“Turning words into pictures.” An interview with production designer
By Rochelle Siemienowicz
Chris Kennedy at work on
cave location fot the Proposition
When it comes to Australian production design Chris Kennedy is something of a legend, known for his versatility and practical problem solving skills. In fact, when ACMI held its expansive international exhibition devoted to production design last year, Setting the Scene: from Metropolis to Australia, Kennedy’s work was a highlight, alongside fellow Australian designer Catherine Martin. The exhibition showcased Kennedy’s visual diaries and sketches for his upcoming US work on The Road, as well as taking in his experience on previous Australian films like The
Proposition, Dirty Deeds, Spotswood and Ghosts...of the Civil Dead. A four time AFI Award winner, Chris Kennedy was also recognised in 2005 with the Byron Kennedy Award, given to a person whose “work is marked by a relentless pursuit of excellence.” Yet there are no airs and graces with the straight-talking Kennedy, and he’s a treasure trove of down-and- dirty war stories, especially from his experiences on John Hillcoat’s ‘extreme’ films.
In this interview we talk to Chris Kennedy about working on his first US production. He talks about the process of visualising a much-revered novel, and about trying to negotiate a workable budget with producers.
AFI: What were the things you really connected with in the story of The Road?
Chris Kennedy: I read the book first when it was in manuscript stage, and couldn’t put it down till I finished it. Absolutely crushing. And my first thought was ‘holy heck, how do you film that?’ It’s just extraordinary prose. Quite a daunting prospect.
AFI: And was it always going to be a location-based shoot? Was there ever any talk about doing it in a studio?
CK: Basically it was an independent film and always had a very small budget, so there wasn’t really the money to do it in a studio. Also it’s a journey story and needed a lot of different locations. So straight away that meant asking the question what kind of landscapes can we use? Straight off the bat, what country can we go to? Russia would be good – Chernobyl! Those kind of landscapes. Iceland was one idea. Even thought about Australia. But what about the gum trees? And blue sky? A lot of people just think, ‘oh post-apocalytic, oh go to the desert.’ But of course the
book isn’t set in the desert. It’s set in North America. So I spent a fair bit of time online looking at places in America and found all kinds of places. Eight miles of abandoned freeway in Pennsylvania, a beach in Oregon, an abandoned amusement park. Started putting together a list of locations, the ideal plan. We had to do a certain amount of it in Pennsylvania due to tax incentives. So a lot of it in Pittsburgh rather than where we wanted to. We found pretty much what we needed. Abandoned coal piles. And Pittsburgh itself is pretty much an abandoned city. Back in the early 20th century
basically half the population left...so that all came together pretty well.
AFI: This is your first film in the US. Was the process of working there very different?
CK: Of course. Yeah. Went in with my eyes wide open and made the most of it, really. It was pretty good overall as an experience. Was very difficult and gruelling, with all these locations spread around the place, very challenging. The producers always want you to limit the locations, due to cost, but we ended up talking and stretching it. You have to stretch it to the demands of the story. Try to make it work. It was pretty much the lowest budget I have had to work with on a feature.
AFI: Really? I would have thought working in the Australian film industry you would be used to working on miniscule budgets.
CK: Well to give you an idea, on The Proposition it was around $2 million. On this one it was less than half. It was utterly absurd. In fact it was quite stressful. Initially they wanted to do it for pretty much nothing, no construction department, no painting department, no anything really. Four or five people on crew. And I said, ‘you may as well not have me if that’s what you’re going to give me, I can’t help you out.’ So they coughed up some extra. Essentially it was all about finding things rather than making them. Completely the opposite approach to The
Proposition in which because of the landscape absolutely everything had to be built – the props, the buildings, everything from scratch. We did a survey out there [for The Proposition] and I drove around for a few days with these guys. And I said ‘Where’s the town?’ They said, ‘Oh there’s no town, we have to build it.’ So I said, ‘right, it says here that for construction we’ve got $20,000! You gonna have to up that!’
AFI: That must be an important part of your job, negotiating with the producers and giving them more realistic expectations of what it costs to create the vision of a film?
CK: Well absolutely. A lot of times budgets get made backwards. You’ve got this much money, this much goes to the actors, the camera crews, the sound, certain things don’t change, but more abstract things like production design get slotted in to whatever’s left. Pretty funny. So yeah, there’s a lot of negotiation that goes on.
AFI: You’ve worked with John Hillcoat on a number of films now. What is it like to work with him?
Photoshop drawing based
on Mt St. Helens location Washington State
CK: Well he’s always demanding in terms of locations. The locations he uses are quite extreme. Like with Ghosts... of the Civil Dead it was set in a maximum security prison, and the studio was very claustrophobic and dark. It was making us all a bit insane. They had a sign up saying ‘Welcome to Cell Block H’, but by the end somebody had changed it to ‘Welcome to Hell.’ And with the film To Have and to Hold it was set in the jungle and swamp and we had 17 inches of rain while we were there, and it was incredibly humid, crocodiles swimming around, and rats
eating through things. So that was quite demanding. Extremely demanding actually. And obviously on The Proposition you’ll be aware that the temperature got up to 57 degrees Celsius – metal melting! And with The Road it was in the snow in winter, outside in North America, shooting in blizzards.
AFI: Sounds like Hillcoat’s film shoots are a bunch of fun!
CK: Well, it’s kind of like he’s trying to kill you in them. We nearly did all get killed in The Proposition. A four wheel drive rolled over and John and the art director had to be airlifted to Mt Isa to check they didn’t have broken necks.
AFI: So each production has its own extreme conditions.
CK: Absolutely. I think he’s really interested in extremities of the human condition. That’s what’s going on with all of the characters in those stories. Maximum security prison, to a guy going crazy in the jungle to the heat of the outback, to characters surviving in a post apocalyptic world. He’s good at visualising all those things. All of those films are very very rich visually.
AFI: Hillcoat praises your work and says you’re ‘very lateral’. What do you think he means by that?
CK: Well you know for example, here’s a copy of the book The Road, how do we make it? There’s no obvious answer. I don’t know if it’s lateral or not, but I guess I try to focus on finding solutions to problems. There are parameters that are given to you, and you have to work within them. Like where to shoot it? With The Road I had a lot to do with where we shot it, and that was the only lever I could really pull. Whereas with The Proposition I was given the location and it didn’t have anything on it, so we had to build it all and make it work, for
as little as possible – because that was still a low budget film, and we had to take things there and keep people out there on a location shoot.
AFI: Do you think perhaps production designers have to be more multiskilled in Australia?
CK: I think that’s possibly true. It’s turning words into pictures, and obviously actors have a lot to do with that. As do all the other crafts. But you’re giving the actors things to work with, to help them, and location has a lot to do with that, and wardrobe. And I suppose I have a lot to do with that, working in a very small team. Maybe in American films it’s in the background, or increasingly it’s a post production element. And on those big CGI films, there’d be about a hundred other designers.
AFI: Are you interested in exploring CGI more in your production design?
CK: Look, I think it would be great if you didn’t have to be actually in the snow! (laughs) or dying in a desert. It would be fantastic. Much easier. But it comes with its own issues. I guess it means that one person can no longer be designing all the elements anymore. Something like Alien would be great, or 2001, amazing fantastic production design. But these days so much of that is added in post-production. So you’d lose track and not be able to control it. And it does involve hundreds of people. Even with the limited CGI post production that was done on
The Road there was a loss of control. I’m not there in post production.
AFI: So you don’t have any say in that part of the process?
CK: No, traditionally the post production supervisor or company have their own people or designers and it can be very very frustrating, when you’ve designed something to look a certain way and then it gets changed in post-production.
AFI: So what is your favourite phase of the process – the initial sourcing of ideas or the actual being on set?
Production Still - The Road
CK: Well there’s different phases. There’s the pre-pre-production part, which normally I don’t even get paid for. The on-set thing once you’ve actually got to that stage, when the shooting starts, that’s great. But then there are the challenges of being on set. Like in The Proposition, the location actually had black soil, but we needed red soil for the look of it, so that was all trucked in and put everywhere. And then it rained and all got washed away! In the middle of the day all this rain started and all the soil turned to thick mud, a complete nightmare and a
complete washout. We had to replace the soil for the next day’s shooting! There was mud and we couldn’t even get a truck out. We wanted the blue, the red and the white.
AFI: You studied at Swinburne. Did you go there wanting to be a production designer?
CK: No. Well I just liked the idea of making films, and at Swinburne at that time you all had a go at all the roles and helped each other make films, I became a bit of a location scout for other people’s films. I remember John Hillcoat was shooting this Western. So straight away he needs this location, and we’re in Hawthorn so that’s hard. We need this scene in the outback of a car going through the desert at night. So we dragged all this dirt up there to his flat and trashed the joint, and had this toy car in the desert. And we had to make all those things, and nobody else
was doing it, so I ended up taking care of those things. And then I worked on music videos. But I got tired of that. You end up doing the same kinds of things and you’re almost like a glorified roadie. So I wanted to move into work that would extend my skills a bit more. I kind of fell into it. The other thing I found was that you could be involved in lots of different films as a production designer. Whereas a director could be tied up with one film for four years and you only get to do a limited number. Whereas I’m able to contribute to lots of films, and in a very creative way.
Chris Kennedy: Fast Facts & Links
- Kennedy has won the AFI Award for Best Production Design four times: for The Proposition in 2005; Dirty Deeds in 2002, Spotswood in 1991 and Ghosts...of the Civil Dead in 1989.
- Received the AFI Byron Kennedy Award in 2005.
- Other films Kennedy has worked on include Cosi, Death in Brunswick, Dogs in Space, Angel Baby and Curtin (TV).
- To see Kennedy’s full IMDB profile click here.
For an insight into the creative process of visualizing The Road, visit this Flckr site featuring watercolour sketches and photoshop illustrations created by Hugh Marchant for the production designer Chris Kennedy and Art Department staff during preproduction.
To read an interview with John Hillcoat, director of The Road, click here.