A PDC Interview: Jade Healy

Jade Healy is a Canada-born, LA-based Production Designer working in film, commercials and music videos.

Her film credits include Ti West's films "The House of the Devil" and "In a Valley of Violence", "James White", "Mississippi Grind" and David Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints". Last year she collaborated with Lowery again on the Disney Film "Pete's Dargon", and she recently wrapped production on "The Killing of a Sacred Dear", directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.

Jade, congratulations! Pete’s Dragon is out in theaters and getting some lovely reviews.

Thank you!

You’ve been known for your work in independent cinema for a while, but this is your first large studio project, it must have been quite a change.

It was. And I’m probably going to do another one with David Lowry, who was the director on Pete’s Dragon, in about a year or so, which is good. If I could just do big movies with David I’d be happy. I got really lucky, to do such a big movie with someone I’ve worked with before.

Did you have the same rapport with David as you’ve had before? Were you able to have the same conversations or were there more hurdles to that?

I think it benefitted us both to be working as a team that had worked together before. For him to try to learn how to have a dialogue with a new designer on that scale probably would have been hard. When you work with directors that you’ve had relationships with, you don’t always have to say as much, you just read the script and give a look book and it’s fine. Our relationship didn’t change. We still had the same understanding of space and palette. We’re very connected. I’ll send him images and he’ll be like “are you in my brain? That’s exactly what I was thinking.” It’s really nice when you find those collaborations.

So how did it happen? This is a much bigger film than your past work, did he fight for you?

Well, he asked me if I was interested and originally I said no. I thought, “I’m never going to get it anyway,” and I was working on my first feature that I was hoping to direct that summer, when Mike Simmons texted me to ask “is your friend David doing Pete’s Dragon?” I said yeah, and he asked “are you going to do it?” I said “No, I’m doing my own thing” and he said “are you out of your fucking mind?” I was instantly like What have I done?! So I emailed David and asked if he’d hired anyone yet. They were about to bring someone on, so I told him I was interested. He said “well, it’s going to be an uphill battle” but I figured I should at least try.

I had a meeting and did a lookbook for the project, he loved it and then I had to meet with the producer’s and, while they liked the look book, their main concern was my level of inexperience. I hadn't done a much of visual effect or stunt work and they where concerned with how I would handle the challenge. I think the important thing that I conveyed in that meeting was my ability to collaborate and to ask the right questions. When you don’t know how to do something, it’s just important to be able to admit that you don’t know, and also knowing how to ask the right questions to find the right solution. There are so many department heads, it’s not as though any one person ever really knows what the right answer is and every time you do a movie, it’s different. I could do a million CGI movies, and I’m still going to encounter something that I don’t know. We were working with Weta Digital, the amazing CGI house, and sometimes they didn’t know the right solution either, so we would work together to figure it out.

How long did you have to pull this together? You shot in New Zealand - did you start prep in the states and then head out?

On this movie, we had so much prep – I got to New Zealand in September and we shot in mid-January. So we had a lot of time to figure everything out. But I started unpaid prep early on, getting on phone calls and hiring crew, meeting with people. I built the first model myself in New Mexico before I left. I still have it, it was this little tree, it’s very cute. I had my friend David Bell do some concept drawings for me early on. They were the first things that I had when I went to New Zealand, and to be honest we didn’t stray that far from those original ideas.

Were the Disney executives very involved in the approvals process with your designs?

I was so lucky. They hardly even asked to see my concepts, but I would send them drawings and hardly got anything back. I sent them drawings of the tree, and the only note I got back was “We really like the tree like this, so if you’re going to change anything, let us know.” That was the only note I got. David likes to joke that I have been totally ruined by my first experience with the Studio because I have some misconception that it is easy.

Your crew must have been much larger than you’re used to, how was it working with them? Did it feel overwhelming to have so many people or was it necessary to make the project?

Honestly, the hardest part of a job at that level is getting the ideas out of your head and into everyone else’s hands. That’s the challenge. It is certainly overwhelming to have so many people working for you. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified of my first day! But once we got into the groove of things, everything just flowed.

When I started, there were big things that had to happen – a house has to get built, a tree, you have to design it all. It was just like “oooookay. I’ve never done this before, how do I do it?” I started by asking for a conceptual artist on Day One and then I started my model maker not long after. Outside of my Art Director and my Set Decorator, those were the first people that I had on with me.

What was the design process like with them involved?

Well, the first thing we did was the tree. I was really lucky, I had a great conceptual artist, I’d share images with him, he’d draw and adjust. Then I’d show David, and if he liked it, we’d get the drawings to the model maker and start building the model. My model maker started with a Styrofoam model, and then she made a really life like Plasticyne model, and I’d go in and push it around, and ask for changes that I couldn’t just make myself – until we got to a place that we all liked. We did a 3D scan of the model, and we started building off of it, of course there were still changes to make when that was happening. We built it in the stage and deconstructed it and then transported it to the forest, put it back together again, which was a lot of work, but it was so fun.

The house was a bit different. Simon Bright was my main Set Decorator, but I also had Adam Willis, who I always work with, who shopped with me in the in LA before I even left for New Zealand. We shipped a huge container of stuff to New Zealand, and used everything. It was amazing to start that process so early. I knew what couch was coming, so when I sat with my conceptual artist, I would know what to tell him to put in the drawings. I did the floor plans with my set designers, built a simple model of the house, and I’d take pictures through the windows of the rooms, and send them to my concept artist. And I’d be able to tell him “this is where I want the fireplace, this is where I want the couch. I’d go to storage where we had all the furniture, take photos of the it from the correct angle, pass those off and he’d draw those in. It was insane – the pictures from the concept drawings are almost identical to what they became in the set. When David and the DP and producers would show up on set they were thrilled because they knew exactly what they were walking into. There were no surprises.

For the set dressers, it was great because they would know exactly what to get. And if we couldn’t find those things we would build them. We had one person dedicated to textiles so if we needed to cover a couch, or custom dye some curtains, one person could just do those things. We would buy some fabric and if it was too bright, she would spend a day just dying it and bringing it down and show me samples and I’d be able to select exactly what I wanted. It was fantastic.

At the same time, it could also be a lot. On indie movies there’s no time to sit down and do drawings for every set. On this, even when we had sets that weren’t builds – a hospital set, or Robert Redford’s house – we had concept drawings for all of them with exactly what was going to be in the space. It was a great place to test stuff out and see “oh hey, those curtains don’t work” and we’d try others in the drawings so we knew what we were walking into. We went through the process of designing in these drawings. Trying out wallpaper, everything. We built an entire house, and what’s hard about that is that you have to spec out everything. You have to choose all of it, and your team is coming to you for the decisions, “How big do you want the baseboard,” “what kind of doorknob,” “what kind of trim,” “what kind of screws?” So I started saying “builder’s choice!" on little stuff, like “which screws” because my head was going to explode. At the same time as they are asking about the screws, I had the mold maker asking about what trees and rocks they should mold. I had an entire department just making molds for us – I would find references of the kinds of rocks and tree bark that I liked and they would go out and find them and come back with these plaster molds. That’s how we would build our trees and our rocks. They would start the models with wood, and then with foam, and then the bark would come in, and the real tree roots would come in, and you would just be like “not this, put this here, we have to change this” and it was so satisfying.

Learning the language of how to talk to those guys about what was or wasn’t working was very interesting. As a designer, you see something that’s not working but you have to find the words, the dialogue to communicate what they should do different.

Independent filmmaking often gets known for having a “family environment.” Were you able to have that on something so big? Did you liaison with a lot of people, or was it very hierarchical?

Everyone was so nice, I couldn’t have been luckier to have such a great group of people who were so welcoming of me. I mean we come from the indie world, and it’s so different. In New Zealand, everyone just works on huge things for a long time, no one has many credits. So what I always heard from them was “how have you done so many movies at such a young age?” Well we just go-go-go, three or four movies a year, just popping ‘em out. So that was an interesting comparison.

You know, it was a great learning experience for me was figuring out how to find the best leadership role when working with people that have more expertise than I do. I’m not going to try to pretend that I’m more experienced than my Oscar winning art director, but I’m also going to push as much as I can to get the vision that I want. When they would say “No”, I knew that there was a “Yes” in there somewhere, so I would push to find it. For me the best approach was to be very candid about my lack of experience in certain levels and to allow for the dialogue to always be open. The best advice I could give people is you hire more experience crew for a reason and lean into that experience and don’t let it intimidate you.

Were there a fair amount of adjustments?

One thing I learned doing a big movie is that designers change their mind all the time on giant movies. And it’s fine, and the crew is used to it. I would come in and say “I’m so sorry, I know you just painted all the cabinets, but now that they’re all painted, they’re too green. We really need to go a shade less saturated. I’m so sorry, so sorry.” And they would just say “O.K., sure you want me to paint it again, whatever, no problem.”

I also learned that when you’re doing a project this big, you never have to settle. As soon as your gut tells you that something’s off, you can act on it, and you can change it five more times. That’s fine. After that it’s hard to go back to little movies, because there’s no money. Often on low budget movies you just have to accept it. You have to accept that feeling because there’s no time and there’s no money. I always try not to settle – I’ll paint a room three times, even if I have to do it myself, but when you’re making bigger changes – waking in and saying “this wall has to go, this room is too big” and having the response be “ok” and then having it just be done is such a relief. In the house on Pete’s we did all the floors and they were too dark. And they just went in and fixed it. They sanded down and refinished everything. But those overages are accounted for, no one expects you to make one decision and then everything’s done and everything goes hunky-dorey. It’s really nice to have that breathing room. To be able to make mistakes and then fix them, and no one’s standing there saying “she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she changed her mind on the paint color.”

What was the biggest thing you changed?