Robert Boyle aimed for a higher truth

Art director's movie creations built 'for the dream'

Two years shy of his 100th birthday, celebrated production designer Robert Boyle has witnessed Hollywood advance (or recede, depending on your point of view) from its Golden Age to its current state as a hodgepodge of facilities for hire, with Byzantine bureaucracies and labyrinthine corporate interests.

But in the good old days, moviemaking was remarkably streamlined, with the studios not only functioning as one-stop shops with their own art, music, prop and costume departments, but doubling as training academies for filmmakers.

“All of these places were complete cities unto themselves,” recalls Boyle, who will be receiving an honorary Oscar during the Academy Awards on Sunday. “They could operate very efficiently. Then (the studios) became more and more owned by big corporations, and the (assignments) became movie by movie. That wasn’t good for the workers, because there was no training.”

Boyle, whose credits include “North by Northwest,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “In Cold Blood” and “The Thomas Crown Affair,” studied architecture at USC, where the studios tilled fertile ground among the university’s architecture and fine arts alumni to cultivate such legendary production designers as Boris Leven, Henry Bumstead and Richard Sylbert — all of whom Boyle has outlived.

“In those days, I had been taught at Paramount to do a little bit of everything,” adds Boyle. “Under (supervising art director) Hans Dreier, we used to sketch, do the working drawings — and then we would follow up with working on the sets.”

After his brief stint at Paramount in the mid-1930s, the siren call of bohemian life led Boyle on a journey of self-discovery.

“I realize that life is very often a series of accidents,” Boyle says. “If you’re at the right place at the right time, things work out. Anyway, I took a year off, went to Mexico, and thought I’d become a painter rather than work in the movies. That didn’t work out.”

Broke and in need of gainful employment, Boyle was coaxed by a friend to Universal, where he worked with supervising art director John Goodman. When Alfred Hitchcock made the first of his early films for the studio, “Saboteur” (1942), Boyle began a collaboration with the master of suspense that would later include “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), “North by Northwest” (1959), “The Birds” (1963) and “Marnie” (1964).

In “Saboteur” — Boyle’s second credit as associate art director and, as he describes it, “the first big movie I ever did” — a climactic scene is staged atop the Statue of Liberty. The harrowing sequence presages one of Boyle’s career highlights: Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint’s life-or-death struggle with their pursuers on the face of Mount Rushmore at the end of “North by Northwest.”

Both sequences were achieved with a combination of actual locations, stage constructions, rear projection and matte paintings.

“The climb down the faces (of Mount Rushmore) was all on an MGM soundstage with a rear projection of still shots,” explains Boyle. “The Dept. of the Interior was very nervous that Hitchcock would make fun of the statue, so they didn’t give us permission to photograph there. But they finally agreed to still photographs.

“It just so happened that Gutzon Borglum, who was the sculptor, had these Bolson chairs which would go down each head for cleaning and sculpture. We used the Bolson chairs to lower every 10 feet on each head, photographing in all directions, so we had complete coverage.”

Boyle prefers rear projection to the greenscreen process used these days, as he does with most hands-on methods as opposed to digital technology. “The actors and everybody else knows what’s happening because they can see it,” he says. “But with the greenscreen, it’s relegated to post-production.”

Much of Boyle’s work with Hitchcock is marked by a kind of gorgeous artificiality. For example, the painted Baltimore shipyard backdrop that illustrates Tippi Hedren’s troubled past in “Marnie” is eerily contrasted with the baronial splendor of Sean Connery’s family manor on the outskirts of Philadelphia, where the riding stables evoke a sense of architectural wonder as well as a heightened sense of privilege.

So, too, does the house where James Mason’s nefarious Phillip Vandamm and his henchmen hole up near the end of “North by Northwest.” The elegant structure, built from scratch according to Boyle’s designs, is both evocative of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and germane to advancing the plot.

“I designed it in a hotel room in New York,” Boyle recalls. “We needed a house where Cary Grant could see everything. It was a house that had no secrets: We could see into the living room, the balcony and, from the outside, you could see into (Eva Marie Saint’s) bedroom.”

Boyle says he took the layered texture of the home’s stone structure from Wright’s Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania, “because I had to have something that Cary Grant could climb up.”

As the New Hollywood replaced the old studio model beginning in the late ’60s, Boyle would begin a fruitful partnership with director Norman Jewison, with whom he collaborated on “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

For the latter film, for which he received his third of four Oscar nominations, he oversaw the construction of an entire shtetl in Yugoslavia, which doubled for turn-of-the-century Russia. It’s a time frame with which he holds a special affinity. “That was the change between the older era and the Industrial Revolution,” Boyle explains. “A lot of research was necessary, but it’s the most interesting period, I find.”

When asked about the most unusual film he’s worked on, Boyle mentions the trouble-plagued conspiracy thriller “Winter Kills” (1979), based on the novel by Richard Condon (“The Manchurian Candidate”) that has become a cult classic. The film’s first-time writer director, William Richert, managed to assemble a dream cast and crew, including cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and composer Maurice Jarre.

“It was a strange financial arrangement that I always suspected was financed through the mafia,” says Boyle. “It was a really weird film, but a very interesting one. The young man who directed it, William Richert, did a wonderful job.”

The movie — which drew controversial parallels to the JFK assassination, with Jeff Bridges as the murdered president’s younger brother and John Huston as the imperious Pa Kegan, modeled after Joe Kennedy — faced continual shutdowns when money ran short. And yet Boyle built some of his most elaborate sets in five MGM soundstages, including a futuristic information vault (referred to in the movie as the “contract silo”) that looks like something right out of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

This emphasis on created worlds versus actual locations aims for a higher truth, according to Boyle.

“I’m all for construction,” he says, “because we’re dealing with the magic of movies. And I always feel that if you build it, you build it for the dream rather than the actuality. We make up our own truth.”

A Luddite who “never really advanced into the electronic world,” Boyle values hand-on craftsmanship over the kind of fantasy realities being conjured by today’s CGI artisans.

“I can understand how a man like Hitchcock would take advantage of it,” he says, “but I don’t think it would have increased the strength of his films.

“One of the problems with electronic methods is that you can do anything. And as a result, people do everything, which means they’re doing too much.”

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