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Exclusive Interview: Legendary Production Designer Richard Hoover On The Importance Of The Background

When we watch a TV show or movie, we become immersed in the whole story. As viewers, our role is to care about the plot, connect to the characters and believe what is happening so much that we want to see it again and again. A well-done film will bring these emotional attachments that people will develop and actors are tasked with bringing these written scripts to life, ultimately taking much of the glory for a successful production.

What we don't see is all of the behind the scenes work put into any production. As scripts become real, a production designer is brought in to create the fictional world that is supposed to engross us.

Richard Hoover has been a production designer for over 30 years. He has worked with some big names including David Lynch and Aaron Sorkin. You have seen something he has designed and never even knew it. He has worked on the sets of Twin Peaks, The NewsroomBachelorette, 42, Girl Interrupted and Sisters.

Production designers work hand-in-hand with directors, producers and writers to find the best way to execute any creative visions. They design any set with such detail it'll surprise you what they go through. They need to embody a fictional character's home. They need to create fictional places and are required to often redesign sets at only a moments notice to fit the scene and time continuity of a plot. They are also challenged to make real places from the past come alive again.

This work requires great attention to detail, a knowledge of design, and ingenuity. If the set looks wrong, the whole movie loses credibility.  We had the pleasure of chatting with Hoover about his long and successful career in production design. His most recent film, Second Act, is a much-anticipated romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez and Milo Ventimiglia. He opens up to us about the design process, working on popular movies, and what exactly a production designer does.

Keep reading to learn more!

The Things (TH): When did you first recognize your love for design? How did you get involved in TV and movies in the first place?

Richard Hoover (RH): I did not follow a formal training path in the early years, but filled it in with drawing and classes as I went along. My love for design has grown over the years in both the nature of spaces designed and the process with a team. I was educated through experience and I always studied what I picked up as I went along.

I made a documentary in the late 70s concerning Native American Treaty rights, which brought me head first into a growing film community in New York City. I found work in the film industry there, which led to me meeting Lilly Kilvert a designer who hired me as an art director on a film in the city. Lilly then asked me to work with her on Rob Reiner’s Sure Thing in Los Angeles, which lead me into the world of independent films.

TH: What’s something the average person would be surprised to learn about production design and the whole process?

RH: What you see in a film setting, yes often background, is always an environment arrived at through layers of creative work, consultation and finally the realization. The work is very physical and always tangled with collaborations, which can be both verbal and digital. The designer is hired to make real the ideas of the story in a working step with the director, who often comes in with very strong visual notions. When you see a film, people have touched and created for the world you are seeing or at least made choices about those things. Overall, It is hard labor and intensive work!

TH: What is the first thing you do when you start a new project? How does your creative process begin?

RH: Even prior to the realization, I do theme analytics in order to define and organize major objective and subjective themes that will be visualized. I do this through a series of readings of the script, which leads to a gathering of images, textures, and music that may speak to these themes. I organize a key image outline that defines an agenda for the “look” of a film. I will then do a set action break down by scene so that I can understand the physical aspects demanded in the story. Then, with some understanding of possible schedule and budget, I do cold scouting to explore and dig up places for locations. Depending on the scope of the film, I, with my team, will begin a design of built sets along with graphic design. In all of this and during all of it, budgeting rushes along so that we can keep producers in the monetary loop, etc. It is true that budgeting with detail is dicey but often happens given the reality of production deadlines.

TH: You’ve worked on some very amazing shows and movies (Twin Peaks, The Newsroom, Girl, Interrupted), what has been your favorite project that has gotten the most recognition? Or the project your most proud of you that we have seen?

RH: This is a hard one for me to answer. I do not hold these past things too close and each production design has its own buzz. I think one of my favorites is Dead Man Walking for Tim Robbins. I believe it is one of my favorites because it was a design that came from the factual discovery of a real story, in real places that needed both what was real and what we might bring to the tone of the film. The Newsroom was amazing as a gift of a large build, much like a stage set, that actors could populate and give life too over the weeks of production. The scale of it was fun, too!

TH: How much guidance do you have from directors and producers when designing sets? Do you ever have free reign?

RH: There really is no such thing as free reign, all the work is in collaboration with director and producer. But one does and must come up with ideas to present that may offer insight into what the sets need. Much of the work we do entails presentation upon presentation to the collaborators and the art team.

The designer has to keep this flow going throughout the project. Presentations of design and dressing are constant throughout. In my offices, I create walls of images that reflect the thematic and then tie to the practical. The walls are an on-going presentation that allows the entire film group to observe.

TH: What has been your most challenging design, and why?

RH: In terms of a set, Newsroom takes the cake. I think it was a mix of technology and architecture more closely akin to making a real space come alive in somewhat film rush times. In one sense, however, it was so focused and not a piece that needed extensive scouting. So the work was like a charrette, working digitally and physically on models. We built a ½ inch scale model of the large set, which really helped!

TH: How do you find what you’re looking for when designing a set? What are some secrets about your process you can divulge?

RH: I usually start drawing in pencil and keep it going as a process of thinking. It is doodling that lead to more refined images. It is sort of a classical painting concept: first comes an idea, then a rough draft, next several layers of refinement and finally a full illustration. Of course, sometimes the ideas come from found objects and reference. Usually, if thematic issues are clear, then the guiding lights are in place, etc., the rules of what things may look like. Frankly, in films that entail a lot of scouting, the process of looking for locations is a way of sorting ideas and also of defending them. If it is an object that is part of the design, then drawing gives way to physical and digital modeling.

TH: You’ve also worked with legendary producers Aaron Sorkin and David Lynch, what have you learned from them during your collaborations? Which one lets you design more freely?

RH: Aaron is a great writer and, so far, the settings seem clearly defined by the story and story dynamics. So he is “easier” but demanding. David Lynch is his an artist, his own painter, and one must stay with him. Follow. I have only worked with him on Twin Peaks so this is my only point of reference. The fact that he is visually involved means that the designer must listen carefully and go with the flow that will try to reflect what he is saying.

TH: As viewers, how much attention to detail are we missing with set designs? How much thought goes into it all?

RH: Built sets are often very complex things, which live only in the story moments filmed. They are detailed as demanded by the story. For the most part, environments built are fully realized as full spaces and this is sometimes missed given the edit. But detail is also a struggle to be had given budgets and time limits. I obsess over some and step back from others. It is part of managing what can be accomplished within the limits.

TH: Your latest film, Second Act, stars Jennifer Lopez and Milo Ventimiglia. How was it working with two very successful actors for this film? What can you tell us about the film and their set designs?

RH: When you work with Jennifer you are working with an absolutely focused professional, she is truly focused each day. I did not go over designs with her but rather worked with her producing group who were there all the time. In all of this, there was great trust and great humor, which made the work flow easily.

Second Act is a romantic comedy in a trajectory from a community (Queens, NY) to the glassy towers of Manhattan. The visual contrasts were, of course, profound. We wanted a very real world of friends and supportive women working in a rather male-dominated big box store and I think found one that was both big and a function of the community. In this STORY: home and friendship are at stake while the city attracts. Jennifer’s character finds herself wanting more but blunted at work (where she has been for some time) only to find a new offer in the city. She makes this choice but faces the fact that much of her so-called resume is a fake, and while she seems successful, she decides she cannot live with this lie and returns to a new life (second chance) back in Queens.

TH: In addition to TV and movies, you’ve designed sets for plays. What are the differences and challenges between designing for something being filmed vs. something happening live?

RH: The forms, film, and theater, are two different art practices using similar tools. The theatrical scenery is often more akin to sculpture made in a space and presented to a live audience. Conceptually, I use very similar methods in my analysis of a script. Theatrical sets can be on a stage, in a found environment or in a flowing interactive event for example, Sleep No More. It will depend on the thematic levels of the story that lead a designer to one thing or another, etc.

Film is often set in “real” environments in which the camera will become the eye of the audience. In any given film there are usually multiple settings, which need be found and rendered in adherence to a shooting schedule. This means that the work of the art department is one that moves and shifts in consort with a schedule. Shooting a film story means that one has to consider a camera and not a live audience.

TH: Do you have any set design secrets you could share?

RH: Gosh, I would say allow for discovery in searching for locations. Survey with the camera’s eye: look using the right aperture, take single shots that reveal an interpreted view, etc. Do not be afraid to make mistakes in drawing. Use soft pencils and charcoal to draw, which will help contemplate the effects of light on the setting. Create a drawing format that can remain constant through the design process. Rely on your team to help. If you lose a location just be calm and the same thing is true if the set floods. You should never get angry, it does not work and it is really hijacking of your own soul. Finally, know when it is done and when the design is what it needs.

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