Seeing eye-to-eye

When visions click, helmers forge career- long collaborations

Trust can be hard to come by in Hollywood. That’s why, when directors luck into below-the-line talent they can depend on, it’s not unusual to find partnerships that last a career.

Take Martin Scorsese, who’s tapped Dante Ferretti as production designer on his last six films, or Clint Eastwood, who is collaborating on his 10th pic with production designer Henry Bumstead.

Working with the same people has its advantages.

“You can get to the business at hand instead of getting to know someone,” says cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, who has worked with helmer Lasse Hallstrom since “Cider House Rules.”

Hallstrom is just one of four veteran filmmakers — along with Steven Spielberg, Terrence Malick and David Cronenberg — in this year’s Oscars race who calls upon a trusted crew of collaborators whenever a new project comes his way.

In Spielberg’s case, “Munich” marks the sixth film he has made with production designer Rick Carter and the 10th with d.p. Janusz Kaminski, whose initial partnership on 1993’s “Schindler’s List” earned Oscars all around.

“We hooked (stylistically) in terms of work,” Kaminski says. “I had something to offer him, and he had something to offer me. It’s a very respectful relationship.”

Spielberg keeps on-set discussion with his crew to a minimum, trusting them to make the right creative decisions. He doesn’t second-guess how the lenser plans to light or shoot a scene, says Kaminski, and in return, “I don’t ask him how he’s going to direct them.”

The same goes for production designer Carter, who first worked with Spielberg 20 years ago on TV series “Amazing Stories.” Carter’s team built 112 sets for “Munich,” but Spielberg saw most of them only in photographs before he shot each one.

“He comes there fresh,” Carter says. “From there he paints, shot by shot, brushstroke by brushstroke. As he gets older, he wants to create in the moment.”

In addition to Stapleton, Hallstrom started collaborating with production designer David Gropman on “Cider House Rules.” More recently, all three teamed again on “Casanova.”

“They’ve been a part of my movie family for many years,” Hallstrom says. “They have good taste in common.”

Collaborating with the same people allows not only a relationship of trust to develop, but also a creative shorthand or rhythm. “We allow each other to step into one another’s territory,” Hallstrom says. “They know my tastes, and they work well together.” On any film, the partnership between director, production designer and d.p. depends on a very delicate balance. “For the director, it’s a little bit like having two wives,” Stapleton explains. “He works with the production designer in prep, and then ‘the superstar d.p.’ shows up, and the designer goes bye-bye.”

But there are no ego clashes in this trio. “Lasse’s a true gentleman, and I would say Oliver is a true friend,” Gropman says. “It’s been a great journey for me.”

Production designer Jack Fisk has worked with director Malick on all four of his films, despite a 20-year down period between “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.”

Fisk first heard of Malick when friends at the American Film Institute told him about a period film someone was working on. The movie turned out to be “Badlands,” and Fisk went on to marry its star, Sissy Spacek.

“I’ve been working with him ever since,” Fisk says. “Terry is so visual, as a designer it’s a pleasure to work with him.”

Between projects, Malick enjoys scouting locations he might use in future films and often invites Fisk along. According to the production designer, Malick was in love with the location for “The New World” before he even knew what the project would be.

“He was telling me how beautiful the Chickahominy River in Virginia was,” Fisk says. “The first day I went down that river, I found the location for the fort and Indian village.” Like Spielberg, Malick doesn’t want to know much about the sets beforehand. “He likes to be kind of surprised,” says Fisk, who based his 17th-century designs on meticulous research.

Another enduring collaboration is between helmer Cronenberg and production designer Carol Spier. In 1979, Cronenberg hired her to work on his drag-racing film “Fast Company.” “I still have intense visions of Carol running after this 2,000-pound beast of a car trying to stick on MACtac (adhesive tape),” the director says. “She’s such a die-hard, such a trouper. She’ll do anything.”

When Cronenberg has a new project, such as “A History of Violence,” he sends it to his inner circle, which includes Spier and d.p. Peter Suschitzky, as well as editor Ron Sanders, composer Howard Shore and costume designer Denise Cronenberg, the helmer’s sister. “One of the joys of working with people you know and respect is you’ve rubbed off all the rough edges, and the focus is on the work,” the director says.

Spier echoes his sentiment. “For me, it’s a mutual trust and respect,” she says. “If you trust the person you are working with, you have a good collaboration.”

The worst thing that could happen is if one of them is unavailable. “Carol didn’t do ‘Spider’ because she was doing ‘Blade II’ in Prague,” Cronenberg says. “It was kind of heartbreaking.”

Such was the case when Santo Loquasto, Woody Allen’s production designer on 21 films, had to turn down “Match Point” for personal reasons. Jim Clay was hired instead. “I got a call out of the blue, ‘Would you be interested in working with Woody Allen?’ and I thought, ‘Is this a wind-up?,’ ” Clay says. “There was only one answer: ‘Yes, of course.’ ”

Clay first spoke with Allen by phone; they talked about shooting in London and trying to make do without Loquasto. “I never felt like I was stepping into someone’s shoes,” Clay says. “I had a long talk with Santo, and he was very generous about what Woody liked or didn’t like.”

Loquasto gave him tips — like the fact that Allen didn’t like to work in blues and greens but responded to warm colors — that were invaluable for Clay. “I got to know him professionally a little more quickly,” he says. “It was a very satisfying collaboration.”

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