Science Fiction Filme) First of all, I would like to thank you for your time doing this Interview. I think your work has a huge fan base here in Germany. Especially because for films like DEMOLITION MAN, SOLDIER and BLADE RUNNER, of course. A lot of movie fans fanatics know the films you’ve designed. Could you please tell us what you did for work before you came into the film business. Why have you chosen the profession of being into production design?
David L. Snyder) My family in New York was in the building construction business. They had a small drafting room in the office and began to understand how architecture worked and I thought I would be good at it. I attended a college preparatory school at age 13 and was working over the years worked at various architecture firms in New York and Michigan. From there I received an offer to move to California at one of the firm’s branch offices. I did. I was working on upscale housing projects and one had a ‘Western / cowboy” theme. I was able to get permission to visit Paramount Pictures Studios ‘Western’ street for “Bonanza” (Television series) research and as I observed the mechanics and art of motion picture manufacturing I knew I could do this job based on my experience in architectural, interior design and graphic design I had no doubt, no hesitation.
SFF.) You were working on very different kind of movies. Sometime very futuristic with a realistic touch (like in DEMOLITION MAN), sometimes really fantastic (like in SUPER MARIO BROS.). Where did you get your inspiration from and do you have some basic preparation for a movie?
D.S.) BLADE RUNNER was my first big studio picture (Warner Bros.) I had begun at MCA - Universal Studios where I worked in Television on THE HULK , GALACTICA 80, BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY so I had some idea about the cinematic future. While I was working in TV, Lawrence ‘Larry’ Paull had heard I was a good assistant so he hired me to work on IN GOD WE TRU$T directed by Marty Feldman. It was a big studio picture and as an assistant I was transitioning from TV to features. By the time Larry was hired on BLADE RUNNER I was designing a picture for United Artists. Larry asked to to join him on his show, but I turned him down. I didn’t want to be anyone’s assistant anymore. After several weeks passed he called to say “I don’t want you to be an assistant, I want you to be a partner. This movie is a lot of work. I accepted and learned much about filmmaking from Larry and Ridley Scott. My inspiration is reading the words in the script and turning those words into pictures.
SFF.) Do you have any personal idols or role models in your business? Is there a movie or an event which make you think: “I want to do the same thing.”?
D.S.) “Rocky”, “The Godfather” and MGM musicals of the 1950’s were my inspiration to become an Art Director for motion pictures. Before that time I was an architectural draftsman, a rock 'n' roll drummer and recording artist, a graphic designer and an architectural designer. I have never ‘worked’ in that sense, I have only ‘played’ for my living wages. Role model? Dean Tavoularis THE GODFATHER 1, 2, 3 etc.
SFF.) Could you please tell us what is the difference between a Production Designer, an Art Director and a Set Decorator?
D.S.) The Production Designer is in charge of the overall ‘look’ along with the Director of a Film or Television show; the Art Director realizes those designs supervising the illustrators, storyboard artists, draftspersons and the construction department. The Set Decorator provides all the furnishings inside of the settings created by the Art Department including draperies, furniture, carpeting of flooring, lighting fixtures and all the detailed items such as kitchenware, bedding, whatever the script calls for. Smaller hand props as handled by the actors are provided by the Property-master or Property-Mistress.
SFF.) One or two questions have to be about BLADE RUNNER of course although you have already shared a lot about it in books and interviews. I don't want to bore you about this but I have got a lot of respect for your work on the classic BLADE RUNNER. This was, if I'm correctly informed, your first big cinematic movie. How did you get this job and did you were scared about this task?
D.S.) I was not intimidated by this job, even though the genius, Ridley Scott was the director. He had art directed at the BBC, was as good an illustrator as any of us in the Art Department and I was certain the film would be a success because of the success of “Alien”. Yes, this was the biggest job I had ever worked on. I worked on it longer than any other film before and since. This was because when the film ended principal photography in July of 1981, I was immediately hired as the Art Director on BRAINSTORM by Director, Douglas Trumbull who was the Visual Effects Supervisor on BLADE RUNNER (and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, STAR TREK) Since I was working on BRAINSTORM at the same facility where the visual effects of BLADE RUNNER were being constructed, I was able to marginally contribute to the team as I had worked on the entire pre-production and production of BLADE RUNNER. I had knowledge that no one else possessed. All other members of the BLADE RUNNER Art Department had gone onto other films and it was by coincidence that I was there at EEG, Entertainment Effects Group. It was very lucky for me because I was able to meet Philip K. Dick when he attended a screening of the current Visual Effects. It was the only footage he saw of the film as he died before the final edit was complete. Also attending that screening was Joanna Cassidy (ZHORA) Ridley and Doug.
SFF.) The sequel BLADE RUNNER 2049 has a lot of miniature buildings in it. Did they ask about you as a consultant and what do you think about the art work of this movie?
D.S.) No, I was never asked to work on BR 2049. I praise designs of Production Designer Dennis Gassner who had been working at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios as a Graphic Designer, his first Hollywood Job in 1980 on ONE FROM THE HEART. At the same time of the prep of BLADE RUNNER we, the Art Department made an agreement to rent their neon signs, many of which appeared on the BLADE RUNNER Dennis had shown Ridley the neons and he sent me over to make the contract with Ralph S. Singleton, Head of Production. Dennis went on to design a few of the Coen Brothers films and I am a fan of his work. My only conversation about the film was with Ryan Gosling at the LA LA LAND film premiere and VIP party afterwards. When I introduced myself to Ryan he seemed delighted to meet me and promised me that I would be proud of the film and it’s respect to our work on the original film. Ryan told me there was very little CGI and actual sets and miniatures were built and not computer generated. He was a gentleman.
SFF.) The city in BLADE RUNNER should originally named San Angeles in the “Dangerous Days” script. Years later it is the name of the city in DEMOLITION MAN (1993), a movie with you as the Production Designer. The production design looks like some kind of futuristic setting with a realistic basis. How did you collaborate during this movie with your fellow colleagues like Matte Painter Mike Sullivan or Set Decorator Bobby Gould to create this world? How did you decide which kind of architectural design you use in this film?
D.S.) Having art directed BLADE RUNNER as a dystopian Los Angeles 12 years earlier, I saw this as a great opportunity to reverse my designs to a utopian Los Angeles. To make a perfect future but as in all societies having an underbelly of homeless, dispossessed men women and children ‘buried’ below in Old Los Angeles. The majority of sets were built on the same Warner Bros. stages as BLADE RUNNER, SOLDIER, PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE etc. The cost of the DEMOLITION MAN sets was $US12 Million plus $US2.5 Million for Design Department Staff (in 2019 $US) More than BLADE RUNNER, less than SOLDIER. As for design inspiration I determined that unlike BLADE RUNNER, there would be no stratified layers over five decades with retrofitted utilities attached to the structures, but as if the entire city was paved over, buried and a new metropolis had been built from the new surface upward and outward. There were many new structures constructed in Los Angeles in the 1990’s such as The new Los Angeles Convention Center where no-one had ever filmed before. By selecting these modern, futuristic existing locations, it was an easy task with all the talent beside me to create an entire cityscape for 2032 AD. The VFX was by ILM.
SFF.) The cars in DEMOLITION MAN are from General Motors and are prototypes like the Ultralite. Did you or someone from the production team create these cars or were they all supplied by requirements from GM?
D.S.) I hired Richard F. Mays as Art Director of all on-screen picture vehicles. Joel Silver, producer made a deal with General Motors to use all their Concept Cars in the film. We met with with the CEO of GM Oldsmobile Division at Warner Bros. Studios. The contact stated that we would feature Oldsmobile vehicles. In addition to the futuristic Concept Cars, we were provided with one GM Ultralite as San Angeles Police Department ‘cruisers’. From that vehicle we made fibreglas® molds and produced 10 bodies that were mounted on Volkswagen chassis with VW air-cooled motors.
Each concept car arrived at Warner Bros. Studios in it’s own air-conditioned trailer driven across the USA from Detroit, Michigan. Each vehicle had its own mechanics.
SFF.) You were the Production Designer of the theatrical film debut by Tim Burton PEE-WEES BIG ADVENTURE (1985). Why did you choose this movie and at that time did do you realize what a potential Tim Burton has?
D.S.) I was production designing MY SCIENCE PROJECT at Walt Disney Studios. Written and Directed by Jonathan Betuel (THE LAST STARFIGHTER). 24 Year-Old Tim Burton had written and was directing FRANKENWEENIE, a black & white short film. We both had offices in the Old Animation Building on the Disney lot and found we had a lot of interests in common. He came around to my sets on our stages and I guess he may have been impressed because they were elaborate and expensive. As with all directors and producers I meet, they want to discuss BLADE RUNNER. So, Tim didn’t meet any other designers and was hired at his request by producer Robert Shapiro.
SFF.) Like every movie nerd I have a guilty pleasure called STARFLIGHT: THE PLANE THAT COULDN'T LAND (1983). I still have the videotape. Is there a difference between working for movies in the cinematic world and for Television?
D.S.) With the rise of Netflix, Amazon, HULU, Disney+ etc., today there is no difference.
Things I can say about STARFLIGHT ONE are I liked the director Jerry Jameson and I got to work with John Dykstra whom I later hired for VFX on Gene Wilder’s THE WOMAN IN RED. It was a $US6M Television movie which was an extraordinary amount at the time. The Starflights’s interior was built full-size, on stage at 40 meters in length. I would have to say it turned out to be one of the worse results of a lot of talented cast and crew. The reason why is that an ABC-TV executive refused Jerry Jameson’s request to rewrite the entire script at no cost to the network. The executive refused. He insisted on filming the script he green-lit “as is.” Egomania.
SFF.) What is your opinion about education to become an expert in production design/ art department? Is there any requirement or talent you need to have next to enthusiasm?
D.S.) There any many film schools in North America, Europe and Asia. I recommend anyone with an interest in filmmaking attend a 4-year course of study whilst spending their breaks between college semesters working on legitimate film sets with a bonafied company. One should take any job in any department including production assistant. You will learn as much on the job as you will in school. Also try to find a mentor who will guide you through the process. I have mentored many students who have gone on to great success in Television, Film and the legitimate Theatre.
SFF.) I believe movies doesn't belong to awards. They’re for the audience not for prizes. But what do you think of your kind of work in film? Do production designers get enough recognition?
D.S.) In recent years, at least in the United States, production designers get much more recognition these days than when I began working in the film industry in 1978. In all modesty I believe BLADE RUNNER as well as STAR TREK, STAR WARS led the way for the press and the fans to recognize our contributions. Now with the Internet there are many fan sites that praise the work of the art department.
I don’t talk too much about awards since Production Designer Lawrence ‘Larry’ Paull, Set Decorator Linda DeScenna and I lost the Academy Award® for Best Art Direction to GHANDI at the 55th Academy Awards® ceremony in 1983.
SFF.) What are your future projects?
D.S.) TIME ZOO by Jonathan Betuel; NIAGARA - BEYOND THE FALLS by Christen Civiletto; DINOSAUR STORY, CGI animation and THICKER by Terry Nemeroff.
SFF.) Dear David. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future movie making.
D.S.) I am delighted to learn that I have fans in Germany and I thank all of you for your interest in my work in motion pictures. Danke an alle.