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Carolyn Loucks: Serving Two Masters

Carolyn ‘Cal’ Loucks is an award-nominated set decorator of the upcoming Roland Emmerich movie, "Midway". She was also the set decorator for "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom", "Fifty Shades Freed", and "Batman Vs Superman", among many others. Cal has most recently completed the Neil Burger science fiction feature, "Voyagers".

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

I was the Set Decorator on a tent pole production where the relationship of the director and production designer very quickly deteriorated. The director accused the production designer of not understanding or even listening to his creative vision. At one point when many people were present the director yelled at the production designer who was presenting something, “ Go ahead with that. This is not what I asked for but I guess you are making your own reel on this film.”

As the set decorator you had a prime view of the dynamic at play. What was your take on the situation?

That the deterioration of the director/designer relationship began long before any of their initial public displays.

Was the director correct that the designer's goals on the job were personally focused rather than collaborative?

Since the production designer made no attempt to course correct over time I had to conclude that his intentions were indeed separate from those of the director. As the disconnect continued I felt that the designer could have given me a hint there were issues. I like to think I could have helped the designer refine his choices to suit our director better. But that didn’t happen. Then producer stepped in and made things more difficult for me.

Of course, he would have to become involved at some point.

Soon the director refused to talk to the designer and as a result I began receiving calls of this nature from our producer: “…tell the designer that the director wants this…” This of course put me in the very awkward position of negotiating the self-oriented desires of the designer while representing the vision of the director plus being the producer and director’s messenger. Though I felt the producer should take responsibility and air his own issues with the production designer as a means to set the path straight, he would not. Still, I tried to be the ally of the designer as I always am on a job, and I fulfilled the producer’s directive in a way that I could be that here. I would say to the designer, “I seem to recall the director saying such and such was important to him…I need to check my notes here…so maybe we should look in this direction…" Most often the designer met my suggestions with either indifference or hostility. Sometimes he gravitate towards the director’s wishes, but the end result was always the same: unrelenting discontent and tension between them. The production designer predominantly insisted that his sets be built and dressed his own way, and finally the producer became tired of the ensuing overages. At this point I was being regularly called to the set to talk to the director alone as his last ditch effort to get what he wanted. And he told me to keep these conversations confidential, leaving it up to me to figure out how to make it happen with the designer.

That's a horrible position to be put in. How did you handle it? And how successful were you in whatever terms you might define “success” in this booby-trapped situation?

I’m not sure success is possible in a situation like this. The director was never angry with me. The director still didn’t get the results he wanted but he was never angry with me. Instead he made his displeasure public in daily comments on the set and also in media interviews. There he would express his negative take on the studio system that would not allow him to make the movie he wanted to make.

Do you know why the director didn’t simply replace the designer? It seems likely it was in his power to do so.

I’m not sure the director did have that power as he was a new hire for the studio. They had other of his movies in their studio pipeline, and they appeared to be testing the relationship. And in spite of all the issues during the production the designer was not fired by the studio either.

How did you fare in the end?

Despite my attempts to make both of the non-collaborating collaborators happy, my relationship with the production designer could not be saved. The show ended in a most tense and uncomfortable way for me professionally and personally.

Was there any professional aftermath that resulted?

I don’t think that there has been any long-term fall-out for me. The producer still hires me, but the designer and I will likely never work together again. I don’t know if he says negative things about me, but I do know that I tried to support him as professionally as I could under the circumstance.

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