Henry Bumstead hasn’t worked on every movie and with every major director in the past seven decades. It only seems that way if you look at his resume, which is among the most impressive in Hollywood.
Andrew Horton, a professor of film studies at the U. of Oklahoma, has compiled a movie-by-movie assessment of production designer Bumstead’s work, complete with Q&A, that’s focused on nuts and bolts.
Bumstead is a unique figure, Horton says, because he is one of the few survivors of Hollywood’s studio system who thrived under the old skill of set design as well as the new one of scouting locations. The p.d. also blended every genre and teamed with about every big-name director around. And, oh, yes, he won Oscars for production design on “To Kill a Mockingbird” (which was all on a Universal set) and “The Sting” (sets combined with locations).
The key to Bumstead’s success is clear enough: a shared vision with the director and obsession with details. This book helps show the contribution production design can make to the backstory. Good directors aim tell stories economically, and successful production design does this without drawing attention to itself. This included, for example, constructing streets from east to west for better lighting in Westerns.
He’s eminently practical, no abstract theorist: He stresses sets “that look like the characters that live in them” and sees the ability to “age” sets as one of the lost skills in modern films.
Bumstead’s familiar with the low-budget side of the film biz and has coped with rush jobs. Most of the nine films he did with Clint Eastwood were done quickly, and he oversaw the building of the entire town in “High Plains Drifter” in 28 days. In “Slap Shot,” locations changed because of the availability of hockey players.
The only fault with the book is that the author slips into Filmmaking 201, but most won’t mind this — even most Hollywood vets figure they might learn something from someone with 65 years credits in films.
One of the most attractive features of this book is the collection of Bumstead drawings, which are good enough to be hung in a museum as standalone art.