker is about something; there’s a reason people go to see that. I’ve thought long and hard about what it’s about. There are elements of a girl’s coming-of-age story, there’s a few politics thrown in, there’s things that are just joyful moments of color and texture and so forth. Telling a coherent story, having an idea, I think makes a huge difference in terms of an audience’s experience of any kind of show, and also in terms of the validity of working on something. Certainly the projects I respect always have some kind of idea, some kind of angle, some kind of “take” on their material. That’s absent a lot in big-time movie making. A great deal of work gets done because you need the hospital, you need the civil war, you need the teenage girl’s bedroom—just ticking things off the list without thinking about the Why. I wouldn’t go into the theater with $500 without an idea of what the scenery and the show was about. And people spend millions on movie sets and television shows without doing anything other than automatically recreating something or saying “Oh, that looks pretty,” and that is the extent of it.
IA: So you think there’s a lack of an intellectual underpinning or of a thoughtful rationale for what’s happening in movies?
CS: Oh, yes, yes, absolutely. It’s always traditional. When people break away from that, they create something memorable. That usually comes from a director, but sometimes it can come from the people who do what I do. The design never saved a bad project, but it can make it less painful. And a good project that has a wonderful design will mean something that’s worth doing.
IA: Who are some of the more important directors working right now who have a holistic vision, and what are they doing that really sets they above the general money-making crowd?
CS: The hot and interesting directors each have their own personality cults involving their rules and stuff that works and doesn’t work. I’m kind of too close to it. I talked about Wes Anderson, obviously, he’s a very generous kind of guy.
The little glimpse I got of David Fincher when I was working on The Social Network was interesting.
Spielberg, I tell you, his process was like total muddy chaos. He has scattered locations, he kind of helicoptered into this elaborate period film in the actual moments of the day of—I couldn’t believe what was going on. And yet the camera gets trained on the scene and suddenly it’s coming together, and as if by magic, it’s like, Oh, it’s a Spielberg picture! Incredibly clear and illustrative.
There are reason why these people are called, for instance, Spielberg is called Rockwell. Because he has this power of illustrating and of conveying emotion in a very clear, staged, formal, illustrational way. You can take exception to that; there’s wonderful film work that breaks away from the very designed and controlled and illustrative technique. In college our whole emphasis was on a documentary style. It was a great education in the value of the found moment and the reality, the truth of that. It’s quite different from a lot of these elaborate, fictional constructs that I end up getting involved in.
With Summer, I’m hoping to approach that project in a way that is a little more of a documentary style, but possibly breaking away from an overly self-consciousness with formalism and visual structures. Although, frankly, I think it calls for just that. Even with Photoshop and CGI, there’s still an amazing power in photography and in live performance and in the way photography captures the feeling that it’s happening, it’s alive, it’s real. That questing after some sort of reality is one of the big motors of all of art.
IA: Very nicely said. I like that.