By Junsui Films | February 2012
Production Designer, Laurence Bennett talks exclusively to Junsui Films about his break in the industry, his creative partnership with long time collaborator Paul Haggis and tells us all about his work on THE ARTIST…
Junsui Films: Let’s begin with your design history and your journey into production design.
Laurence Bennett: I drew and painted from a young age, then worked in a small design office after high school. There I learned the basics: developing studies, space planning, draughting, presentation – lots of tools that have remained the foundation of my approach to design.
I studied art at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Waseda University, Tokyo, and moved to Ireland for ten years when I was twenty one or so. There, I had a design partnership that did architectural design, interiors, and graphics. Later, becoming a lecturer at the National College of Art and Design, I continued to exhibit my work and worked in fringe theatre. That was my introduction to the power of collaborative art forms, and that introduction continued when I went to LA one summer to work with friends doing miniatures on Cosmos, the Carl Sagan series on PBS.
Returning to LA in the early 80s, I made custom props and painted scenery for a short while before beginning to assist an art director in commercials. I began art directing myself shortly thereafter.
In commercials I learned a tremendous amount from the great DPs I had the chance to work with. Many years of television followed, and it was through Paul Haggis, with whom I’d done a couple of television shows, that I began working largely in features.
JF: Are there any particular designers who have influenced and inspired your work?
Henry Bumstead, Hans Dreier, Dean Tavoularis, Richard Sylbert, Tambi Larsen, Terence Marsh come to mind among many others.
JF: Tell us about your creative process once you commit to a project, starting from when you first receive a script.
When I read a script I watch the story. The movie I see in my mind is often fairly developed, though it could never be close to what we eventually make. With the contributions of so many collaborators, there’s usually a strong thread of visuals that forms the basis of my design approach to the project.
Working with the director, I get a sense of how I might help support and advance the story. The story is central to everything. As I scout locations, begin preliminary design of the sets and work with the set decorator, prop-master and my entire art department, I get a stronger sense of just what the core visual elements and themes are that will shape the body of our work.
JF: As well as film you’ve also completed production work on various television shows, including Grey’s Anatomy. What are the main differences between the two from a design standpoint?
For me, it’s all storytelling, all filmmaking. Just a difference of schedule, budget, and sometimes scale.
JF: You’re a frequent collaborator with Oscar winning filmmaker, Paul Haggis. Tell us a little bit about how that creative relationship came about and why you think you work so well together.
As I said, we did TV together – starting with Ez Streets back in ’96 or so. Our collaboration has continued and strengthened now through many projects, some of which we’ve yet to complete. I think we share some significant philosophical and aesthetic perspectives that just make it easy and pleasurable for us to work together.
JF: Let’s talk The Artist. How did you come to be involved in the project?
Line producer Richard Middleton brought me in (among some other designers) to meet Michel Hazanavicius to discuss the project. Michel and I seemed to be in sync on the way in which the art direction needed to create a living, believable world for the story. The next day we were location scouting together.
JF: How challenging was it designing a period film that was not only black and white but predominantly silent?
It was a wonderful opportunity to make a film that returned to a much purer visual storytelling style. Together Michel, Guilllaume (Schiffman, the DP) and members of my department and I watched a large number of movies of the period, mid 20s to early 30s: Murnau, Vidor, Von Sternberg, Lang, etc. From these we patterned our approaches to framing, composition, coverage, and I drew specific guidance in approaching design of the sets.
For any design project, it’s essential to have constraints to guide your thinking. Limitation to black and white is one of the most specific and meaningful constraints I can think of. Lacking colour for separation (say, of figure and ground), one comes to rely more heavily on tonal contrasts, pattern, texture, and lustre.
JF: The Artist has been likened to the films of Murnau and Lang. How do you feel the production compares to the classics of the 20s?
Great question. I don’t honestly know that I’m qualified to speak about that. I’d just say that sharing the picture with an audience, sitting in the dark and feeling their emotional responses to the story, I think we succeeded in telling a simple story very effectively. I would hope that it surprises people and perhaps inspires them to experience some of the great movies of the silent era.
JF: Is there any production throughout your career that is a personal favourite?
I can’t pick out just one favourite. There are a handful of projects that are special in quite different ways. Crash, I think, was a breakout picture for Paul and I, but In The Valley of Elah is special because it tells such difficult truths. Traitor was a wonderful experience for the contrasts in all the places we shot, and the variety of textures and moods that that yielded. I’m very proud of the film. And obviously The Artist was a singularly special experience.
JF: And finally, what can you tell us about the upcoming Robert Redford film, The Company You Keep?
Robert [Redford,] who starred and directed, plays a former Weather Underground radical who’s been living under an assumed identity for 30 years. When exposure is threatened by an ambitious young reporter (Shia LaBeouf), he goes on the run. It also stars Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Chris Cooper, Susan Sarandon, Anna Kendrick, Terence Howard, Sam Elliot and Nick Nolte. It’s an exciting project and will hopefully be released later this year.
©All illustrations/images are the properties of Laurence Bennett or their respective copyright holders where stated and displayed here with the artists permission.