Showbiz has had many tough acts to follow. One of the latest is faced by James Murakami, who was production designer on helmer Clint Eastwood’s two latest films: “Changeling” and “Gran Torino.”
Murakami has the daunting task of filling the shoes of the late, legendary Henry Bumstead.
Bumstead, called Bummy by his colleagues, won two Oscars for art direction (“To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Sting”) and was production designer on scores of classics including Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” His work with Eastwood dates back to “Joe Kidd” in 1972 and includes “Unforgiven.” For the last seven years of his life — he died at 91 in 2006 — Bumstead worked with Eastwood exclusively, starting with “True Crime” and ending with “Letters From Iwo Jima.”
Murakami collaborated with Bumstead on several projects and even shared production-design credit with him on “Letters.” Best known for his Emmy-winning design for TV’s “Deadwood,” he’s the latest example of Eastwood’s habit of keeping a close-knit, consistent production family on his films. Judging from the re-creation of 1920s L.A. for “Changeling” and from the dismal Rust Belt decay of contemporary Michigan in “Torino,” Eastwood’s instincts are dead on.
In “Changeling,” sets like the claustrophobic switchboard room where Angelina Jolie’s Christine Collins supervises telephone operators while riding on roller skates, and the horrific sheds in the desert that imprison kidnapped boys, Murakami’s design conveys an atmospheric, authentic picture of the era.
His work on practical locations is equally evocative. In “Gran Torino,” his vision of a decaying neighborhood caught up in ethnic transformation contributes immeasurably to the film’s power. In “Changeling,” where he sought a location with historic value, he found Collins’ home in San Dimas, not far from L.A.
For further proof that Murakami values history, look no further than a cafe in “Changeling” where the eponymous boy is abandoned by a drifter. The name on the sign: Bummy’s.