The Good, the Drab and the Ugly

Palette darkens to highlight the workaday world

Some of 2003’s most visual films came from the stingiest of palettes.

For “21 Grams,” “In America,” “American Splendor” and “Northfork” — all films that dealt with the grittier side of American life — the primary colors were definitely secondary, when they were used at all. Favored hues included brown, ochre, even pea green, as well as gray, grayer and black.

Peeling, blistered paint was big too.

The characters’ clothes sometimes looked as if they had come from thrift or vintage shops, which in many cases they had. Hair was stringy, frizzy, matted and even — in the case of Daryl Hannah’s angel Flower Hercules in “Northfork” — a wig hiding a bald head.

The production designers, art directors, costumers and makeup artists who worked on these films had a wardrobe’s worth of unusual challenges.

They had to capture the looks of locales unlikely to appear in travel posters: the Dust Bowl plains of Montana (“Northfork”), the faded, rusty precincts of ungentrified Cleveland (“American Splendor”), Manhattan’s grim, threatening Hell’s Kitchen (“In America”) and a Memphis and Albuquerque that evoked the gritty noir of a pulp novelist like Jim Thompson (“21 Grams’).

They also had to complement — rather than compete with — demanding directors who didn’t want a prop or a costume to get in the way of their story visions. And they sometimes had to work within the rigid limits of special film stock or shooting ranges the directors used to enhance feelings and moods.

In Focus Features’ “21 Grams,” for example, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu didn’t want anything to interfere with the tension crackling through every pore of his woman on the edge, played by Naomi Watts. That meant lowering the glamour on the high-wattage Aussie.

Costume designer Marlene Stewart often dressed Watts in drab, shapeless sweaters whose sleeves drooped over her hands. “We went with a stark palette,” Stewart says. “We didn’t want to enhance her femininity. She didn’t wear anything that was alluring or sexy.”

Perhaps the most rigorous requirements were the ones that directing-writing-producing team Michael and Mark Polish set for “Northfork,” which is half American Gothic, half magic realism.

Though the film was shot in ordinarily lush Technicolor, only one object — the ostrich-feather trim that costumer designer Danny Glickman created and wrapped around the shoulders of angel Tea Cup (Robin Sachs) — was permitted to have color (burgundy). Everything else had to fit within 10 degrees of the 256-level gray scale. To meet this requirement, art director David Storm, whose apprenticeship with David Lynch prepared him for the Polish brothers, had to order up Heinz ketchup bottles filled with gray paint and pasted with gray labels.

In Fine Line’s “American Splendor,” production designer Therese DePrez’s task was to capture the Cleveland of comicbook writer Harvey Pekar: garage sales where he sifts through 25-cent jazz LPs, grocery stores where he inevitably winds up behind a little old lady arguing with the cashier about her discount coupons, and, most of all, his apartment, the cluttered, multilayered archive of his life.

“Scouting Harvey’s real home was the apogee of my career,” DePrez said. “It’s an anthropological study, right down to his crappy, 10-year-old coffee cup” – which, of course, became a prop for the film.

For her exteriors, DePrez went for the effects created by Cleveland’s ferocious winters, which blow in off Lake Erie. The look, she said, was “very monochromatic – lots of ochre, rust, pea green, everything was tremendously aged…. There was a certain ugliness, but we didn’t want to overplay it.”

Costume designer Michael Wilkinson said, “We wanted to avoid cliches like big, fat lumber jackets and ski parkas.” To help capture Pekar’s down-but-not-out character – both in the scenes where Paul Giamatti plays Pekar and the intercuts where Pekar plays himself – Wilkinson was sometimes inspired by bizarre but revealing details. “Harvey would glue up holes in his jacket with Elmer’s, and repair T-shirts with staples or tape,” Wilkinson said.

“In America” production designer Mark Geraghty said director Jim Sheridan “had very vivid ideas about how the picture should feel.” After all, the movie was based on the actual immigrant experiences of Sheridan and his family, who are Irish. But Geraghty, who also is Irish, said Sheridan didn’t busy himself with the details of execution.

Geraghty used carefully selected and arranged objects to communicate the family’s difficult circumstances in Hell’s Kitchen — a cluster of formidable locks on the front door, a bathtub in the middle of the living room, and drab colors. But while the father, Johnny, was trying (and failing) to get acting jobs, the two young daughters used their spare time and wishes to stay hopeful. Art director Susie Cullen bathed their refuge – the Heaven ice cream shop – in a corona of light.

Props aren’t supposed to compete with the actors. But in “American Splendor,” the cat that Hope Davis fed while playing Pekar’s future wife, Debbie, brought out her real-life allergies. Even so, says production designer DePrez, that added the perfect touch for hypochondriac Debbie.

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