Dennis Gassner’s production design work has enriched films ranging from “The Truman Show” and the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou” to Tim Burton’s “Big Fish” — and more recently the Bond movies “Skyfall” and “Spectre” — with a compelling visual style that has earned him an honor at Camerimage for his unique visual sensitivity. The former architecture student and one-time lumberjack cites “Lawrence of Arabia” as a major influence, along with early work with Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope shingle.
What can you talk about the world you’ve created for the “Blade Runner 2049” reboot, which you’re shooting with Denis Villeneuve in Hungary? The seminal 1982 sci-fi original had a distinct sort of ‘80s sense of the future that now seems a bit retro.
The darkness is the reality of “Blade Runner.” It’s like anything — you carry on the message. “Star Wars” does the same thing, the Bond films do the same thing. I’ve been doing that for a while. You’re just kind of keeping the interest alive — for the people who obviously are fans of it and then for the new people you try to do something new and exciting.
You often seem to end up in the 1930s with work such as “Road to Perdition” or “O Brother, Where Art Thou” or even “Into the Woods,” but always with a distinctive feel.
That’s been a fascination of mine. My mentor, Dean Tavoularis, was Francis Coppola’s designer and I assisted him for five years. It was a pretty intense learning situation being involved with all those guys. Period is a challenging thing to do and I like challenges, and that’s what seemed to kind of come to me, interestingly enough.
How does a designer manage a new look for a location that’s been done a hundred times or a popular era in time?
If it’s working, you just kind of keep going, try to find things that are going to be interesting for the audience — that’s ultimately what we do. We reflect on all of that. I’m lucky enough to have had quite a bit of that.
With some directors, such as the Coen brothers, there’s such a distinct visual style. What was your process in working with them on, say, “Barton Fink” or “The Hudsucker Proxy”?
You’re dedicated to the time period, so you do your research. For me it’s always about the emotional fibers that kind of connect everything in the story. The primary thing is story, and then out of story you apply all the knowledge you gain through the research and through your own history. A lot of that had to do with coming from Zoetrope, which was an amazing place to hang out for five years.
What were some critical formative lessons from Zoetrope that you’ve been able to use in your career?
Well, you explore things until it feels right. The great analogy is making soup — when the soup tastes good, it’s right to eat. You can eat a bad soup and say, ‘that’s not very satisfying.’ Lots of analogies — cooking, music, and all of this happens to be distilled into a film in some way. Every aspect of it. We’re dealing with a lot of moving parts — they all have to align. You don’t stop until it’s right.
With your level of air miles, scouting locations all over for Bond and other projects, how do you actually stay in shape? Do you actually cook?
I do everything. If you don’t cook, you don’t eat. You know, controlling your life gives you a healthy and long life. And the business is a very strong and demanding business. I’ve been a yogi for 25 years and, you know, I guess you are what you eat in some way, and you are what you do. Your environment and lifestyle will be an important part of your work.
Do you find the Bond films and that level of project almost harder to do? Many filmmakers decry big-budget productions with armies of crews.
You know, it’s all the same, from a small film to a big film. Sometimes it’s just more management, more people. But films grow as they need to. To me it’s about what’s the best way to tell the story. If I need two people to help me do that or 20 or a hundred or a thousand, that’s a decision that ultimately isn’t mine. It’s a decision about how we want to make the film. The paramount thing is getting the visuals right to the story.
How do you handle the marathon days and nights on location and on set, overseeing the incredible level of detail you’re known for?
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have things come to me that are fun to work on — they’re hard work but I like to work hard. I’ll work harder than anybody to get it right. It’s just my work ethic.
So a useful lesson from your youthful days as a lumberjack in Oregon, it seems — you’re still out there swinging.
I’ve been blessed with a lot of good energy in my body. It’s been great. You use the tools you have. Whatever’s been given to you — if you’re not using it to its potential, that’s a sad day.