As production designer on 13 of Francis Ford Coppola’s feature films, Dean Tavoularis has created cinematic environments of such varied styles, under so many different conditions, that any three other designers might be proud to share his portfolio between them.
Though often less lauded than the cinematographer or editor of a successful film, the production designer’s contribution is no less essential. A character’s interior life can be revealed by the look of his environment. A film’s overall themes are enhanced by the texture of the space its characters inhabit. The reality of any scene can be heightened or diminished by the look of a film’s sets and locations.
“I met Dean Tavoularis for the purpose of finding a production designer for ‘The Godfather,’ ” Coppola recalls. “I had been impressed by his work on ‘Little Big Man’ and ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ I thought they had such a cinematic feel.”
Arthur Penn, director of both films, remembers his impression of the then-new production designer (Tavoularis holds the credit “art director” on ‘Bonnie and Clyde’). “We made ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ on a minuscule budget,” Penn says. “It was barely more than a couple of million dollars. But Dean Tavoularis and Theadora Van Runkle, who designed the costumes, created a whole era.”
On ‘Little Big Man,’ Penn recalls being pleasantly surprised when Tavoularis, having been given a relatively simple task, far surpassed the director’s expectations. “We went looking for spaces on the lot at MGM where we could shoot,” Penn says. “When we found a particular area that would work for a scene, I said to Dean, ‘I wish there was something going on over there in the background.’ I wasn’t very specific about what I wanted.
“I came back a couple of days later,” Penn continues, “and he had created this entire railroad terminus where buffalo skins were being transported. There were these railroad tracks and this whole market of buffalo skins. Of course, the wholesale slaughter of the American buffalo was a very important part of what was going on in that period of history.”
What had started as something to liven up the frame, Penn explains, had added to the thematic impact of the entire film. “A film set is a great bouillabaisse of people and taste,” Gordon Willis, cinematographer on the “Godfather” films, observes. “I felt very early on when we worked together on ‘The Godfather’ that Dean Tavoularis had a great touch and wonderful taste. He was a very valuable contributor who was hanging these great canvasses for me to shoot. Much of his work was even more prominent in part two.”
“Like all great collaborations,” Coppola continues, recalling the professional relationship that had begun on “The Godfather,” “I began to depend on Dean. This grew into a natural and wordless collaboration, which provided so much comfort to me and added to the style of the films we worked on together.”
After the epic scale of ‘The Godfather,’ Coppola went much smaller in scope for “The Conversation” — a psychological portrait of the disintegration of surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman). This contemporary piece was shot in real apartments and industrial locations in San Francisco and called for a naturalistic, understated approach.
Though Tavoularis’ contribution to the project is arguably less obvious than for the “Godfather” films or the feverish, blood-stained hell-on-earth he would later spend most of the second half of the ’70s realizing for “Apocalypse Now,” his involvement was no less integral. “His genius on that film was to do it real and not make it look like a phony ‘artistic’ interpretation,” explains “Conversation” cinematographer Bill Butler. “Nothing was ever overdone or underdone.”
Tavoularis created in Caul’s home (shot in a real San Francisco apartment) an ambiance Butler still remembers. “When people live somewhere alone,” Butler observes, “they put stuff in piles that just grow organically. Dean has this fantastic ability to place things so it really looked like that had happened. I’ve never seen anybody else do that with such skill.” Butler took note of the apartment’s lived-in feeling during the shoot. “I very often don’t have time to pay attention to the little details,” he says. “I have to concentrate on what I’m doing and how I’m going to shoot the set. But I noticed the little things he did on that film. Harry’s apartment, his workspace, they really felt like someone had spent a lot of time in them.”
Butler notes that during the shooting of “The Conversation,” Tavoularis was presented with a problem he solved with a simple, yet elaborate solution. In Harry’s workspace, there was a large window that looked out onto a very distinctive San Francisco hillside and a far-off street scene. The window and street scene appeared clearly in several scenes that took place during the day.
Nighttime scenes at that location required that the window be covered up, but Coppola still needed to shoot toward the window. Tavoularis’ solution: “He had a box made to cover the window,” Butler says. “It was about 8 feet by 8 feet, and in the depth of this box he built a miniature of that same hillside and street scene as it would appear at night. You would never notice it if you were watching the film, but it was really quite extraordinary.”
Tavoularis’ creations continue to impress Coppola. Tavoularis has worked on virtually all of Coppola’s films of the ’80s and ’90s. Many other directors, including Philip Kaufman, William Friedkin and Warren Beatty, have also made use of the Tavoularis touch when the production designer has been between Coppola projects. It’s likely they share Penn’s opinion of Tavoularis: “There is so much invention in that man, it’s just incredible.”