Production Design Contenders Spreads From Intimate to Space

Production Design Oscars Ma Raineys Black
Father: Sean Gleason/Sony Pictures Classics; Midnight Sky: Netflix; Ma Rainey’ Black Bottom: David Lee/Netflix

David Fincher’s “Mank” takes audiences back into 1930s Hollywood, a black and white world where the screenplay for “Citizen Kane” comes together. In Disney’s “Mulan,” audiences are transported to the Imperial City for the live-action heroine tale based on Chinese folklore. George C. Wolfe’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” hones in on a recording session one hot summer’s day in Chicago 1927. And Christopher Nolan experiments with time-inversion in the globetrotting action thriller “Tenet.”

There was an abundance of real-world locations utilized by the contenders for production design.

For “Mank,” production designer Donald Graham Burt and Fincher spent months tracking down locations around Los Angeles that could stand in for Hearst Castle since filming isn’t allowed on the actual estate. In the end, the Huntington Library and Gardens; in South Pasadena, sites in Malibu and soundstages were all carefully decorated to give the feel of Hearst Castle, even if not the exact details.

“The whole approach to San Simeon was that we could never replicate it,” Burt says. “But that’s not what we wanted to do. We wanted to present something that told the story of being in this opulent, indulgent architectural space, and incorporate some of the details and some of the language from the original into it, knowing that we couldn’t possibly go fully extravagant. It was about emulating instead of replicating.”

With “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” production designer Mark Ricker focused on establishing the key locations: “Within that first 10 minutes, we’ve seen the bulk of everything we did in the film.” Wolfe opens that movie with Viola Davis as Ma performing to an audience in a tent in the woods. The film then jumps into the city for her recording session. “It was a device to introduce us to Ma Rainey earlier and feeling her in the South. He wanted to contrast it with how she felt in the South,” Ricker says. Ricker relied on paintings and photography as research for the film. “This one painting said ‘Chicago 1906.’ It was one of the bridges over the river with the city rising, and the heat and the steam.
George had a visceral reaction to it, and it became our touchstone.”

On a grander scale, Disney’s “Mulan” took production designer Grant Major on a recce to Xinjiang, where he found inspiration to recreate the Imperial City. Major based his designs on the Tang dynasty. Elsewhere, the film’s key battle sequences were shot in New Zealand, and visual effects houses stepped in, using CG to extend and create the wider environment.

Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” needed a real Boeing 747, a nine-lane highway, a superyacht and an opera house. Nathan Crowley, a five-time Oscar nominee is no stranger to Nolan’s ideas: they’ve collaborated on “Dunkirk” and “The Dark Knight” trilogy.

Both Crowley and Nolan like to do things practically because “they’re more fun,” Crowley says. “We find when we shoot on a sound stage we lose the energy, and a film like this needs a massive amount of energy.”

For “News of the World,” production designer David Crank built six cities as Paul Greengrass’s Western, starring Tom Hanks, crossed miles in 1870 Texas.

Florian Zeller’s “The Father” takes place inside a London apartment. Peter Francis worked to translate Anthony’s (Anthony Hopkins) disorientation through his sets. Like Anthony, the audience never really fully knows which apartment they’re in: is it Anthony’s, his
daughter Anne’s or somewhere else? For Francis, it was all about subtleties.

Meanwhile, “The Midnight Sky,” directed by and starring George Clooney, is set at his character’s Arctic station as he tries to warn astronauts not to return to Earth after a catastrophe. Jim Bissell designed the Barbeau Observatory with full-length windows, basing the design of the Aether spacecraft on an inflatable habitat. His inspiration? The Intl. Space Station.