Creating Champagne looks on beer budgets

Designers sometime find clarity through small sums

Sure, it’s easy to re-create Depression-era New York on a “King Kong” budget, but what about late-’50s Kansas on an indie tab? Or the CBS newsroom in the 1950s?

Research helps, and so does knowing how you want to spend your money.

“I really had to break down the script and identify what was important,” says “Capote” production designer Jess Gonchor, who, on a slice of the film’s $7 million budget, re-created, on Canadian locations, the Kansas countryside of 1959-1965, when Truman Capote wrote and researched his book “In Cold Blood,” about the murder of the Clutter family and the subsequent trial, jailing and execution of the killers.

“In this case, the jail scenes were the most important, and the Clutter house,” where the murders took place. He used about 30% of his budget on the house, from construction to set decoration.

“I had to figure out how to execute my plan on such a small amount of money. And I had to stick to my plan,” says Gonchor. “I exhausted the locations people.”

“Sometimes a budget limitation offers clarity because it narrows your choices,” says “Capote” costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone.

James Bissell’s challenge for “Good Night, and Good Luck” was threefold: He had to combine three locations — CBS corporate offices, the newsroom and the entertainment programming studios — into one seamless space for a shoot of roughly 27 days on a $6.5 million budget.

“We couldn’t afford a lot of stage space, so we had one stage and spent time working out a lot of entrances and exits and the dynamics to keep the audience interested,” Bissell says.

Good old-fashioned set construction and visual tricks, like flywalls, which used to be the bread and butter of Hollywood movies, were employed.

“We had the elevator of the CBS building on a rotating platform. The camera would be filming the actors inside the elevator while it was rotating and we’d be dressing the hallway outside. Then they would step out into a new part of the building!

“I got the script early on from George (Clooney) and it changed very little, and that is what allows you to do these things.”

But what about the re-creation of a period that is so well-known? Helmer and co-writer (with Grant Heslov) Clooney gave his team the luxury of time: Bissell had more than a year to research the period, Edward R. Murrow and his world. “We did lots of research. We had access to the Tufts University collection, where Murrow left his stuff.”

“It all gave me time to reflect on what was relevant and put it together in a very succinct way. Plus, it all had to stand for the entire shoot.” Thus, the hallway outside William Paley’s office was also the cafeteria and CBS building lobby.

“Nothing could go to waste,” says “Capote’s” Gonchor. “The jail cells were built in a warehouse in Canada that we made into a soundstage. We found some period cars that needed a paint job, so how many do you paint and reuse?”

For the $13 million “Brokeback Mountain,” the biggest challenge production designer Judy Becker faced was the comparative shortage of aging cities in Canada. “Canada is much newer, and finding buildings that were as old as the towns in the script was hard,” she says.

Becker had to worry about everything from the way that buildings looked to whether the rocks and greenery in Canada matched the rocks in Montana, where the script was set. “We researched everything we could. We talked with people that were the same age as the characters in the film, talked with people who lived in towns like the towns in the script.

“I didn’t actually feel that I was constrained by the budget. I think that if the budget had been bigger, we would have built more sets, but the movie would not have looked as good.”

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