GUY HENDRIX DYAS
By Junsui Films | October 2011
BAFTA winning* and OSCAR nominated* production designer, Guy Hendrix Dyas chats exclusively to Junsui Films about his rise through the Hollywood ranks and gives us a fascinating insight into his work on such productions as X-Men 2, Elizabeth: The Golden Age & Inception…
Junsui Films: Let’s start with your background and your journey into production design…
Guy Hendrix Dyas: I completed my BA at the Chelsea School of Art & Design and graduated with an MA in industrial design at the Royal College of Art, London. But like many, I had a hard time getting work when I left school. So I was exceptionally fortunate to land a job with Sony in Japan designing Walkmans and Discmans. It was a massive decision to move abroad at such a young age, but I was excited by the prospect of working in Tokyo and developing my portfolio.
During my spare time I continued to make countless sketches and models as I was starting to feel creatively frustrated designing portable music devices. A friend suggested I put on a small exhibition of my works and it just so happened that at the same time there was a massive Star Wars/Indiana Jones exhibition. Someone from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) wondered into the small hall where my work was being displayed and left a card.
Around a month later, I gave them a call, flew out to LA and landed my first job in the film industry working in visual effects and art direction. It was at ILM where I really learned the craft and appreciation of telling stories through design. It was like a hands-on film school in many ways. I learned all about storyboarding, editing, photo-shopping, it was an incredible experience. This climaxed with being an Art Director on the movie Twister (1996). It’s funny as I can still recall how the production team on the film (me included) were surprised at the amount of visual effects that were added to the film (low hundreds) which compared to nowadays is a drop in the ocean.
After Twister I continued to learn the ropes and hone my skills on various other productions, such as Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic (1997) & Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001), until I worked my way up through the art department to my first production design job.
JF: Which designer(s) do you admire most and who would you say has had the biggest influence on your work?
If I had to cite one, it would have to be Sir Ken Adam. Growing up in England it was impossible not to be seduced by the sheer coolness of the Bond movies. His production design(s) on those films in the 60s and 70s are just so dynamic and effortless.
Another production of Ken’s I admire greatly is his work on Stanley Kubrick’s, Barry Lyndon (1975). A magnificent, incredibly rich and detailed period piece. It really showcases his versatility as a designer, and his work on the film is even more admirable when you consider the financial restraints the production was under.
JF: Your first production design job was on Bryan Singer’s, X-Men 2 (2003). How did the job come about and were you apprehensive about stamping your own style on such a well established series?
I’d actually worked with Bryan on the TV (pilot) remake of Battlestar Galactica before X-Men 2. I was introduced to Bryan by producers, Tom DeSanto and David Gorder and I ended up drawing pretty much the entire ‘look’ for the show. Like me, Bryan is a strong believer in respecting what has gone before and I think it was that aspect of my designs which impressed and pleased him most. Anyway, with work underway we were due to fly to Vancouver, where the show was based, when 9/11 happened. Everything came to an immediate halt and soon after the show was sadly shut down. Of course, it was eventually resurrected with a completely new team, though they still used some of my original designs including a half built Viper plane.
Around a week after Battlestar’s collapse, Bryan asked if I wanted to join him on X-Men 2. With his backing and support, I secured my first production design assignment.
I’d gotten to know Bryan quite well whilst working with him on his Battlestar attempt so that helped make me feel at ease with him on X-Men 2. He’s got such an infectious personality and impeccable taste in movies – we both consider Jaws our favourite film of all time – so in terms of putting my own stamp on the series, I was very comfortable and fortunate because Bryan had such a focused understanding and vision of the world and these characters. It was a thrilling project to be a part of.
JF: Following X-Men 2, you worked on, The Brothers Grimm (2005). What were your experiences working alongside Terry Gilliam?
Very special. Working with Terry Gilliam was a dream come true for me. I’ve been in awe of him since my college days so it was amazing to meet him and show him my work.
It all came about through X-Men 2. Terry was impressed by how closely my drawings resembled the finished sets in the film. I also think, Terry being the sweet man that he is, could see what a career boost working on The Brothers Grimm would be for me.
The actual production took place in Prague, with a mostly foreign team and it was a fascinating experience. Obviously with Terry being such a keen illustrator himself, I can remember him being genuinely excited about seeing what I’d come up with in my sketches. He always wanted them to be as big as possible! I must have completed upwards of 400 drawings. Despite the well documented difficulties the production endured, it was a wonderful time for me.
JF: Tell us a little bit about the creative process you go through when you decide to take on a project?
I tend to speed read scripts when I first receive them as I’m so eager to start drawing. I keep a black pad beside me and usually end up sketching out the entire film on my first read through. I always keep hold of these pads as it’s something I like to look back over to see how closely my initial designs matched those in the final film.
Once I commit to a project I’ll read the script several times to really absorb all the details. Then it depends on what sort of film it is. If it’s a period piece like Agora for example, I usually enlist the help of my wife and researcher/art director, Dominique Arcadio, who’s incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to art and history. Together she and I will then research everything we can about the subject matter.
Then I have to get down to the fundamentals and analyse the budget to see what can and can’t be achieved before my creative instinct takes over. Again, during the entire process I’m constantly adding to my black pad – storyboards, bar charts. They become my visual diaries.
I know when I agree to take on a project, I’ll be committing a year of my life to it and therefore I’m very selective about what I work on. I’ve been lucky in that on the strength of my previous films I’ve never had to really ‘look’ for work and I’ve managed to land some truly amazing projects.
JF: You re-teamed with Bryan Singer for Superman Returns (2006). Tell us about your experience on the film.
One of the big misconceptions about Superman Returns was the budget. When Bryan agreed to take on the film, he inherited a lot of debt right from the off. Over the years so many directors have had a go at Superman. Bryan’s production had to absorb that debt, which was upwards of sixty million dollars, so the production wasn’t as expensive as many speculated.
The film was shot in Sydney, Australia, which was a challenge as we didn’t have the natural double of New York City for Metropolis that the Donner films had. But just like we did with our Battlestar attempt, we wanted to respect what had gone before.
Bryan also believed that just because Superman is based on a comic it doesn’t mean the world shouldn’t look real. We went through the original 30’s comics which were littered with some fabulous art deco designs of the era and attempted to blend that element with a contemporary feel to create a fresh take on the story.
For a building like the Daily Planet, for example, the exterior it’s almost art deco in its design, but we balanced the interior with modern elements like plasma screens.
It was also great to work with Bryan again who had grown so much as a director. He had such a clear vision for Superman, and his goal with Returns was to set-up the characters and establish the world before making Man of Steel which would have been his big, action epic. It’s a shame it never came to be, but I had a great time working on Superman Returns and it’s a project I take a lot of pride in.
JF: Let’s talk about your work on Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) and Agora (2009). What are the main challenges when designing for a period piece?
When we set out to make Agora, Alejandro (Amenábar) summed it up perfectly when he said there wasn’t a difference between a period and a science-fiction film. The challenges are essentially the same, in that the design mustn’t be distracting, just like in a contemporary film, the production has to look and feel natural to the story.
One of the major challenges when working on a sequel, like Elizabeth: The Golden Age, is that often while the cast, narrative and expectations all swell, the budget remains the same. So the initial challenge with this film was how to take that stark, cold world, set-up so wonderfully in the first film by John Myhr and bring it into the era of the English Renaissance. It was a tough task and we really had to make our locations work during the shoot.
Another challenge when analysing the script for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, was how to portray the potentially visually flat scenes in the chamber where Elizabeth and cast would be huddled around maps studying the advance of the Spanish Armada. Remembering Shekhar Kapur’s love for the ‘top shot’ I designed and built a replica, period correct ‘tiled floor map’ before transitioning to that wonderful shot of the ships. It became a real script solver.
JF: You’ve worked with everyone from Christopher Nolan to Alejandro Amenábar to Steven Spielberg. Describe the relationship between production designer and director?
No matter what the genre the production designer’s task is to create a background that serves the narrative and the characters. I’ve been extremely lucky to work with such brilliant directors (Spielberg in particular) who all seem to possess an amazing ability to communicate their visual ideas onto the screen. I essentially become their right hand man, trying to design what I think they see in their heads.
I often find that when I bring them my initial design plan they’ll instantly improve it. I’ve been fortunate in that every director I’ve worked with has the ability to draw and express their ideas. Spielberg, for example, is an expert storyboarder. I also remember visiting Christopher Nolan’s famous garage workshop where he showed me his design of the silver case used by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Inception. Honestly, it was so beautiful it was intimidating. While Alejandro (Amenábar) owns a massive library of films, and we would just watch countless movies at his house, analysing and discussing all kinds of shots, styles and designs.
Of course, there are times when due to the director’s workload I take the lead and fill in the gaps so to speak, but the bits of information they feed me allows me to go off and design their desired world.
JF: Let’s move onto Inception (2010). Where did you draw your inspirations from and how did you find the challenge of balancing the design between the real and dream world(s)?
For about a month before work begun on Inception, I’d visit Chris’ house and we’d spend the day in his work garage going over all aspects of the film. Chris had been working on the script for about twelve years at this point so he had a pretty firm vision of the various worlds in his mind. But he was always open to ideas and suggestions.
One of the things Chris was insistent on was making the worlds seem as real as possible. Of course a key device of the narrative is the use of deception through dream, so it makes perfect sense that the dream worlds should feel familiar.
Chris didn’t want to rely too much on CGI and wanted the audience to be unsure about whether the various levels of the dreams were real or unreal environments. So despite the obvious scope of the production he was very traditional in his filmmaking approach.
It was about taking the script’s most elaborate sequences and stripping them right down to their essence. For a long time we studied classic films to analyse how they dealt with the challenges they faced in their eras; like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) which we watched to see how they pulled off the gravity trickery.
This approach allowed us to go right back to the very roots of architecture. We worked off the idea that these characters would be adding layers and details to their dream worlds as architecture evolved over the decades, so it was fascinating blending an electric mix of styles and construction. Another aspect of the design was the notion that dreams are infinite, which of course means they have infinite potential. This was something we weaved into the design fabric of the dream worlds, where buildings would sometimes stretch back endlessly like a computer screensaver.
Of course, there are the obvious influences such as M.C. Escher but this was always balanced with the idea of keeping the worlds grounded – take the design of the limbo world which was heavily inspired by the city of Chernobyl.
Inception was also a script that never changed from day one. So the goal posts were never moved. It allowed me and the design team to really focus and achieve Chris’ vision for the film.
JF: You’ve been involved in some of cinema’s most visually striking movies. Is there any production that is a personal favourite?
King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (1949) is one of my favourite films from a design perspective. I just think it’s wonderfully imaginative and still holds up exceptionally well even to this day.
From a personal standpoint, I hate to opt for the easy answer here but the truth is I really don’t have a favourite. I’ve been lucky in that every film I’ve worked on has been a unique, wonderful experience and a true joy to be a part of.
JF: Any future plans you can tell us about?
I’m currently working on Steven Spielberg’s Robopocalypse which is an adaptation of Daniel H. Wilson’s novel. Drew Goddadrd (Cloverfield) has written a terrific script and Steven is bringing it to life in ways only he could. Audiences are gonna be blown away.
* BAFTA Award for Best Production Design – Inception (2010)
* Nominated: Academy Award®™ for Best Art Direction - Inception (2010)