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Kirk Petruccelli: Designing as Producing

Production Designer Kirk Petruccelli has recently completed Roland Emmerich's WWII film "Midway". His feature credits include "Geostorm", "White House Down" and "The Patriot", for which he received an Art Directors Guild Award nomination. Petruccelli is also a second unit director and screenwriter.

Please describe a challenging political situation you found yourself in on the job, and why it was challenging.

I found myself in a situation where a line producer dictated how a set was going to be designed for budgetary and personal control reasons without any input from the director.

That’s a fairly bold position for a producer to take. Was the director inexperienced? Or did he arrive with some sort of baggage?

When the line producer arrived on the job both the schedule and the budget were at risk, so he was in a tight spot. He had just taken over the project from a previous ineffective producer and was grabbing the reigns to bring the show under control.

There was also a unique situation in the mix: the leading actor was also the writer and a producer. Our young director chose to align himself with the actor to protect his own job, and I was in the unenviable position of trying to please everyone while maintaining the integrity of the design.

How did how did you respond to the producer’s demands initially? Did they take you by surprise?

I am not shocked by anything after all this time in the business. Yes, it was a unilateral position he maintained and yes that in itself was shocking, but it was a knee jerk reaction to a pressure-packed situation.

He called me in to give him the lay of the land from my viewpoint. We discussed overall concepts and budget line items, the schedule, work completed and work that had yet to be started. It was clear to me he had to decide quickly where he would make the necessary adjustments, and knowing this allowed me to make recommendations to the director and his star/writer/producer that could help our creative cause.

The set that our producer initially became dictatorial over was slated for an imperfect yet very expensive location, one that would require a tremendous amount of work to make it merely adequate for our purposes. In my opinion the costs in time and money were too great for what the location’s inevitably underwhelming outcome would offer.

I suggested that for the same price we build a stage set specific to the scene and use it as a cover set as well. This solution would be much easier on our overall schedule and would also provide in story terms exactly what both actor and director preferred. Unfortunately when I pitched it to the line producer, his response was, “That ship had already sailed.” He preferred to tick the subject off his list and move onward rather than readdress it, a decision that I felt was short sighted.

Where did you go from there?

Since the line producer's interest level was just getting the job done and getting out of the location on time, I next discussed everything with our director. He preferred the stage set approach, but in the end chose to leave it up to the star to decide.

So I approached our star in between shots, who was writing and making calls in his trailer. I explained our circumstance and what had been discussed with thus far, and he had an understandably strong reaction to it all. Ultimately his overriding concern was the quality of the story, and he was adamant we tell the story in the most meaningful way. It was up to me to decide what that was.

So I had a fairly large dilemma on my hands. Time was ticking and the producer, the director, and the star did not play well together, I was in the middle and required to choose how to proceed.

My choice was to gather my team to look for the best possible solution we could provide to satisfy everyone…including myself. I listened to my art director and set decorator’s main concerns regarding time and resources. We determined that if we were to build the set on stage, our construction coordinator had the labor and mill resources on hand to achieve everything…if we could push the shoot day from a Friday to the following Monday, giving us the weekend to get the job done.

I called in the First AD and DP to pitch this idea. We realized one of our stages had already been rigged with lighting and backings but no set was being built yet. If we relocated that intended set we could use that stage and the existing equipment for our new build and save some money in the process. The AD also discovered that shifting the shoot as we suggested solved a financial problem with the cast that would benefit production. Jackpot!

That’s something that so rarely happens: the best of all possible solutions for all concerned! What was your line producer’s response?

Actually he wasn't very happy to see me about it yet again so I explained why I could not let the subject go: we had come up with a solution that was both creatively and financially better for the film. At first he was resistant but soon came to understand that we were actually helping HIM! And not only me, but our entire team of filmmakers who came together to work out the best solution from every concerned perspective. We all made the line producer look good in the studio’s eyes.

In the end, what is your take-away from this experience?

That line producer made a power move to show the studio that he could handle things and that he was the right person to put the show on track. However, his learning curve required him to realize that his own priorities were not the only ones that could help his agenda. I’m grateful he was finally able to listen and understand that through working as a team we could achieve the best film for the most efficient, tactical, and financial advantage.

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