Working in an industry of shifting financial realities, production designers at times find themselves victims of circumstances beyond their control. Our colleagues describe their experiences and their methods of coping with the unexpected.
Brandon Tonner Connolly
"The next most helpful thing to realize was that there were many aspects I did have power over"
Sara K White
"Try to remember that this career is not a sprint, so you can take a moment to pick yourself up, dust off, and get back on track."
"I don't regret the choices I made but definitely walked away with new insights"
June 24th, 2018
What do you do when your project shuts down?
Brandon Tonner Connolly
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.
Scott Kuzio is a New York City based Production Designer. After graduating from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts for film, Scott has spent the past decade Designing and Art Directing feature films, commercials and photo shoots. Most recently, he has designed David Lowery’s “Old Man and the Gun” and the pilot to the Golden Globe nominated limited series “The Sinner” for USA Network. His films "Damsel", "Golden Exits", "Christine", “Barry”, "Listen Up Philip", "James White", and "People Places Things" have premiered at Sundance Film Festival. Several of his films have also played Berlin, SXSW, Tribeca, Toronto and Venice Film Festivals.
This year I had the unfortunate experience of signing onto a project that shut down during prep. Although it was only 5 weeks of pre-production on a project that was never completed, the repercussions felt much worse.
My friend developed and wrote a set of films for a studio that she was approved to direct a year ago. In the early stages, she called me and asked me to be her Production Designer on the films. We both knew it would be an uphill battle convincing the studio that an indie designer was capable of making these larger studio film projects. I spent the next few months figuring out the design and logistics for these films. In the meantime, I was working on other projects and attached to another film directed by a friend of mine. In early spring, the project was green-lit by the studio and the director presented me as her option for designer. After much protest, the studio agreed to meet as long as I flew in on my own dime. We presented them the design and they were thrilled and surprised at how prepared we were, and offered me the job very soon after. Although it was a great opportunity for me, it was one of the toughest decisions of my career. I had to choose between two film directed by friends and collaborators, one an indie and the other a studio film.
I chose the studio project in the end because I had spent the prior 5 months battling for the job. I packed all my stuff and moved down to Atlanta. After 5 weeks of prep, the studio decided to indefinitely postpone the production. This was definitely a shock. After the film fell apart I came back to New York and hustled to find the next job. I signed onto another studio project shortly after, and the day before my official prep day the film fell apart.
I don't regret the choices I made but definitely walked away with new insights. I struggled so hard to get my foot into the studio system as a designer but to my surprise realized it's much more volatile than working on indies. It's very rare to be working on an independently financed film and have it shut down. The studios do not seem to have a problem investing money into projects and then shutting them down in a moment's notice. This had been one of the hardest years preparing for jobs with very little to show for it. I still get bi-weekly calls from the studio that the Atlanta job will start back up again any day now, but I am taking that news with a grain of salt.
Sara K White
Sara K White is the Production Designer behind Silas Howard’s recently released “A Kid Like Jake". Sara's credits also include Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child,” Sîan Heder’s “Tallulah,” and Cary Murnion & Jon Millot’s “Bushwick,” which have premiered at Sundance. Her recently completed work includes Vincent D’Onofrio’s “The Kid” and Gil Junger’s “Think Like a Dog.”
Thankfully, it's been a few years since I had a job close on me, though in prep the stability of some productions can feel in flux. No one is ever truly immune - there are too many factors that have to come together to have a project go from inception to completion.
I was out of town on a "labor of love" indie, and I was definitely in love with that film. I only had one other crew member with me - my art director arrived the day before we went down. We'd spent time scouting locations and meeting the families helping us put the project together. That evening, the producer gathered us together and was in tears when she broke the news. It was heartbreaking for everyone, but team's closeness helped soften the blow. We spent the last day taking in the scenery, hiking and enjoying the area before we headed to the airport.
At the time I was struggling to make ends meet, so I went into a feverish search for work - that was quite hard. Taking any job means passing on projects that go at the same time, so a fold can put you in professional and financial limbo, it requires confidence and perspective to navigate well. It was early in my career, so I had to trust it was an anomaly, the experience was a part of the journey, not the end of it. Those same fears wouldn't hit me now, but there's a reason we take each project - connections, advancement in certain skill sets, passion for the story or design - and loss of any of those is disappointing. That project had a few more starts and finally did go months later - but by then I couldn't be a part of it. I've made my peace with it, but it remains a sad moment in my career.
At that time, I didn't have a lot of options for recovery actions, I just tried to hit the ground running. Now I'd travel or visit friends before jumping back into the mix. I'd allow myself time to mourn the loss of my planned achievements for the project - and work with my agent to find similarly ambitious projects. And I'd try to remember that this career is not a sprint, so you can take a moment to pick yourself up, dust off, and get back on track.