Science Fiction Movies.) First of all, I would like to thank you for your time doing this Interview. I think you´re work have got a huge fan base here in Germany. Especially because for films like ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL or SMALL SOLDIERS of course. A lot of movie maniacs know the films you´re involved. Could you please tell us what you did before you come into filmbusiness. Why have you choose the way of being into production design?
William Sandell) I was born in Los Angeles and even though I was raised in the shadow of Hollywood I never thought I’d end up working my whole life in film . My family were all small business people, and not working in the film business. It’s a town filled with nepotism, but that didn’t help me. Now of course my son ( just turned 30 ) has been a Set Dresser in the Union for 14 years already, and my nephew Dallas Sterling is an amazing Cinematographer in the camera local, and my ex-wife has worked as a Costume Designer for the last 35 years. That’s the way it works in Hollywood.
I was always a wood worker, always inventing things, arty things. When I was 19, i started building large kinetic art pieces and a gallery in L.A. started selling them. One day a Senior Vice-President of Warner Bros. Fred Weintraub walked into the gallery and wanted to buy one of my pieces that was already sold. He left his card and asked me to build one for him . I drove over to Warner Bros. to meet him and all of of a sudden I was walking around the studio. He was a major player in my life, just out of the blue. He had just saved Warner’s from going bankrupt by putting together the Woodstock record album and funded the making of the film, he’d hired Marty Scorsese to edit it, stuff like that. I started designing some of my sculptures for Fred . During this time I’d dropped out of college, focusing on my art, I needed a place to live and ended up moving into Fred’s big house on Mulholland Dr. in Beverly Hills, I lived there for 2 of the most amazing years of my life. I worked for Fred running scripts around the studio and helping in the office, and went to my work studio during the evening to work on my sculptures. Fred had many girlfriends hanging around and nannies for his kids, lots of film people were in and out living there. I watched the whole passing parade. Fred was a talent manager back in New York, so people like Woody Allen was hanging around the house, the Director Russ Meyer lived next door, so I was over there helping him with his orchids, while his girlfriends ran around naked. Jack Nicholson lived down the street, so did Marlon Brando also. Lots of parties. It was a lot for a 20 year old. During this time Fred and I were walking along at the studio and Fred said to me “ Bill, I’ve got to save Warner’s ass again..” I’m going to do the greatest martial arts film of all time”... and I’m thinking “Kung Fu!?? that’s going to save Warner’s?” and he said “Yep, Kung Fu!” . So he got a writer and everyday they were writing and writing and pretty soon there was a script called Blood and Steel. A few weeks later I see this young guy bouncing around our living room and I’m introduced to Bruce Lee. No one knew Bruce here in the states, YET. Next thing I know Fred’s making Enter the Dragon and I’m back and forth a few times to Hong Kong, and watching the house, and doing the shipping back and forth from the Warner’s office.
So Enter the Dragon really does save Warner’s from being cut up and sold in pieces, and Fred really did make the greatest martial arts film of all time. Meanwhile, back at the house on Mulholland Dr. , Marty Scorsese had moved out here from New York and was dating one of Fred’s daughters. He’d just finished Boxcar Bertha, a low budget film for Roger Corman and was finishing writing Mean Streets with his writing partner Mardik Martin. Every night they’re sitting around the table writing and arguing. So the script is finally done and Marty tells me to come work on his film, and I’m like “Film? I don’t want to work on a film” and Marty says that the Art Director from his Boxcar Bertha film is coming to L.A. to do it, but he doesn’t know his way around the city and I do, and then he says “..quit doing that stupid art and come do film!”. So one thing led to another and I did work on the film as the Asst. Art Director, there were 3 of us in the Art Dept., we had no money so a lot of the sets were decorated with the furniture from my parents house, I worked 125 hours a week for 3 weeks. I couldn’t believe it, how crazy it was.
I told Marty towards the end of the film that this was crazy to work like this, and that I was going to go back to my studio and make my kinetic sculpture. He said “ no you won’t, you’ll get the bug and work on films” and he was right. So that was my first film and my bath of fire. I started Decorating and Art Directing films for Fred’s side company Sequoia Pictures, and worked on 10 pictures for Roger Corman. Sometimes doing Props, sometimes Art Direction, sometimes as a Stunt Man. You had to multi-task when you worked for Roger, but that’s another story. Good times for sure.
SFM.) You were working on very different kind of movies. Sometime very futuristic with a realistic touch (like in ROBOCOP), sometimes historically (like in MASTER & COMMANDER), sometimes really fantastic (like in THE FLINTSTONES). Where did you get your inspiration from and do you have some basic preparation for a movie?
WS.) I think I have the best job in the film industry. When people talk about making a film, I actually do make it. There’s nothing on a stage until me and my gang arrive. All the Carpenters, and Painters, Plasterers, banging away for months building a spaceship, or a gigantic ocean liner, a full size 250 foot airplane, or a whole village. We make stuff, and it’s the most fun you can have. I’ve always thought that the best part of my job was the research part of it. I get a script early and start breaking it down and thinking about how to bring the script to life visually. In an Art Dept. you can be designing the future one day and the past the next.
For a kid from the Los Angeles suburbs, it’s been an amazing journey. For the film Total Recall I was sent to NASA in Houston to learn about Mars, walk on a mock up of the Space Station, and learn how one could conceivably live on the planet Mars. For Master and Commander I had to learn all about 18 century British fighting ships. For the film Air Force One , the Director Wolfgang Petersen and I flew to meet Harrison Ford and President Clinton ( who were partying on Harrison’s ranch ) on the real Air Force 1 plane. Where else does a kid from the suburbs get to do stuff like that.
When I get a script to read, I look for a story that’s going to need a lot of set design to help tell its story, I want to design the look of the picture. Sometimes I’ve taken on films that I knew weren’t as good as another script sitting on my desk, but the one I want is the one that really needs a good Art Dept. I’ve always attracted the best Art Directors, Set Designers, Illustrators, Decorators because these people knew they were going to be involved in a show loaded with design work and problems. Good Art Depts. like to stay busy, they like the action.
I’m on a picture very early, usually the first one hired . When I meet Directors they’re looking for someone that really understands the script and wants to bring the story to life. They’re so happy to have someone to start brainstorming with, and bringing them information and ideas to make the film. With the help of the Art Dept. the Director starts to see his vision come to life, and just as important The Studio sees where the film is going and what they’re going to be getting for their millions of dollars.
When I set up an Art Dept. I usually try to get some Illustrators started as soon as possible, so they can start story boarding the film, and start drawing some of the key scenes in the film. Images that help start conversations with the Director, Producers and the Studio . Make sure we’re all on the same page. I like to get a Construction Coordinator in as soon as possible so we can start doing a proper budget for the film. I might be responsible for spending $1-15 million dollars building the sets needed for the production. So I have to really dig in to this and deliver an accurate presentation about what’s about to happen, financially speaking. At the end of the day, my job as a Production Designer has as much of a financial responsibility as an artistic one. I spend a lot of time begging for money and explaining where all the money went .
SFM.) In the beginning of your carrier you were working on films like BIG BAD MAMA (1974), GOLDEN NEEDLES (1974), BLOOD BEACH (1980) or DEAD AND BURIED (1981). Years later you were involved in ROBOCOP (1987), TOTAL RECALL (1990), MASTER & COMMANDER (2003) or POSEIDON (2006). What do you prefer: big or not so big budget movies in order of creative working (I don´t want to say low, because I believe there is no low, just economical budget)?
WS.) Big films or small films. I guess I prefer large budget films because that usually denotes lots of set design. They can be much more hectic but you generally have a bigger Art Dept. to handle all the attending problems a big show has. Smaller budget films are more challenging sometimes because there just isn’t the money or help to design the film you’d like to see. However every Dept. has the same challenge so your all in the same boat.
I can say this about small vs. large films, the dialogue about money is the same. On a small film you might say you need a $1,000 budget for a certain set, and the Producer will say “can you do it for $800?”. On a big budget show you might ask for a $100,000 for set, and the Producer will say “..can you do it for $80,000?” . It’s always the same. They give you a script that lays out a whole story, with all the attending sets and locations and then the studio wonders why your designing all these sets, and running around town looking for locations. I’m always having conversations with Producers and the Studio executives about why I’m doing this or that, like I’ve dreamed up a bunch of fun stuff to build on stage. So I have to remind them that they gave me a script that said “John lives in a house in the woods” so I have to find a real house in the woods that fits the story and characters, or I have to build a house in the woods on stage. It’s not like I’ve read the script and decided that “ you know what this film needs? It needs a house in the woods!” I really don’t want to build a house in the woods, I’ve probably already designed and build lots of houses in the woods. I’m kidding a little here but this type of conversation goes on all the time.
Robocop in 1987 was a very low budget film, about $11 million dollars, and the Warner’s film Poseidon was a $140 million dollar film. Total Recall in 1990 was a $60 million dollar film and I believe the biggest budget film made that year. I think they all looked great whatever the budget was. Poseidon was an amazing design experience, with huge sets filling all the big stages at Warner Bros. Studio. This was my 4th film working for the Director Wolfgang Petersen and he is coolest, and an amazing person to work for. Robocop was non-stop work, with Verhoeven running around screaming and the whole crew dying in the Dallas, Texas sun. It was hard film making. Total Recall was the hardest film I’ve ever worked on, we had the money, but I had so many sets to design and build. We took over the old Churubusco Studios in Mexico City for 7 months of building and shooting these immense sets. We build 24 hours a day , 7 days a week. We had 10 large stages and we would build a set, the company would come in and shoot it, blow it up, and I would tear it down and start on another huge set . It was an amazing experience. When I finally got home I realized that I could do any film in the world. And of course, Verhoeven was yelling the whole time on that film also.
When I vote for Art Directors Guild awards or Academy Awards I always tend to favor films that I know had a limited Art Dept. budget. An Art Director that makes a $80,000 dollar budget look like a $800,000 budget is the real talent . It’s easy to solve problems when you have the resources, but when your short on money and still make a film look wonderful, that’s talent to me.
SFM.) What is your opinion about education to become an expert in production design/ art departement? Is there any requirement or talent you need to have next to enthusiasm?
WS.) I’ve always loved the fact that the film business is a very open kind of work. Union issues aside. Your really not required to have any kind of schooling or credentials. Hard work and enthusiasm go a long way.
Living in the Los Angeles area is, of course, is a very handy way to fall into the film business. You just run into people on the street here that are doing something creative, film wise . You tag along and work for free and kind of learn the ropes and next time someone says “ hey, get that guy who worked with us last month “ and this time they pay you a little bit of money, and your on your way to a career. Really, it happens like that around here all the time. This is basically how I got into films. I was an artist , I’d had some drafting training in school. I knew how to build things, but that was basically it. No film school or much college.
There are Production Design classes at the colleges these days, the AFI here in L.A. has a good one. I used to speak at USC at one of their general film classes about film design and what I did on a film. The class would have 100-200 kids in it. They would have a Cinematographer in one week, a Costume Designer in and a me in . I did this for 8 years or so. At the end of the class I would ask the class “how many of you would like to be Art Directors?” it always was just a few kids that would raise their hands. They all wanted to be Directors, or even worse Producers ???!! Yuck!
I would remind them that Costumers love their jobs, Prop Masters are crazy about their jobs. Grips make a ton of money, and have vacation homes and boats and fast cars, but no, they all want to be Directors. Now days with smart phones, everyone thinks they’re a Cinematographer and that’s really annoying.
One thing I try to impress on a film class is how collaborative the film business is. You really have to give and take and get along to make it in the film world. If your not that kind of person, go do something else. Write a novel or paint a picture, anything you can do by yourself. You won’t make it in the film business in any film job if you don’t know how to work as a team. That’s true in any business I suppose, but making a film can be a very intense hard experience, long hours, with weird down times of boredom, jumping to extreme terror as everyone roars into action to get the shot. Long hours together, months together, you have to get along.
I have an Art Dept loaded with super talented people, all of them with great ideas. My job is to keep the focus of all this talent going in one design direction. I see films all the time that look like the Art Dept went off the rails, one Art Director is designing something in one style, while another Set Designer is drawing plans for something totally different. The Illustrator is drawing pretty pictures of things that will never be built. It can get crazy. The Production Designer has the ear and support of the Director and it’s his job to keep the Art Dept., Prop Dept., and Costume Dept., Effex Dept. headed in one direction, the Director’s direction.
SFM.) I believe movies doesn´t belong to awards. They´re for the audience not for prices. But what do you think of your kind of work in film? Is it just a technical one or is it art? Do production design get enough recognition?
WS.) This is a interesting question, Is art direction a technical job or an artistic one . It is of course both. Production Designers will argue passionately for both sides. At the end of the day, I believe a good P.D. brings both to the table. Some Production Designers are known for their beautiful sets, but I assure you that the Art Dept. and Construction Dept. was filled with some very technical people. I probably see myself as somewhere in the middle. I was known for being able to handle very large complicated films, and make them look good. A few times in my career I’ve been asked to take over a film. A studio, or the Director will have lost confidence in their Production Designer. Once there’s a feeling that your faltering in your piece of the film juggernaut, you are booted out quick. It’s a messy business and not for the faint of heart. If you don’t know, or have the feel for the mechanics of making a film, all the wonderful artistic talent you possess won’t save you.
I’ve seen films, big films, canceled after months of pre-Production. The team just couldn’t put the pieces together, and the Art Dept. is part of this collapse. You don’t do a service to your Director or Production, by drawing up a plan for a film that just can’t be made. This is where the technical side of a Production Designer can make or break a film. You’ve got to get the schedule right, the budget right, all kinds of technical issues have to be in place, or the Studio is going to get cold feet and everyone is out of a job. All the pretty pictures you’ve all been drawing for months get thrown in the trash can. An Art Dept. has a big responsibility to keep the show on the road!
Respect for great Art Depts. has never been higher than right now. Much more so than I’ve seen over the years, and that’s great. Look how great TV looks today. Feature quality. Studios are spending more on good looking sets.
It’s probably a good time to be Art Directing. For me though, I’m glad I got out. I don’t like all the green screen, little sets in the middle of a giant stage lined with green backings. Yuck! schedules are ridiculously tight, and the business is filled with baby producers that don’t know what they’re doing. I think I saw the end of a really great time in the Studio system, and Art Direction. It’s a new type of film making and it looks great, but I’ll bet it’s not as fun, not as magical, as it used to be
SFM.) Dear Mr. Sandell. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future movie making.