Brandon Tonner-Connolly is a New York based Production Designer. He started designing music videos for artists such as The Roots and Interpol before moving into features. His film design credits include "The Big Sick", "Brigsby Bear", and "The Bad Batch".
I’ve always thought one of the secret pleasures of shooting movies is how you get to seal yourself within the world of the film for months at a time. There’s the actual visual universe you’re creating for the movie, and then there’s the life part: the people you take for granted you’ll see everyday, the temporary new home, the nicknames and in-jokes and references you’ve built up with all your new collaborators. Everything else – everything that doesn’t fit into that world -- is less urgent, filtered out. Then you wrap the film, disengage from this little world you made, and move on to the next one.
The rhythm of that disengagement is usually predictable: slow, organized, covered in packing tape and leisurely mornings. But sometimes it’s not so slow. Sometimes a film suddenly shuts down, and you’re forced to disengage at lightning speed. All the relationships, the ideas, the inside jokes that had been a part of the present and the foreseeable future are now a disposable part of the past.
I just went through that process for the first time about a month ago. I had been prepping for twelve weeks. We were two days from the tech scout. People were building sets at full speed. But the plug was pulled nonetheless.
Nobody died, it’s just a movie, but there were still things to grieve.
The most helpful thing to realize in that moment was that the ultimate fate of the movie was not within my control. It was a difficult concept to absorb, because I’d spent the last few months trying to exert control over every single detail related to the film. Now I needed to accept that a decision had been made in a room in a different time zone, a decision which meant that I wouldn’t be making the film I wanted to make. Dust to dust though, right? I had no control over the movie before I accepted the job – and I had no control over any of that now.
The next most helpful thing to realize was that there were many aspects I did have power over. Like how I was going to handle firing absolutely everyone who was working for me. These were the same people I’d persuaded to turn down other jobs and sign on with me for five months. It was a stellar crew, and I felt like I had a responsibility to show them that their work hadn’t been in vain. Regardless of what happened with the film, I wanted them to be proud of what we’d accomplished together.
So we turned our few days of wrap into a celebration, instead of a funeral: big dinners, wrap gifts, heartfelt goodbyes. Maybe there was something to skipping production and going straight from prep to wrap.
Then there was the question of what to do with the actual work; the walls of reference photos, the concept artwork, the set designs, the color palettes. I decided to take everything and lay it out in an 11x17 document that we had printed and bound. It serves as a set-by-set visual guide to the world of the film, complete with location photos. I can flip through the pages and show you what the movie would have looked like. It’s not quite the same as having a finished film to watch, but it’s something.
After the crew was taken care of and the work was preserved, the last detail to consider was me. Going from ramping up for production - constant texts, emails, phone calls, decisions to be made 18 hours a day - to turning in your office keys in a few days can make you feel like Henry Hill at the very end of Goodfellas.
Turns out that the best medicine was the same wind-down process I always use after wrap: get in a car, plane, or train and wander around a new place. I take pictures of everything I can: buildings, hand painted signs, broken down cars in people’s front yards, anything I might be able to use as a reference for some project in the future. I usually think of it as scouting for a movie that nobody’s making yet. And then I have a few drinks at the airport bar on the way home and I’m ready to start on the next thing.
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